By now you’ve probably seen it: the young heroine of upcoming game Forspoken darts through empty fields and hadoked baddies to pillars of cinders while joking all the way. “So, let me get this straight…” she begins, adopting the tongue-in-cheek, mocking tone of so many contemporary pop culture heroes. Throw in some mentions of “freaking dragons” and “killing jacked beasts,” and you have the makings of an instant internet meme.
It didn’t take long for people to start making jokes at the expense of the ad. Content creator and voice actor ProZD was one of the first to get involved in the promotion:
Bloodborne PSX’s FunnyWes has put together an amusing take on FromSoftware’s popular game:
And my personal favorite is this Tony Hawk post from BobVids:
Overall, it’s tempting to laugh at these silly memes and get on with our lives. After all, the gaming community will find something new and embarrassing to laugh about in the next few days. And with the game still in the oven, we have no idea if this ad will reflect the final product. But to me, the unfortunate writing in this ad speaks to a larger problem in game production that has been simmering for the past five to ten years. I’m referring to the pathetic “jossification” that has gripped gaming at its root, particularly in the triple-A arena.
If you play a lot of video games, you’ve probably noticed that the tone and character art of big-budget blockbusters have become remarkably similar in recent years. Or, to put it less charitably, there’s an acute sense that many games settle for generic rather than actually stand out from the rest of the pack. The writing style of great video games has settled on the sarcastic, witty malaise that Joss Whedon first popularized in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
For example, compare the reveal trailers of the upcoming Saints Row and the delayed exclusive Arkane Redfall, each made about a year ago. Though vastly different in genre and overall presentation, the two games strike an eerily similar tone, filled with witty banter, non-sequiturs, visual gags, and – of course – lots and lots of jokes. “Sleep tight,” says our intrepid sniper before blowing holes in five vampires. “Ugh, that’s so unprofessional,” quips one of our loveable losers when he learns the gang they’re trying to rob shot the gun dealer who shipped the goods.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little levity to your game. Video games are often ridiculous by nature, and well-timed humor can go a long way to smoothing out some of the more annoying aspects of a long campaign. (And to be fair, those two games both boast much better writing than that damn Forspoken ad.) But lately, it feels like every game has exactly the same sense of humor: violent but not graphic ; goofy but not absurd; irreverent but never transgressive. It’s not exactly clear what the objects of these punchlines are, except perhaps the concept that everyone takes something seriously.
In some areas of the internet, particularly in movie communities, a backlash to this kind of sleazy, nose-to-mouth writing style has been brewing for a long time. The persistent criticism is perhaps best summed up by a recent recollection of the joke: “Well, that just happened!”
Despite the fact that this phrase doesn’t appear in any actual Marvel films, it’s become shorthand for the cliche, well-worn jokes that certain people attribute to the MCU. The line itself is the core ethos of The Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon: no matter what just happened, we can pull a silly reference joke at its expense and instantly erase any dramatic tension. (For the record, someone actually says, “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” in Thor: Love and Thunder. That’s Taika Waititi for you.)
Whether you like this style of writing ultimately depends on personal taste. But even if you love something, there is an ultimate limit to that love. Nobody wants to eat pizza with every meal. For me, the main problem with relying on Whedon-esque quippery all the time is that it robs any situation of use. Fear, anger, hate, love – it smoothes all extremities of human emotion into a smug grin and an “up yours”. Well-known horror author Gretchen Felker Martin recently described Whedon’s style as “rolling your eyes at the most profound visions of ecstasy and horror the universe has to offer,” and I think that’s a great way to put it.
Perhaps the most interesting case study in the industry’s ongoing jossification came in 2018, when Destiny 2 killed fan-favorite Exo Cayde-6 in the Forsaken expansion. Voiced by frequent Whedon collaborator Nathan Fillion, Cayde-6 served as the walking embodiment of the game’s light-hearted writing style. Cayde’s death was seen by many fans as a move towards a more serious style, consistent with the game’s weighty lore and deeper themes. When Destiny 2 launched, Cayde-6’s sense of humor was paramount, resulting in a Jossified tone shift that not every fan appreciated. Thanks to this move, Destiny has been able to explore more thoughtful territory in the trauma-focused season of Haunted Ones. Regardless of how you look at it, it was certainly interesting to see how a popular video game developer took the concept of idle Quippery out and poke two holes in his head.
Overall, I don’t think video game writers should strive to usher in a new wave of dark and serious dialogue — or at least not all at once. However, I’d like to see more games that take their cues from well-written humor-oriented indies like Disco Elysium, Hades, and even Cruelty Squad. Disco Elysium’s novel idea of giving each of your character’s emotions a unique voice makes them stand out in the room, along with their penchant for the surreal. Cruelty Squad portrays an absurd, ugly, capitalism-torn world that is so thoroughly cynical that it manages to evoke belly laughs. And while Hades has his fair share of Tumblr-esque jokes, each of his memorable characters has such a strong voice and personality that they manage to hit the mark.
Not every game needs to have an award-winning script, but a bit of diversity in tone, genre, and humor would go a long way. That’s a big part of why The Witcher 3 is such a good RPG, and I hope some developers learn from its example. The dialogue in this Forspoken ad may have drawn the ire of online jokers, but there’s nothing really bad or offensive about it. Whedon-like writing seemed innovative and fresh in its day, but time has passed and without proper treatment it now seems generic and hackneyed.
Regardless of how developers feel about this style, it’s clear that there’s a fairly large segment of the public willing to poke fun at its excesses on occasion. So if you write video games, you better sharpen your one-liners, because content creators are coming for you.
The real tragedy of this whole debacle is that the Forsaken footage in the ad actually looks pretty convincing, at least by the standards of today’s big-budget open-world games: lively traversal options, satisfying combat. If only Square Enix had uploaded a version with no sound.
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