Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Story in The Division
Haven't blogged in awhile, but if you follow me on Twitter, then you know I've been pretty much playing Tom Clancy's The Division since it launched. I've finished the main story, reached the max level, and only have a single zone of collectibles left to gather. Now that I'm just sort of doing the daily gear progression thing, I wanted to take a bit and talk about the story of The Division - what I think worked, and what could have been better. I haven't seen a whole lot of commentary on The Division's story, but what I have seen has been mostly negative. And I wanted to talk about that, because I'm not entirely sure the game is getting credit where credit may be due.
Let's get this out of the way right up front - I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've finished the main story, and have completed all of the story missions. There will be spoilers for that content ahead, so if you're worried about reveals, please come back when you're at the end.
To start with, I can say this about Ubisoft without doubt - they care about their story. Whether you thought it was weak or it was strong, at least the story is told out through segments, clips, and elements that are in the game. No sending you to a website to make you learn the story. If a developer takes the tact that "the people that care about the story will go to the website to read it", it tells me they don't care about their story either. And if the developer doesn't care, why should I? Ubisoft's delivery is done over multiple layers, and whether you choose to see it, listen to, it, or pay attention to it is entirely you, but at least it's there for you to experience.
So if you look at the story elements overall for the game, the story can be broken down into two sort of main subsections. First, there is the story of your agent, and what they find out, as you progress through the game. It's your character's story, told through voice over, cinematic clips, and a variety of intelligence reports you receive, listen to, and experience as you progress through the game. And it's this story, I think that most people refer to when they say the story is weak - and for the most part I tend to agree. I think in terms of the main story, Ubisoft missed on some fantastic opportunities. What happened to the first wave of Division Agents? How did the virus get started? Can an antidote be found? The premise of The Division is incredibly relatable, and there are some very cool questions posed. But the answers that you discover to all these questions (and they are answered), felt, at least to me, flat. While I started off full of curiosity, as each part of the story was unveiled, I only felt disappointment in the answer. Not that the answers weren't sufficient - they were. But the answers were, for lack of a better word - just mundane. And yeah I get it the real-world answers to a national epidemic might be just as simple as the one presented here - but why not make it more interesting?
However though, my biggest complaint with the central story isn't so much the content itself - that's pretty subjective and I get it. But rather, it's that your character isn't really a part of it. Why are Bioware's game stories so darn compelling? Well a huge part of the reason is that your character is woven directly into the fabric of the story. The game is about you. In Dragon Age Inquisition, you're the goddamn Inquisitor! You literally sit in judgement meting out death or mercy, and your decisions directly affect the flow of the narrative. And even in a more linear game like Tomb Raider, the story is still centrally about your character - you're actively involved in the story in every step of the way. In The Division - you're just an agent - one of many. And in almost every situation, you are not affecting the story, you are just witnessing it. You get there to learn what has already happened. You arrive after the fact, when it's too late to do anything, and you just report back what occured. Your sole contribution in most cases is picking up a few pieces of evidence or biological samples along the way, and taking out a few notable troublemaking NPCs. And hell even in the end, you don't quite accomplish that mission. As a result of this, the entire central story feels more passive than active.
I don't fault the delivery methods of the story, just my character's participation in it. Why isn't our agent in charge of The Division? Why aren't we even in charge of the base of operations that we set up? Why isn't my character making the decisions (even if I, the player, am not) that are driving the narrative forward, or at least directly affected by the narrative? I hope going forward with the story (and let's face it, after the "end", it's clear the story experienced so far is only just the first chapter), that your agent becomes a more central figure to the story itself, and what plays out, rather than a late-to-the-party reporter of what has already happened.
The other half of the story that you experience as you play The Division is the back story. The story of the spread of the virus, and most importantly, of the people that were caught up in it. You learn this story through the phone recordings, the field reports, and side missions. And I have to say - I thought this story was fantastic. The best stories - the most relatable ones, are the ones about people. And that is what you experience. You are given view into some very personal and private moments of people struggling to deal with an impossible situation, and it is incredibly compelling. The voice-over work done in the phone recordings is superb. In truth, I found myself caring far more about the people I learned about through those phone recordings than I did for most any of the story's central characters. The father who's son calls him frantic, with men breaking into their house, urgently telling his boy to find their gun, before getting cut off. The creepy ex-boyfriend who's broken out of prison, trying to stalk his ex-girlfriend down. The young college student who keeps sending messages back to his brother, who slowly turns to a very Lord of the Flies style life of barbarism. All of these stories were interesting, and compelling, and listening to them made me feel. And that, in the end, is what a story-teller wants to happen.
The only downside, is that this story is delivered in an incredibly disjointed fashion, in bits and pieces, as you pick up the various collectibles. I'm not sure how you would solve this problem any other way, to be honest, and I'm not even entirely sure it's a downside, as the fragmented way you get the story leaves gaps and questions, which in itself is interesting. But it does make it more difficult to put the narrative together. And to that end, I think Ubisoft made entirely the right call, by revealing all the collectibles in a zone after you've finished the missions, side missions, and encounters. They're saying - we hope you found the pieces of the story you experienced so far interesting enough, and if you did, here is where you go to find the rest. Which, is exactly what I'm doing.
One of my favorite ways for developers to tell a story is not by telling you, through text or voice over, but by just showing you, through the environment. Not a lot of developers can afford this route, because lets face it, building a compelling scene is just straight up more expensive than writing some quest text. But for those that do, I think it adds tons to the immersion in the game. Sometimes the best story is one that just asks questions, without always answering them. The writers of Lost used this method to string their audience along for years.
In The Division, they do this in spades, which again I think is incredible. Not just the in-game echos, which is an interesting way to deliver a narrative, but if you look around after you disable the echo, you almost always find the left over real-world evidence of what happened in the echo. A crumpled body; blood stained and bullet-riddled walls; a smashed guitar that was used to clobber a raider over the head. And even beyond the echoes, just in the world in general, if you stop, to look around, you'll see all manner of incredibly cool, unique scenes that ask questions. What's up with the rat-shrine? What happened to those JTF agents? Why did she end up playing the piano under an overpass? But to experience those stories, the onus is on the player. You have to stop, slow down, and look around from time to time.
If you haven't done this yet, once your base is mostly or completely finished, do yourself a favor and go down to the far end, past all the vendors. You'll be rewarded with a story of people coming together in a terrible situation. Of people trying to find a little normalcy in a crisis by decorating a small Christmas tree. Friends giving each other solace while sitting on a bunk bed, and other people gathered around the sole working TV watching an old movie. It's very cool, and very humbling, and told entirely without a single bit of text or voice over.
You have but to slow down, and listen, and you will see some amazing sights in the streets of New York.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst comes out soon, and I'll be departing the streets of New York almost assuredly to run, jump, and wall climb Faith through the streets of that other metropolis. Until then, you can still find me cleaning out Cleaners and putting Riker's away most nights. I'm still having fun, and hope you are in whatever world you find yourself in.