Look, this is going to be a short post as I am still working on resurrecting my PC. The above image from Watch Dogs (Ubisoft Montreal, 2014) snowballed on Twitter this month. Perhaps the one with 2,000 retweets is the original although I've found a mention of this unfortunate juxtaposition back in June on the Giant Bomb forums:
How about after his tear jerking moment at the grave, you are immediately presented with a "Vault" prompt on the tombstone. I hoped over my niece's grave 4 times, having a good laugh at how silly it was.
It's true. Over the grave of the protagonist’s niece hovers a ghost. A ghost called Vault. This means we can finally discard that monstrosity ludonarrative dissonance and instead write the game vaults the grave.
It’s a brilliant example of where systems clash with narrative intent but... also misses the point.
It’s just a tweet so I shouldn't get my knickers in a twist over 140 characters. But it was a real popular tweet. I'm sure most just thought "ha ha" but others no doubt took it seriously, that this is exactly the reason we can't have The Nice Things. Developers should pay attention and stop making games that vault the grave.
Frankly my dear, the truth is I just don’t give a shit.
A year ago, I probably would have rallied the troops around this image. This here, I might have said, is the reason that AAA IS DEAD. All good things come to a DEAD. HERE IT IS.
I've been shifting position over the last year and it’s not because Bennett Foddy believes "Watch Dogs is literally made 50% more interesting because you can vault over your child's grave". Admittedly I haven’t played it so maybe there’s more to this example, but it’s a tweet so let me take it on face value because retweets would be dead in the water if people didn't make face value judgements.
There are so many ways this could have happened. This lad over here designed a reusable tombstone asset and attached the verb "vault" to it. That lass over there designed the graveyard using the assets available to her. She's not supposed to worry too much about the function attached to assets, that stuff is all supposed to be automatic so she can get on with what she was paid to do: level design. And the QA group blink when the word Vault pops up near Lena Pearce's grave because they've seen this level 54 times already in various states of undress. Christ, this wasn't even a cemetery until build 104! Clearly, someone on the all-star AAA team made a grave mistake.
It’s the kind of easy, honest mistake that gets made when you’re talking AAA which demands $$$ polish on grass textures. But “easy mistake to make” is still not the reason I don’t give a shit.
What’s the solution to this problem? Hide the prompt? You could still vault it, right? What if we remove the verb altogether? But then a player can just walk all over the grave any way. Perhaps cordon off the area to preserve narrative integrity? Then we’ve teetered into nannying players. I'm actually pretty sick of verb pop-ups because they define the player's understanding of the world, exposing the system at the expense of the game's power as a storytelling platform. This is still not the reason I do not give a shit.
The reason I do not give a shit is because no one really gives a shit.
I don’t want to shake the Gamer Republic out of its “dumb stupor” and realise how awful this moment is. Your average gamer is not even going to clock it aside from a chuckle. The success of the AAA videogame industry proves that players are pretty good at maintaining a Chinese wall between agency and narrative. Every open world-cum-story has the same problem, the promotion of the world as a system. This is business as usual.
It's just... picking out examples like these from AAA games is like shooting fish in a barrel. The scope and complexity of an AAA title means there are always cracks somewhere. It doesn't tell us anything about AAA sensibilities because it's just a glitch of automated design, accident not intention. And anyone who listened to me have a nervous breakdown in a podcast about Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) will know full well I really do give a shit about these things.
The image commentary misses what the real target should be, the verb pop-up, a tool that allows developers to pretend that game protagonists have a wide spectrum of agency outside of "shoot" and "drive". It helps disconnect the entire world not just a single tearful moment.
If you give a shit or don't give a shit, write in the comments and tell me about your shit.