Friday, July 8, 2016

Child of Light: Writing

The first post I made on Child of Light was pretty positive. Sure there were some minor grumbles round the middle. But I mostly said nice things and good feelings were had by all. I prostrated myself before the screenshots on my monitor, hailing such praise for the visuals that you’d think I’d started a new religion. The compliments I gave the music were so enthusiastically comprehensive that in certain countries the soundtrack and I are now legally married. I’m pretty sure every member of the audience got a free dirt bike.

That was then, and this, assuming my rudimentary understanding of time and written tense is correct, is now. Things will go a little differently this time, but I hold up last post as a shield against accusations that I am that most reviled of animals: the “hater”. Like a used nose ring in a bowl of cheerios, the bad must be revealed so it can be avoided in the future. I’m not trying to shoot the messenger or deride the culinary merits of cheerios, it’s just the nature of criticism. You know what they say: If you love something, sometimes you just have to kick it in the dick. That’s what they say, right? Pretty sure it is. If it isn’t then I’m beginning to suspect my parents were full of shit.

Fair-eh Tale

Back in my article on the story of Final Fantasy 6, I claimed that characters starting out as stereotypes is a perfectly acceptable way to spin a narrative. So long as they build upon that base with nuance and character development, it can even be beneficial. Starting with broad-stroke archetypes means the audience can immediately understand them and become invested. This is important to note, because people often grade characters or setting on how much they deviate from the norm. They say that a character is “just another X”, and that is the beginning and the end of their critique. It can’t possibly be interesting because it’s unoriginal, and somehow a counter of clichés is the only objective way to judge emotional investment. The reason it’s important I defend these things is because Child of Light has characters that start as broad stereotypes, Child of Light has a setting/plot rife with clichés, and, on a completely separate note, Child of Light has a story that isn’t very good.

Despite having absolutely gorgeous art and music, the writing in Child of Light is passable at best. Now obviously there are far worse video game stories out there. But this isn’t a race to the bottom of the barrel, and it’s far more frustrating to see a world-class athlete hemorrhage a sportsball inches from the score chasm than your dumb neighbor Billy. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gone with the sports metaphor. Here, lemme try again: It really gets my gander when the zone goalie red cards his face into a defensive half time pile up before properly allocating his strike gems into the communal free throw chalice. It would bother me less if a non-famous person did that. Look, the point is failed expectations hurt more than never having them in the first place.

Hm? What’s that? No this image doesn’t mean anything relevant to what I was saying, what are you talking about?

One of Child of Light’s biggest problems is its lack of memorable characters. Beyond the protagonist, who’s bland but has a tiny bit of complexity, party members start out with a single phrase personality and remain that to bitter end. Cowardly, sad, greedy, bad at rhymes, and those other ones too bland to even summarize. There’s something to start with, sure, but the author began the journey of a thousand miles with the first step and then decided the rest were just for the look of the thing. Even as a collection of walking stereotypes, they aren’t particularly vivid or well-written.

The only thing that’s more frustrating than these perfunctory heroes are their villains. The antagonists of this game are neglected more than a sale on Uplay. The game doesn’t make their presence felt in the narrative. They’re barely even mentioned for the first two thirds of the game. Their plans are poorly explained and logically flawed. They have no clear backstories and motivations. They have no interesting quirks, likes, dislikes, or exaggerated characteristics. Their personalities are naught but sneering, pointless evil. Yet despite this, they aren’t any fun. They lack subtlety but don’t ham things up. They lack planning skills but things work out for them anyway. They lack motivation not out of insanity or chaos, but because no one thought to give it to them. In short, the villains in Child of Light suffer the worst fate of a main character, especially antagonists: They’re boring. They leave no impression, and with all the fantastic artistry behind them, that’s a damn shame.

So we know that the writing in this game has some serious issues that make it bland and unmemorable. Alternatively, to the nitpickers: You know that my personal opinion is that the writing in this game has some serious issues that make it bland and unmemorable. The follow-up question is: Why? What aspects of the writing grant it such a lukewarm reaction? There’s a lot that goes into good writing, but I think I can pin down three major reasons Child of Light falls short. And the first is one many have already observed…

The Seuss Conundrum

In Child of Light, everyone speaks in rhymes. I’m not talking about a narrator or a specific character who speaks in rhyme, though either would’ve been more tolerable. Every line that every person speaks from the moment you hit play has to rhyme. This works about as well as you’d expect, being occasionally charming but frequently forgettable or forced. I give the writer points for trying something different, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The problem isn’t even so much that the rhymes themselves are a stretch, though they often are. The real issues are the limitations that speaking in rhyme naturally imposes on a story.

You can tell a lot about a character from the way they talk. This isn't just in a language/accent sense. Are they concise or verbose? Casual or formal? Relaxed or uptight? Does their tone vary depending on who they're talking to? How we present information reflects who we are in a million different ways. When you place the same speaking restrictions on dozens of different people, it makes the already difficult task of quickly characterizing them harder. You can make a bum and a queen sound different. You can even make them sound different when they’re both reading Shakespeare. But if you only have a handful of lines to do it, it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier without that prose homogenizing their tone.

If you’re pining for rhyming, you may like this sight.
But for character building, it isn’t quite...correct.

If the game had used rhymes more sparingly, I feel it would’ve been better off. In fact, some of the rare dialogue I actually liked came from a character who screwed up their rhymes. In that case, rhyming was part of her character, rather than something that feels like an obligation. This simply isn’t a good environment for constant rhymes. The game has a lot of content to fit into a small amount of text, a problem I’ll come back to later. With all that pressure for efficient dialogue, waxing poetic all day does more harm than good.

Rushing to Nothing

Another problem with this story is the ending feels quite rushed. Without direct spoilers: the vast majority of the game is just moving from point A to point B. Then during what feels like some standard searching for a McGuffin, you’re suddenly ambushed by the finale. The dungeon ends abruptly and you fight the penultimate big bad, but before you get the McGuffin the main villain shows up. A bunch of events converge, you and your party are teleported halfway across the continent off-screen, then you fight the final boss, right then and there, without so much as a heal since the second-in-command. I would be extremely surprised if this was their original vision for the ending.

There are some clear ways this hurts the gameplay, but the writing is even worse off. Half of your party members hastily try to cobble together some kind of character arc in a few sentences. For example, the cowardly character had a grumpy dad who didn’t like him. Said dad got a whole couple minutes of screen time 10 hours ago. He shows up and says good job. Hopefully I don’t need to explain why this is ever-so-slightly lacking in terms of a satisfying character arc.

It does not speak well of this story that his change from “wimpy” to “slightly-less-wimpy” is one of the strongest character arcs it has.

Of course, half of your party doesn’t even get that much! They don’t even participate in the ending, they’re just standing around mute. Granted, I didn’t expect much for some of them. One of your party members is acquired a mere 2-3 hours before the end of the game. Those hours are mostly gameplay, and…


She has dead parents. As in, recently dead parents. You even break the news to her yourself. Look we all know dead parents are writer-speak for “I don’t have time to make you empathize with this character.” Disney writers have to be talked down for weeks to leave a single on-screen parent alive. But they’re usually in a character’s backstory, not their defining on-screen moment. And considering the only non-visual thing I remember about this person is the degree to which her parents are dead (Yes Very), it really is a defining moment.

So pop quiz, do you think 2 hours and about a dozen lines of dialogue (yes, that’s all she gets) is enough to properly explore this? Well surprise surprise: They don’t do justice to the emotional loss of her parents. They don’t do justice to her emotional anything. I couldn’t even tell you what type of personality she has, how am I supposed to connect with something as drastic as dead parents? If I talked for 30 seconds with a stranger on a train and he mentioned his parents were dead, sure it’d be sad, but it wouldn’t leave a lasting impression. And he has the advantage of being a real person who exists.


Spoilers aside, the point is that every character is underdeveloped and the ending was a terrible place to cut corners. The areas beforehand were all lavishly detailed in visuals and sound, and since most of the game is a linear travelogue just about anywhere else would be a better place to cut. Of course, my hunch is that they didn’t plan on cutting out the ending at all.  They likely just did things in order and ran out of time, not considering the importance of nailing the climax.

A reminder that I harbor no ill will (ever, really) towards the development team. I’m only commenting on the product that resulted. Said product is lacking, and poetic prose and a rushed ending are only part of the problem. The final piece is a flaw far closer to the root of the problem. If I had one piece of advice to give to the author of Child of Light, beyond “write more better”, it would be this…

Limited Word Count

Economize your dialogue.

There’s a video series on game design I enjoy called Extra Credits. A few months ago, they released a video on game narratives and word count. It’s a good video, only a few minutes long and highly recommended, but for those who don’t want to watch I can summarize. Basically: Between long stretches of gameplay and instruction for that gameplay, video games have a drastically lower word count per minute to use than any other medium. This means that a good game narrative needs to be more efficient with its words than anyone else. Usually? They aren’t. The precious few words available are wasted on overwrought exposition or throwaway lines. And this brings us back to Child of Light.

To lighten the mood, here are some more pictures of Child of Light being really god damn pretty.

I can bring to mind almost nothing out of this game that wasn’t one of the following:

1. Dialogue explaining what was going on or where to go
“Where am I? What do I do? Who is that?”
“Why hello dear child! You’re in the Ridiculously Haunted Forest, you need to continue west to the cathedral to receive magical plot powers, and we’re a ferocious pack of hungry wolves. RAUGH!”

2. Fluff
“Welcome to our village. What a lovely day it is outside. Look, a pretty butterfly. I wonder what’s for dinner. Why yes, I AM enjoying my existence as a purposeless NPC!”

What this game needs far more of is dialogue that builds the characters and setting. What is everyday life like for the citizens of this fantasy world, and how has it changed now that the big bad is doing what their title implies? And no, I don’t mean this in a plot sense. You can tell us that NPC #22 has been cursed by the villain and we need to retrieve plot item #34 to rescue them, but that doesn’t make it personal. It doesn’t give us a connection to the world or make it feel real. I can understand that this is a fairy tale, not some dense 60-hour story wrought with complex mythology and political intrigue. It presents drama just as poorly as it does backstory. I never felt invested in the game emotionally. It runs on very few words for an RPG, presumably to keep a fairy tale atmosphere. But it spends next to none of those words fleshing out the world or people who inhabit it.

What little character building can be found is in these brief one-off conversations. When you get a new party member, every subsequent fight will follow up with a brief conversation they have with an existing character. These continue until they run out, and are the only things main characters say outside initial encounters or exposition. Even these can get pretty clogged with pointless filler. For example, here’s a paraphrase of one of these exchanges:

New Party Member: “Hello there, I am New Party Member. How are you, sad clown jester?”

Sad Clown Jester: “I am sad, and also a clown jester. Sigh. Sad noises.”

New Party Member: “I see, yes, glad we scoped out that situation. Tell me, sad clown jester, why are you sad?”

Sad Clown Jester: “I dunno. Just the way I am.”

For those of you hanging on the edge of your seats: No, we don’t ever find out why the sad clown jester is sad.

Ultimately, there isn’t anything offensive about the story in Child of Light. An off-rhyme here and there might make you cringe, but it’s mostly just...forgettable. But that’s almost as tragic as it being terrible. When propped up against these gorgeous visuals and sound, the writing feels disappointingly shallow by comparison. I think had it just narrowed down its cast and focused its narrative, things would’ve gone better. We still could’ve gotten a simple fairy tale, but one that was well told and emotionally involving. But the world isn’t built on what could’ve been, it’s built on what is. And what Child of Light is? It’s a flat and simplistic story with all the depth of a pop-up book, far less detailed and engrossing than its appearance suggests.

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