Last week was just full of surprises. (RIP, all.) Thankfully, though, one shining, heroic force swooped in to save the world from snowballing into complete unpredictability. That final bastion of normalcy – that conqueror of chaos -- was, of course, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.
The film – which starred explosions, Shia Labeouf, and explosions (but unfortunately, not Shia Labeouf exploding) – defiantly dodged negative reviews, negative word of mouth, and a near-negative Metacritic score to gross $112,000,000 in its opening weekend. Yep – nothing like a vapid, needless summer blockbuster to restore your faith in the world by destroying your faith in humanity. The movie’s success, though? Not surprising in the least. It’s a loud, action-packed film with more carnage than meaningful dialog. It’s simple, easily digested cheese. People eat that stuff up.
But then, no one expected Transformers to tug at our heartstrings and revolutionize storytelling as we know it. That’d just be silly; I mean, it’s a movie about robots fighting. Clearly, all eyes here are focused on the action – no time to roll them at the plot.
So then, how come we often expect tear-jerking, thought-provoking tales from big-budget videogames with premises nearly as dramatically inhospitable as Transformers? Why do we expect triple-A videogames – which, at this point, are quickly sneaking into movie territory in terms of development costs – to mold angry men, gunfire, and shrapnel into spellbinding tales when our prior buying tastes (see, for instance: Transformers) have shown that all we want is a loose thread to hold the action together? Especially when other story genres (you know, anything that's not action) lend themselves far better to interesting plots, untethered by the need for a five-minute shootout every six minutes?
Well, the origin of that expectation is at least somewhat explicable, though the expectation itself is highly outdated. Here’s why. In the beginning, when the big pixel bang occurred, shattering into millions of tiny pixels and creating the videogame universe as we know it, videogames were cheap and easy-ish to develop. Then, as technology became more complex, more time, money, and people were required to build a high-quality, easily marketable videogame. Thing is, the industry’s growth from bite-sized, big-spirited money muncher into a multi-stomached money devouring machine occurred somewhat subtly over the years. Since the industry’s inception, interesting plots, risky innovations, and blockbusters have all come from the same game publishers. Thus, it’s only natural that we expect them to continue down the path of evolving plots and huge risks, even though the industry’s finally reached the point where it’s not financially feasible to do so.
However, for big publishers, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. Videogame storytelling techniques and technologies can now produce a story roughly equivalent in quality to that of a typical summer blockbuster. Sure, it may not be a Promised Land composed primarily of Holy Grails, but as noted earlier, for most potential players, it’ll do. And “most” is the operative term here. With the so-called “casual” boom now replacing many publishers’ eyes with dollar signs, catering to the niche that wants a brain-scrambler of a tale just isn’t appealing. Instead, simple stories are where it’s at, so that buzz-phrases like “More guns!” and “Xtreme graphics” stand out all the more.