A popular story out of studio lore is that in Gene Roddenberry’s original conception of Star Trek, there was no Transporter. Characters were supposed to journey from ship to planet via a shuttle, but when filming began the model wasn’t ready, so the iconic Transporter technology was invented on the fly. These kinds of elegantly expository showbiz stories often turn out to be apocryphal, but its enduring popularity speaks to deeper truths, truths like: makeshift solutions can be great solutions, creativity comes from limitations, and model designers are untrustworthy charlatans. Such lessons are invaluable, but they should come with a warning attached: It’s great to invent something on the fly, but in order for it to work it must be seamlessly incorporated into a larger world, not awkwardly grafted on, the perils of which are readily demonstrated by Titanfall ‘s clumsy afterthought of a story.
Titanfall‘s success was a fait accompli, preordained by the Gaming Gods themselves. With Respawn Entertainment’s dramatic origin story of breaking off from Activision fresh in the gaming public’s minds and Microsoft’s great advertising machine determined to turn their inaugural effort into their Xbox One-selling, Killer App, Titanfall‘s ascension was never in doubt. The furor over new consoles, combined with the paucity of games to actually play on them, conspired to inflate expectations to fantastic proportions. Would Titanfall shape the eighth-generation of video game consoles? Would it establish a new standard other developers would seek to emulate? Titanfall‘s eventual release would go on to answer absolutely none of these questions, providing only a competent multiplayer game about large-ish robots and getting shot in the back a great deal. Titanfall‘s ramifications for the larger gaming landscape are ambiguous, and won’t be felt for years. If there’s anything immediately telling about Titanfall it isn’t what it includes but what it lacks, and the bizarre half measures it takes to address that lack.
There are lots of potentially interesting things Respawn could’ve done with the Titanfall campaign. In light of the fact that it’s a throwaway experience anyway, they might as well have experimented. Players in the lobby could’ve voted on which side to fight for and have the outcome change the story, or they could opt to fight each other, with the decision going to the victor. The game could start with a few initial skirmishes that determine each player’s alignment depending on how many civilian NPC they killed in the course of a battle. The matches could’ve been interspersed with Mass Effect-style dialogue choices. Unfortunately, all the things I’ve just suggested are contingent upon Respawn giving two shits about the story of their game, which they clearly do not.
It is extremely generous to call Titanfall‘s story an afterthought. It’s more like a layer of Fan Fiction that’s superimposed on an existing property, like someone took the Star Wars radio play, added it as a commentary track to A New Hope, then released the combined product in theaters. It’s very strange to see such a flagrantly half-assed solution featured so prominently in such a massively anticipated game. Titanfall‘s story lacks even the campy sincerity of an Ed Wood Jr. production, the theme here is not incompetence, but indifference. Titanfall‘s campaign has the stink of contractual obligation about it, like the 1994 Roger Corman Fantastic Four film, which was made for 1 million dollars in Germany for the sole purpose of retaining the intellectual property rights and was never released. Titanfall‘s indifference to its story is that profound. Respawn treats their obligation to explain why these people are killing each other as vestigial trait, a useless anachronism that serves only as the embarrassing echo of a bygone age, the video game equivalent of an appendix or tonsils. It’s something that can be ignored until it becomes life-threatening, at which point it is to be dispatched quickly, discretely, and painlessly. As you muddle through Titanfall‘s campaign, from its stock footage cinematic intro to its meager sputter of an ending, the question quickly transforms from Why does this suck? to Why did they bother? The answer, perhaps, is EA.
Jason West and Vince Zampella left Activision and the Call of Duty franchise to be their own masters, only to find themselves beholden to a new corporate overlord: Electronic Arts. Game developers and publishers need one another, but their interests don’t always align. West and Zampella could make the game they wanted the way they wanted to make it at Respawn Entertainment, but in order to get their product into the hands of consumers they needed a publisher, and a publisher has every reason to want some kind of story in a product like this.
Respawn knew their market. They knew precisely which part of the Call of Duty fan base they intended to siphon off with Titanfall, and decided to focus entirely on multiplayer.
EA, by contrast, is a financial juggernaut that naturally came to the table with a different set of concerns. EA thinks in terms of marketing, in terms of cross-platform integration, in terms of long-term financial dividends, and that means merchandising—Titanfall books, Titanfall webisodes, a Titanfall movie starring a mid-20s white guy with great abs and a personality like chalk dust—but for all that to happen, Titanfall needed some kind of story to start with.
EA had good reason to want a story. Respawn Entertainment had to fulfill the parameters of their contract with EA. Judging by Titanfall’s campaign, that’s precisely what they did, and not one iota more. Granted, that’s all speculation on my part. I could be entirely wrong. If Titanfall‘s campaign isn’t the product of deliberate neglect, Respawn wouldn’t be the first studio that’s having problems adjusting to the new realities of video game storytelling.
With AAA video game development becoming more and more expensive, major developers are desperately searching for new ways to get their hooks into players and keep them there. One method is multiplayer. Another is DLC. What both of these solutions have in common is that neither of them foster an environment that’s conducive to telling a decent story.
The problem with stories is they end. They don’t have to be good endings, but short of damning the player to some sort of Samuel Beckett-like hell where they’re forced to repeat the same actions for eternity, stories have to peter out eventually, at which point the flow of money from consumers dries up accordingly. Attempts by developers to address this problem without jettisoning any notion of a coherent story have met with mixed results.
Borderlands takes the “Embarrassment Of Riches” route, piling on more guns, more locations, more characters, more everything, banking on the assumption that no one is ever so rich that they’ll stop wanting more. This tends to make for an experience that’s amusing in chunks, yet whose overall narrative is the least interesting part of the game. The more you push into Borderland 2‘s main quest, the more side quests you’re pummeled with. Keep going it’ll eventually start to feel more like a second job than a game. Bioshock Infinite introduced its players to a multiverse with infinite possibilities, but if anything can happen, nothing matters—it’s why Superman needs Kryptonite. A game like Dark Souls has a story, after a fashion, but it’s very easy to ignore, and that’s precisely what most players do. Left 4 Dead provides its audience with a loose framework, then forces players to cooperate in such a way that the story arises out of their actions. Then there are the Telltale games, which dole out their story in episodic chunks.
It’s a rich era of experimentation, but it’s one that Respawn has chosen to opt out of, or at least they tried to. The malformed Titanfall campaign speaks to the odd liminal state AAA video game development currently occupies, with developers trying to make more modest, self-contained games, while publishers keep demanding over sized blockbusters. Even if publishers refuse to change their expectations, they can’t stop the old business model from disappearing. The Titanfall campaign is just one of the first casualties of the coming tumult.