Writing for video games is a bit of an anomaly in the storytelling world. It is a medium in which the story itself might often take a backseat to the gameplay. And this is not necessarily a bad thing! There is an ongoing debate in video game philosophy of whether or not a game is supposed to be a game first and a story second or a story first and a game second. And there’s no one right answer to this question. It can bounce back and forth depending on the game and even the level within that game. But there was one recent experience I had when starting the new downloadable content for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla that left me feeling off.
The game is set in the magical realm of Norse gods during Ragnarok, the so-called death of the gods. Surtr is pitted as the villain of the storyline. The game takes a common tactic in that you fight the main boss very early on and are defeated only to have to work your way up and fight him again later. This DLC, called Dawn of Ragnarok, is not unique with this approach, but it didn’t play out to maximum effect. During this early boss fight, I actually defeated Surtr. It left me feeling good and hopeful, but in reality Surtr wasn’t defeated. He came back to life in a cinematic cutscene to beat me instead.
If this were a movie, it would be fine. We would watch this all play out on the screen. But since I experienced the battle and the joy of victory, it felt very strange to have my character beaten during a cutscene that I had no control over. The game made a mistake in that the experience of the player was not the same as the experience of the character — something that is unique to video game storytelling. I understand why the video game makers did this. It was to communicate the fact that Surtr is essentially an unkillable immortal. But it would have maintained the immersion more completely had the player experience this through gameplay rather than the cutscene. Of course, that is the tightrope long-form story-driven games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla face constantly.