That Awful Forspoken Ad Reflects The All-Consuming "Jossification" Of Video Games
The internet can't stop roasting a very bad ad, but Forspoken is just the latest example of one of the worst trends in gaming.
By now, you've probably seen it: the young heroine of the upcoming game Forspoken flits her way through empty fields and hadokens bad guys into pillars of ash, quipping all the way. "So, let me get this straight…" she begins, adopting the ironic, mocking tone of so many contemporary pop culture heroes. Throw in some mentions of "freaking dragons" and "killing jacked-up beasts," and you have the makings of an instant internet meme.
It didn't take long for people to start cracking jokes at the ad's expense. Content creator and voice actor ProZD was one of the first to get in on the action:
FunnyWes from Bloodborne PSX put together an amusing take on FromSoftware's beloved game:
And my personal favorite is this Tony Hawk-themed contribution by BobVids:
As a whole, it's tempting to laugh at these goofy memes and move on with our lives. After all, the game community will find something new and embarrassing to laugh at in the next few days. And since the game is still in the oven, we have no idea if this ad will reflect the final product. But, to me, the regrettable writing in this ad speaks to a greater problem in game production, one that has been bubbling for the past five to 10 years. I'm referring to the abject "Jossification" that has taken hold of gaming at its root, especially in the triple-A space.
If you play a lot of video games, you've probably noticed that the tone and character writing of big-budget blockbusters have become remarkably similar in recent years. Or, to put it a less charitable way, there's an acute sense that a lot of games are settling for the generic instead of actually differentiating themselves from the rest of the pack. The writing style of big video games has settled on the sarcastic, quip-filled malaise first popularized by Joss Whedon on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
For example, compare the reveal trailers of the upcoming Saints Row and the delayed Arkane exclusive Redfall, each from about a year ago. Despite being very different in genre and overall presentation, the two games strike an eerily similar tone, filled with witty banter, non-sequiturs, visual gags, and--of course--lots and lots of quips. "Sleep tight," our intrepid sniper says before blowing holes in five vampires. "Ugh, that is SO unprofessional," one of our loveable losers quips upon learning that the gang they're about to rob shot the arms dealer delivering the goods.
Now, there's nothing wrong with injecting your game with a bit of levity. By their very nature, video games are often ridiculous, and well-timed humor can go a long way toward sanding down some of the more annoying aspects of a lengthy campaign. (And, to be fair to these two games, they both exhibit much better writing than that cursed Forspoken ad.) But lately, it feels like every game has the exact same sense of humor: violent, but not graphic; goofy, but not absurd; irreverent, but never transgressive. It's not clear exactly what the objects of these punchlines are, except perhaps the concept of anyone taking anything seriously.
Backlash to this sort of smarmy, on-the-nose writing style has been brewing in some quarters of the internet for a long time now, especially in film communities. The heavy-handed critique is perhaps best encapsulated by the recent memeification of the quip: "Well, that just happened!"
"Uhhh, well...THAT just happened!" - one of the Eternals, August 6, 1945 pic.twitter.com/ac0we6Cz05— Jesse Hawken (@jessehawken) October 26, 2021
Despite the fact that this phrase doesn't actually seem to appear in any actual Marvel movie, it's become a shorthand for the cliche, shopworn quips that certain people ascribe to the MCU. The line itself is the essential ethos of The Avengers writer and director Joss Whedon: No matter what just happened, we can make a dumb referential joke at its expense and instantly erase all dramatic tension. (For the record, someone does actually say, "He's right behind me, isn't he?" in Thor: Love and Thunder. That's Taika Waititi for you.)
Whether you enjoy this style of writing will ultimately boil down to personal taste. Still, even if you love something, there's an ultimate limit to that love. Nobody wants to eat pizza for every meal. For me, the main problem with leaning on Whedon-esque quippery all the time is that it robs every situation of stakes. Fear, anger, hate, love--it flattens all the extremities of human emotion into a smug grin and an "up yours." Noted horror writer Gretchen Felker-Martin recently described Whedon's style as "rolling your eyes at the most profound visions of ecstasy and horror the universe has to offer," and I think that's a great way of putting it.
Perhaps the most interesting case study in the ongoing Jossification of the industry came in 2018, when Destiny 2 killed off fan-favorite Exo Cayde-6 in the expansion Forsaken. Voiced by frequent Whedon collaborator Nathan Fillion, Cayde-6 served as a walking embodiment of the game's lighthearted writing style. Cayde's death was taken by many fans as a move towards a more serious style in line with the game's weighty lore and deeper themes. At Destiny 2's launch, Cayde-6's sense of humor was front and center, leading to a more Jossified tone shift that not every fan appreciated. Thanks to this move, Destiny has managed to explore more thoughtful territory in the trauma-focused Season of the Haunted. Regardless of how you view it, it was certainly interesting to see a popular video game developer take the concept of idle quippery out back and put two holes in its head.
As a whole, I don't think that video game writers should strive to institute a new wave of grim and serious dialogue--or at least, not all at once. However, I would like to see more games take cues from well-written humor-focused indies like Disco Elysium, Hades, and even Cruelty Squad. Disco Elysium's novel conceit of giving each of your character's emotions a unique voice makes it stand out in the space, along with its bent towards the surreal. Cruelty Squad portrays an absurd, ugly world riven by capitalism that is so thoroughly cynical that it manages to elicit belly laughs. And though Hades does have its fair share of Tumblr-y quips, each of its memorable characters has such a strong voice and personality that it manages to nail the landing.
Not every game needs to have award-winning writing, but a little bit of diversity in tone, genre, and humor would go a long way. This is a big part of why The Witcher 3 is such a good RPG, and I hope some devs learn from its example. The dialogue in this Forspoken ad might have attracted the ire of online jokers, but there's nothing uniquely bad or objectionable about it. Whedon-esque writing came off as cutting-edge and fresh in its day, but time has passed, and it now seems generic and trite without the proper treatment.
Regardless of how developers feel about this style, it's clear that there is a fairly large portion of the public primed to poke fun at its excesses on occasion. As such, if you write video games, you better sharpen your one-liners, because the content creators are coming for you.
The real tragedy of this whole debacle is that the footage of Forsaken in the ad actually looks pretty compelling, at least by the standards of today's big-budget open-world games: vibrant traversal options, satisfying combat. If only Square Enix had uploaded a version without sound.
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