Faux-Irony Is A Dead Scene
Or: How Tao Lin’s influence is beginning to be felt from indie to AAA games.
I’ve got a serious syntactical bone to pick with a particular brand of twee internet-speak that I’ve noticed has begun to infect narrative games recently. And I blame Tao Lin and Twitter.
The most recent victim of this is Mass Effect Andromeda, but it was most likely Life Is Strange which started the trend of ‘flippantitis’ as I’ve pointed out before in games. Another notable recent example is Night In The Woods, which is essentially LiS but even more painfully earnest in its gratingly ‘ironic’ writing. For more examples cf. Horizon Zero Dawn, most of Destiny, Gone Home, Firewatch etc, Oxenfree, etc, etc.
Eurogamer commenter Cobalt_jackal sums it up quite nicely actually under the Andromeda review.
Fan fiction level, cringe af, tween, inane, Z-list hack writing
Badly delivered, stilted dialogue.
I can’t help but strongly agree with him.
And Night In The Woods doesn’t fare much better. It’s a charming game in so many ways that it just frustrates me the more. Protagonist Mae and her small-town friends deal with some interesting topics but in such a blasé, twee and painfully ‘uber-cool’ tone of voice that I found it difficult to sit through more than ten minutes of it at a time. Sure, it accurately reflects the way a certain segment of pre or post American teens might speak, but boy does it lay it on thick.
And don’t just take my word for it — the lead writer, Scott Benson cited ‘Twitter’ as his main source of dialogue/tone of voice inspiration:
Benson, a seasoned animator and illustrator from Pittsburgh…admitted to Joystiq at E3 that drafting lines for a video game is new to him: “I’ve never written fiction or characters really before,” as his previous animated shorts tended to be of the silent type. Benson had an interesting source of inspiration for his witty one-liners, then: Twitter. As he explained, the social media channel “has the same kind of cadence and kind of vague feelings” as Mae and friends display in Night in the Woods.
It’s all very reminiscent of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel, often cited as an apex in novella form of the ‘apathy is cool’ school. Of course this movement can also be traced back further, Vice Magazine which started in 1994, some ten years before Tao Lin’s book, being the obvious forefather.
Back to Life Is Strange, a fantastic game all-told, with some genuinely emotional character beats and great pacing. The fact it went overboard with the hipster-isms is kinda old news now. The cutesy/twee vibes, the angsty/ironic notebook (ripped off shamelessly by NitW) and the painfully awkward delivery (intentionally or otherwise) frequently made me roll my eyes, but they’re accurate hallmarks of rebellious teenage years we may or may not like to forget. It’s a coming of age story that succeeds despite its vernacular, not because of it.
What gets me though, is that these three games consistently feel so self indulgent. It might be hilarious for a sub-set of Western millennials but you can’t substitute genuine pathos and humour for some ‘lolz’. NitW lays claim to a similar tone to LiS but I think veers wildly from ‘well observed’ to ‘contrived and tone-deaf’. And Andromeda absolutely has no business employing this kind of thing. Not because I think sci-fi is too arch to be humorous, but, well, a very contemporaneous (i.e. specific to this time) kind of humour doesn’t really mesh with a depiction of an inter-species far future.
I just want to make a plea to game-writers: don’t mistake memes and internet culture for genuine human communication. When we — or our characters — fall back on tired mass-meme tropes and verbal crutches, we celebrate how language evolves, but at the expense of what it can make you feel.