That Awful Abandoned Ad Reflects the All-Consuming “Josification” of Video Games

By now, you’ve probably seen it: the young heroine of the upcoming game Forspoken flits through empty fields and turns bad guys into pillars of ash, joking the whole way. “So let me get this straight…” she begins, adopting the wry, derisive tone of so many contemporary pop culture heroes. She throws in a few mentions of “cursed dragons” and “slaying rising beasts,” and she has the makings of an instant internet meme.

It didn’t take long for people to start making 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 a hilarious version of FromSoftware’s beloved game:

And my personal favorite is this Tony Hawk-themed BobVids contribution:

In general, it’s tempting to laugh at these silly memes and get on with our lives. After all, the gaming community will find something new and embarrassing to laugh about in the days to come. And since the game is still in the oven, we have no idea if this announcement will reflect the final product. But, to me, the unfortunate writing in this announcement speaks to a bigger problem in game production, one that has been bubbling away for the last five to 10 years. I’m referring to the abject “Jossification” that has taken over gaming from its roots, 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 less charitably, there’s an acute sense that too many games are settling for generic rather than setting themselves apart from the rest of the pack. The writing style of the great video games has settled on the sarcastic, joke-filled malaise first popularized by Joss Whedon on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.

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For example, compare the reveal trailers for the upcoming Saints Row and Arkane’s delayed exclusive Redfall, each from about a year ago. Despite being vastly different in genre and overall presentation, the two games are eerily similar in tone, filled with clever gags, non-sequences, visual gags, and of course many, many jokes. “Sleep well,” our intrepid sniper says before blasting holes into five vampires. “Ugh, that’s SO unprofessional,” jokes one of our lovable losers upon learning that the gun dealer delivering the goods was shot by the gang they’re about to rob.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with injecting a little levity into your game. By their very nature, video games are often ridiculous, and well-timed humor can go a long way toward softening some of the more annoying aspects of a drawn-out campaign. (And, to be fair to these two games, they both exhibit far better writing than that damn Forspoken ad.) But lately, it seems that all games have exactly the same sense of humor: violent, but not graphic; silly, but not absurd; irreverent, but never transgressive. It’s not clear exactly what the objects of these jokes are, except perhaps the concept of someone taking something seriously.

Backlash to this kind of smarmy, direct writing style has been brewing in some quarters of the internet for a long time, especially in the film communities. The heavy-handed criticism is perhaps best summed up in the joke’s recent memeification: “Well that just happened!”

Even though this phrase doesn’t actually appear to appear in any actual Marvel movies, it has become shorthand for the cliche, the tired jokes that certain people attribute to the MCU. The line itself is the essential ethos of The Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon: No matter what just happened, we can pull a silly referential joke at his expense and instantly erase all dramatic tension. (For the record, someone actually says, “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” in Thor: Love and Thunder. That’s Taika Waititi for you.)

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Whether you enjoy this style of writing will ultimately come down to personal taste. Still, even if you love something, there is an upper limit to that love. No one wants to eat pizza for every meal. For me, the main problem with relying on Whedon-esque banter all the time is that it robs every situation of the stakes. Fear, anger, hate, love: it flattens all the extremes of human emotion into a smirk and an “up.” Noted horror writer Gretchen Felker-Martin He recently described Whedon’s style as “rolling his eyes at the deepest visions of ecstasy and horror the universe has to offer,” and I think that’s a great way to put it.

Perhaps the most interesting case study in the industry’s ongoing Jossification came in 2018, when Destiny 2 dropped fan-favorite Exo Cayde-6 in the Forsaken expansion. Voiced by frequent Whedon collaborator Nathan Fillion, Cayde-6 served as a walking embodiment of the game’s light-hearted writing style. Many fans took Cayde’s death as a move towards a more serious style in line with the great lore and deeper themes of the game. At Destiny 2’s launch, Cayde-6’s sense of humor was front and center, leading to a more Jossified shift in tone that not all fans appreciated. Thanks to this move, Destiny has managed to explore more thoughtful territory in the trauma-focused Season of the Haunted. However you look at it, it was certainly interesting to see a popular video game developer take the concept of idle jokes and put two holes in its head.

In general, I don’t think video game writers should go out of their way to institute a new wave of somber and serious dialogue, or at least, not all of it at once. However, I would like to see more well-written humor-focused indie-inspired games 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 him stand out in the space, along with his penchant for the surreal. Cruelty Squad portrays an absurd and ugly world divided by capitalism that is so completely cynical that it manages to provoke laughter. And while Hades has his fair share of Tumblr-y jokes, each of his memorable characters has such a strong voice and personality that he manages to nail the landing.

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Walking punchline Cayde-6 was a fan favorite, and his death is one of the greatest moments in Destiny history.

Not every game needs to have award-winning writing, but a little diversity in tone, genre, and humor would go a long way. This is a big part of why The Witcher 3 is such a great RPG, and I hope some developers learn from this example. The dialogue in this Forsaken ad might have drawn the ire of pranksters online, but there’s nothing especially bad or objectionable about it. Whedon-esque writing turned out to be innovative and fresh at the time, but time has passed and it now seems generic and hackneyed without the proper treatment.

Regardless of how developers feel about this style, it’s clear that there’s a fairly large part of the public prepared to poke fun at its excesses on occasion. As such, if you write video games, you better hone your one-liners, because the content creators will come for you.

The real tragedy of this whole debacle is that the Forsaken visuals in the ad actually look quite appealing, at least by the standards of today’s big-budget open-world games: vibrant traversal options, satisfying combat. I wish Square Enix had uploaded a version without sound.

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