Why Rage fails as a story

This is going to be an interesting post for me to write. While I have reviewed games before, I have never focused specifically on one aspect. In this case, I feel I have to. Given that I hope to write professionally, I have been looking more closely at stories in every piece of media I consume, making note of narrative techniques I enjoyed (so I can maybe employ them within my own stories) and others that should probably be avoided. Unfortunately, Rage failed for me on almost every conceivable storytelling level. I am hoping that this deconstruction will not turn into a rant, but at the risk of sounding completely negative, the next paragraph will be a brief review of the game itself, pointing out at least some things I enjoyed about it.

Given that it is an id Software game, it should surprise nobody that the actual shooting gameplay of Rage is solid. The levels themselves are well enough designed, the enemies are compelling until they all get recycled in the latter half of the game, and the guns feel weighty, with good sound effects. Technically, Rage is a marvel. Its textures are beautiful, and the fact that it runs at a near constant 60 frames per second is mindblowing for a game so large. Unfortunately, the story is where the whole thing comes screeching to a halt. It should go without saying that spoilers, up to and including the game’s ending, follow the end of this paragraph.

The story begins with the asteroid Apophis crashing into the Earth. Humanity’s last hope is the Ark project, which involves various important world leaders and military personnel being locked in stasis pods and buried under the ground. The game’s protagonist, a silent character without a name, wakes up after 106 years to find the rest of the Ark’s six inhabitants dead. Defenceless (remember this, this is important), he steps outside, only to discover that the world is a wasteland ruled by gangs. He is saved from an attack by a man who identifies himself as Dan Hagar.

Dan sets the protagonist on various small jobs, while foreshadowing a sinister sounding organisation called the Authority. After working for Dan a small time, Dan gets scared that the Authority will come looking for our hero, so he is sent on his way to Wellspring, where he meets and works for the mayor and sheriff, before eventually hooking up with a crazy scientist who explains that the Authority created mutants that have infested the nearby city. From here, Hero Protagonist meets up with the Resistance.

Now, this is where my problems with the story began. So far, we have had a villain alluded to but never seen, and a heroic group of plucky rebels, fighting against them. The problem is that the story does nothing to demonstrate why the Authority are bad. From what we have been told, they seem to be the only form of legitimate government around, and that seems preferable to me than the sociopathic gangs roaming the wastes. Similarly, for all I know at this point, the Resistance could be an organised terrorist group, fighting against the only authoritative force in the name of anarchy and gang rule. The story is too vague. It’s all well and good to give them a foreboding name like the Authority, but show me why they’re evil, don’t just tell me and expect me to accept it at face value. Nonetheless, I soldiered on.

The first mission from the Resistance was to break their leader (Captain Marshall, a man of two ranks apparently) out of an Authority prison. Now I’d finally get to meet these villains face to, well, mask. Their design evoked a mix of Imperial Stormtroopers, and Red Hood from the Batman comics. Nothing particularly original. But they did start shooting at our hero, so they must be proven villains by now, right? Wrong. He broke into their installation in the hope of aiding the escape of a terrorist leader. I’d say they’re well within their right to shoot at him.
Nevertheless, he escaped with his new friend, and was forced to leave Wellspring behind for fear of the Authority’s wrath. They made their way to Subway Town, the Resistance headquarters, and after yet more mutant purging and gangbusting missions for a mayor, the plot finally came to its head. It turned out that the Authority leader, General Cross, sabotaged the Ark project so only Arks with people loyal to him would surface, allowing him to take over the world.

I feel I have to interject here. This man is so power hungry, he was willing to put the entire human race in jeopardy just so he could make a power play in a post-apocalyptic world? Before the impact, he would have had no idea what the world would be like on the other side, who would gamble something like that? Also, the most important endeavour in human history, something absolutely crucial to the survival of the species, and security on it is so inept, someone can successfully sabotage it? That feels very contrived to me.

Anyway, the game ends with the hero finding a map to all the buried Arks in the rest of the world, breaking into the Authority headquarters, Capital Prime, and inputting a code so the rest of the Arks would surface. According to Captain Marshall, this would end the Authority’s reign of terror. This was the story’s true low point. Not only did we not meet General Cross at all, the ending also makes absolutely no sense. Remember that important point about being saved by a random guy who just happened to be there at the right time? That was because the Ark didn’t have any weapons. And Dan Hagar can’t be at every surfacing Ark. Do you know who can be? The gangs. The mutants. The Authority.

This ‘solution’ isn’t satisfactory, because there is absolutely no way an unarmed group of disoriented people could stand up to an organised military force, the wasteland gangs, and random mutants at the same time. If an Ark location map exists, I’m relatively certain that General Cross will have a copy, and will be ready with a contingency plan in the case of any of those Arks rising. Theoretically, some people could slip past the Authority troops, gang members and random mutants, but where would they go? Without the help of Dan Hagar, the hero would have been lost, alone and eventually dead.

There is also the point of the other five people in the hero’s Ark being dead anyway. How does the Resistance know that this isn’t the case with all the other Arks that are being raised? I’m sure at the time, this ending seemed cathartic, and to provide closure, while leaving the franchise open, but when scrutinised, it doesn’t stand up logically.

I don’t really enjoy tearing into another writer’s work in this manner. I’m sure hard work went into this from the game’s writer, Matthew Costello and the people who worked with him to integrate the story and gameplay. So here’s where I put my money where my mouth is, and list what I would have done differently.
I would have given the hero a name and a voice. I much prefer someone who is an actual character I can get behind, rather than a nameless hero. Throughout the game, I found myself being ordered around by these other characters, without even the option to voice any kind of affirmative or dissenting opinion on the matter.

I would have shown the Authority to be evil from the start. After working for Dan Hagar a while, getting to know his family, I would have had the Authority swoop in on their home and have them killed, looking for the hero. In Star Wars, our first taste of how despicable the Empire truly is, is the moment they kill Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle in the search for the droids. The same principle would apply here. It would prove that the Authority are the story’s villains, and give the player a personal reason to hate them. From here, I would have the Authority capture the hero, and put him in prison, only to be interrogated and tortured by General Cross. Eventually, we would meet Captain Marshall, and escape, with the result being the hero joining the Resistance.

Much of the overall plot remains intact in my version, events are just moved around, or slightly changed, in order to show more, as opposed to just telling.

The ending is the trickiest salvage. I would have certainly included a final showdown with General Cross, if only because never having face time with the lead villain is absolutely unsatisfying in most cases (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is the only exception I can think of). I would have probably tweaked the Resistance a little more to have them be a much larger network, and have them send people out to intercept the surfacing Arks. It would at least go some way to answering the question as to how the emerging people could be expected to survive in such a hostile environment.

That about does it I think. I hope this reads as more of a constructive criticism, rather than just joyfully ripping into another person’s hard work.

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