Rage: Explaining the Plot
Well, I finished Rage last night. I liked it overall.
Id’s latest effort has been a tricky one for me to get a handle on. So many of its components are absolutely humming with perfection and tightness. Other parts felt like waxen imitations of better games. I can say that Rage is one of the few games I’m going to play through again. Unfortunately, it’s an uneven experience.
I’ll illustrate with a conversation I had with my sister.
Emilie and I have been carpooling up to university every Monday and Wednesday. She’s on her first year, I’ve been there for much longer and will be there for much longer still. We enjoy our rides together. Me more than her, I think, since she has to listen to my music.
Emilie is only recently becoming hooked on PC games. Growing up we had a SEGA Genesis and Dreamcast, but this is her first time playing solid, quality PC games. We started her on Plants vs Zombies, then Terraria. After she played far more Terraria than I have, she tried Portal. Then Portal 2. Now she’s about to start Deus Ex, a game that I don’t think she comprehends my enthusiasm for (yet!).
(Sidenote: Left 4 Dead 2 is a bit much for her, but my other sister, fearless Amy, has proven appropriately stone-hearted in the face of the zombie apocalypse. This is also a fascinating development).
Anyway, because Emilie is now playing PC games, we’ve been talking about them during our carpools. She asks about the games she sees me playing on Steam, and seems to be enjoying hearing me ramble on about their mechanics and storylines — she’s unfailingly polite. The other day she asked about Rage.
“So a comet was about to hit the earth,” I explain, “so the governments of the world sealed a bunch of Arks underground and filled them with stuff. Technology, scientists, soldiers — you know, things to help repopulate and repair the world a century after the comet’s impact has killed everything. You’re one of these Ark survivors, and when you come out a hundred and six years later—” (yes, I specify the exact number of years) “—you find that some people survived. There are gangs of bandits all over the place, and people who were mutated by feltrite from the comet into mutant hordes that live in the sewers and empty cities, and a few normal human settlements. So you get taken in by a local settlement and you find out that strange things are going on around the local settlements. You find out that—”
“Some of the Arks were experiments, right?”
I’m briefly confused by her question-statement. “What? No, they weren’t experiments. They were Arks, like Noah’s Ark.”
“Yes they were,” she insisted. “They were experiments. Most of them. Like the one in Utah filled with Mormons. It ran out of jumpsuits after only a couple months. They wanted to see what the Mormons would do without clothes.” She pauses. “You told me about this a couple weeks ago.”
It’s only natural that I laugh. She thinks for a moment that I’m laughing at her. “You told me!” she insists.
I’m not laughing at her. I’m laughing at me, and at Rage. I’m laughing at the fact that the story in Rage is basically a pared-down and unthoughtful version of the backstory of the Fallout series, which I had indeed explained to her only a week or two prior. Fallout’s Vaults turned into Rage’s Arks. Mutations from nuclear fallout altered into mutations from glowing blue comet ore. Beleaguered farming settlements transformed into eyebrow-raising dirt racing colonies.
I’m laughing mostly at myself though. I encounter the tropes of the wasteland so often in what I read and watch and play that I don’t even recognize them repeated until my little sister points it out to me. To me, the fact that the world in Fallout ended because of a nuclear holocaust and in Rage by comet is different enough. To her, it’s basically no difference at all.
Of course, Rage isn’t ripping off Fallout any more than it’s ripping off Borderlands or Mad Max or The Postman. The post-apocalypse is as filled with comfortable motifs as any other genre.
So what does it matter if Rage plays with the same tropes? Because the result is awful when it does. Here’s what id software does well: game engines, shooting, and moving while shooting. Those things are pretty solid in Rage. Here’s what id software has never even attempted until Rage: story.
The past games from id have followed roughly the same formula: [Nazis/demons/cyborgs] with [gothic aesthetics/misplaced toxic sludge/bases shaped like guns] invade [a space-base/earth but it doesn’t look like earth/gothic-place] so you [rock them/sock them/space-biff them]. Also, multiplayer deathmatch.
And that works for Doom and Quake and Wolfenstein. Those games don’t care about exposition because they have none to give and no time to give it. Rage has a story as thick and nutritious as the watery gruel best served to orphans, but it really would like you to sit down and listen to some people tell you all about it before making you drive over to where the fun will take place. Rage’s wasteland is full of folks waiting to chat your ear off about the details of their world, but then they don’t seem to actually know it. Instead, they only know the rumors about the skinny on the lowdown.
An example: I’m stalking through an enemy base, taking out armored guards unawares with my crossbow. I have one in my sights, arrow about to be launched into the back of his head. He’s working on something (who knows what?), when suddenly he mutters, “I miss Mother Russia.”
Huh? Mother Russia? From over a century ago? From a place you could never have been, nor likely even heard about? It would be one thing if the game decided to share some information, telling the story of an Ark survivor like me who ended up hanging up with the wrong group of friends, smoking glowing blue comet-doobies behind the dirt racing bleachers instead of learning how to save settlements. Better yet, the game could tell me about how the only reading material his gang has access to is Communist propaganda leaflets, and they’ve begun to attribute holy significance to this wonderful “Mother Russia” they’ve been reading about. These are the kinds of stories that games like Fallout tell repeatedly, effortlessly.
So here’s the difference, Emilie, the one thing I want you to get from all this: these other games I’ve been telling you about tell good and interesting stories. Rage does not. The game portions of this game are quite good, but please, ignore every part of the game that is not about moving and shooting. In those places lies only vague boredom.