The Rule of Cool
Allow me to introduce you to the Rule of Cool. As a writer, it is my profession to keep up with the invisible rules of writing, be they ones I make up, or the ones I find in magazines and writing books. This particular rule is a combination of both – it is an existing rule which is sort of acknowledged, but it is rarely ever talked about because it’s very tough to face.
It’s also very prevalent in movies and video games.
Novels will have this too, but those rarely come to the surface for me. The Rule of Cool, quite simply, is the idea of, “If it’s cool, you don’t need a reason.” Enter big explosions, guys who always wear black, elaborate costume design, bears riding on sharks in space, you name it. The Matrix featured a group who wore nothing but trench coats and sunglasses. Why? Because it’s cool, that’s why. They just do.
This is a rule which lurks about invisibly, enabling writers to add plot elements that don’t even need to make sense in their minds. As such, this rule is dangerous to stories in video games.
A little while ago, it came to my attention that masks were cool. Being a lover and writer of all things fantasy, I took it upon myself to create a character who wore an epic two-sided mask which both smiled and frowned, and make a story out of it. I tried one draft after another, and attempted all different types of styles. The ten-year-old in me was desperate to come out, and if I were still ten years old today, I would have written a story in a minute. Thankfully, I’ve matured, and the eighteen-year-old, in answer to my younger self, would ask, “Why is he wearing a mask? Where did he get it? Does he have powers? Why does he have these powers?”
I came to the conclusion only recently that I wasn’t trying to create a story to begin with; I was trying to make a “cool” character work. I was twisting the plots I had developed in knots to fit the lifestyle of a cloak-swishing mask-wearing man, and no matter how hard I tried, everything I built became a convoluted mess that was of almost no worth. I learned my mistake, and I moved on only recently with this lesson in mind. The Rule of Cool had become the only reason I was writing to begin with.
This lesson is not so easily learned in visual media. The Rule of Cool can fly because of modern-day graphics, regardless of the cost, so long as the piece pretends to have a story and there’s fire. The other side of the coin is the trap I fell into – complicating the story to the point where it was barely worth telling or following. Some of the more recent Final Fantasy games will receive the glare of my evil eye for this. Dante’s Inferno is another example, where I’m certain the developers figured it would be nice to send a guy with a scythe through hell and then sort of stopped there.
But the Rule of Cool, to an extent, covers these sorts of flaws. Because when it comes right down to it, chopping your way through waves of baddies IS pretty satisfying. Be it wielding a sword the size of two people, or gaining the power to twist your body into a weapon, this is what games are about, and I’m not trying to condemn this. Indeed, the Rule of Cool has produced some fantastic stories throughout gaming history, with Fire Emblem, Silent Hill II, and Alan Wake as just a few shining examples of using games as a storytelling medium. Almost all of our superheroes and their iconic villains owe their creation to the Rule of Cool.
Too often, though, do I see stories used as an excuse for the gameplay, rather than a complement. Excellent games should be made more excellent with a story that works into the game rather sitting on the sidelines as the action unfolds. Games function as one of the most unique and immersive ways to experience a story since Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s hard to watch so many opportunities being thrown away to a misused Rule of Cool.
A while ago there was a short-lived debate about whether or not video games should be considered an art form. There is little question in my mind that it is. However, with all of the quality of art, musical scores, the thought behind the balance, and the building of progression in an interactive world, the story can tend to go to the wayside. Games may just be the most complex art form out there, and to leave the timeless craft of storytelling go to the wayside in any game is a crying shame.