Dead Cells, Dark Souls, and Mass Effect: what games can still learn from Early Access

Lately, I can’t help but hold game stories to a double-standard. Lengthy, defined, and mostly linear games — games like JRPGs and story-driven action-adventures that I once cut my teeth on —  don’t get the same leeway as the opaquer, less specific storytelling that so many games are now adopting. Although, increasingly, I don’t think that’s my fault.

Dead Cells, the 2D, rogue-like indie darling of the minute, has especially helped me appreciate less, rather than more, in modern game stories. Being “run-based” (when you die, you start the whole game over again with only minimal upgrades that carry over), it’s not structured for the traditional beginning, middle, and end of a linear plot.

Dead Cells dialogue is minimal and intended for repeat play.

There is a story, however, told in bits and pieces of dialogue from oblique NPCs. You start the game in a prison, immediately implying you’ve either done something to wind up there, or that someone thinks you did. A disgruntled vendor called The Collector, meanwhile, holds the player character in contempt for… something they’d rather not talk about. The prison itself is even chopped into zones with names like “The Promenade of the Condemned.” These details practically ooze meaning, if not exactly clarity.

Nevertheless, the more I play the more I piece the bits together. The game’s limited information lays out the track, while my imagination completes the circuit. It’s very reminiscent of the storytelling employed and popularized by Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Perhaps that’s why so many are comparing Dead Cells to From Software’s series, despite it being, at least mechanically, far more rogue-like than Souls-like. Plus the names sound kind of similar, so there’s that.

The asynchronous story, told through impression more than explanation, doesn’t just benefit Dead Cells’ s nonlinear design, though. It reconciles the chopped and screwed plot with the very way the game is being developed and sold.

Also it’s pretty.

Dead Cells isn’t just the rogue-like flavor of the month. It’s one of the latest stars from Steam’s Early Access program — where partially complete games are sold to help fund their ongoing creation. Traditional game stories, especially, suffer from this kind of release tempo — at least for me. I might buy the game early, play it for a while, only to reach a stop sign labeled “under development.” Then, by the time the plot is finished, I’ve usually moved on with my life (possibly even to the next hot Early Access game).

Dead Cells… deftly, subtly drops a kind of narrative that would benefit most modern games.

By eschewing a tale that relies on a single sequence of events, played out in mandatory order, Dead Cells sidesteps that all-too-common issue. In fact, it deftly, subtly drops a kind of narrative that would benefit most modern games. The reason being that, Early Access or not, games increasingly look very different over time. The linear story structure of blockbuster narratives, largely copied from film, simply haven’t caught up to the way games are being designed (and, by default, played).

When Mass Effect: Andromeda launched earlier this year, it was largely derided for glitches and seriously junked-up facial animations. Players who actually stuck around for most or all of the game, however, reported more alarmingly junked-up writing. In the past, that would have been the end of it — a disappointing new entry in a much-loved series. But as the games industry has normalized patching problems, expanding experiences with DLC, and yes, putting out partially finished games on Early Access, Andromeda isn’t done. It’s still working out what kind of game it will continue to exist as, in antiquity. The glitches and faces have been smoothed over. The multiplayer is still being balanced — just like most any multiplayer modes ever. More than that, though, major characters and plot points are being cast in entirely new light, all thanks to the flip of a patch.

Mass Effect: Andromeda was rightly criticized for ham-fisted character introductions like this one.

Mass Effect: Andromeda was (rightly) criticized for ham-fisted character introductions like this one.

In Dead Cells, that kind of change could drip naturally into the flow of its repeated “runs.” To see it in Andromeda, I’d need to have started the game right around the time that developer Bioware fixed its flubs. In fact, thanks to poor early word-of-mouth on the game, that’s exactly what I chose to do. While I happily played a game like Dead Cells that didn’t even claim to be finished, I chose to wait months after Andromeda was already out just to start it.

I know! It’s that double-standard I mentioned before. But it’s one born out of a conflict between two things many publishers and developers want their games to be. They want to hang onto the familiar, marketably recognizable stories that emulate film. Yet they also want to enjoy the benefits of endless, ever-changing games: to be able to fix problems and make improvements after they already have players’ money, and increasingly, continue to extract it through season passes, subscriptions, and microtransactions.

Of course, games have almost always been mutable. Decades ago, fighting games went through balance changes with replacement arcade machines. Cartridge-based games would have game-breaking bugs removed in subsequent printings. The particular way this rolling design affects changes to game stories, however, also changes the best — the most natural and efficient — ways of telling those stories.

These days, most triple-A games do not ship a la carte. Every game is expected to have a whole suite of add-ons and expansions rolled out over time.

These days, most triple-A games are expected to have a whole suite of add-ons and expansions rolled out over time.

No matter how many times someone who beat pre-patch Mass Effect: Andromeda replays it, they’ll never change that original experience. Subsequent playthroughs may be much improved, but they’ll always be attempts to overwrite history, instead of add to it. With more diffuse storytelling in more repeatable games, however, the tale can naturally change in the telling. Suddenly, additional NPC dialogue is just adding layers to the characters, which I get to peel back by playing the game as intended over time.

It even fits with the design direction more and more games are adopting. It’s not just indies like Dead Cells that encourage repeat play. Every major publisher wants their “evergreen game” — a singular product players can play and spend money on for years to come. Destiny, Rainbow Six: Siege, League of Legends, Overwatch, Bioware’s own upcoming loot shooter Anthem, and more games than it will ever make sense to try and list: all follow in similar footsteps.

With more diffuse storytelling in more repeatable games, the tale can naturally change in the telling.

So we’ve got the rolling development. We’ve got the desire for (or at least the reality of) more games meant to be played until we die. As more games continue to embrace, refine, and accept that these shifting structures, I want to see a shift in the default method of storytelling in games, to match. Subtlety, inference, and room for me to interpret clues and information over time will keep me engaged with a “never-ending” game far longer than a definite beginning, middle, and end.

It may not fix my double-standard dilemma. I’ll never give the same “free pass” to stories that aren’t bullish on their own execution, and aren’t structured to smoothly adapt over time. For those games that absolutely require a linear narrative, that’s up to a confident and well-executed story that the developers want to tell. Yet it will normalize the right kinds of stories for the right kinds of games, not just the way they’re packaged and made. In time, that might just solve the problem before it happens.