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  • The Writing Game: Play, Don't Show

    - Gregory Pellechi

  • This isn't something solely Martin does, lots of authors do it. The funny thing is that games tend to hide such information dumps. In some games they're in the form of encyclopedias or other means of reference such as in the Civilization games, or Mass Effect. Games like Dragon Age and Destiny have more story-focused lore references. And then there's games like Skyrim with it's hundreds of books. These are systems that don't need to be viewed for play, and generally just convey extra details with little in terms of tutorialization. Some games like Destiny went so far as to not even have them in the game, rather the Grimoire Cards had to be accessed online or through an app.

    Aesthetic and production choices aside, the inclusion of that information never informs gameplay or the story being told, similar to novels. The removal or separation of that information is an aspect of games that novelists could learn from, padding their books out with a glossary, encyclopedia or other reference guide to help confused readers or lovers of lore. But where games haven't learned from novels or movies and TV is to cut certain actions. Characters move from place to place, time to time, with little need to show the interviewing time or space. Games, however struggle with this.

    Open world games like Watch Dogs 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn, GTA, etc. are notoriously bad at this. You don't immediately jump to the next beat in a mission, but have to travel there across increasingly larger world maps that don't allow you to fast travel during story missions. L.A. Noire was cited as one of the worst examples of this very thing. Though it's from relatively early in the the history of open world games, its monotony of driving through empty streets should be reason enough to cut that part of the game. If not entirely then in part.

    The rule of "show, don't tell" can be argued every which way, and the amount of acceptable exposition changes with time and culture. Look at older books, like Shogun and the rest of the Asian Saga by James Clavell for example. There are countless times in those books, of which I've only read Shogun and Tai-Pan, where things are stated and not shown. Details are shared to the reader with little concern over whether or not it affects the pace.

    And if you want a prime example of why you should follow the rule of "show, don't tell" look at Suicide Squad according to Andrew Walsh - "Blow by blow, each moment of the film is narrated with direct exposition. The film, has other issues (the desperate need to explain that bad people are actually good underneath), but the failure to trust in the story and actors to explain the narrative is where the problems start."

    So no medium is ever without its issues when it comes to the concept of "show, don't tell." But by and large it's a solid concept. The key is knowing when to follow it and when to break it. But that's true for every rule.

    Play Don't Show

    Games have the added caveat of "play, don't show." Which immediately brings to mind the question of whether or not a game should ever use cut-scenes. I'm not going to debate the issue and come down on one side or the other, as each instance has its own needs.

    It's like beginning a film with narration, generally it's considered poor form to do so. But there are movies which do that very thing and succeed. Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper does just that. Games like Half-Life and Half-Life 2 forego cutscenes and choose instead to always keep the player in the perspective of the character.

    But not all games are in a first-person perspective, just like not all novels are, and fewer TV shows or movies are. The most recent God of War for example is always in third person, as players view the world from over Kratos' shoulder. The game never breaks from this perspective, whether going into the inventory or during scenes between characters where the player does not have control. It's similar to what Half-Life has done but with different challenges technologically.

    Halo is a great example of a game that switches perspective based upon an in-game interaction - namely driving vehicles - and that uses cutscenes. Whether that throws some people out of the fantasy of being a super soldier is ultimately a personal one, because regardless of that fact it's still an involving game that does a lot of things right and well. Of course I have a great love for it.


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