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  • The Writing Game: Play, Don't Show

    - Gregory Pellechi

  • Introducing New Worlds

    The rule of "play, don't show" is not as strictly enforced by critics as it so often is with other media. Part of that may be the fact that video games are quite young comparatively and have yet to put down tried and tested rules for their creation. But it still warrants further examination. My first thought on this rule is it's inherently hard to follow, given there's a certain amount of knowledge that a player has to take in, especially if they're playing an RPG or a game with a character that has a backstory and experience in the world.

    There's a lot to learn about the world and a character's place in it, not to mention the tutorial elements that the game has to get across to a player. Which is why most games simply choose to tell the player of their history and place in the universe. Both Battletech and Mass Effect do this very thing during the character creation process. Other games, most notably Fable, have the player actually play through the character creation as a tutorial that introduces the player to the world and the role of the character. But that's rare.

    My favorite game to talk about Firewatch, finds an interesting middle ground to this dilemma. Introducing the world and the player character of Henry along with basic tutorials through a combination of direct exposition, choose-your-own-adventure sequences and 3D exploration. It's effective and moving for its brevity, even if it goes against the rule of "play, don't show."

    Then again for most of it, it doesn't even it show, but tells you the player what Henry's history is. So maybe it just goes full circle on the whole idea of such rules! It's so good at playing that it loops around to telling! Just kidding. Firewatch can tell us something because it's so well written and made. But that's always the case, and the argument for learning the rules - when you know them is when you can break them.

    Items in games pose a particular problem for the whole "play, don't show" idea, especially in games like League of Legends or The Witcher 3, where an individual item can have an incremental effect on the player character but no visual impact other than something purely cosmetic. Path of Exile is better at adhering to this rule given the gems one sockets into armor and weapons often have both a cosmetic or visual effect as well as a gameplay effect. So by switching gems in a mace your character may now start to do ice damage whereas before they did fire damage. This is shown by a blue particle effect when you swing the weapon and in game place because now enemies become frozen and stop attacking you.

    The trouble with "play, don't show" comes down to the game systems at play. If we're meant to show we're damaging an enemy, how is that supposed to play? Is their behavior meant to change? What about their appearance and animations? Are health bars appropriate? What about damage numbers such as we see in Borderlands 2?

    The Future Of Play

    Games are attempting to impart a lot of information about their world to the player and not all of it is playable. Be that because of game design, time and production constraints, story, or the limits of the technology and medium. Maybe virtual, augmented or mixed reality games will be able to solve this issue and allow for one to be truly "play, don't show" but the likelihood of that is slim. Not just because of the aforementioned amount of data that needs to be shared with the player, but because of the inherited design expectations.

    There isn't always the need to reinvent the wheel, and that's true for lots of things. Even if technically that's what happens every time a game is programmed. From a design standpoint though, it's smart to create something a player will already be familiar with. Fifteen years separate Halo and Firewatch but did Campo Santo reinvent how to move in a first-person perspective video game? No. They went with the tried and true design. And yes I know Halo was not the first game to do so either, it's simply the game that popularized the method.

    And that's the thing - designs become popular. They inspire. They create new genres. They lead to advance mechanics. They become the basis for stories. So not all games will even strive for the idea of pure "play, don't show" unlike other mediums which strive towards the idea of "show, don't tell". Finding what's right for each game is up to the team behind it. As writers, we can help address those issues by asking questions about how characters in the world are meant to know things like where their food comes from, or why a particular weapon is better than another. If we're not asking then there can't be any answers.


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