Friday, December 5, 2008

Don't Show, Don't Tell

When someone asks "Why is writing in video games so bad?" the standard response is failure to follow the writing maxim "show, don't tell." I'm not buying it anymore. From Donkey Kong's opening cutscene to Left 4 Dead's tutorial, there have always been a number of games that understand the importance of showing.

The point of the "show" directive is it's generally better at conveying emotions than telling. That justification is useful for figuring out when telling might be better than showing in a book or film. So approaching video games, we need to ask - do you actually get much more emotional impact from watching a prerecorded cinematic, even if it does "show" instead of "tell"? Final Fantasy IX had an unexpected level of maturity in the direction of its cinematic scenes, but to people who already didn't like Japanese menu-driven cutscene-heavy RPGs there wasn't much more appeal.

When it comes to games, we don't want to show or tell - we want to do.

Do, or do not.
"Show" is boring.

I play a lot of horror games, which is a genre that figured out "show, don't tell" long ago. But Baroque, a horror roguelike, managed to trigger more controller-gripping moments than any of the recent Resident Evil or Silent Hill installments because it does as much as it shows. The player is dropped in a grotesque confusing world and given choices you have no information about - but the character is in exactly the same situation. As the character's abilities and knowledge grow, so does the player's, a narrative feedback loop that complements the Japanese roguelike numerical growth loop. (Awesome graph from John Harris in @Play.) The character's emotions are easily translated to the player because the player is doing something similar to the character. This kind of opportunity is absent from a film, where there's no interaction (in Baroque's case, mostly exploration).

An example from a more mainstream game is James Clinton Howell's analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2. Dense enough I can hardly summarize it, it frames the game's timeline as the relationship between player objectives and avatar objectives. When Raiden is frustrated at his inability to kill Vamp so is the player; when Raiden is naked and powerless the player's choices at each encounter are reduced; when Raiden breaks free of his personal hangups the player's formal abilities change and grow.

How can this actually improve games that already do a good job of "showing"? The romance between Zidane and Garnet, the primary and secondary protagonists in FFIX, is one of the key plot elements. It's told with a surprising amount of subtlety and nuance for an otherwise by-the-numbers Japanese RPG. For most of the game the player identifies with Zidane, and so is meant to feel some degree of romantic longing/attachment for Garnet. But Garnet is a fixed object, and if spunky black-haired princesses aren't your type, that emotion is missing and Zidane remains "that guy I'm watching" rather than "that guy I'm acting as". If the player had some indirect control over Garnet's dialogue and appearance (through in-narrative cues rather than a "girlfriend creator" at the start), the attachment is more likely to stick.

1 comment:

Karl said...

I know it was just an example, but I'd be kind of worried about any game from Japan that let the player tweak the personality traits of a single female character who was designated the main male character's love interest. It would be interesting if this was done for several significant characters (with villains and rivals and mentors also tailored to how you interact with the world), but I can't help but feel that the romance aspect would push the game into creepy territory.

Then again, I may not have identified with them super-heavily, but Zidane and Garnet worked pretty well for me. Way better than Squall and Rinoa or Tidus and Yuna, whose romances were unfortunately far more emphasized.

Not sure if I've mentioned this to you before, but the Suikodens, to varying degrees, do a pretty good job at at least faking a feeling of doing over showing, despite having plots that are (mostly, but not completely) set in stone. II is the best at this, at least in my opinion, and it's mostly subtle things: people remember your responses to seemingly unimportant prompts, and you have to go through a sort of "morning routine" regardless of how dramatic the previous plot event might have been. It's certainly not enough to satisfy the die-hard PC gamer with a love of absolute freedom, but it made things pretty engaging for me.