Games: Don’t Show, Don’t Tell
If you’ve been paying attention to computer games for any length of time, you will at some point have heard a development team lose at least 60% of the run of themselves over how breathtakingly cinematic their upcoming project is going to be. They’re proud of this, the dears: proud of what a spectacle it’ll be, proud of the shouty sub-Bay posturings that pass for plot, proud of how little actual game they’ll have to wedge in between their insufferable cutscenes. Games so often bend over backwards to imitate film, and why? No other medium seems to suffer from this anxiety. Opening up War & Peace doesn’t mean a chamber orchestra suddenly piles into your house. When you sit down to watch a Bond film, you don’t get an encyclopaedia article about MI5 shoved in your face. Every medium has its own particular strengths, so why not play to them?
In a good and ideal world what we’d have is games that tried their hardest to be games. Not just games most of the time, not just games between the bits where they tell you what’s going on–just games. This doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Pong and Dig-Dug, to raw mechanics of input and reward, because games can be much more than that. Games have vast potential as a storytelling medium, potential that remains mostly untapped in a marketplace that values the interactive blockbuster above all else.
An example. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare games are pure Hollywood, full of things exploding while big gruff men run around doing big gruff things, while the player by and large sits back and takes it all in. On anything but the highest difficulties you barely even need to fire a shot, because your (big, gruff) squadmates will take care of enemies and obstacles for you, while you get merrily railroaded from setpiece to setpiece and mission briefing to mission briefing and those final ten triumphant minutes of end credits that make it all worthwhile. Conversely, Valve’s 1998 masterpiece Half-Life puts you in the sensible shoes of a science worker in the Black Mesa Research Facility, has you push the button that makes everything go to shit, then throws its hands up and lets you sort it all out. As in Modern Warfare, there’s effectively only one solution and one road to the end, but there are no cutscenes and the game never takes control from you. Instead of aping cinema, instead of planting a story down in front of you and making you watch, Half-Life puts you in a world where a story is taking place and lets you experience it for yourself. Everything you know about the world, you know because you lived it.
The key is the light touch, giving players cues in the environment and dialogue rather than constantly pulling them aside to get them up to speed. Black Mesa felt like a real place (even if it the layout didn’t make the most sense on sober reflection), and the way the game progressed from a panicked escape from ground zero to a focused attempt at fixing the problem you caused felt natural, like a course of action you chose rather than one imposed by some behind-the-scenes puppetmaster. This despite the game’s linearity, and the fact that the story doesn’t change no matter how many times you play it. The crucial difference is that Valve didn’t write a story and then layer interactivity on top of it: they started from the basis of an interactive medium, and built a story up from there.
If Half-Life has a light touch, From Software’s Dark Souls has one that’s practically ethereal. There’s an insecurity inherent in many games, a sense of worry that unless you hold his or her hand the player will rush through and miss things, or just outright ignore the story. Dark Souls gets around this by simply not giving anything even remotely related to a shit. There’s a huge, detailed world you can explore, whole systems and hierarchies of flora and fauna, forests and ruins pregnant with history and myth, and the game hands you precisely none of it. You can glean some details from talking to the (generally reticent) NPCs, and the descriptions of the items you pick up will sometimes add a bit of flavour, but by and large the game all but ignores your presence. You’re not special–you’re just some jerk wandering around in dirty rags, hitting things with a stick, most likely dying every few minutes. And it is glorious. The amount you know or don’t know, the degree of intent behind what you do, your sense of what’s going on in the world, it’s all up to you, and it’s all the more engaging for it.
There are ways of guiding a player’s attention, of course, ways of getting them to want to do what you want them to do, but nevertheless, when you structure a game the way Valve and From do, you’re relinquishing some control. You’re ultimately putting the player in charge of the story, and it’s easy to see why that might give an author pause. But that kind of loose, audience-driven narrative can be incredibly gratifying when it’s done right, and it’s an experience that simply can’t be duplicated in any other medium. It’s unique, and how terrible it is that it’s so often squandered in favour of cheaper thrills. Developers, please: get out of the multiplex, and give us our games back.