Dear Videogames, Stop Telling Me Everything

By Nathan Grayson on August 29th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

When I beat the absolutely wonderful Thirty Flights Of Loving over the weekend, I had precisely one immediate reaction: “Wait, what just happened?” I cannot even begin to tell you how much that excites me. But then I decided to write an article about it, largely because one of my greatest passions in life is defying nonsencial figures of speech. At any rate, Thirty Flights Of Loving packs loads of information into not-even-30-minutes with hardly any dialog or exposition. But, in some ways, it’s even more of a supposed “un-game” than, say, Modern Warfare 3. I mean, all agency is illusory. Without spoiling anything (note: that’ll happen a little bit after the break), you’re along for the ride – and that’s it. In a couple bits, it doesn’t even matter where you walk. The game will just jump-cut you to your intended location.

So why is it one of my absolute favorite games – and yes, I one hundred percent believe it’s a game – of the year? Because it made me think about what happened. No, scratch that. It required me to think.

This is, however, an example other games could stand to crib a note or two from – conceptually, if not literally. Most videogame stories feel the need to Spell. Out. Every. Last. Detail. The industry’s mass market now, after all. Wouldn’t want the unwashed masses turning their puny peanut brains into pretzels with some kind of ignorance-powered alchemy. But Thirty Flights Of Loving really isn’t that complex. It’s just detail-rich and open to interpretation.

This is the same reason that movies like Inception have resonated with such gigantic audiences. I mean, Inception was a smart film, but it wasn’t that smart. It was, however, positively brilliant at inviting the audience to take an active role in its consumption of the plot – right up to that oh-so-iconic ending. And that, in turn, made viewers feel like goddamn geniuses. Now, the gaming industry’s afraid of adding subtle curves to the yarns it spins for fear of alienating the lowest common denominator. But here’s a secret: everyone in the entire world likes feeling smart. Conversely, no one enjoys being treated like they’re stupid. And most people have a pretty good sense of when they’re being talked down to. You fucking lackwit.

It goes further than that, though. The other benefit of leaving stories just open enough is a certain sense of mystique and possibility. I don’t know everything about the world, and that’s the point. My brain fills in the gaps of what it perceives as this giant, fully fleshed out place – even when, in Thirty Flights Of Loving’s case, the developers only really constructed a handful of rooms. Hhere’s what I did immediately following the first time the credits, er… well, they exactly roll. Let’s just say that. Anyway, I didn’t miss a beat. The whirlwind tale of love, loss, espionage, and box people ended, and I jumped right back in for a second go-round. Why? Because there were a hundred details both big and small that I wasn’t entirely clear on, but I was right on the verge of knowing. Or at least, that’s how it felt. Thirty Flights Of Loving had given me this tiny slice of its universe, but there’s so much meat on those seemingly emaciated bones. So much to explore and dig into and understand and speculate about and obsess over. So then I played it a third time, and I picked apart each environment to really soak up what Blendo Games had created. And then I went through with developer’s commentary enabled.

Now, here’s the key bit: Thirty Flights Of Loving isn’t that complex of a story. Rather, it says just what it needs to with incredible confidence, dramatically drops its microphone, and then saunters off stage. And then the crowd begins to murmur. “Who was that in the flashback? Why did so-and-so A point a gun at so-and-so B? And oh goodness, what was the actual meaning of, well, the title?” In my case, I slowly but surely pieced many of those bits together. And I felt smart for doing it. That was my real participation. That was the game. Was it a story-based game or a game-based story? That question’s irrelevant. It was an amazing, incredibly unique experience either way.

Dear Esther pulled off a similar feat earlier this year – albeit, by taking an entirely different approach. Still though, it handed players tiny, randomly ordered narrative scraps and asked us to sow them into a meticulously interwoven tapestry. Except actually, it didn’t ask at all. But players just did it, because that’s how the human brain works. We like stories and patterns. So we seek them out even where they may not be fully formed – or even exist at all. And then thechineseroom tossed in randomly appearing ghosts, which only heaped fuel on players’ speculative fires and added to the world’s mystique. Again, the story was open. It was, in large part, the game. Taken in conjunction with the option to explore and digest the world as we saw fit, it created a perfect environment for both building this all-consuming curiosity and slowly but surely sating it.

Compare that to the supposed pinnacle of videogame storytelling at this point: player-driven choices. Sure, we get to shape a game’s outcome, but it is – to my mind – oftentimes damaging to the creation of a believable setting. After all, there’s a series of predetermined resolutions, and it’s not terribly difficult to see the puppet master working the strings in the background. We’ve got a constant barrage of bars and meters and paragons and renegades and alignments. Or, failing those, blatantly obvious “choice” moments. Cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect. It’s all so mechanical and telegraphed – like, well, a videogame. And, on some level, it makes sense. I mean, players have shown a tendency to get pretty upset when, say, a character dies or they don’t get the ending they want. Without a clear roadmap toward setting things right, it’d be pretty easy to say, “Well, great. I just wasted 60 hours.”

So developers lay all their cards on the table. Because then we, as players, have power and control (or at least, the illusion of it) – which is, admittedly, what many people are looking for when they buy these games. But personally, I really like not knowing every last thing. Even in the case of narrative-altering choices, I think it crafts a far more interesting, emotionally involving story. The vagueness of cause-and-effect in games like Metro 2033 and Lone Survivor really made me stick to a set of convictions I actually believed in – as opposed to a set that would mold the plot and my character’s abilities as I saw fit. In Lone Survivor, for instance, I ended up making the majority of my decisions based on what’d make my character happy and healthy, because it really put me in a bad place to see someone so wretchedly, hopelessly, gut-twistingly miserable.

Don’t get me wrong: I also love suiting up in Shepard’s increasingly glowy armor and feeling safe in the knowledge that I can plot a course straight to space-saving sainthood. Similarly, there are plenty of times when I just want to sit down, curl up in a blanket, and have each and every drop of a plot spoonfed to me. But I think there’s also plenty of room for games that strike a better balance between straightforward and open-to-interpretation. And I think it’s even possible for the industry’s oft-sought “wider audiences” to really connect with stories that pull it off.

So that’s that, then. I have now spelled out my thoughts on the topic of vagueness in excruciating, lengthy detail. As such, this seems as pertinent time as any to offer the following incredibly universal life advice: Do what I say, not what I do.

, , , , , .

142 Comments »

  1. mikmanner says:

    This is also what I like about Dark Souls, everything is vaguely suggested but not explained.

    • antoniodamala says:

      Yes, and it is such a big world that let you wondering and dreaming.

      Other one i liked for the openness of interpretation was Binding Of Isaac, which i finished yesterday, every ending makes you create a new theory, it’s great.

    • Bauul says:

      My thoughts exactly. I especially liked the way the story developed into a metaphore for the 2008 US Presidential race.

    • Beartastic says:

      I was just waiting for the reference to Dark Souls.

      Pendant.

    • JackShandy says:

      I was just about to say that. It’s so weird that Dark Souls never tells you where to go. You start off and there’s this creepy guy nearby saying “Hey, I hear if you ring these two bells, something will happen. Brilliant, right?” That’s the most direction you get!

      It seems crazy at first, but you end up feeling like you’re being treated like a grown-up. The game doesn’t tell you about the great rewards you’re going to get, and when you succeed at a task it doesn’t even give you a pat-on-the-back cutscene. You feel satisfied because you actually accomplished an incredible task, not because it tells you that you did.

      The game itself is compelling enough that it doesn’t need to support itself. That’s one of the best lessons Dark Souls has to offer: Stop telling me how epic I am and just let me get on with it.

    • D3xter says:

      So does this mean that there’ll be some articles discussing that game then? xD Still waiting.
      Been playing it nonstop the last few days.

    • Torn says:

      Dark Souls does so many things right, and it, along with Demon’s Souls, are two of the best and most refreshing games I have ever played.

      The amazingly responsive combat, the unique moveset each weapon has, the map design, the enemies, the coop, the PVP, the crafting, the builds, the bosses (oh, the bosses!)… I could go on forever extolling its virtues.

      If RPS don’t say it’s one of the best games ever despite the simple port not offering the various graphical bells and whistles PC gamers have come to expect I’ll have an anyeurism. And start a Dark Souls fanboy support group.

    • mikmanner says:

      Dark Souls: Assume nothing, expect everything.

    • derbefrier says:

      its awesome. I love the game its been a hard week having to choose between this and GW2. I decided to alternate daily (today is a darksouls day). I simply love this game bad port and all. Its too good to simply pass up and thanks to the mod community its even more enjoyable now.

  2. Casimir Effect says:

    Some people like to have a whole story with no questions left, so there’s nothing wrong with games which tell you everything. I’m in the middle and like both types.

    Also, it tends to be harder to do the whole Enigmatic Ending thing well. I can think of a number of games where the plot tries to be deliberately scant and obtuse, but fails to be compelling or smart.

    • frightlever says:

      Right, horses for courses.

      I don’t really blame games journos getting excited about a little art project like TFoL (just remember it’s more like a five minute game before all the gush persuades you to buy it. Youtube a playthrough.) It must be boring to play thematically similar games time and again – thing is, most people don’t get to play that many games so they’re perfectly happy with mass market games.

      I will say this, the above article is fairly contradictory and way too long for the point it’s trying to make.

      • Ragnar says:

        That kind of makes me think of movie critics. Movie critics watch so many films that anything that follows a traditional story or structure quickly becomes boring, and everything that is unusual and different is immediately refreshing and exciting. Which is why some of my favorite movies are merely rated “good”, while some movies that are rated “great” I hated and never want to watch again.

        I feel it must be that way with game journalists / reviewers too. For example, I rather enjoyed Modern Warfare 2. Sure, it didn’t make any sense, but it had so much excitement and action that I didn’t care. It makes me think that I would probably enjoy MW3 as well. But the FPS games I played went Half Life 2, Bioshock, MW2, then MW1. Had I played MW1 first, as every journalist had, perhaps I too would have felt that MW2 is merely more of the same, yet lesser. If I played a Call of Duty game every year, as journalists have for the past 6 years, perhaps I’d be pretty fed up with them too and eagerly looking fore something, anything, that’s different and feels fresh.

        [Edit] Just read John’s review of MW3, and I can see that bothering me too. I played through the first three levels of MW2 on hard, and realized that I wasn’t having much fun because every encounter was basically “hide behind the invulnerable AI and have them kill everything or get insta-killed.” I’m fine with non-interactive games, like visual novels, but I don’t want to “play” an FPS where I watch the AI do all the shooting while I hide in the corner. Un-game indeed.

    • Premium User Badge

      ffordesoon says:

      I’d put Mass Effect 3′s original ending in the category of “tried for mysterious and mind-blowing, ended up pointlessly obtuse and frustrating.”

      I’m sure someone else has mentioned that already, but I think it’s important to highlight why it was so disappointing, if only so someone reading this won’t make the same mistake. Basically, it didn’t work because the whole rest of the trilogy – and every other Bioware game, more or less – is very explicit about what’s happening at any given moment – often too explicit, in my opinion, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, every moment in the games up to the final fifteen minutes of the final installment trains the audience to believe that those final fifteen minutes will be similarly explicit – and then you get there, and all of a sudden you have no idea what’s happening or why, and the only reading that makes any sense is too depressing and frustrating and out-of-nowhere for Bioware to have done it deliberately.

      Now, the simple, glib way to interpret the reaction would be something like, “If you start out like Star Wars, don’t end like Lost.” And that’s not a bad lesson. However, I think it needs a bit more nuance, because some stories have managed to pull off a transformation on that level. The Wire starts out as an unusually socially aware crime story and ends as a staggering critique of the whole of American society. Breaking Bad slowly transforms its protagonist into its antagonist, and the protagonist’s fans into the antagonist’s enablers. Et cetera. Star Wars into Lost? It’s tough, but you could potentially pull it off.

      So what I say is this: if you’re going to start out as Star Wars and end up as Lost, prepare the audience for that transformation as you go along. As opposed to, you know, having ninety-nine percent of the story be Star Wars, and then Luke Skywalker turns out to be a doped-up mental patient and Darth Vader is his cat and GOODNIGHT EVERYBODY, and you’re like, “Oh, [i]bullshit[/i]!” You know?

      NOTE: Star Wars and Lost are just shorthand examples of the types of stories I’m referring to, and probably not even the most apt ones. I hope the general point isn’t lost (ohoho!) on you all, though.

      • NathanH says:

        Good post!

      • Brun says:

        One note I’d like to make:

        You mention stories making radical transformations – specifically you mentioned The Wire and Breaking Bad. While I’m unfamiliar with the details of either show, I do know that they are both TV shows. TV shows that have run for multiple seasons and have a large number of total episodes.

        And that brings up my point – I think that one of the key factors in making the kind of radical transformation you describe is spreading it out. The fact that the change is done slowly over five or six seasons (with 10 or 12 hours of content per season) means that it can be done gradually – more gradually than is possible in a trilogy of 2 hour movies. This, I think, is why you rarely see that kind of transformation in movies, and to a lesser extent, in games. You just don’t have enough time to pull the transformation off in a way that doesn’t jar your audience.

        • NathanH says:

          Interesting thoughts. On the other hand I’ve always thought that Mass Effect is quite like a TV series in some ways, certainly if I had to adapt it to anything I’d choose a TV series. But I suppose one thing is that you still play Mass Effect in a big lump. I suspect though it was the sort of game that could, if any game could, pull off such a transformation. If they’d decided to do the transformation right at the start of development, rather than right at the end…

        • Premium User Badge

          ffordesoon says:

          Fair point. Thing is, Mass Effect had the required amount of time: an average playthrough of any one of the games is about twenty-five hours, yes? I wouldn’t know, since I’m one of those guys who has to do everything, but let’s say that’s the case.

          That’s seventy-five hours of main-story-only play. If we go by the standard of ad-supported American television, wherein an episode of a given hour-long network drama is roughly forty-five minutes per installment, that’s around four and a half seasons of television. Even allowing for a large chunk of time spent shooting dudes and otherwise doing stuff that’s not particularly relevant to the narrative, that’s a huge chunk of your audience’s time. That’s certainly enough time to at least prepare your audience for less straightforward things like Magical Ghost Kid – though I agree with Richard Cobbett that Magical Ghost Children and Space Magic will never not seem desperately silly, particularly in a science fiction universe.

          EDIT: I do agree with what you’re saying, to be clear. Just saying that Mass Effect had the time.

    • The Random One says:

      There’s nothing wrong with games that tell you everything. There’s also nothing wrong with games that boil down to ‘man violently stabs/shoots other men rar’. The problem isn’t that those types of games exist, it’s that they currently dominate the industry.

  3. Flukie says:

    Yep, just because we have the technology to tell players things doesn’t mean they have to, for example RPG stats, why can’t we tell how the character feels from his expression/appearance/thoughts rather than a line showing me what level I have and how evil I am.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      I think even hiding numbers can have a positive effect on how people play. I’m convinced that part of the problem with games like the battlefield series, FPSs that try to promote team play, is that individual stats like Kill/Death ratio are a lot more visible than Win/Lose ratio. Same with the likes of Mass Effect, because of the visible paragon/renegade and they associations they bring people are encouraged to min/max rather than think it though or go with their gut.

      • Ragnar says:

        For RPGs, I prefer hiding the immediate effects of your choices, but letting you view your stats on the character screen. In other words, instead of making it obvious what the effect of a given choice is, such as in Mass Effect, I prefer that you let the player make what they feel is the most appropriate choice, and then they can look on their character sheet and see if they’re more Renegade or Paragon.

        Like Dragon Age: Origins, for example. The dialog choices you make influence your companion’s opinion, but don’t know what choices will necessarily lead to what (particularly with Morrigan). Likewise with the quests. Same goes for some of the quest choices you make.

        Witcher obviously did this by not having a stat you can check, and by delaying the effect of your choices until farther into the game.

        It sadly wouldn’t work for Mass Effect because you don’t actually chose dialog. When your conversation choices is limited to Renegade or Paragon, there’s no way to hide the stat effect from the choice.

        • Baines says:

          Having “Renegade” and “Paragon” is one of the problems with how player choice is executed. They tend to reduce choices to “good” or “selfish/bad.” They tend to lead to rewards for being an extreme (special quests, events, items, achievements, etc), and more specifically no reason to (realistically) waffle around part-way doing good in some cases and being selfish or evil in others based on circumstances or personal opinion.

          You end up with a “morality” system built on the idea of being gamed by players.

          The Witcher was better with choices that had no “right” answer. Even if you replayed the game, you’d see that taking the other option wasn’t necessarily “better” or “worse”, just different. Don’t help the downtrodden people and they die. Help the downtrodden people and they kill other people, but neither side is actually “good”. Judge the witch and bad stuff happens, save her and she lives, but from what I recall you never get direct confirmation of whether or not she was truly guilty (and even if she was guilty, she might have been guilty of only part of the various claims).

          • NathanH says:

            The paragon and renegade points were indeed a bad system. It’s quite a frustrating feature, actually, because Mass Effect is one of the few dialogue tree games where you can go through the game choosing pretty much any combination of paragon, renegade, and moderate options, and the character generated by these choices is pretty consistent. In most games, doing this makes you look totally insane. Mass Effect avoids this by having all the options pretty consistent with the protagonist’s personality, just emphasizing different aspect.

            Then they go and ruin it by incentivizing “paragon playthroughs” and “renegade playthroughs”. The games are far more interesting if you don’t make your decisions based on “I am paragon, so I choose paragon”. But that is actually bad play, at least until you max one of the meters.

            It could easily have been fixed by making the meters useless for gameplay purposes, just there for information. Another possibility would have been “diplomat” persuasion options based on a low difference between your two scores, or “professional” persuasion options based on having one or both of the scores low enough rather than high enough.

          • InternetBatman says:

            I think that the comparison between the Witcher and ME fails a little bit, because in one you’re talking about an in-game system that is affected by narrative, and the other is the narrative itself. The Paragon/Renegade system is bad, but that doesn’t mean that changing all the decisions in Mass Effect to morally ambiguous choices is the right decision. I think that if you make things too morally ambiguous, like the Witcher did, you the narrative is just as distant from reality as when you make things too black and white.

          • The Random One says:

            NathanH really strikes the problem with the meter system – they encourage you to ‘game’ it rather than simply narrating through it. Instead of stopping to think what you believe should be done in a spiny moral situation, you try to read what the developer’s thoughts were so you can gain more points in whatever it is you want to gain points in.

            Of course you don’t HAVE to game the system, but since your narrative choices are also limited by your score in those stats, there’s a pretty evil feedback loop in there.

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      I had a big argument about this on another site when I argued that RPGs would be stronger if they had fewer (or no) naked numbers, and adapted to suit this. I think the answer is that it depends. If your system can give the player enough feedback to say whether weapon A is better suited to a situation than weapon B then great, but if not numbers are a good shorthand for expressing measurable differences.

      That said, hiding the illusion that you are interacting with a numerical system is important for immersion in games, so if you want immersion then removing the obviously gamey elements like numbers is a good thing.

      • tetracycloide says:

        I think that’s a very narrow reading of what ‘immersion’ means. For many players adding numbers aids immersion because they facilitate immersion in the game’s systems. When you can’t tell what’s happening with the underlying gameplay it can be a very jarring experience if the feedback that is provided isn’t done exceptionally well.

        • NathanH says:

          Quite right. I’ve never been a legendary warrior or powerful wizard in a random fantasy world that I know nothing about, so I really need plenty of information in order to be able to act and feel like a legendary warrior or powerful wizard.

          Also, if I don’t have enough information about the game system, I can’t define my characters in meaningful ways. I can just guess and hope for the best.

        • Dervish says:

          “It’s actually less immersive if you do it badly” is irrelevant because the question is which is more immersive in the ideal case, i.e. in principle.

          • NathanH says:

            In the ideal case, a game pumps pure pleasure into my head for all eternity.

            Also the argument being made is not “it’s bad if you do it badly”, it’s “it’s bad if you do it badly, and not doing it badly is really really hard”.

            Finally, the original statement was ” if you want immersion then removing the obviously gamey elements like numbers is a good thing”, which seems much less of an ideal-world argument and more of a general-case argument.

          • Premium User Badge

            ffordesoon says:

            @Dervish:

            Nothing’s ever going to be an ideal case. It’s pointless to hold anything to that standard, and also incredibly limiting.

            @everyone:

            Is “I hate numbers because immersion!” really where we’re at now? No, not every game benefits from them – Dead Island sure as hell didn’t. But that’s as much about presentation and confusion about what the hell kind of game it wanted to be as anything. You don’t put in photorealistic real-time first-person dismemberment in your game and then have magical numbers fly out of the top of a zombie’s head whenever you hit one, especially when they tell you “Hey, you’re too low-level to use this very sharp machete to cut this easily dismembered zombie’s arm off! Come back when you’re level fifteen” That’s dumb, because the numbers feel like an arbitrary restriction that adds nothing to the design and actually negates the visceral thrill the amputation system is supposed to provide.

            But numbers can be very fun when the design of the game supports them. Take VATS in the recent Fallout games, for example. Deciding whether to shoot a thing in the leg or the head is not necessarily the most meaningful or deep decision you’re going to make over the course of the game, but it allows for a deeper, more tactical experience than a pure shooter. You may not be able to hit something in the head from the range you’re at, but you can hit in the leg and maybe cripple it, which will slow it down and make it easier to hit as it gets closer. Or the bullet might miss; there’s always that risk. Or maybe you won’t hit it hard enough to cripple it.

            And yeah, I suppose there could be an interesting shooter with location-specific damage that might welcome that level of calculation, but most people would probably just shoot the enemies until they died and move on, because that’s how things work in a shooter. That’s part of the reason Bulletstorm didn’t sell well, as far as I’m concerned; the game tries to be a linear, story-driven shooter and a goofball murder-playground, but neither style supports the other very well, and the player’s confused and annoyed as a result.

            Whereas allowing you to stop and plan your shots, complete with life bars and to-hit chances for each limb, elegantly reinforces the idea that this game is an RPG first and foremost, and so you’re encouraged to kill creatively.

            I confess, I personally find immersion a rather tedious ideal to aspire to, on the whole. I get it, and I’m not going to deny the idea has its merits, but it always strikes me as rather misguided. I would say Dark Souls is a fantastically immersive game, and it’s based quite firmly in numerical advancement. The reason it works so well is the reason any game works that well: because no aspect of the game’s design jars with another aspect. Everything supports and enhances everything else.

            I agree with the idea that light/dark “PRESS 1 FOR GOOD” moments are kind of crap, and that game-y “+5 POINTS TO PARAGON METER; PANTS OF NICENESS UNLOCKED” systems are the worst examples of it, but I’d argue that that’s not because of the numbers. It’s because they don’t fit naturally into our experience of the game. It’s not “immersion” that games need. They need to be cleansed of elements that don’t support the whole of the experience.

            I can even think of a numerical moral choice system that worked exactly as it was supposed to: Alpha Protocol’s reputation system. It gave you bonuses that usually made a fair amount of sense, supported the main narrative and ludic themes of the game, and changed the narrative in ways that were sometimes fairly pronounced. It wasn’t perfect, but it was rarely jarring.

            I would say KOTOR gets something of a pass on this as well. There are elements that don’t really work, most notably the fact that your party members rarely raise even the mildest objection to your actions, but it had the advantage of taking place in a universe where binary morality is actually built into the fiction, so it’s not totally jarring in the way that, you know, telling Garrus that you’re not 100% sure the Reapers are going down in a private converstaion somehow netting you Renegade points is.

            (Wow, that last sentence’s syntax is all effed up. Damn. Well, you know what I meant, I hope.)

          • Dervish says:

            It is not pointless. It’s the only way to seriously tackle these questions, because they’re about design principles. You won’t get anywhere if you say “Yeah, well, Game X is really immersive, and that games has lots of numbers, so what about that?” You can go back and forth with examples that are not comparable for various reasons and never get anywhere. The point is not to slam this game or that game for not being immersive enough, it’s to consider, all other things being equal, what we should be looking toward if our goal is to maximize immersion. That’s not value-laden or normative or even critical; it’s basically a question of psychology. You’re muddling the issue by talking about whether visible stats are more tactical or more fun.

          • Premium User Badge

            ffordesoon says:

            @Dervish:

            I believe I might have misinterpreted your post and jerked my knee rather hard in response. If so, I apologize.

            It seemed to me that you were saying immersion was the ultimate ideal to which games should aspire, as opposed to merely one ideal. If you are instead saying that if we’re going to treat immersion as an ideal, we should discuss it as one, I don’t disagree.

            I don’t necessarily agree either, because I think part of the reason so many games stink is the assumption on the part of the developers that if they include Feature X, Feature Y has to be in there, or else it’s not part of Genre Z. That way of thinking leads to the jarring mechanics of the sort I talked about at length in my previous post. What they should be doing is thinking about the specific game they want to make, then subtracting anything from the design that doesn’t help that game. They should be designing holistically, not hewing to received wisdom for no reason.

            I realize that it’s hard to make stuff, that it’s really hard to make good stuff, that management of personnel on a given project gets exponentially more difficult as more people join the project, that publishers sometimes require Feature Y’s inclusion, and about a hundred other things. But holistic design is just as much of an ideal as maximal immersion, and I’m treating it as such. Feel free to laugh at my hypocrisy.

            By the way, this may not have been clear, but I only addressed one line of my post to you, then gave my take on the larger discussion Flukie’s original post inspired.

        • meatshit says:

          The problem is that games are inherently based on numbers and mechanics. Everyone of at least moderate intelligence should know that every single thing in a video game is represented by numbers in some form or fashion. All trying to hide them does is piss off people like me, who aren’t afraid of doing calculations, by making us waste a lot of time “feeling out” mechanics or backwards engineering them instead of just giving them to us so we can make rational, well-informed decisions.

          • Dervish says:

            It’s clearly not “all it does” or you would want every single counter, marker, trigger, timer, and whatever other debug-style information you can think of displayed at all times. I suppose it’s possible that you do want that and are only interested in video games as optimization problems, but if that was actually true, you’d have to start with a FAQ and a spreadsheet anyway.

          • meatshit says:

            I’m talking about any kind of information that you’d need to make an interesting gameplay decision, such as choosing gear or skills. Obfuscating that kind of information really does accomplish nothing. The people who don’t care about optimization or are mathematically challenged will ignore the numbers even if they’re provided (see WoW as an example). Those that do care will pick apart the game and find out that information anyways and just be annoyed that the developer made them jump through hoops to get it (again, WoW is a perfect example).

            Games are not just optimization problems, but they do contain plenty of them. I’m an engineer and I can easily spot an optimization problem and solve it as long as I have the system parameters. If the developers don’t provide them, someone has to backwards engineer them before they can be put into a spreadsheet or FAQ. I don’t do that much anymore, but I have in the past.

          • Nate says:

            I don’t think that’s quite fair. There are a lot of reasons to obscure mechanics.

            One could play Street Fighter 2 in front of a old ASCII terminal that printed the coordinates and frame of every character. One could play that game very easily– more easily than one could play the graphical version, because you’d easily see whether a character was 1 spot out of range of your roundhouse. Would that be a better game though?

            For the old Quake/missionpack speedruns, a special mod was developed that showed the boundaries of trigger spaces. This allowed the very interesting exploitation of those trigger spaces. But would the game really have been more fun or less fun if that was the way it was shipped?

            The decision to make information about mechanics more obvious is one that has to be made in light of each specific game. Sometimes, developers are going to err, on one side or another. Sometimes, fans are going to disagree about whether a game would be better or worse with more obvious mechanics. There’s not a right answer for every game, for every situation, for every player.

      • Premium User Badge

        Gap Gen says:

        Well, it depends how the feedback loops in your game work. Can you tell how tired your soldiers are without looking at a % bar? Can you go to a practice range and see how much better a certain weapon is compared to another? (I realise this excludes games where weapons have tiny statistical differences). Numbers are a powerful shorthand, but they do remind you that you’re in a game, however used to them you are.

      • Ragnar says:

        I think this may be somewhat missing the point, or perhaps I’m just looking for something different from RPGs. You’ve got the RPG where you play a role (Witcher, Fallout, Mass Effect, Deus Ex) and the RPG where you just kill stuff and level up (Neverwinter Nights, every ARPG, every JRPG).

        In the former, the role playing is what hooks you in, and I can see how removing the naked numbers could help. It’s not about the loot. Witcher is a prime example of this, where you might upgrade your sword only twice, and your armor once, though out the whole game. ME2 removed the inventory, and I didn’t mind. You’re playing to see the world, experience the story, and leave your mark upon both. Numbers are unnecessary at that point, and reminder that your choice just gained you 5 “good guy” points just serves to pull you out of the experience and remind you that it’s a game.

        In the latter, it’s all about story and/or the numbers. Since you’re not making any decisions as to how the story will play out, the motivation for playing is either seeing the story through to its conclusion and/or seeing your character make progress through bigger and better numbers. If the story doesn’t grip you (as was the case for me with NWN, every ARPG, and most JRPGs), then it’s all about leveling up and getting bigger numbers and equipping new loot with bigger numbers.

        So either the loot isn’t important to the game, in which case just give me a weapon and send me off and I’ll be happy to forget about loot and focus on everything else, or the loot is essential to the game, in which case I want to look at two items and be able to instantly see which one is better.

        • NathanH says:

          Why not ask for an RPG where you have both? I don’t see why we should think that games where you “play a role” needs to abandon any ambitions to back it up with a high-quality transparent RPG system and strong encounter design. I mean, if we all we care about is “playing a role” then we don’t really need any RPG system at all, so there’d be nothing to hide.

          To be honest, I think that even when the designers mess up the RPG system a bit, it’s still better to have it than not. Take Arcanum: this had a pretty shoddy system but there was lots in it to play around with, which was quite satisfying even though fundamentally the mechanics weren’t up to scratch (no excuses for the dreadful encounter design though).

          • Premium User Badge

            Lamb Chop says:

            It’s actually almost impossible to both effectively, since, to use a biological explanation, our rational and personal brain patterns fire different neural nets. In many meaningful ways, our personal connection to characters and our rational appreciation of mechanical systems come from different parts of our psyche, and it’s very difficult to appreciate them at the same time. I have a compulsive need to rationally maximize in certain situations, but I also enjoy a wonderfully crafted story. It is very hard for me to both these things at the same time, and they end up being conflicting mindsets. For a game to do both effectively, it would have to find a way to create distinct story and mechanical elements.

            Take, for example, Diablo 3. It has an awful story, but insofar as I cared about it, I did a first playthrough to listen to the characters and pick all the dialogue options and generally try to care because if I were busy min-maxing, I wouldn’t have been able to care about the characters at all.

            One of the few exceptions to this are games with slow pacing. Baldur’s Gate manages both a great story and mechanics you can obsess over because it’s possible to pause, deliberate, and prepare because that’s not inaccurate to the story itself. For contrast, just think about the times you’ve paused in Mass Effect with pounding action music to compare the new Krogan shotgun with your other weapons. It feels ridiculous because it is. There might be ways to do it, but it’s very difficult.

          • NathanH says:

            You’re right, although I don’t think a slow pace is necessary, just changes of pace. For instance, in Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic I almost never changed equipment mid-mission, I always did this in the ship at the end of a mission. That seemed to me to be a suitable time to calm down from the action and take stock of the situation. But yes, you need something like this.

            Of course, I’d be entirely in favour of loads more RPGs like Baldur’s Gate…

          • Josh W says:

            It’s possible to combine them like people do in real life; decide your goals for personal reasons, then try to achieve them, with the problems of achieving different goals feeding back and making you consider if you should try for something different, or pushing you to make compromises in your goals that lead to other surprises.

            In games with levelling, levelling is generally the ultimate preparatory step; anything you want to achieve, you can probably achieve by levelling up. This can of course be an end in itself too, but I imagine in games with different systems, you could try to level up certain abilities or find certain items in order to resolve problems created in the “characters” side of the game. It would fold back into the game through side effects or through missing your chance or through actually solving the problem etc.

            Taking the “gather your tools” element of the game and folding it more directly into the values of the game can help with that feeling of separation. Otherwise you always do have two parallel tracks; you can make choices with small effects, but at the end of the day there’s one big moral problem to solve, the one in the main plot, and one way to solve it, getting more powerful. Fable 3 sort of mucked around with this distinction in a clever way, but for most games it’s just assumed.

      • InternetBatman says:

        I think you’re being too general. In some games, numbers are critical, and add a greater understanding of the game and help the situation be complete. Civilization, for instance, is always better when you at least know what factors into the AI’s thinking rather than finding out you have a random ass improbable war with someone two continents away.

        Also, immersion (which is really just high focus) does not really correlate to a game’s verisimilitude. Indeed, players can become immersed in a game’s system on its own. Fallout 2 can be more immersive than Oblivion and Fallout NV can be more immersive than Wesnoth. It’s possible that you just don’t like certain types of games, so you can’t get immersed in them.

        I’ve found that in a good game, regardless of genre, there are really three things that break immersion: Ads, especially for DLC; crashes to the desktop / slowdowns; and alt tabbing to look at achievements or a game guide.

  4. thegooseking says:

    Cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect. It’s all so mechanical and telegraphed – like, well, a videogame.

    That goes back further than games, really. It goes right the way back to Aristotle, who said that a drama is a unified chain of causally-linked events. I do personally think that Aristotle is a bit too strict about it, though.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      Something like “writing fiction is harder than writing fact. Fiction has to seem plausible”. Fact does not need to answer to anyone. :P

    • S Jay says:

      It is hard when my choices don’t seem to make sense with the outcome at all. In Metro 2033 I never realized I could make “good” ending, because most choices were silly like “talking with character X” or “grabbing item Y” – why am I good for talking with this character or grabbing this item? Can’t I say mean things to the character? Can I burn the item?

      • Premium User Badge

        VelvetFistIronGlove says:

        Because Metro 2033’s choices aren’t about you being good or bad, they’re simply about your character: are you curious? thoughtful? impulsive? vengeful? generous? reckless? merciful?

        The game doesn’t judge you, it just gives you the ending consistent with the character you played. It’s not a good ending or a bad ending. What’s bad about Hunter’s statement, “if it’s hostile, you kill it”? That’s the thought behind the ending that you got (and that I expect most people got). It’s simple, direct, and rational.

        But if the series of small choices you made throughout the game showed that you were the kind of person who might be open to it, it gave you a final chance—you could still let the missile launch continue and kill the hostile opponents, if you agreed with Hunter’s logic; but if you had cared to, by this point you could understand why they were hostile, and realise that perhaps they didn’t deserve to be wiped out because of it, and choose accordingly. That’s why the achievement for this ending is called “Enlightened”.

  5. Ross Angus says:

    This article makes me feel stupid. I finished Thirty Flights, but felt I didn’t have enough knowledge to know why I got the empty gun pointed at me. I loved the experience, but didn’t feel I had all the pieces to put together.

    Dear Esther, on the other hand, I return to again and again, for it’s mood. I find the story deeply moving.

    • DuddBudda says:

      I’m a huge fan of blendo games – Flotilla is a staggeringly beautiful, in tone and mechanics – AZS is hilarious – Gravity Bone is superb

      but Thirty Flights didn’t do too much for me.

      The people and world are revealed dextrously, rich little gems full of life and personality.

      in particular, [SPOILER] the relationship with Anita. Bedding Anita was lovely – I staggered back up to the roof, dawdled with the cats, and when I wandered into the apartment and saw her lain on the bed I knew ‘Oh ho!’ where I was needed to be

      so why did my lover want me dead? and she surely did – that expression was baleful
      I played it through a second time immediately, sure I must have missed something

      But there was nothing.

      failing to explain such disastrous collapse in our relationship was cheap – as if the author admits there’s no reason beyond his own need to dramatise the tale or conjure up some contrite synecdoche about love

      so what? should I just not care what twisted? is the comment on passion’s inflammatory potency more important than some cheesy, forced betrayal or whatever?

      • S Jay says:

        Isn’t Gravity Bone the same thing? You get shot by “no reason” (you don’t understand) and that is it.

        • DuddBudda says:

          in GB the shooting begins and ends the relationship whilst hinting at something more
          in TFoL there is explicitly more

          • The Random One says:

            GB pushes the incomplete information theme harder. There is a missing item slot. When you end the first mission you get a briefing that explains why you did what you did, so you might assume there would be one for the second one as well. When you finish the game you may not know what happened, but you know you’re not really supposed to. That’s not really explicit in Thirty Flights, not unless you’ve played GB first.

      • hello_mr.Trout says:

        -> some people put forth the idea that you’re not bedding with anita in that scene – but rather another lady from the rooftop party – and that whilst anita might be in love with the player character, the player character might feel ambivalent towards her.. i guess it’s all open for a certain degree of interpretation tho

        • DuddBudda says:

          I can’t believe that’s not Anita in the bed – she’s there when you wake up, she drinks with you and she leaves with you

          the point about the PC’s affection is rather good; I had felt a connection during the wedding drinking and when she turned to me on the bike, but PC indifference to Anita and affection for the Best Man might be intimated by his framing at the start of that bike scene and the PC’s efforts to save him

          • The Random One says:

            It’s Anita in the end of the long flashback scene, but in the second, faster flashback where you only look at the bed briefly it’s another woman (who some people have identified as Gravity Bone’s ‘passionless nemesis’).

          • Premium User Badge

            VelvetFistIronGlove says:

            I’m left with three questions from GB and TFOL:

            1. Why is Anita trying to shoot me? (Something happened between taking off at the start of the job, and me coming down that air vent, but what?)

            2. Who is the person who gets killed in the car bomb in the GB flashback?

            3. Why does the protagonist of GB (who cannot be the same as that of TFOL) have a flashback to kissing the bride from TFOL?

  6. Justin Keverne says:

    My immediate reaction is agreement even though I didn’t find Thirty Flights of Loving that appealing. It’s a short story, a short film and I maintain it would be just as interesting as such and compared to other short films I’ve seen it’s good but not great. Is such an approach to narrative delivery good to see in games? Yes, is it something to heap effusive praise upon? I just can’t see it myself, sorry.

    There’s a weird thing about ambiguity, it can backfire horrible. Maybe I’m the exception, but I never found the original ending to Mass Effect 3 to be in any way ambiguous (Something it has been praised for), I could only parse one reading from any of the three possible choices which was that the entire galaxy is in ruins and isolated with every decision you made meaning nothing. The lack of information regarding consequences meant I had to use the information provided prior to that point to determine what had happened and that all pointed in one direction: Isolation and death. Such a conclusion is dramatically at odds with every other theme the game was building upon which was… frustrating and I’ll admit upsetting.

    At the same time I think Looking Glass Studios made some of the best games of all time, and Thief has a wonderfully ambiguous setting. The City is never named, yet you can learn so much about it. It’s been build upon the foundations of a race, or culture that came before but you only learn snippets of information about them. It exists in a post war state but when exactly that war was, with whom and for what reasons are never detailed. That subtly and restraint is one of the many reasons I love that series.

    I guess I don’t have a point, beyond ambiguity and narrative restraint are tools and should be wielded with care. Sometimes leaving something explicitly unsaid leaves more room for interpretations that are detrimental to the work, and yet sometimes it’s absolutely the best thing to do.

    There are really quite a few games that avoiding spelling all the details out, they just don’t always do that for the main through line. Audio logs, emails, notes on walls, they are often presented in a way that requires you to piece things together with incomplete information.

  7. Blackcompany says:

    Bastion & Dark Souls. Two games that Excel in maintaining that sense of mystery & wonder you speak of. Linear as it was, I could not get enough of Bastion’s world. And that was precisely do to the fact that I did not get enough if it. Literally did not. The game allowed players to imagine things as they were before, to imagine them as they are now in the wider world. Loved it.

    Likewise, Dark Souls is so hard that, if it spelled out its entire plot in the first hour as Skyrim does, it would not be worth the effort. Mystery keeps me pushing through it, awe & wonder. I wish more devs understood this.

    • Gnoupi says:

      Not sure though if Bastion is a good example of “don’t tell me everything”, by definition :)

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      It does highlight quite nicely the difference between saying things and telling you things, though. The core concept of the story is something that’s spun out quite nicely, though, and in this the narrator only really hints at it.

  8. Bauul says:

    I played Dear Esther for the first time over the weekend.

    For the first five minutes, my thoughts were:
    “Hmm, this guy moves really slowly. I thought it’d be more open-world than this. The Source engine really does make you feel like a floating head!”

    For the last five minutes, my thoughts were:
    “Wow! Hang on! What? Wait? That? But what about him? Oh but that, right! Wow! Hang on! What!…”

  9. Premium User Badge

    luminosity says:

    See also: The Void.

    • Casimir's Blake says:

      Good call. Fascinating game.

      Sadly almost no-one knows about it. Similarly thousands of people are enjoying Dark Souls but don’t seem to know or care that From Software released the King’s Field series over a decade ago. If people would bother to look past the aged visuals (I realise this is impossible for some of the “mass market dullards” Nathan alludes to), the would find all four King’s Field games offer equally difficult and enjoyable first-person dungeon crawling, and none of the drawbacks of the third person gameplay in Dark Souls.

      How is this relevant? The player is told very little in King’s Field, you’re just dumped into a world and left to your own devices. I applaud this decision.

  10. Rubyace says:

    I would like to see a game with as much mysteries as the Lost. Though I think it would end up with players complaining about not having good/clear ending. But I would love to have a world with so many mysteries.

  11. Hoaxfish says:

    On the flip-side, I like games that explain what the basic tools actually do.

    There’s nothing more annoying that being told a weapon does “bleeding” without being told what bleeding actually means within the game (is it better or worse that “cut”).

    I’ve seen at least a couple of games which tell you what you’re suppose to do in vague details as if they’re trying to tell you a story, but then don’t give you any understanding of the (limited) options which are available to you so you have no idea how to progress… so you just stand around, without a clue.

  12. phenom_x8 says:

    That’s why I turned off every HUD in GTA 4 whenever I sink my time into it. No Radar, no mini map, only the trusty voiced GPS and road sign to help me points to the place I wanted to be, and damn, I am quite familiar with this Liberty City setting just after a few hours.

    You know what, it’ s much more satisfying when I have this “Hey, I know there is cluckin’ Bell at the corner of those street” feelin’, or “Ok, I have to turn left at this section to reach central park ASAP” feelin’.

    Note : I hope its related to the topic in this article.

    • Saul Bottcher says:

      Phenom_x8: I also loved riding places in Red Dead Redemption with the HUD off. Unfortunately, some of the quests pretty much required the HUD (bad design IMO). But for everyday travel, I’d take out my map, memorize a few landmarks I’d be passing on the way, then put it away and just ride and enjoy the scenery.

      • Premium User Badge

        Ninja Dodo says:

        Same here for Red Dead. I didn’t do this for GTA because I don’t find the grids of Manhattan a very interesting place to explore, but that’s just personal preference. In RDR if only they had designed the NPC behaviour to work around the map (like “He went THAT way!” while pointing) it would’ve been perfect without…

        On the occasions that I did need to consult a map I found it strangely enjoyable to unfold the actual paper version instead of opening the in-game equivalent. Crying shame they still haven’t ported this to PC.

  13. frightlever says:

    That’s what I always liked about Space Invaders. Beyond the fact that there were Invaders, probably from Space, there was no tedious exposition or hand-holding. Just relentless advance as they invaded your… your… your space. OMG…

  14. Saul Bottcher says:

    I think this article is mixing things up a bit.

    The real problem is developers (or their focus-testing overlords) not trusting the player. That leads to over-explaining stories AND over-explaining game systems.

    Take 3 games that are praised for their choices (never mind whether you agree that they should be): Mass Effect, Fallout: New Vegas, and Alpha Protocol. All three of them feel the need to explain their alignment/reputation systems by popping up boxes that say “+2 Paragon Points” or “Caeser’s Legion Infamy Gained” or “Mina Tang Reputation +1: Liked”.

    Why do this? Isn’t it obvious, if I kill a Caeser’s Legion scout in front of 20 people, that my reputation with them would go down? Isn’t it obvious that it’s ballsy to interrupt a Krogan mid-speech by headbutting him?

    But of course, somebody’s worried I won’t “get it” without that box popping up.

    This type of hand-holding robs the player of the joy of reading and interpreting the reactions of people and groups around them — using their “social intelligence”, which, yes, has a place in single-player games as well, and can be a nice counterpart to the other skills we exercise more frequently.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      Well that also has to do with people wanting to see achievement, be visually rewarded and to be nice and satisfied by seeing numbers increase incrementally. ie horrible annoying tat that doesn’t add anything to the game. But yeah what you mention is like over exposition in films that makes you ask yourself “why are the characters explaining the plot to themselves, like they have less of an idea about what’s going on than I do?”

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      There are a couple of mods which attempt to remove those messages – or at least the equally obvious “hey if you steal stuff people will be annoyed” karma messages.

      http://newvegas.nexusmods.com/mods/34784
      http://newvegas.nexusmods.com/mods/37568

      Can’t say to what extent they succeed, as I only just spotted ‘em, but I agree the messages detract rather than add to the experience (especially with the would-be immersive features of hunger and whatnot)

    • Baf says:

      No, in fact, it is not obvious that killing a Caesar’s Legion scout in front of 20 people will make your reputation with them go down. It would in real life, sure, but in games? The games where killing people has a lasting effect are far outnumbered by the games where it does not. If it were not for the message, I’d very likely assume that everyone would forget about what I did if I left the area and came back — not because I’m stupid, but because that’s normal.

      I guess it doesn’t need to be flagged every single time, though.

      • NathanH says:

        Also it’s good to know exactly how many defenceless women you need to slap to be equivalently badass to headbutting a Krogan. These things are important.

      • Saul Bottcher says:

        Baf: I get what you’re saying, but here are some easy solutions:

        -During the tutorial, Doc whatnot says “watch what you do out there, reputation means a lot in the Mojave”.

        -After you kill the Caesar’s Legion character, one of the witnesses says “man, the Legion’s never gonna let him get away with that”

        -Or, if it’s early in the game and you’re still in the first town, maybe a witness approaches you and gives a more explicit warning, like “you’d better watch your back, they’ll want revenge for what you just did”

        -Later, when Caesar’s Legion comes to kill you, they can say “you killed one of us, now it’s time to pay”; or if you want to spend a few more bucks on development, “we heard about what you did in [town name where murder happened], now it’s time to pay”

        A few of those in combination should make the consequences pretty obvious to the player, but without popping up any UI boxes or exposing any +1/-1′s. After the player has been playing the game for 30 minutes it should be pretty clear to them that this is a consequence-based game and people aren’t going to just come back to life (if the back of the box hadn’t already explained that).

        • The Random One says:

          Still, if a character told me that actions have consequences, I’m not sure I’d understand him if it meant it had a New Vegas style system. It might be the developer flaunting something that’s not as well implemented as he thought, or it might be a theme of the game’s story that’s not well reflected in its mechanic. A witness saying something means nothing, since most people take NPC’s barks as meaningless drivel, and Caesar’s legion coming back for vengeance later would probably only let players know their action has consequences when it was too late for them to take it back (by reloading an earlier save), which would probably be overall better but might not be the dev’s intent. I kind of agree with you but I’m arguing it’s not as easy as you seem to think it is.

        • JackShandy says:

          No, that wouldn’t work. I don’t know if you played Human Revolution, but there’s a part early on where your helpers are going “Hurry up, or something terrible will happen!”

          No-one ever hurries up, and everyone is totally shocked when something terrible happens. It’s just video-game speak, right? GET TO THE NEXT OBJECTIVE BEFORE TIME RUNS OUT RAMIREZ. No-one takes things the NPC’s say seriously. It’s flavour text.

          “+2 Legion favour earned!” is useful information. I don’t think there’s really any problems with telling the player that information, instead of concealing it for the sake of some smoke-and-mirrors immersion.

          • NathanH says:

            It’s typical in RPGs to hear “if you don’t do X soon, then Y could happen!” Y never happens.

  15. trjp says:

    On a related (in my mind at least) issue, Ian (of MagicalTimeBean – Soulcaster/Escape Goat fame) pointed me at this video earlier this year.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpigqfcvlM

    It explains, in slightly “in your face” style, how most video games now lecture players in a tedious fashion on “how to play” when, traditionally, games have been much, much, much cleverer in the past.

    Even if you hate games like Mega Man, it uses those games to demonstrate how you don’t have to SHOUT at the player as if they’re morons.

    • The Random One says:

      There’s a great blog post by Anna Anthropy that explains in detail how the first level of Super Mario Bros teaches you everything you need to know about the game without hand-holding or tooltips. There would be a link to it in this post were I a better man.

  16. Kynrael says:

    Interesting article ; maybe the problem with player-driven stories being so mechanical is knowing everything. I think player agency can be a great thing, and if we hide all those cogs that determine who is your allies and enemies, maybe we can end up with mystery (for ex in an RPG : player gets suddenly attacked by an NPC. Player kills NPC. As he doesn’t have any information, he doesn’t know why.) and control (investigate, maybe the NPC is from a certain faction interested in a particular item he has ? Then up to him to do whatever he likes to.).

    Slightly off topic : I am the only one who thought Inception just degenerated into some mindless action film though it had an interesting premise ?

    • Skabooga says:

      I maintain that Inception is best enjoyed by turning off your mind and not worrying about the mechanics of it all. Just sit back and watch the action and pretty pictures.

      • The Random One says:

        Otherwise you’ll realize that if when the car is falling down the bridge there’s no gravity in the hotel, then while there’s no gravity in the hotel there should be no gravity in the snowy outpost, and if there is no gravity in the snowy outpost there should be no gravity in the chewy mindcenter… so essentially Superfluous Japanese Man should have dreamed he spent his entire life in a giant swimming pool.

  17. bahamut says:

    That’s exactly what i loved about Alan Wake. i think the story was brilliant i don’t know why you didn’t like it.
    Oh by the way shin megami tensei series on consoles has been doing it for years. Digital devil saga has the most complex and beautiful story i have ever seen in video games. they are one of the few instances that developers has succeeded in making something more than a game, “Art”.

    • beema says:

      Hmm, funny you mention that. I’m playing through Alan Wake right now, and honestly I’m finding it to be a bit too didactic.

      • Kaira- says:

        The game actually tells too much while still leaving a lot open. It’s kinda interesting in that regard.

      • The Random One says:

        Alan Wake is only open in comparison to most videogames, but it did its thing well enough that when it was over I thought the things about the story that don’t make sense might have been intentionally ambigous instead of just plot holes.

  18. cytokindness says:

    I guess this is a good place to post my comment again from the other topic:
    ———
    Well that was really disappointing. The jump cuts yanked me out of the story (I thought the game was broken in the airport transport section at first!). There’s no real meat to the story – it’s fine to have unresolved questions, but remove too much and you’re left with something like Braid or Lost in which you simply suspect that the creator had no idea about the story either.

    A poorly told story with good music that makes me wish I hadn’t spent the five dollars.

    (actually wait I just figured out how to get the music out of the archives. it may be worth the money now)

  19. soldant says:

    There’s a fine line though between being charmingly enigmatic and being pointlessly ambiguous. A lot of the indie ‘art’ games tend to go towards the latter, deliberately inserting pointless symbolism and being ambiguous to seem mysterious and cool. It’s an annoying trend. I’d much rather have a game spell itself out than put up with ham-fisted symbolism which bounces between entirely meaningless and sledgehammer obvious.

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      It’s a difficult line to hit, made worse by the fact that different people will “get” different things. A lot of modern art that people criticise is referential to things that the public won’t know about, but an artist would (again, the question about the value of this is open). Even lightly cryptic narratives will confuse some people*. At the same time, you’re right that going too far will sometimes lose the message you were hoping to allude to. I guess if there were a solid metric for constructing metaphors then writing would be a whole lot easier.

      *A friend of mine complained that in Children of Men you never found out what the infertility plague was caused by, and said that it’d be better if it was found out to be an evil corporation poisoning the water or something. I didn’t hit him, because that’s what friendship is.

  20. SirKicksalot says:

    Inception? More like Exposition, amirite?

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      Yes, while Inception is an interesting film, its sole plot mechanic is telling the viewers how the world works, and once that’s over it ends. So I’m not sure it’s the best example of that sort of thing (conversely, if someone could tell me what the eff Holy Motors is about, that’d be grand).

      • Jesse L says:

        Yeah, I thought Inception was kind of the opposite of a smart movie. I mean, it has ideas. It has concepts. It has little twists. But for a ‘smart movie’ I’d rather pick a classic, like ‘Dial M for Murder’ or ‘Smiley’s People’ or something like that. Those are truly films where you have to work out what’s happening for yourself.

        • Premium User Badge

          Mitthrawn says:

          So you want a crime story? I don’t really follow. Inception is brilliant for me not because you have to figure out what’s going on, but because there are SIX storylines operating in parallel, it’s clever, and because a smart, big budget, original movie was released in Hollywood at all (because of the Dark Knight’s success, etc). I don’t really think I’m disagreeing with you, just a different definition of “smart”.

          • Fincher says:

            A smart film is one with excellent writing, characters and themes, all of which Inception lacked in favour of some complicated jiggerypokery about dreams that people catch onto within the first 20 minutes. So what do people do for the rest of this “smart” film? Oh, we watch the characters explain again and again while doing a heist job. There really isn’t anything smart about technical complexity in a film. I don’t want to watch the film equivalent of an instruction manual, which Inception most certainly is.

            Heist films -are full of storylines- with that regard. You’ll have the getaway driver outside, someone cracking the vault, people keeping the hostages in order. The fact of the matter is, not much really happens in Inception’s “multiple storylines”.

            A better example of a film that staves off treating its audience like idiots would be Chinatown. Memorable characters, memorable settings and a climax that puts Inception’s predictable one to shame.

          • Xocrates says:

            @Fincher: And despite all the exposition, loads of people complained they didn’t understand what was going on in Inception.

            And that’s kind of indicative of what’s Chris Nolan biggest flaw and strength: He doesn’t make smart movies, he makes smart blockbusters. Or in other words: he makes movies that cause the Transformers crowd to feel smart.

            They’re not bad movies, mind, but they do tend to be a bit too obvious and exposition heavy.

          • Premium User Badge

            ffordesoon says:

            @Xocrates:

            That’s a fantastic description of Nolan’s movies. I’m totally swiping that.

      • Premium User Badge

        Gap Gen says:

        I actually hated The Dark Knight. I appreciate it from a cinematographical perspective, but then critics agreed at the time that Triumph of the Will was a well-made film, too.

        • Premium User Badge

          ffordesoon says:

          Protip: when you bring up a popular film that people like and compare it to a Nazi propaganda film, you might want to elaborate a bit.

        • Premium User Badge

          Hardlylikely says:

          Is that an earnest comparison? If so I’d also be interested to hear your reason.

        • Premium User Badge

          Gap Gen says:

          I realise this is a bit late, and I was being flippant anyway, but: The Dark Knight represents the worst in superheroes. Its theme is the powerlessness of the state and of the people who it represents. In its place is a nihilistic never-ending fight between the super-rich and super-criminals. It has no faith in humanity, and every faith in the concentration of power and wealth. It lauds the death of liberalism, and says that we should all be afraid, and the only thing that can save us is a single man. It takes itself far too seriously to be read as a simple power fantasy; instead, its subtext is that society with all its institutions has failed, and all that is left separating humanity from destruction is the might of one man.

          In many ways, it’s a reflection of modern America: where the disparity between rich and poor continues to grow ever larger, where the notion that an American can succeed at anything if they want to enough is a cruel joke, and where the President, thanks to “police action”, can declare war without the consent of Congress and the American people. American foreign policy exists to expand the influence of American corporatism, and entire nations have been subverted by corporate interests. In many ways the super-rich *do* control America, but they’re not the good guys in a superhero film. The Dark Knight’s subtext is not to worry; the death of the American dream is its salvation. What horseshit.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Dare_Wreck says:

    And yet I bet a lot of us that say we appreciate the subtleties of a not-fully-explained-story also were the ones to complain about the movie Prometheus. (Granted, there were arguments against the movie beyond just that of the storytelling).

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Wouldn’t that be because in Prometheus, things were explained, just in a way that was stupid?

      • beema says:

        Yeah, this, kind of. Prometheus pissed me off not because it left things mysterious, but because it just tossed a bunch of random stupid shit together in order to make you think it was mysterious. Mysteries should still make sense.

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      Like I said earlier, metaphor is powerful if you get it right. Alien is full of maternal metaphors and images of female empowerment. It is simultaneously about an alien killing people and about exploring gender roles when even modern films still have strongly traditional male/female role divides. Prometheus, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really try to say anything worthwhile, and is pretty regressive in parts.

      I’ve said elsewhere that things have subtext whether or not the designers intended it. Battlefield 3′s campaign is a horrific piece of jingoism, though I’m sure the designers were only really bolting together stuff they thought was cool from other games and TV shows. Spec Ops: The Line is an amazing piece of criticism of the assumed morality of shooting people in games (grr, can’t remember the excellent youtube podcast that argues this).

      • Xocrates says:

        “grr, can’t remember the excellent youtube podcast that argues this”

        Errant signal?

  22. Belua says:

    I hope I won’t get hanged for mentioning console games, but I had a similar feelings and experiences with ICO and Shadow Of The Colossus on the PS2. They give you a relatively small snippet out of a big world, give you a basic story but leave enough room to wonder, analyse and speculate.

    Who are the people and beings involved? What’s their history? Who built those massive buildings, what were they for, and why are they in ruins? Many more questions can be asked here, some with no answers and some with vague hints. I love how much room there is for wild mass guessing, without it feeling like part of the game is missing.

  23. NathanH says:

    I think the argument being made in the article is completely misleading. There is a good reason for choice’n'consequence games to follow the cause-effect approach whereas games without player agency about the story need not: in choice’n'consequence games you are the actor in the story, in other games you are merely the observer. What would be the point in a choice’n'no-obvious-consequence game?

    Lots of games have provided vague stories and themes over the years. It’s nothing new. What we’re seeing at the moment is an affinity for choice’n'consequence games, however, and so we’re seeing more games that spell out the consequences clearly.

    If the author wishes to make the argument that most modern games that do not have player agency in plot-related matters still spell out everything for the player, then he should make that argument instead. Constant references to choice’n'consequence games without reference to why they’re fundamentally different storywise from games with no player-agency in the story just completely undermines the argument.

  24. Dervish says:

    Conversely, no one enjoys being treated like they’re stupid. And most people have a pretty good sense of when they’re being talked down to.

    You would think so, but there are numerous people that will defend exactly this sort of thing in games, such as when a game lets you win by invisibly adjusting difficulty or ending a sequence with a scripted event that really had nothing to do with anything you did–a sort of equivalent to when a parent plays badly on purpose so their kid can score a few points and feel good. And that’s fine, but every kid I know wanted their parents to stop doing that once they figured out what was going on. Yet when it comes to adults and games, some people explicitly defend it as their preference.

    Also, I don’t disagree with the gist of the article, nor do I have a problem with Dear Esther existing, but I swear there’s something about that game that makes people incapable of talking about it without saying nonsense.

    Again, the story was open. It was, in large part, the game.

    The story was the game? What does that even mean? And is there any game for which it is not true?

    it created a perfect environment for both building this all-consuming curiosity and slowly but surely sating it.

    How can it slowly but surely sate curiosity if the connections “may not be fully formed – or even exist at all?” Making something up is the opposite of having your curiosity sated. It’s cool if people like the game but it should be possible to praise it without abusing language.

    • Brun says:

      And is there any game for which it is not true?

      Er, well, yes. Any competitive multiplayer game would be a good example. I’d also argue that in certain games, the setting “is the game” moreso than the story – the Elder Scrolls Games come to mind here.

      • Dervish says:

        It would help if you explained what the “the story is the game” means before giving a counterexample. I don’t understand what claim is being made. This is a serious question.

        If it’s something like, “The real game here is making sense of the story pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle” then I would say that’s simply false in the case of Dear Esther, especially paired with the suggestion that ultimately the player has to make up an answer (not much of a game, that).

        If it’s something like, “The story is told through / shaped by the environment, actions, etc. in the game proper,” then that is applicable to every game including multiplayer ones. The story of Dear Esther being a story of “what I did on my island vacation” is not fundamentally different from “the story of what I did during my deathmatch tournament.”

        • The Random One says:

          Not really. Most games tell their story through tropes of other media: of movies (a character walks in and tells you what’s going on), of text (you find a notebook that explains what happened). A story that is told entirely through the game would be something like the Rattman dens in the Portal games, told through level design, which could not carry a story by itself in any other genre.

          • Dervish says:

            “Not really” what?

            “All games do X” is not the same as “All games ONLY do X” or “All games primarily do X”. And this is all in the context of “What is it that supposedly sets Dear Esther (a game that, while we’re on the subject, primarily reveals backstory via voiceover clips) apart from others,” so I think you’re jumping in at the wrong moment.

    • Premium User Badge

      ffordesoon says:

      What’s wrong with a recombinant narrative?

  25. Arithon says:

    That’s what used to be great about PC games. Descent, Carmageddon, Half-Life – they stuck you at the beginning of the maze and left you to finish or die. The rise of over-simplified, mass-market, multi-platform games have done away with intelligence and imagination.

    There are no left turns in this maze. Only forward, with a neon sign in front of you saying “this way” and a scripted movie every ten paces. This way lackwits! A bell will announce when “Pavlov’s Dog 2013″ is available to purchase. Try not to drool.

    MineCraft – a graphically primitive game with no swearing or shooting – has bucked the trend, but only by direct selling. There wouldn’t be an XBOX version if the PC hadn’t already sold seven million copies first, with thirty nine million registered players.

    There IS a market for original and intelligent games, but there is a total lack of imagination or faith in new ideas on the part of the management of the large game producers.

  26. kyrieee says:

    Bought it and it just keeps crashing

    Great

  27. MythArcana says:

    A GOTY for me entails more than two days of game-play altogether. It takes more than two days to set up a Pretender God and a game plan properly in Dominions 3. Now that is some serious gaming right there.

  28. lithander says:

    Thief 2 is one of my alltime favorite games. And one reason for that that it suggested this rich, detailed and complex world. One trick was to have the first missions deal with ordinary problems such as helping a friend or stealing money to pay the rent. Making the player deal with small, human needs makes the world look big compared to a game that tells you “go save the world, hero!” in the first 5 minutes of play.

    And the other thing was that throughout the maps you could find letters and books or overhear conversation and each was a puzzle-piece that allowed you to form an increasingly coherent mental view of the world you were playing in. But the fact that the game didn’t “tell” it to you but instead you had to figure it out yourself was great. Your mind fills gaps with way more interesting stuff and detail then what most linear video game plots dare the player to digest! :)

    • NathanH says:

      Thief is a great example, I think. In most of the areas where the player has no agency, such as plot and world and all the little details, the games are pretty mysterious. In most of the areas where the player has agency, such as interactions with guards and the environment, the consequences of your actions are pretty explicit.

  29. Premium User Badge

    Big Murray says:

    “When I beat the absolutely wonderful Thirty Flights Of Loving over the weekend,”

    Is that like Fifty Shades of Grey?

  30. Shooop says:

    This is exactly what I’m hoping Dishonored will offer – a world going on outside of your standard field of view and hearing that you only discover if you look for it. Exploring the world should not just reward me with items but information too. I’m much more inclined to care what goes on when I’m actually finding the story myself than it being handed to me in cutscenes.

    It’s the thing I liked most about the otherwise completely forgettable Prototype: you pick up a lot of of the backstory on your own. It’s your own decision whether or not you want to know more about what’s going on, and that’s a lot more motivating to me than just slogging through the story missions.

  31. Stuart Walton says:

    If there’s one thing I appreciate most with any sort of fiction is when the writing is efficient. If I’m hammering buttons or keys to skip dialogue, then they’ve failed. Videogame exposition is an exercise in show and tell. However, if you tell more than you show, the more tedious things can get.

    TFOL takes efficiency to the extreme by having no discernible dialogue and yet almost the entire thing is story beats and the player has control for nearly all of it. Dear Ester has a lot of dialogue, but the lines are again delivered with the pace at which the player explores and each line has a bearing on the story being told or adds depth to the location you’ve just arrived at. You listen to each and every one because there is nothing trite. It is always adding depth.

    Adventure games usually end up with too much dialogue. I recently finished ‘The Whispered World’ and am finally relieved that it is all over. It simply has too much pointless voice work, couple that with Saturday morning cartoon character acting and the experience just becomes loathsome. During development, Gemini Rue also suffered from too much dialogue. Inconsequential backstory was all over the place and the philosophical themes present in the story were actually discussed at length within the game. Thankfully someone told Joshua Nuernberger that this was just too much. The script was culled down to just the necessities and is far better for it. Alpha Protocol’s time pressured conversations were a revelation. They make you consider every line you hear and are an incentive to read all the intel on characters before you meet them. But to do this the dialogue also has to be short and sharp.

    If you want backstory in your game, put it in as documents to be discovered. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, a photo on a mantelpiece can save you writing a dozen lines. Don’t give mission details in one big briefing, just cover the goals and provide the details in a manner that lets the player digest it at a convenient rate. The simple rule is, if a line adds nothing then you don’t force the player to hear or read it. If you must add this information to the game, make it discoverable within the game world.

  32. rsanchez1 says:

    Man, it’s been 2 years now, when are you gonna get off the Inception kool-aid? You even know why people liked it, not because it was smart, but because it made people feel smart. It really wasn’t that good.

    • Skabooga says:

      Making people feel smart is a remarkably valuable talent. Hell, that’s why I and so many others enjoyed Portal as much as we did. I mean, a seven year old child could probably get through the game with few problems, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel as clever as a fox during my first playthrough of it. Even now, I get a pretty big feeling of accomplishment going through some of the puzzles, and what a gift it is to feel that.

  33. TheIronSky says:

    Deus Ex.

    Also, this whole article seems reminiscent of the things I have been writing for years… http://ironenclave.com/blog/

  34. InternetBatman says:

    I disagree with this wholeheartedly. Games should only have obtuse narratives and limited explanation if it fits the goal of the game. Too often designers will slap vague events onto a game so they can call it art, when in reality their choices are completely lacking in merit. (I’m looking at you Limbo). And this article encourages that type of behavior (and oddly taking away player agency, which is the real advantage games have over other media) so the author can “feel smart.”

  35. The Random One says:

    I used to think this as well, Nathan. I used to hate developers for talking down to me as if I were an incompetent child, unable to understand even the slightest subtlety.

    But then, after watching several episodes of Extra Credits, I realized developers don’t think we are idiots. They are idiots. They don’t explain every single detail because they think we’re too dumb to figure it out, but because they’re too dumb to figure it out and think everyone is. They don’t make it obvious who the bad guy is because they think we’re too dumb to notice, they do it because they would be unable to figure out who the bad guy is in that situation. Extra Credits has a good rep for its simple and friendly way to approach its subjects, but it always looked like a child explaining something to another child, and I eventually realized it has the same tone as most games that stupidly think they have an intelligent plot. The difference is that in a video show explaining subjects being simple and straightforward is a plus, whereas in a story that aspires to be relevant it is a major minus.

    • JackShandy says:

      Every aspect of this post is completely, irredeemably shitty. Game designers are smart, because game design is a field where a lot of people compete for a single job where you’re paid to be smart. There’s nothing wrong with a relevant story being simple and straightforward.

      Edit: read your other posts, you seem like a cool guy, please do not take offense at me taking offense at this post.

      • Nate says:

        Being good at one thing is not the same thing as being good at all things. It’s true, there is a great deal of competition to be a game developer. (Remember, there is also a great deal of competition to be a politician.) This reminds me of somebody commenting that somebody can’t be a good computer programmer because he or she doesn’t know how to arrange English sentences properly– they are different skill sets, and I think most of us understand that.

        Not that I’m agreeing with the original point. I haven’t met enough game developers to feel comfortable painting so broadly, one way or another.

  36. faircall says:

    It’s great that the game doesn’t tell you everything, but I personally dislike that it doesn’t require you to “do” anything. I think Gravity’s Bone struck a better balance, and the simplistic puzzles from that game could really have been expanded upon. I guess the lack of any challenge allows the audience to pay more attention to the exposition (which was definitely more complex than Gravity’s Bone), but the game feels indistinguishable from watching a movie whilst holding down the ‘w’ key.

  37. JonSolo says:

    And since we’re on the topic: Dear Hollywood films… please stop telling me everything. I wholeheartedly agree. We need a David Lynch of game designers.