Dear Videogames, Stop Telling Me Everything

Excellent article from Rock, Paper, Shotguns

[I]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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”[/I]


Tell me everything about fundamental game mechanics.

I can’t believe that guy gave his big old schpeel and never brought up Dark Souls, we had to rely on reader comments for that. What the hell?

Indeed. That’s what prompted my comment above.

Lately I’m less interested in secret mechanics and secret rooms and whatnot. I know sharing hints is a big part of the game. I just find myself gravitating toward open information games these days. Lay out some depth in front of me and let me go nuts.

But this guy was talking about story. I didn’t think about the vagueness of the setting in Dark Souls. That’s excellent, though I did wonder if I was supposed to know what’s going on or not. Now I just roll with it.

But here’s a secret: everyone in the entire world likes feeling smart.

This is is true. The catch is, not everyone is smart.

(There’s an even bigger issue, which is that not everyone agrees on what “smart” is. See any storylover-vs-sandboxlover dust-up on the Interwebs.)

Au contraire, since the sandbox lover is clearly objectively correct, and the story lover needs to read a book! :p

Preach it, brother!

Anyhow, on topic: While I definitely prefer games where the player cobbles together the story through a rich backdrop, if there is a story I prefer a light touch that allows me to fill in the blanks. Less really is more in many cases. Heck, even in book stories, much less videogame stories.

This isn’t really a “game issue”, but a “story issue” as it can be applied at large at mainstream books, films, tv series, etc. Specifically, it’s something known for lots of “Hollywood movies” from some time already.

I’d broaden the definition of what story is.

For games (and also Pen-and-Paper RPGs) what I want is a rich setting and an interesting culture. I don’t care so much about the script. The setting and culture tells a story on its own, and setting/culture can be still be showcased in games where the player has freedom of will. Whereas script is always working against freedom of will, even in Bioware style games that claim to offer “freedom of choice”.


I watched the Extra Credits episode covering Spec Ops: The Line. In this game, there are a few situations were unprompted actions will cause an approprate response in the game (SPOILER: firing over the heads of a hostile crowd).

What pissed me off was that I did not think of doing any of these, and worse, once upon a time I might have. Video game responses have become so telegraphed, preplanned, and binary that I (and I imagine, other gamers) have become trained only to think that way when playing games. I wish that more games designers had the skill, the resources, and the balls to put up telegraphed decision points, but then also allow for a big “NOPE” from the player.

That’s weird, that was actually the first game I thought of when I saw the topic. Then I saw it meant something slightly different (endless exposition and dya-get-it-yet). But holy shit does Spec Ops ever fucking shut up about anything? You can’t go 3 steps without some distracting, completely out of place HUD symbology being overlaid on screen. A key prompt. A shoot-here marker. A reminder of something someone literally just said 5 seconds ago. It never seems to end.

This is kind of a big stumbling block for that article’s premise. You can look directly to movies here: even on this forum people will complain that a movie sits and explains too much, but then also complain that something was a big plot hole and made the movie suck because even though it was explained multiple times they didn’t catch it or put the pieces together. Most people, when they don’t understand something, will proclaim it to suck. I think the idea that vagueness in storytelling in games will help reach a wider audience is hopelessly optimistic.

To misquote an old George Carlin line: Look at how dumb the average person is. Now half the people in the world are dumber than that.

Case in point: an interview with David Fincher posted in another thread earlier today:

You know, I remember going to see The Crying Game and sitting in the theatre, thinking, “This is a beautiful story about Forest Whitaker and this cross-dresser. And it’s kind of amazing and I have so much respect for the way it’s being told because there’s absolutely no comment being made about the cross-dressing…” And then everyone around me is going, “It’s a guy!” And I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Seriously?” For me, it was just as interesting and compelling and beautiful that the reveal was going to happen for Forest rather than for the audience. But you know, people see different movies! We were just watching two completely different movies.

Is there a problem with games being made for smart people? I don’t expect everyone to like entertainment made for smarties, but I’m glad it’s there and it should be encouraged. Hell, I’m not even saying I’m a smart person. But the argument that some people are dumb seems poor.