Leaving less to the imagination

“Show don’t tell” is a much heralded mantra in writing—it’s a practice proven to make good stories great, and it works for most other mediums as well. Games have been telling for a long time, but as the industry matures, technology advances, and budgets expand, showing is getting easier. Our imaginations don’t have to work near as hard as they used to. And that makes games more accessible, more fun, and in most cases, more entertaining.

While there’s nothing wrong with using your imagination—I mean, I use it for a living—it’s kind of exciting to see games get to a point where that’s not necessary. Those that have been gaming for a long time know that sometimes you have to fill in the gaps. Sometimes a game implies something amazing happened, or just straight up tells you what a character is feeling, and you have to use your imagination to gauge the impact. For example, you may know the back story of a character after hours of play, so even though the game can’t properly show it—due to technical limitations—you know that the revelations about his motives have a big impact on the direction of the story. Your imagination covers the game’s technical shortcomings.

We’ve come a long way in the last decade. The easiest way to see the progression is to show you (duh). Take this scene from the Knights of the Old Republic, a critically acclaimed RPG by Bioware. In this scene (which I’m about to spoil), your character is revealed to be an amnesic Darth Revan, a legendary evil bad guy that you thought you were fighting against. That’s kind of a big deal, and it’s a major turning point in the story. Here’s how it’s revealed:

 

If you played KOTOR, imagine watching that scene as someone who hasn’t. Divorced from the context of having spent hours in the universe with this character—your imagination filling in gaps along the way—it’s kind of underwhelming (though I remember when I played it, I thought it was moderately shocking, but only moderately...you are playing as a dude with amnesia after all).

Now watch this scene from Uncharted 2. Here Drake is double crossed (again).

You don’t need context, back story or hours of gameplay to know that what just happened was a big deal. You can see the tension between characters, you can tell there are grudges, friendships and rivalries, and none of it was told to you, it was shown. Some marketing folks and game journalists use the word “cinematic” to describe what you just saw. That means the game is like a movie. You don’t need to imagine the emotions, the implications, the impact, because it’s all right there. Games are getting better and better at that as the industry matures. It’s very exciting.

Another great example is the Mass Effect series, which was billed as an epic space opera spanning three games when it debuted in 2007. The first game took huge steps in cinematic gameplay (developer Bioware also developed KOTOR), but even that pales in comparison to what they’ve done with Mass Effect 3.

Just look at the differences between the two scenes below, they both feature important meetings in front of an important council, and yet the gravity of the meeting comes across much better in the second clip. The better looking characters, TV-like camera angles and editing set the second scene apart.

Mass Effect 1 (keep in mind this is supposed to be a pretty heated debate):

 

And now, Mass Effect 3 (jump forward to about the five minute mark)

Again, like the Uncharted clip, you don’t need a lot of background or context, the game can show you that circumstances are dire without telling you so. Also, walking and talking! It's like an Aaron Sorkin game!

When you don’t have to fill in the gaps with your imagination, you’re free to sit back and soak in the experience. What were you thinking about during the Uncharted 2 clip? Was your mind wondering, or did you just watch? Games are becoming as fun to watch as they are to play. That’s great news for folks with non-gaming spouses and friends. It makes games look appealing, and that's great for everyone.

Not every game needs to be cinematic of course. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with relying on imagination. Imagination fueled my love for gaming for many years, and it still does. Also, you can’t ignore the downsides that cinematic games create. Nathan Drake is so believable as a real character that it gets harder to suspend your belief when you control him. Now you’re not just a guy shooting other guys, you’re Nathan Drake, an affable everyman, and you’re murdering scores of henchmen. Murdering! It’s also a bit more jarring to be exposed to the video gameness of a game that’s cinematic. One minute you’re engrossed in an amazing experience, your imagination turned off, and then the next minute you’re running across a giant environment to hit a switch that opens a door on the other side, or you pick up a stupid collectible (god, I’ve had enough of audio logs), or your computer controlled companion gets stuck in a door frame.

Even with the blemishes, it’s still exciting to see where games are going. Presentation-wise, games are showing more and telling less. Unfortunately, gameplay-wise, many, many, games tell first. They tell you how to play, where to go, what to do, and how to win, but that’s an issue for another blog. In the meantime, go play the Mass Effect 3 demo, it’s excellent.