Show Don’t Tell

This is day 30 of Blaugust.

Yesterday I played Until Dawn for 6 hours. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s a cinematic horror game that advertises how player choice matters. A group of teenagers has gone to an isolated mountain cabin (in Alberta!) on the anniversary of the disappearance of a couple of their other friends and a whole bunch of bad shit happens. Surprise. The characters in the game can survive or die based on player decisions.

I like the game. Obviously I like it, I played it all day. It’s fun, scary, and the animation is just amazing. However, it does something that really bugs me.

Until Dawn butterfly effect

When you make a decision that’s important the game tells you, loudly and obnoxiously. Bells are chiming, text is flashing. Butterfly effect! The game really wants you to know that this decision has an effect. That you’re awesome for changing the course of the game. That it’s awesome for letting you.

This for me, is completely ineffective. If anything, it destroys immersion. Yes, I’m playing a video game. I can tell by the controller in my hand, you don’t need to remind me on-screen every time I make a decision. Explicitly telling me I’ve altered the course of events by snooping and reading someone’s text message does nothing for me. Either I’ll play the game again, make new decisions and see their outcomes, or I’ll only play this game the once in which case it doesn’t matter.

Of course this isn’t the only game that does this. I got really fed up with Telltale games when I played The Wolf Among Us. Snow will remember that, the game would tell me, menacingly. So what? If you have to tell me something I’ve said or done has had an impact on another character via a text message on the screen, you’re not doing a very good job with writing (or animation, possibly).

Life is Strange - This action will have consequences

Life is Strange (which basically ripped off Telltale’s boring formula) does this too. This action will have consequences… Shut up, game. Show me consequences, don’t tell me. I think for most games this is just a way of making the player feel in control when they’re really not but for me, it backfires. After playing The Wolf Among Us, or even The Walking Dead  I saw I wasn’t really making that much of a difference. If a character was going to die, they were gonna die. I could save them at the beginning of chapter 3, but they’d still be dead by the end of it. So this control you have over the story is really a lie, and that’s a bit of a piss off. Had I not been bombarded with messages telling me how much impact I’m having, I wouldn’t be upset at all about my choices not really mattering. I like to play the games, I like to experience a story whether it gives me options or sets me along a particular path. What I don’t like is being constantly, obnoxiously told how important my choices are when they generally really aren’t.

What do you think about these kinds of games? Can you see any positives to constant on-screen messages telling you when you’ve (apparently) changed the course of the game?

2 responses to “Show Don’t Tell

  1. The one positive that I can see for those messages that seemingly flip a flag or increment a variable behind the scenes (except you’re never really sure whether they’re being honest or no…)

    …is to add a sort of immersiveness in the sense of an internal voice for the character you’re playing. Let’s say you’re playing Bigby Wolf and you say something out of an instinctive in-the-moment response, and then “Snow will remember that” comes up on the screen. I tend to read that as potentially an inner voice realization that what was said in the heat of the moment may have consequences down the road – it’s the poignant pause on a TV screen or a comic panel where we do a close up on the character’s face, maybe see him swallow or grimly accept what’s coming next, it’s the part in a book that usually made explicit, if we can hear the character’s thoughts, etc.

    Of course, any potential impact does tend to lose its luster if it repeats so darned often that every last bit of dialogue turns out to be memorable and life-changing to every single NPC you meet.
    Jeromai recently posted..Blaugust Day 31: What Next?

  2. I cannot think of a single good reason to do that in a game. How incredibly jarring!
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