Monday, September 26, 2005

Show, Don't Tell

I found this post earlier today. The author tries to adapt the "show, don't tell" mentality from linear drama over to interactive drama. That is to say, games.

It's long and involved, but I don't agree with much of it.

The basic idea is that when we read a book or watch a television series, we are "shown" rather than "told". At least, we should be. Nobody on TV says "I'm furious!" Instead, they look and act furious. Pretty simple.

He asks "in a game, is it the player or the character who is supposed to be acting furious?"

He thinks it should be the player. There's a couple of issues with that, but I won't go into detail on any but one:

In order to feel resonance, we need to be told what to feel.

In movies, this is very straight-forward. He's angry, we can tell he's angry because he's looking and acting angry. Despite the fact that we're following a "show, don't tell" doctrine, we're still being told.

What we feel in relation to this character's anger depends on our opinion of the character. If we like the character, we're likely to get angry along with them, or at least sympathize. If we dislike the character, we're going to feel glad someone tweaked their nose.

A game has no special method for showing emotion. Emotion is always shown through how people act, and games have no fantastic new way of showing how people act. Maybe games will someday have new ways of determining how people act, but showing those actions will still be pretty much the same: we'll see the person, and we'll see the person doing something.

Point of fact, games are actually worse at this, because our camera angles are terrible. By highlighting given parts of the characters and their interaction, the camera highlights the emotion and punches it up a notch. Game cameras are centered around the main character or are eternally zoomed out. This probably accounts for the late development of body language displays, but it also probably accounts for the rather barren emotional climate most games have. "FMV" is a solution, but it has other problems.

Anyhow, because games have no special advantage in showing emotion, they have no special advantage in causing resonant (character-driven) emotion. So games have two choices:

A) Games are exceedingly good at making the player like or hate a given character. This, in turn, lets you get more return from less emotional impact. If the game really develops Abacus Jane, then when she loses her Fantasti-Math skills and starts to cry, you'll feel sorry for her.

This is enhanced by the game's length. Because games are long, you are exposed to a character for a very long period of time - and at a relatively high-fidelity level.

B) Games are also exceedingly good at getting direct emotional responses instead of sympathetic responses. In a movie, characters are built up so that actions for and against them will mean something. If a character strikes it rich right when he's introduced, that's a plot device, not a way to make you feel an emotional resonance.

In a game, however, you can immediately link a character to the player's well-being. Watching Abacus Jane help build a skyscraper in a movie would be pretty dull. In a game, however, being Abacus Jane building the skyscraper intrinsically links the player to both Abacus Jane and the skyscraper.

This means that when Abacus Jane loses her Fantasti-Math skills, the player will feel it personally instead of sympathetically. Because the player lost his Fantasti-Math skills and all the options that were available through that skill.

For both options, controlling the player's play experience allows you to rapidly set up a level of emotional response about characters and features that a movie can't match. You want the player to hate someone? Easy as pie - have that someone reduce the player's freedom of play. You want the player to like someone? Do the opposite. Just make sure to continually link the play experience with the character. Otherwise, the character becomes an empty vessel rather than an emotive font.

Did that make any sense?


sicher said...

I wrote the article you refer to and just want to clarify a little. I don't really want to argue that it is better "per se" to have the player be the one who should feel everything in a game. What I try to pinpoint is that there are two alternate ways to go, either you accept the fact that the character on-screen is living its own life in a sense - or you try to make the player impersonate the PC. It is when you try to do the second thing you run into trouble if you are not really clear about what you are doing. The article is an attempt to stipulate a set of guidelines to follow if you are trying to make a "*be* this character"-kind of game.

This whole narrative problem is something I see in games today - games that on one hand tries to make *you* the character you are playing (all talk about immersion, for example). On the other hand, the narrative segments of many of those game forces the experience in another direction. I think the impact of games can be stronger if the proper tools are chosen.

But then again, perhaps this is something not many agree with me really is a problem.

Anyways, thanks for reading and taking the time to think about these issues. I'm gonna continue tracking your blog.

Craig Perko said...


There's definitely a set of "tools" (or techniques) which are best for either kind of situation. I was arguing that having the player impersonate the PC, as you say, isn't a good idea.

There is a fundamental chasm between the player and the characters in the game. Unless technology radically improves, there's always going to be one. I'm saying we should use that chasm to our advantage whenever possible.