|Oh Lego, is there anything you can't do?|
A popular mantra in writing, whether screenwriting, novels, comics, or poetry, is “Show, don’t tell.” This is a simple idea, though very hard to pull off in an effective manner. Often evoking emotions is much more effective when some of the most important things are left unsaid, but implied through character action. It also serves to keep the story interesting. Action and conflict keep people reading, or watching, or whatever, and not just ramping a burning car off the roof of a building rigged to explode, either. Action can be two people sitting across a table trying to calmly eat dinner.
Anyway, games need a different mantra. While “Show, don’t tell,” is still a good practice, especially in cutscenes or situations of exposition, but games are active. You cannot show a game to someone and have him or her experience it as a game. That’s why a better mantra for games is “Play, don’t show.”
This core concept may seem easy to comprehend, but for budding designers, and for writers especially, we’ve learned to tell stories that can be told or shown to our intended audience. This is a linear approach to storytelling, and while gaming can and has taken that route for quite some time, there are greater possibilities unique to the medium.
If you’d be so kind as to let me indulge my inner over-analyzing English-major self for a second, I’d like to go back to a game I mentioned last week, The Path. The Path sets up a purely linear objective (Get to Grandma’s house and stay on the path), but that is not how to finish the game. The player must go off the path and deliberately stray from the linear narrative into a world without directions, without a Path. They must find their own story, and explore a world in motion. The game itself is a beautiful representation of a story that could only be told in a video game, and it’s even an adaptation of a story hundreds of years old.
This is the foundation to the advancement of gaming as an art form. Gaming is far more accepted in this way now, but it has yet to produce the truly amazing cultural touchstones that lie in other media. Which is not to say it can’t or won’t. Obviously, I wouldn’t write a blog or talk so much about something I didn’t truly believe was capable of advancing not only art, but culture. Interactivity is not viable in other media, and that means there are few with enough practice and time to truly utilize the tools games have at their disposal.
This came to me as I was reading through The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing And Design, and I was wondering how to show through play that the main character I am working with likes to vandalize billboards by painting over them. How could I deliver this mission to the player without blatantly having anyone say “Go paint stuff on that billboard”? I’ve been struggling with this idea for weeks, trying to figure out the best way to go about this. Then I realized that I don’t have to tell or show the player what to do. I can let them do it. I can designer levels so they end up going where I want them to, I can have a prompt come up asking them to interact with the billboard when they near it. I can let them create a pretty picture, and I can let them do it again. This is what will start the game’s story. I don’t want it to be a cutscene; I don’t want it to be a Tutorial. If the game is made right, no one will ever notice the tutorial was there.
Now, onto dissecting the words of another famous game developer, David Jaffe. You may recognize the name as the creator of God of War and the Twisted Metal games. I remember when my interest in game design was just beginning to bloom, I watched the creator commentary videos for God of War (unlocked after beating the game). Jaffe was focused, in a way I didn’t expect. He knew what his character needed to be, and how to make him that, not only to characterize, but also to create enjoyment for the player.
|I actually think I like him better in blue...|
Jaffe, in a recent blog post entitled Shit or Get Off the Pot... called out “artsy” games as using “smoke and mirrors bullshit” to garner praise and adoration from not only the gaming public, but journalists as well. His blog post is quite relevant to what I was just saying. Jaffe points out that art does not need to loudly declare itself art. I believe he’s right, but I understand the situation. This is something that the Internet, and therefore a large quantity of the gaming community, has trouble with. The Internet is well known for not being a place of subtle wit and high-minded, equal-opportunity debate. It is a place where many people stick to their beliefs as strongly as possible, and that unfortunately manifests as those beliefs being shoved in your face. As in everything else, we need to play this whole thing cool.
If we really want the world at large to accept games as an art form, then we need to let it be that art form. We don’t need to talk about how games are like other media, how they have comparable stories to Kill Bill (my favourite movie) or Atlas Shrugged (a book I’ll probably never read). What works for a book doesn’t work for a movie, which doesn’t work for a game. The individuality of the medium has to be the focus of what makes that media great. Watch a movie, make notes about how things done there could be done in a book, or compare a comic and movie, or comic and book. Then take all of those media, and try to figure out how to translate gameplay into them.
We can tell people about games all we want, we can show people games all we want, but that isn’t gaming. Until we have them playing, they cannot understand the medium, and cannot believe in it like so many of us already do.