Tell, don't show.

(Originally posted on my personal blog)

It’s a little ridiculous that I’ve been writing on this blog for a few weeks now, but I haven’t really mentioned video games that much at all.  Maybe it’s because with the election in eight days, my thoughts are elsewhere.

However, I’ve been playing a lot of games lately.  I just haven’t been writing about them.

Dead Space is number one on my list at the moment.  I’m only about two hours or so into the game, but it’s shaping up to be pretty incredible.  They really get the atmosphere right, from the music cues whenever enemies appear to the in-game advertising for fictional products.

I do wonder what the focus group and playtesting data must have shown for the game, however.  Within the first few minutes, you’re told by no less than three different sources about OMG STRATEGIC DISMEMBERMENT.  It is a pretty fun concept, especially with weapons that do damage in a visible line.  But… I get it.  I need to shoot off limbs.  Thank you.

I don’t remember the exact sequence, but I’m pretty sure the first hint you get is a visual cue.  We’ll call this one…

GOOD:

He wouldnt bother to write aaaargh...

"He wouldn't bother to carve 'aaaargh'..."

This is nice.  The top of the “C” in “cut” is thicker than the bottom, which gives a nice mental image of the guy sticking his hand in a fresh wound to get some blood-ink, and ending up with a lot more than he’d thought he’d get.  I’m not really sure why the author has two right hands, though.  Or why, if he was losing that much blood, he would bother to waste it on a possessive pronoun.  I think “CUT OFF LIMBS” gets the point across.  No need to get flowery.

BETTER:

Right around the time you see the WARNING WRITTEN IN BLOOD, you also receive an audio transmission from another survivor:

“Isaac — be careful.  Shooting them in the body didn’t seem to work.  Go for the limbs.  Dismember them.  That should do the job.”

It’s times like these that I wish we had reached the point in games where you could talk back to the characters.  ”‘Shoot for the limbs’, okay, I get it.  Did you not think I knew what ‘dismember’ meant?  I’m supposed to be controlling an electrical and mechanical engineer.”

As an aside, hats off to EA for naming the main character “Isaac”.  When I chose to name the main character in Space Siege “Seth”, I met with resistance from the dev team.  I thought it was a great name for its “father of humanity” connotations, and because Seth Bullock was a badass.  But I got told that “Seth” was “too nerdy”, among other things.

In the end, it was the right decision — as was changing his last name to “Walker” from “Kendrick”.  That would have been bad.

I just wish we’d had the same inspiration when we named the main character in Unreal II — “John Dalton” isn’t exactly the most memorable appellation I’ve ever heard.

But yeah, “Isaac”.  Good show.  I hope that Matt’s wrong about why they named him “Isaac Clarke”, because that’s a little cheesy.  Still, it’s a good name nonetheless.  Also a good name?  ”Necromorphs”.  Punchy, and it sounds like something we’d actually call aliens.  We had a similar problem on Space Siege with our aliens — I originally called them “The Hunters”, since they were originally from the Beta Canum Venaticorum system… which is Latin for “Hunting Dog”.  Unfortunately, when I realized that Halo and Half-Life had already gotten there first, I had to change it.

Unfortunately, none of the replacements worked that well.  We eventually settled on “Kerak”, which every single actor initially mispronounced in the studio.  I’m still not sure how humanity figured out that they were called the Kerak, since they never communicated, but… I don’t want to go down that road.

Anyway, when I say “Tell, don’t show”, examples like this are what I mean.  The visuals are nice, but the audio communication gets the point across better, without being nearly as on-the-nose.

BEST:

There’s one other audio log that you find around the same time.  If this was the only clue, I think the experience would have been even stronger:

“This is Benson, Tram Engineering.  We think we’ve figured it out.  Smith killed one!  Listen — forget about shooting them in the body.  You gotta cut off the limbs.  Grab a cutter, anything like that.  Cut ‘em apart!”

Perfect.  Much more evocative than “Dismember them.”  And the guy’s plainly terrified, which sells the mood really well.  I’m not wild about “cut” being in there three times in eleven words, but that’s just nitpicking.

So yes.  More awesome audio logs, please.  System Shock 2 can’t be the undisputed king of audio logs forever.  Can it?

Now, back to using my upgraded plasma cutter to shoot off legs.

3 comments to Tell, don't show.

  • I actually thought that the visual hint was the strongest one – afterwards, they kept riding the same point to death without checking whether, maybe, I had already figured out that I should be mismembering the frickin things. Started feeling repetitive. But hey, I guess they wanted to make sure that everybody know how to play the game – and as you get deeper into the game, there’s a few minor twists on that limb chopping.

  • Grant

    Of course you thought the visual hint was the strong one. You have an LD background. :)

    And I certainly don’t begrudge them for making sure people got the dismembering thing — that’s the point I was trying to make about the focus groups/playtesting.

    I’m actually using the Plasma Cutter exclusively, because the other weapons are too expensive. I wish I were playing it on the 360 so I could get an achievement for it, but hey, I paid good money for this PC.

    And the thing about Isaac’s name makes me sad, but it’s still a good name. I’ll just ignore this new knowledge.

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