Show vs Tell

There’s an adage in visual media where it’s better to show than to tell. It’s more so related to overexposure, where the audience is treated as incapable of putting A and B together to come to a conclusion. As much as I like Sherlock Holmes as books, they suffered from this greatly as key plot points are never shared with the reader. Whereas you can watch the movies (Murder on the Orient Express is great), or something similar like Knives Out and you have all the clues along the way. Nolan does a great job in this with The Prestige (another awesome film).

Things that go off the rails are more like Lost or Game of Thrones (TV). Creators have painted themselves into corners, and lacked a larger vision, so we end up with some duct tape and bubble gum to try to patch all the loose threads together. Or, in some cases, the author think they are being quick witted, but the reveal stretches the imagination so far that it just doesn’t jive. JK Rowling is a GREAT example of this, wow.

Video games are a tough spot, mostly because they are interactive. That challenge means that the plot points and beats are not experienced in the same order for all players. Throw in player agency, and the plot threads get much more complicated. RPGs and open-world games really struggle here, as side quests can take you all over the place. Final Fantasy is chocked full of monologues to get the plot points across, often meant as milestones so players remember what’s at stake.

I look at something like Horizon: Zero Dawn. The majority of the lore in that game is through text, notes you can read about what happened before. It’s incredibly in depth. Exploring the old labs, you get a better appreciation of what happened before. There are however, some quite ham-fisted points where characters go into pure monologues to explain themselves and why the world is it is. WoW (MMOs in general) is pure exposition now, which if I take a step back, is pretty much required as the writing is atrocious (plot vs character).

Then we get to something like God of War. While you only really deal with Freya and Baldr, Mimir spends a significant amount of time telling stories about the other gods while you’re paddling your boat. They fill in the (literal) blank spaces in the game and provide the context for the larger storyline. With few exceptions, there’s nothing Mimir says that relates directly to the game itself. Learning that Odin will go to any lengths to learn doesn’t change the main gameplay – you never actually meet Odin.

Hades is another great example of context delivery without overly exposing. It helps that the writing is awesome, and not something that prevents gameplay.

And now that I’m in AC: Valhalla, and the foundational context is also the Nordic gods, it makes for a very different shift. AC games have always struggled with managing plot lines, the “real world” never really intersected with the game world in a meaningful sense. The in-game Templar vs Assassin line has become much less relevant too, almost an afterthought in this game. AC is instead moving into the ancient lore, what with Atlantis in Odyssey, and now Asgard/Jotunheim in this one. I won’t spoil much here, but AC is making as solid case that none of their main plot lines actually matter. Eivor’s settlement has nothing to do with the Nordic gods, nothing to do with the “real world”. Just a (very, very long) story about survival.

I can’t imagine the mental gymnastics a game director or creative director has to go through to ensure a game delivers on all fronts for the story. Probably why there are so few good examples over the years, and why the ones that are great really stick with me.

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