Essays, Not Rants! 361: Showing, Not Telling
There’s this saying in writing that you should show, not tell; that is instead of telling the audience about how John is smart, write a scene where we get to see that John is smart. That way the audience can see how smart John is and think to themselves "Wow, John is smart." Idea is because the audience drew their own conclusion (rather than being told such) it’ll resonate more.
A similar rule of thumb applies to video games, except instead of just seeing something it’s better to be able to play it. Watching a character fight a boss is one thing, getting to actually fight that boss is fantastic. Over the years, there have been different attempts by different game designers to figure out how to let players play scenes. Half Life never took control away from the player, allowing them to look around outside the tram car as they made their way into Black Mesa (or muck around in a room as a scientist provided story information). A clunkier solution was the use of quick time events, interactive cutscenes where you’d essentially press a button for your character not to die and the scene to continue. At its worst, these QTEs interrupted the flow of the game/cutscene: throwing in reflex-based minigames when you least expect it, forcing you to do over these scenes again and again.
The rationale behind QTEs – letting the player remain involved in scenes that don’t quite work with the controls – is a good one. Kingdom Hearts II had a really neat solution: Reaction Commands. During some fights with some enemies, a prompt would appear where if you hit triangle you would trigger a special move. If you were fighting a Samurai Nobody, you could trigger a stand-off where Sora and his opponent face off in a samurai movie style duel. Other Reaction Commands have him using an enemy’s abilities against the other bad guys or allowing for some really cool moves in boss fights. It adds depth to combat and, importantly and let’s the player be the one who pulls off that anime-esque move.
It’s been a while since that game came out, though, and in the meantime others have been figuring out how to let the player take a more active role. Uncharted 2 let the player still be in control during big set pieces, like maneuvering through a collapsing building, fighting bad guys, and then jumping through the breaking window into the building next door. It’s a fairly typical trope for an action movie, but what makes it so cool in Uncharted 2 is that you are the one who does it. It’s not a cutscene or even a qte, you’re in complete control of Drake as he scrambles around. The bar was raised and many games followed suit, finding ways to keep the player in control during big moments, further immersing the player into the game.
All this brings me (once more) to Kingdom Hearts III where a lot of the action is not just unplayable but actually takes place off screen.
I’m gonna be talking about the ending here too, so there are spoilers beyond this point!
From the get go you’re told that Kairi and Axel are training to become Keyblade Wielders. Cool, but aside from one cutscene of them talking, we don’t actually see any of this happening until several hours later where we see them talking again before the climax. This is a small thing, but it’s emblematic of the game’s tendency to tell you about things more than showing you, much less, I dunno, getting to play as Kairi or Axel as they train. But maybe that’s me asking more of the game than it offered.
The ending, however, sees Xehanort defeated but a slain Kairi not rescued. So Sora sets off to rescue her, ignoring Mickey’s warning that misusing his Power of Waking could have dire consequences. And that’s it until, during the epilogue, we see Sora and Kairi sitting on a tree in the Destiny Islands…and he fades away.
The intended tragedy of Sora sacrificing himself to save Kairi doesn’t quite land, however; in no small part because we don’t actually get to see it happen. While there is certainly a measure of poetic understatement in how it’s portrayed on screen, we’re not given nearly enough lead up for it to really work. If we’re gonna make Kairi need to be rescued again, why don’t we get to actually rescue her? For it to just happen offscreen feels so anticlimactic and robs it of its emotional weight.
I have my issues with Kingdom Hearts III, particularly how its pacing feels so darn weird. That so much of the plot happens off screen, including a vital part of the epilogue, leaves the player (me) feeling really unfulfilled. Point is, show, don’t tell; and if you’re making a video game, let us play the important bits.