I Don't Care About Your Video Game Universe (But It Should Still Exist)

I'm playing Halo 4.
Halo 4 is a love story. It's the story of a man-machine racing against time and destiny to save the woman/machine/AI he loves. After a decade of witty banter, heartfelt exchanges and convenient waypoint placements the voice, the woman who has been with you all this time -- the woman in your ear, who guides your every move -- is at terminal risk. You must save her.
Or she will die.

This is conflict; this is drama, this is the kind of situation that builds narrative to a fever pitch. This is what engages players; what drives them forward. This is what makes your actions feel meaningful, this is the context that adds weight to every shot you take.

I'm playing Halo 4 and I've now been asked to stop. I've been asked to stop because something else is more important than rescuing the woman I love from certain death. Apparently I must now listen to the indulgent warblings of a being I've never seen before but is nonetheless important for some reason. She must explain, in very precise but somehow opaque terms, why this is the case. I have to indulge this. I have to listen because the game is now telling me this exercise in clunky universe building is far more important than saving the woman I love.

I feel a real sense of Deja Vu. I feel as though I've been in this position before. A place where my enjoyment of what should be a simple, classic tale deftly retold with triggers and analogue sticks is being derailed by clumsily explained details I couldn't care less about.

Why do I even need to be aware of these things?


More and more -- and this is a positive thing -- I'm starting to see developers invest an increasing amount of time on universe building. Bioware and the world of Mass Effect is a great example.

During the development of Mass Effect 2 I spoke to the game's Director Casey Hudson. He said that before a single line of dialogue was written, or a single line of code, the team spent a significant amount of time attempting to build the skeleton that would become the Mass Effect universe. This is good.

Stories spring from that universe, he said. And he's correct -- it becomes far easier to tell a coherent story when the rules of your universe are written down and known.

But here's the important part: that universe, those characters you spent hours building, the worlds you define -- as an audience we simply do not need to understand or be shown the efforts put forth in this endeavour. We should simply see the fruits of the labour.

In short: I don't care about your video game universe, but it should still exist.


This is script writing 101. You must invent the history of everything in your universe, the characters, the setting. You must internalise it and then use that knowledge to tell your story in the simplest terms possible, in a way that leaves an audience satisfied. Inner depths should be hinted at, but never through exposition. The world is to be explored through the imagination of your audience, not through indulgent dialogue or cut-scenes that derail momentum. This is simply bad story telling.

You must kill your babies, not put them on a slowly rotating pedestal and say 'tada'!

Yet this is the mistake so many games (including every single Halo games besides the original) make. In fact they make two mistakes.

The first mistake is to assume that we care -- that we, the audience, are as invested in the minutiae of a game's universe as they, the developers. Often this is the case, but usually it is not. The universe is something for us to be dazzled by or, at best, mulled over.

Which brings us to the second mistake.

Developers seem to think that spelling out every single detail helps expand a video game's universe when the opposite is true. Explaining, through exposition, every avenue of a world only serves to make that world feel flat, two-dimensional and completely contrived. Take the original Halo for example...

You land on the first Halo. You see the incredible scale and you are bemused by it, in awe of the possibilities. Who built it? It must be sentient-made. It must be. Or is it? How could you build something this big, how is it even possible?

Your mind wanders as you play. The questions keep coming. Suddenly the world you are occupying transforms into this incredible space where anything is possible. It becomes part of an internal dialogue. There is mystery, there is suspense. The world you are in seems huge.

Compare this to the sequels. You, the player, bombarded with details you neither need nor want, details that cause that world to shrink before your eyes. Into something puny, rigid and inflexible. Something plastic. Unmistakably man-made.


Halo is a game about discovery. Halo 4 is, technically, a love story, but it's needlessly burdened with the kind of visible effort that should remain undetected by the audience. By all means build your universe, make it as dense as you possibly can, with all the detail your spreadsheets can carry. Then kindly, for the sake of everyone who plays, hide that work from view.

Because that work will be visible in every shot, in every character design, in every action made by every character. That effort will bleed through and your game will be better for it.

Assume that I don't care about your video game universe. Assume that I am oblivious. Assume that all I want to do is shoot things in the face and save the girl because, ironically, that's the only possible way you can make me care.

Pretend I don't give a damn about your video game universe. But make sure it exists.


    Brilliant article. This is not just a game-writing fundamental, but this can be extended to all creative endeavours.

      Actually, there's a storytelling principle that I remember learning some time ago that's supportive of Mark's position.

      It basically goes: write a prologue that introduces your world, and all the epic conflicts and immortal names that made the world what it is in Chapter One. And then delete it from your manuscript. Now you know the details, and it will show automatically in the remainder of the story,

        I don't know about deleting it. Just put it aside. That way your children can find that unfinished concept material and keep expanding it into extra books after you die. Works pretty well for the Tolkien estate.

          And the Herbert estate too, I think.

            And (thankfully) the Jordan estate.

      I remember saying that it was one of the reasons I really enjoyed The Lesser Evil.

        Thanks, I remember you saying that too :)

        You would not believe the number of prologues and ancilliary documentation I cut out of that monstrosity during its 12 year gestation!

      Yeah, this is exactly the same criticism I leveled at the game as soon as the credits rolled. The overly Sci-Fi elements of Halo 4's story are definitely the worst aspect of the whole thing. We never should have seen the Forerunners.

    Mass appeal 101 right here. I prefer having some more in depth details once I get past the basic story.

      Me too.

      I think Halo 4's is done pretty poorly in that respect... in contrast to Marks opinion.

      A covenant splinter sect being the enemies, the background of the primary antagonist...
      The decision to include the back story not in the game, but in the terminals... and then have those same terminals only viewable through Waypoint is baffling.
      In the most recent Spartan Ops episode it mentioned an Elite named Jul M'dama, but we only know who he is through the books.
      Frustratingly, many of my problems with the story could have been resolved with an expository cutscene once he hits Infinity... a simple "Hey Chief, you've been on ice for the past four years.. let me bring you back up to speed".
      Don't even get me started on why the entire United Nations Space Command military has only one Master Chief Petty Officer... or why the entire universe knows who he is.
      Not to mention that Del Rio gets relieved of duty because John-117 chose to disobey a lawful order he issued... but that's probably so Wesley Crusher can be captain.

      Mark, I think your problem isn't the universe building, it's that the game changed direction midway through.

        I pretty much agree with every thing you mention here, but this wasn't a concern for me as I'm an avid reader of the novels. About them calling him Master Chief, I think that's more of a "this is the one guy who was at the centre of the halo conflicts, beat it all, and survived". He's a legend. Think Leonidas and the 300, Achilles, Hercules (fake but still). Most others of the same rank would be addressed by more than rank I imagine.

        As for Del Rio being relieved, yeah I'm 50/50 on how that can be justified. On one hand, the Chief is very efficient, and seeing as he's such a legend, to find he survived the destruction of the Ark would be a major morale boost with both the troops and the civilian population.

        Sorry for the wall haha

          I'm an avid reader of the books too... which is why it stood out for me in the game.

          When he goes to the research station and announces 'This is the master chief'... how would they know he's still alive? It would be like saying, 'this is the Sergeant'... it just doesn't make sense.

          The same as why the UNSC flagship doesn't have an AI until the spartan ops campaign... I can't imagine an AI would let Cortana muck around onboard the Infinity like that.

          Ultimately, I can't grasp why he doesn't react to the spartan-4s or even ask about the spartans he grew up with... at the time of Halo 3, the last time he would have spoken to the others, there were a few still alive.

    I love expanded universes and the details behind them so I started reading this expecting to disagree completely with it, but I pretty much agree with what you're saying here.

    Although the difference for me is that I do care about each game's universe, I care about them a lot.
    But that for me is why I don't want every detail clumsily thrown at me through exposition and monologues, it's the mystery behind the universe that can make it so much more special.

      I really care about universes. I just think they shrink when you remove the mystery. Star Wars is a great example -- the original trilogy hints at this massive world. The new trilogy makes it feel tiny and small.

        The Matrix did this as well.
        After seeing the first film my mind raced with the implications of what the 'real' world was like and what could happen in the coming war, and then the other two films happened and Neo was simply cyber-jesus. *cough*

        Your words that the new Star Wars trilogy made the universe seem small are spot-on; when the creator defines the universe they are in fact quantifying it and therefore exposing its limits and boundaries, which shatter our infinite expectations.

          *takes off wannabe-smart-writer-person hat*

          I disagree about the Star Wars universe. When watching the original trilogy I never get the feeling that there's a universe behind it. It's just a typical space setting with a bunch of aliens thrown in to make it feel more sci-fi. There's no thought or grand design behind it. The prequels expand the universe enough to make it feel like maybe there is actually something more out there.

          Of course maybe seeing the original trilogy as a young kid and seeing the prequels when I was a bit older meant I missed a bunch of the unsaid stuff in the OT and my view of it's been permanently coloured as the original SW universe not having much in it.

            Yeah but just look at the attitudes towards the Force in the two trilogies.
            In the original trilogy it is seen as this mystic power that nobody but a Jedi could really understand, so much so that many in the empire barely believe it truly exists.

            Then the new trilogy comes along and turns it into science with midichlorian counts and what-not. Completely removing the allure behind one of the great mysterious... err... forces within the Star Wars universe.

              I couldn't agree more.

              The biggest problem with the new trilogy is that it wasn't out to expand the Star Wars mythos at all; it was there to put into canon what legions of Star Wars fans had already figured out anyway. It was entirely expository, really: how did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader?

              It was three movies dedicated to doing exactly what Mark hated, and that's didactically explaining something that's really peripheral and not directly relevant to the content of the main story (assuming you feel, as I do, that the original trilogy comprises the main story), without adding anything that impacts our experience of either story.

              I guess I just feel that the only reason the force is this mystical thing in the original trilogy is because George Lucas just wanted something cool for the films and hadn't really put much thought into it and just hand waved the questions away with "it's mystical" as opposed to the things Mark's talking about where they already establish the universe, already come up with a story for the Halo rings and the Forerunners and then just don't tell us about it.

            Star Wars kinda gave the feeling of a dilapidated universe. That even with space travel and advance technology, life hasn't improved and people still struggle with life. The only "salvation" is in the form of the Empire wanting control and order, but at the cost of freedom.

            The prequels take away this feeling and give the impression that life is great and everybody is happy regardless of what's happening. Several times it's said, "Our people are suffering", but in the background it looks like everybody is just going to work for another peaceful day.

              I kind of got that impression too, but I think in the original trilogy, the decades of civil war is what was supposed to have taken its toll on living conditions. But as it turns out, there wasn't all that much war after all... so I don't know what to think :P

            The prequels tried to explain too much. All that stuff about the senate and politics and the medichlorians we didn't need to know. We need a bit of mystery. We don't need to know why everything is happening. Even charater motivation can be left a bit vague. The more detail you put in, the more holes people find. I am a huge fan of Halo but at times I have to agree that they tend to provide too much detail. I still don't get all of the Gravemind thing and the Didact in Halo 4 is similar. The internal conflicts of the covenent were good though as it introduced the Arbiter which was fun to play. I'm not sure of the need to introduce the librarian to somehow explain stuff from the original trilogy though.

          Cyber-Jesus is such a simple term. I'm always surprised with how many people didn't get that part of the series.

          But there's also the mystery of whether or not they're out of the matrix, or if they're in another matrix that creates constant loops of building life that leads to a cyber-life that repeats it.

            Don't confuse fanon and canon. That stuff about a Babushka Matrix never appeared, or was even hinted at in the actual films. Least as far as I can remember, it's been a few years.

              It most certainly was, the Architect (the guy in the white room w/ all the TVs) says things like "yours is not the first Zion," and it's sort of implied that there's another level to the Matrix, which is why there have been so many iterations of Neo too.

        I think your article has some really good points Mark, but you seem to be on quite the attack these days. Especially regarding assassins creed 3. Perhaps you're becoming a bit cynical? ;)

          Or perhaps this year's blockbusters have all been incredibly disappointing. The games industry has become bloated and decadent and every game suffers because of it. I don't want to be 'that guy', but it's all Call Of Duty's fault.

            I don't really think this years blockbusters have been disappointing. There's been tonnes of great games. More than I have enough time for at least. I just think its becoming a trend to claim that things are worse than they are. I don't play cod because of the people it attracts, but there's been plenty of other games out there in the last few months. Not every year is a Zelda/Half Life year.

              I'm speaking more of its success and how it has changed the expectations of the majority of consumers (ie. not people who read and comment on kotaku articles, more the sort of people who buy 2 - 3 games a year) and also the demands on developers.

              Everything must be constructed to be highly profitable, safe, and more like the surrounding competition every year.

              I mean, look at Gears of War Judgement. Gears 3 was bad enough when they added a "Deathmatch" mode with re-spawns because people have short attention spans, but now there's a FREE-FOR-ALL mode too! I'm not one of those purists that doesn't ever want games to evolve, Halo Reach took the best parts of Halo 3's multiplayer and made them even better, but free for all in Gears of War goes even more against the spirit, gameplay and design considerations of the series than even Deathmatch did.

    while a good read, and i can see your point. i'm of the exact opposite opinion. i care much more about the universe then the characters that live within. ive read all the halo books, and quite a lot of halo.wikia.com for the sole reason of gaining more insight into the universe.

    same deal with mass effect actually, every game as soon as i unlocked a new codex entry, i read it/listened to it because fictional history is somehow way more interesting to me then real life.

    halo 4 didnt really add much knowledge if you read the books. but i guess most people only play the games which is fair enough. that said, i do recommend giving the universe more attention, as it gives the games a deeper feeling. in particular to me, the cutscene at the end of the halo 3 level 'the storm' is infinitely more tense with the knowledge that the last of the human fleet is being sent in to stop truth and save the galaxy. rather then simply "ooo look explosions".


      Funny thing is I loved the codex in Mass Effect as well.
      I think that because it was presented outside of the story like a wiki entry it didn't feel like forced exposition and the player was free to research as much or as little into the universe as they wanted.

        Maybe it's more of a matter of the writers knowing what to offer details on and what not to offer details on.

    Part of me agrees. I love having a sense of mystery when playing a game. Of not knowing the exact origins of the Reapers in ME3 or who the Forerunners really were. It somehow makes everything more exciting.

    The other part of me wants to say, shut up Mark*, Halo 4 is perfect in every single way.

    *Don't shut up. You're the best games journalist in Australia.

      Mystery is good. While I love all the additional info and details, there's always room for things you're not supposed to know.

      Halo 4... perfect? HAHAHA! You're joking, right?

      Halo 4 suffers from the exact same problem as every game since the original. It's an unremarkable sci-fi shooter. It's got a limited stable of enemies, weapons that sound like Fisher Price toys, a generic story that DEMANDS that you care but gives you no reason to do so, and it gets so convoluted that it can't explain itself logically to players unless they're already infinitely invested in the setting.

      The original Halo was great in that it taught developers how to use a controller correctly for an FPS. On the PC it was just a run of the mill shooter.

      The Halo series is just an average shooter with good production values. That's all it's ever been, but for some reason countless reviewers and gamers are convinced that it's amazing.

        Noooo, none of those things are really true at all. The first Halo wasn't quite revolutionary, but it was definitely evolutionary: things like regenerating health, multiple (fun) vehicles in single- and multiplayer and pretty-good AI, were all pioneered at least in part by Halo. The story it told was also, in my opinion, pretty awesome, and the background canon that was established was even better. In terms of quality and execution, the games have always had exceptional AI, sound design, and weapon balancing, right up to Halo 4.

        It was most certainly not 'run of the mill.' Has it ever occurred to you that YOU, not everyone else, might be wrong?

          Incorrect. Halo was not the first to implement ANY of those things. Halo's AI wasn't as good as that implemented in Half-life or Unreal Tournament. It popularised regenerating health, but wasn't the first to use it, just like vehicles. Setting and storytelling is subjective, sure, but it fails to get a lot of basic things right.

          As for sound design, you're waving your Halo fanatic credentials loudly and proudly here. This is one thing that the series gets pinged for repeatedly by respectable reviewers as dropping the ball. Its contemporaries with similar brand clout like Call of Duty, Battlefield and and even Mass Effect stomp all over it. Some of Halo's music is absolutely fantastic, but its sound design is very pedestrian.

    I think ODST and Reach did a much better job at this. For a Halo fan, they know what an engineer is. In ODST, they don't explain anything about it. Only vague mentions of odd behaviour. Keeps you interested but doesn't shove it down your throat.

    Reach is pretty much the same. They don't explain the Forerunner buildings or why Cortana is important. Just that you need to deliver her. They don't know cutscenes of repeated civilian deaths, you can see that in-game while fighting.

    I actually thought Halo Reach enhanced the beginning of Halo CE even further to be honest.

    i want to add, theres still loads of the universe left unsaid (so far). like the precursors, where the flood came from. and some of the less grander things that were only mentioned in passing, like the ancient human / ancient sanshyuum alliance.

      I think Mark would argue that as long as there's no game directly set in those time periods, this is information we don't need to ever see. And I agree.

        You probably shouldn't read Halo: Primordium, it explains (well, strongly implies) where the Flood came from and why the Precursors no longer exist. And that Ancient Human/Prophet alliance is non-existent everywhere, even in the Halo 4 terminals, so that area is still safe.

    I read recently (behind the times, I know) that there was a comic about Shepherd Book's past. I will never ever read it, because the mystery of the man and the setting was what made the character compelling.


      Completely agree. Also the same reason I refuse to read the book 'Revan' (as in Revan from Star Wars EU), and feel disappointed by The Old Republic.

      See I saw that book and I thought it was fantastic to get some incite into why he ended up on Serenity. I purchased it immediately and found it pretty well made and quite enjoyable. I much prefer that the story is out there instead of his past just being a complete mystery.

      I guess everyone has different opinions on these sorts of issues. Although I agree somewhat with the article, as far as Halo goes I'm actually really happy with how they've expanded the universe through the games. I'm still yet to play Halo 4 but for the rest I'm actually uncertain about what exposition they feel was forced in the games, cause as far as I can remember the exposition given tended to always pertain to something you actually had to do in the games.

    I would agree if all the story elements in Halo 4 weren't already covered in the books. It felt less like meaningless exposition and more like introducing people to story elements that they might not be familiar with. Seems necessary to me.

      This. However I reckon they did jump to new ideas immediately, and used the least possible amount of info to explain. They definitely could've made mention that Jul's forces weren't really associated with the majority of current Sanghelli politics/views.

    Maybe it's just me, but I found the campaign to be plain terrible. Not only did I not care in anyway about this new threat who didn't feel threatening what so ever, but the whole "greater threat than you have ever encountered" crap is the most repetitive stereotypical introduction to a new enemy in sequels. The whole thing could have been over and done with in a quick slug fest, and back to the better part of the story. Also, I find the whole "we need to do this quickly but there just happens to be bad guys in our way" every single level just plain tiresome. Again, one level would have achieved the exact same thing. Maybe it's just me, or maybe my expectations were too high, but H4 let me down majorly.

      I agree completely. And I f**king LOVE Halo.

    This is why Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made. The game tells a story amazingly well, without really ever saying anything.

      Totally agree.

    I think it's also a question of story telling often being at its best when its intimate and personal. Mass Effect is a good example of this, though I think its true of a lot of story driven games. Bioware are very good at designing and developing characters and their games are most enjoyable when you're hearing or interacting with the stories of the PC, his companions or the other denizens of the world.

    The further from this that the games get, as the player gets inevitably elevated to the saviour of the universe, the intimacy is lost, the strokes become broader, the tropes often become more evident and familiar and the result is often a far less interesting story.

    Still, I'd like to know why Koopa Troopa hates Mario so damn much.

    And what is Bowser's fascination with the Princess?

    I sort of agree with you... I'm of the mind that Halo 4 is two stories - the tragic love story between John and Cortana, and the macrocosmic looming threat to humanity that is the Didact. I think that the former is told very well, but with the latter it's a little too heavy handed - having one cutscene during which someone (whom you'd likely not even recognise unless you knew the story already) explains the details. Story should be diffused throughout, not lumped into a single, excruciatingly long, cutscene. Introduce it a bit at a time, and allow the player to think about each small piece of information they get, how it fits into the whole, and imagine what might fill the gaps; shoehorning it all into one cutscene skips this process - it doesn't give the player time to reflect on each piece - and leaves it feeling shallow as a direct result.

    In essence, you can't tell a story by throwing the book at your audience - you take your time and let them think on it. The first story was told well; the second one I'm still a little hazy on...

    I agree with not forcing story down the player's throat, but you feel the Didact didn't need to be stopped and was just in the way? You think Master Chief should have just gone to earth to fix his computer first rather than stop the guy who wants to wipe out the Human race?

    This seems to be something that a lot of indie and/or minimalist games do well (think Braid, Limbo, Shadow of the Colossus, etc.) I didn't find the universe building in Halo 4 distracting from the Chief/Cortana story, but it does seem as soon as you hit a game with a big budget/blockbuster tag... everything becomes overwritten and, intentional or not, over-controlled.

    More games need to just set the scene and then let you live the story FTL does this extremely well, keeping things simple makes things more personal and you're more invested in the game.

    With big titles... developers/publishers seem unwilling to take a chance on people having an imagination and picking up a story (or even creating their own) embedded within the game. Whether it's so they have something more tangible to show (thinking quantity of content justifies $$$), developers are a little too involved and think they're doing something great but lose perspective (gotta be some George Lucas types in the game dev world :P ), simply poor writing or any of a number of other factors, it seems like everything is explained to excess.

    The more details people go out of their way to explain, the more defined and limited a universe becomes... and, more often than not, it'll also wind up less engaging.

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