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.