Treating the Player with Respect!

  • Edwin McRae

Here’s something I’ve been asked to do as a writer, and have flatly refused. But it’s something I see all too often in the AAA games space.

Treating the player like a moron.

To unpack that rather inflammatory comment, I mean… treating the player like they are incapable of absorbing and digesting more than one story point at a time. No nuance. No subtext. No allusions. No foreshadowing.

Too often a game claims to be ‘story rich’ then delivers on-the-nose dialogue and to-the-point scenes. Every character says exactly what’s on their mind, leaving nothing for the player to interpret. Characters are restricted to only talking about the topic at hand and nothing else.

That’s not drama. That’s a series of lectures.

I’ve heard the following excuse too many times.

"We don’t want to limit player agency so we’re not going to make them listen to this. It needs to be understandable while the player is doing other things."

Now this is totally fine for games who aren’t aiming for the ‘story rich’ mantle. Sometimes all you need is a quick comment from an NPC to point the player in the right direction. Maybe you’re just adding some character flavor to your UI text. If your narrative is there simply to explain gameplay then on-the-nose is probably the best way to go.

But if you want your game to deliver a rich story experience with an interesting plot and satisfying character arcs then ‘player distraction’ is no excuse for dumbing the story down. People listen to audiobooks while driving, exercising or cleaning the house. You don’t dumb a book down because someone might be ironing his shirts while listening to it! Why would you do it with a game?

If your game is promising ‘story rich’ then you need to write it with the assumption that the player is paying attention. Heaven forbid, they might have actually bought your game for the story. ;-)


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About Edwin McRae

Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.

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