The Rare Art Of Not Explaining Everything

Some games explain every sword, every planet, and every character's back story. Fewer games leave things to mystery. In recent months I asked two creators at BioWare and Team Ico about how much we gamers really need to know.

In Seattle, last month, I talked to Mac Walters about this. He's writing next year's Mass Effect 2 from BioWare. The studio he works for is known for telling long, detailed stories through its video games. The Mass Effect and Jade Empire, to name a pair of recent releases, are crammed with optional, explanatory text. The games' characters are often ready to provide richer detail about their lives, their tribes, or their home planets than the plot requires.

"A lot of the reason that stuff is in there is because we have players who want to know everything and love that," Walters said. He believes that the details BioWare provide bring some of their players back to "the days they picked up their Dungeons and Dragons [source]books and read about every character in there."

That deep level of extra narrative detail may be a BioWare signature, but it's not a BioWare exclusive.

Consider this sampling of late 2009 games: If you find hidden treasures in Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2, you'll be prompted to press a button to learn background information about them. Snoop through the spaceship Ishimura in EA's Dead Space Extraction and you can find text and audio logs that elaborate on the events that preceded your arrival. Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum overflows with dozens of discoverable recordings of its colorful secondary characters revealing their deranged states of mind.

It is so common for games to provide all these extra details that I had begun to look at Fumito Ueda as the most unusual of game creators.

The Sony developer's games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, explain almost nothing. Their heroes are ciphers, their side-characters almost mute. They include no scrolls, no tablets and no scannable objects.

They let you wonder. Or, to put it another way, Ueda's games seldom explain anything.

(A clip from Mass Effect's Galactic Codex)

In Tokyo last month I asked Ueda if he was intentionally trying to promote a sort of video game storytelling minimalism. "There's no deliberate idea to do that," he said through a translator, suggesting it was a less conscious consequence. "My personal preference is that I tend to be more easy-going. I'm not so interested in small text and a detailed background setting."

I talked to Ueda about the propensity of other developers to include a lot of background detail. They do it differently than you, I said. They explain the backgrounds of every character and every sword.

"But I think what it's trying to achieve is the same goal [as me,]" Ueda said. "I think having information about the sword or the character history is trying to add realism to the game as much as possible. And that's just one method of doing it, to have text and characters speaking. But that's not the way I chose to go with my games. I'm focusing on realism of the image itself." His realism, as he put in the context of developing his team's next game, The Last Guardian, comes from a style of graphics and animation that can convey emotion and a sense of presence in an imaginary world.

Back in Seattle earlier in the month, Walters from BioWare had advocated a sense of mystery but explained the challenges of not explaining things. "It's always a balancing act between what can be mysterious and what can't be," he said. "If it's something the player has to know, we need to find a way to make sure a player knows it. Sometimes that even involves repetition because, if the player misses it, then they're just confused and frustrated. But there are things we can sort of leave hanging. That's something I'm personally a fan of. If I see it in my work or the writer's work, I'm fine with leaving it in there. As long as we resolve it at some point or there's a plan to resolve it at some point."

Explain the key stuff, he said. Leave the rest of it optional.