How It’s Done
“Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard it. But applying it is something else, especially when there are different ways of showing and different ways of telling. I’d like to focus on one example of some first-rate “experience-giving” vs. “info-dumping”: Half-life 2.
This first-person shooter, produced by Valve Corporation, does a marvelous job of enveloping the player in the environment, leading to an immersive and, at times, beautiful experience. Although not for the fainthearted or squeamish (like me; I watch over my dad’s shoulder), the first ten or fifteen minutes of the game are an excellent example of my theme “Show, Don’t Show“, meaning don’t use explicit visuals to force-feed story elements to your audience.
ALERT: minor spoilers for the beginning.
The power of the opening sequence is in the way the game hides the truly horrifying things… We still understand that they’re there, but we’re not beat over the head with the idea.
The main character of Half-life 2 begins the game by essentially waking up from hypersleep. In first-person POV (point of view), you find yourself on a litter-strewn, graffitied train, with only two other civilians in Chinese-like uniforms. One of them mutters about never getting used to being relocated. Why are we relocated so much?
As we step out of the train, a prerecorded welcoming address from the administrator / leader / dictator begins, as his image greets you from the huge, wall-mounted video panel. Hunger Games much? He tells you it’s safer here. Eyeing the tattered posters of him on the mildewed cement walls and the rusty chain-link fences, you wonder what “safe” means.
Heading out, we see a gas-masked guard confiscate a man’s suitcase, even though it’s all he has left. The guard glares through his goggles at you and walks away. Is he even human? With his mask, body armor, and distorted, radio voice, you wouldn’t know. Creepy.
You see a woman waiting for her husband by the gate. Their train was stopped in the woods, and he was taken for “questioning”. He was supposed to join her on the next train, but that hasn’t happened yet. So she tells you. You didn’t see it happen, but the quaver in her voice speaks volumes. You get the feeling her husband isn’t coming on any train.
In the waiting area of the train station, more civilians (all in the same plain uniforms) mutter bits of conversation. One man is so overcome he’s talking to himself incessantly. Round and round, nonsensical sentences. What happened to him to crack his mind like that?
Everywhere, trash and broken cardboard boxes litter the floor. Something is definitely wrong here – but there’s no flashing sign that says, “This is bad”. We’re smart. Our skins are crawling, and we know nothing good is going down.
As you try to find your way to an exit, any exit, a man ahead of you in the line gets pulled aside by the faceless security police, and ushered away. I bet they just have to stamp his papers. Yeah…that’s it.
Now a guard, his goggles glinting in the shadows, orders you to follow him into a dark, uncarpeted cement hallway. The door closes behind you (of course). As you pass a door along the hall, you hear a citizen protesting that it’s “all a mistake”. The guard in the room with him walks to the door, and closes the little shutter in the jail-like window.
What’s he going to do? You can’t see…but you can sure guess! By forcing you to use your own imagination, Half-life 2 becomes that much more real because parts of it live, not on the screen, but in your own mind.
Your escort moves you into a room. From the door, the first thing you see is a dentist-like reclined chair—and a splash of blood on the floor. We’ve now left the subtle atmosphere of despotism: this is downright fear-of-bodily-harm creepy. Besides, the game hasn’t even given you a weapon yet. Nothing. Not even a plastic bottle of contaminated water to throw at people.
The guard who brought you asks another masked man, “Need any help with this one?” This is not a simple paperwork session. This isn’t “Your train has been delayed; we’re bumping you.” This is bad. Has he explicitly told you what he expects to be done to you? No – You don’t need him to.
The sense of defenselessness seeps into your muscles as the door closes and locks. Then the guard you’re alone with turns off the cameras in the room. Are you quitting this game yet, or are you still hoping it’ll get better?
To avoid a total spoil, I’ll just say: You survive. Of course you do; you’re the player. But until that moment, you might not be sure.
You’re still not given a weapon, though, until you’ve run through a couple more back alleys, past empty, rusted playground equipment (there are no more children; reproduction is suppressed), through apartments bare of carpeting, bedsteads, or basic hygiene amenities, and into the shock-sticks of the enforcers.
Yes – Half-life 2 pulls you in, partly because the high-resolution graphics get you thinking this whole thing is real, partly because they leave enough unsaid your adrenaline starts to pump as you try to fill in the missing pieces yourself.
Giving the audience enough hints to direct their imagination involves them in the creative process. It makes the experience more personal to them, letting them fill in the missing pieces with their own darkest nightmare. It’s giving them an experience, not checking off the plot-points of your story while the audience passively watches your protagonist suffer.
By forcing us to create part of the horror in our own mind, Half-life 2 becomes that much more visceral.
And now I almost start looking over my shoulder, eyeing every drainage ditch as I pass by. You never know what might crawl out of them.
Of course, no one is perfect. Not even Half-life 2. Next week, I’ll discuss a later level of Half-life 2 where they overdid it a little with the gross-out factor, as opposed to Halo, where the mere absence of enemies is what ramps up the tension. Stay tuned.