Thoughts on Design: Show or Tell

by Taliesin Coward

Numbers. They are literally everywhere in computer games. Everything that you see in a game or that the game does, has some numerical value attached to it. Movement speed? Check. Damage done by a particular weapon? Ditto. This is hardly surprising, as numbers (specifically, ones and zeros) underpin everything that a computer does, from telling the AI how to behave, to rendering sophisticated images.

When it comes to actual gameplay and design, however, numbers – or rather, how they are depicted – play a central role in determining whether the game can be described as cinematic or not. By cinematic, I don’t mean that it looks like a movie. In fact, what is regarded as the earliest cinematic game was a 2D, side-scrolling adventure game. Rather, cinematic in the gaming-sense implies the game works off an inherent and visually-cohesive logic.

Non-Cinematic Games

Examples of non-cinematic games are easy to find. One of the most obvious examples of this is the role-playing-games (RPGs) and games with RPG elements. In these games, numbers take a front and center role, with visual depictions being secondary. For example, the success of an action, or how effective it is, is determined by a set of statistics such as player speed, strength, and so on. When a player attacks, the computer plays an attack animation, and then a notification will appear. This may be a flash of numbers showing just how much damage the attack did, or an alert showing you the attack was evaded.

In fact, some games like Neverwinter Nights put the number on display, with players being able to see the computer’s virtual dice rolls, which determine whether an action will succeed or fail. As Neverwinter Nights is a Dungeons & Dragons game, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has played D&D or has a passing knowledge of the rules. In D&D, the success or failure of nearly everything the players do is determined by their character’s statistics, and the roll of dice. For example, the player will declare they are attacking a foe with a particular weapon, and the Dungeon Master (another player controlling the game) will instruct the player to roll the dice. Based on the value of the roll, as well as any relevant bonuses or penalties, they will declare if the attack hit, missed, was evaded or countered, and how much damage was done. If games like D&D are pen and paper simulations of a fantasy world, then computer games based on such games are “simulations of simulations”.

The ultimate point is that, with non-cinematic games, the animations and visuals are secondary to what seems to happen. The animations merely represent an action being taken – such as declaring an attack in a D&D game – rather than the action itself. This can lead to weird visual disconnects, such where you order to character to fire an arrow, see it land fair-and-square on your target, only to be told that the foe in question somehow managed to evade the attack. One of the worst culprits of this kind of visual was the melee combat in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. If you stood in front of a foe and swung your sword at them, visually, the sword made contact. However, whether or not you actually hit your target depended on your skill rating. In the early game, this could be particularly frustrating, as attacks which your eyes were telling you hit their mark, would have no effect.

Cinematic Games

In non-cinematic games, running a character through with a sword may simply depict a heavily damaging attack. While it may carve a large chunk out of impalee’s health bar, if it doesn’t inflict sufficient damage they will simply get up and continue to fight (such as in Dark Souls). Cinematic games, by contrast follow a visually cohesive logic. The animations don’t represent an action being taken, they represent the action itself. In cinematic games, if a foe gets run through with an obviously lethal blow, then that foe is dead.
This doesn’t mean the numbers aren’t present (for example, such as how much health the player has, or how much damage a particular weapon does), just that these are pushed into the background.

One excellent example of this was the combat in the original Assassin’s Creed. Hitting an opponent with a weapon inflicted a certain amount of damage. The better the weapon, the fewer hits it would take to defeat an opponent. However, rather than expressing these with numeric notifications, this was conveyed via animation. It was very rare for a successful attack to land an actual blow on body of the target – this usually only happened on rare occasions when an attack was made from the sides or behind of the target. Rather, the character taking damage would clumsily catch the attack on their blade, suffering visible jarring and staggering from the impact. When enough damage was inflicted, the next successful attack would trigger a kill animation, with the attack landing a visibly lethal blow.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth did something similar when it came to infantry and cavalry fighting anything troll-sized or bigger. If the smaller units got hit by the troll’s club, then that was that. No one gets hit by a club that size and gets chucked that many meters through the air, and survives. What your eyes told you, and what the game simulated (at least in this instance), were in agreement. This was forgotten in the sequel, where a troll’s attack would still send infantry hurtling through the air, but most would pick themselves up and continue fighting.

Blending the Two: When it works, and the other times

While cinematic and non-cinematic approaches to game design can be largely antagonistic to one another, it is possible to blend the two to produce a semi-cinematic hybrid. Take The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for example. For the most part, this successfully pairs non-cinematic and cinematic elements. Players can see attack and defense rating of arms and armour (non-cinematic), but these are combined with cinematic logic. Strikes with weapons which can be seen to hit their target, inflict damage or kill. There are also distinct and lethal-looking animations which only trigger when a foe is defeated. That said, as the screen capture shows, there are still occasional breakdowns in the logic.

By contrast, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and its sequels suffered both on an expectation level, and on the logic inherent in the visuals. The original Prince of Persia game is regarded as being the first cinematic platformer, and The Sands of Time continued with most of the cinematic elements and logic of the first games, except when it came to traps. In the original three Prince of Persia games, if a trap looked lethal, it was. However, in The Sands of Time series, it was perfectly possible to get hit by a whirling blade as big as the Prince and survive. In any of the previous games, this would have resulted in instant and cringe-worthy bifurcation. That is, it both failed to meet the expectations set up by previous entries in the series, and its own internal visual logic underpinning the game.

The most jarring example in recent years, however, is Assassin’s Creed: Origins. In a move away from its cinematic roots, AC: Origins incorporated various overt RPG elements. These included XP points, visible character levels (such as a guard with the number 9 floating next to him), and numbers which would appear above foes during combat, showing how much damage had been inflicted, just to name a few.

Such a system can happily live alongside the other, more cinematic components of the game’s design. However, the cinematic logic we’ve come to expect from both previous entries in the series, and other elements of AC: Origins’ gameplay, is missing. Attacks which visibly connect with the target and should (by what is shown in the animation) inflict serious if not lethal damage may, thanks to the weapon stats and level of the enemy, barely inflict a scratch. The worst example of this breakdown in design is the super attack, in which Bayek (the player character) rushes forward and impales his foe. This is a blow that should obviously be lethal, yet often fails to be against high-level opponents.

This visual disconnect is jarring to say the least, and does a fair bit to break the immersion in what is an otherwise stellar game. Sadly, this need not have been the case as the original Assassin’s Creed showed. Its systems calculated (behind the scenes) whether an attack would hit, how much damage it would inflict, if it’s sufficient to kill, and then selected the corresponding animation for the player to see.

Gaming by numbers

So is one approach better than the other? No. All can be fun and satisfying in their own way. To my mind, the issue is not so much whether the game depicts its actions via animations or numbers, but whether it manages the expectations of the players, and is cohesive in its internal logic. While both systems can happily co-exist in the one game, whether or not this can be successfully done relies upon the designers having a clear understanding of what distinguishes the approaches, and the inherent challenges and incompatibilities of each from the player’s perspective. ■

© Copyright 2020 Taliesin Coward, or published under licence. No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted without prior written consent.

If there is a problem with this website, please contact the webmaster HERE

We use cookies to give you the best experience. By continuing you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.