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Lessons from the Aether: Half-Life and Why Less is More


Tweet of the Day: A Window Seat

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Last week I wrote about Half-Life the game and how it sets up the perfect transition scene. But the game also is good about using its writing, even though you spend about 80% of the time in silence with only the noise of gunfire, alien invaders and industrial machinery bombarding your ear drums, when you are not in a cold dark corner wondering where the hell you are. In fact the protagonist is completely mute and doesn’t utter a single word, except the odd grunt.

So how does a game with minimal voice acting and a silent protagonist be an example of good writing?

Timing….

Most of the dialog comes in bits and pieces, a snatch of conversation between scientist, the radio chatter of enemy soldiers or the odd bit of graffiti on a wall.  By themselves they are barely unnoticeable, but embedded into the fabric of the game and it deepens the atmosphere. The game designer uses oblique references and short dialog responses (to the protagonist/player) to give color to the situations. The scientist are your co-workers, the soldiers are not mindless animations, the environment comes alive with warning signs and prerecorded voices. They are placed carefully in a way that both heightens and blends with the environment. It is not what is said or read but where and how that matters.

A perfect example of another of my pet theories about writing: the Minimalist Approach to writing. More modern games, like the books they take inspiration from, tend to wallpaper the screen with text or fill your ears with sound, if not both at the same time.  Or they work hard in creating the prettiest graphics that do nothing but showcase power of the hardware but do not advance the narrative in any way. The counterparts of this phenomenon in writing are such things as “laundry list” descriptions and infodumps. As writers we want to cover all the bases, but describing a character from head to toe rarely tells us anything except what they are wearing (as opposed to what they are wearing says or is supposed to say about them) and infodumps are a great way to have a reader fall asleep.

Smaller bits of information, delivered at the right time and in the right place, are far more memorable and therefore more effective. It’s the reason why we remember one liners over epic speeches. Not just because one is shorter than the other, but the more words you use, the more likely the writing will lose its punch. A well time swear can be more jarring than a pedantic speech about facing the inevitable end. We tend to remember a flippant response from the hero than the soliloquy of the villain.

Again, less is more.

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