Within film there is an expression among scriptwriters saying: ”Don’t tell, show”. This means that you should avoid telling what a character is feeling; instead you should find ways to express it by showing the feelings, not to make the audience disassociate with the film. Within video games there are no such advices, but it certainly would need to develop its own version of this expression.
The video games Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed II are both games with extensive background stories that has to be communicated to the player, and while playing the game these stories unfolds and clues are exposed to the player. In Red Dead Redemption you are playing a cowboy that is a troublemaker that search retribution, while Assassin’s Creed has a guy that travels through some kind of time machine to search for his ancestors in Florence, and later on search revenge as an assassin. And for some reason I associated better with the assassin than the cowboy and why was that?
Sitting down in front of Red Dead Redemption for the first time I was excited to become a cowboy. But first I had to sit through a cut-scene where I was taken on a train to a city. As soon the control was given to me a text was chucked up my face saying: “Go to the saloon”. Why on earth did I want to go to the saloon? I wanted to explore the city. When I came to the saloon there was a man with the name Jake saying: “Are you mister Marston?” and my character replied “Yes” and then Jake told me that he had the horses ready and we ran out in to the desert. In that moment Red Dead Redemption just became one of these games with a story that forced me to do things in a certain way to be able to complete it. No matter how big the world was I felt trapped! So what went wrong?
In Assassin’s Creed it was the same thing, a story had to be triggered by my interactions in a certain (linear) order. Both Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed had a similar start on their adventures but, unlike Red Dead Redemption, I did not feel trapped in Assassin’s Creed! Why was that? The biggest difference was that there were no signs chucked up in my face telling me what to do. Instead I was lead into the story by a non-static cut-scene where I could interact with other characters that explained to me why I was interesting for them and why they needed me. There were several clues surrounded my character but these were, unlikely to Red Dead Redemption, not planned on top of my head by my own character.
There are several examples of this in games where developers succeed or not to present clues and unfold stories in a video game but the most important is to involve the player otherwise the game will only become a matter of handling the controls. So the advice is “Don’t show, involve”.