Don’t tell me you have no idea what ‘show, don’t tell’ means

Definitely not a review, more of a nigh-incoherent rant about Shadowrun (Dragonfall), a game by Harebrained Schemes.

You know, I’ve been chewing on this for a while but I still have no idea what to think about Harebrained Scheme’s Shadowrun series. Or Dragonfall to be specific, because that’s the only that I’ve tried. Am plowing through. Anyway, it’s the sort of RPG that you plow through. Not a single-weekend-of-serious-focus affair, more play it for four hours a week for a month or another couple.

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I guess most of my opinions about it derive from that I usually play it when I feel sick. I don’t know why. It doesn’t make me feel any better, but I guess it has that throwaway sort of gameplay that’s good to play when I can’t think of anything better.

Which is bloody ironic because it’s a tactical role-playing game.

Anyway, the game itself. Shadowrun Dragonfall is Harebrained Scheme’s second game for the Shadowrun series, which is a series that started about twenty years ago as tabletop RPGs. I don’t have any experience, like at all, about tabletop roleplays–it’s just not the sort that exist where I live–but I’ve been around the internet. I’ve played some play-by-post roleplays, I know how dice-rolling and stats management work. So the way that Harebrained’s Shadowrun video games work, with its overabundance of numbers and dice rolls, turn-based schemes, and heavy customisation–classic RPG mechanics that modern video games have eschewed because, heck we have better technology now, why are we still rolling d20s–they’re not really strange to me.

I’m not surprised that Shadowrun is very much a classic RPG. I’m surprised that, in the year 2013 of the twenty-first century, they’re still relying so much on words as if we’re still listening to a Game Master rambling about what sort of horrors your character has discovered.

So instead of just showing you what’s happening, Shadowrun will instead present you with a dialogue box that tells you what’s happening. This guy walks up to you, his eyes glinting yadda yadda. You come across a beacon, its shining light piercing such and such. It gets awfully aggravating if a description shows up for something that’s right there in front of you, clearly visible on the screen. It’s like Harebrained is in a constant state of denying the quintessential writing advice: Show, don’t tell.

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I’m not gonna play through the game again just to grab a screenshot of the game’s worst job at telling instead of showing. This is the nicest of all those possible screenshots.

The narration and wording themselves are good. As good as a good novel. Sometimes it exaggerate to the point of being lurid, but I don’t expect anything less from this most cyberpunk of cyberpunks. I love to read, and the words in Shadowrun are pleasant to read. But they’re so at odds at with the visuals.

And Shadowrun has damn fine visual, if you ask me. So much details, and so lovingly painted. The character models might not be much, but if every walls have different murals drawn on them and you can zoom so far in you can try to read the muralist’s signature, well, it’s a pretty game to just walk around and sightsee in.

Except why would ye even look at anything because the words have you covered, sir! The words can tell you exactly what you’re seeing, which parts is glinting and shimmering and rusted and broken down, and as an added bonus it can also tell you what you feel about them! The bright and glimmering walls of this high-society tells you of how rich these people are. This burned down drone has nothing left on it but molten metal which reminds you of how hard life on the street is.

Yeah, no. No, you can’t just split people’s attention like that. The result is that, instead of being awed at how good the background art is, you’re just rushing through them because hey why bother. The words will tell us if there’s anything worth looking at, and of course they’ll be more correct than what we’re actually seeing. Game Master’s words.

Don’t you trust your own visuals, Shadowrun?

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The details shown in each and every part of the game’s background is enough to write a million words about. Doesn’t mean you ought to write about them.

And then there’s the times when the words are telling you what isn’t happening. Sure, animating is hard and you can’t just draw every last detail of a man’s subtle nervous fidgets or threatening glares. But then the narration just keeps on describing even the most obvious of movements. This guy walks up to you and stand threateningly. But in the visual, no such event occurs. Everybody are just standing still. They’re always standing so so still.

The worst part is probably during that one mission when they were blowing a building up. During the gameplay part, the atmosphere was perfect. Only one turn left on the countdown and I barely managed to have all my team members escape before the whole place comes down. I’d expect at least some sound-effect to that point. But, nope. One moment they were leaving the building, the next they were standing in front of a crater with the text telling you that you barely escapes. And, of course, the whole building crumbled violently and they can hear the explosion from miles ahead. Bloody dammit, I was standing right there and I didn’t hear a thing. I didn’t see a single thing crumbling. There was only a smouldering crater left. Well dang, at least I can see that crater. That’s all I can see. You made me “barely escapes” a ticking time bomb and as a reward you give me a boring description of what could have been an awesome scene instead of the awesome scene itself.

I can go on and on of how completely dissonant Shadowrun’s whole word versus visual scheme is. It’s like the two are constantly fighting each other, and the words are always winning by a bigger mile just for being more relevant. Shadowrun’s visual is just so wasted.

And that’s not even my biggest issue with the game.

… Although. I should stop now. This rant is going too far off-course.

To be continued. Congratulations for making it this far.

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One thought on “Don’t tell me you have no idea what ‘show, don’t tell’ means

  1. Actually you can play a tabletop RPG right in our clubroom. We have Arkham Horror, and while it might not be as hardcore as Dungeons and Dragons, still promises hours of gameplay for every campaign. We used to play it a lot last year.

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