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The Importance of Clarity

December 16, 2013

Dear Reader,

One of the key tenets in my developmental writing course is that writing should strive for two opposing goals: concision and clarity.  It’s important not to over-write papers, dragging them out until the reader loses interest, but it’s equally important to make absolutely sure that all readers clearly understand your points.

I’ve found in a lot of video games recently that concision has been too greatly embraced at the detriment of clarity.  Due to the graphical nature of video games and the prevalent belief that young people don’t read (they do, just not books), many designers have abandoned the long-winded “instruction book” (go check Master of Magic’s old book) for short in-game “tutorials” or “tool tips.”  Often, these are not adequate to clearly explain the complexity of modern games, as evidenced by WoW’s early game to truly new players.

I suspect that the popularity of first-person shooters has added to this shift away from clarity; their innate simplicity means that very little instruction is need; I daresay you could probably play Borderlands 2 without missing much having read less than 250 words of text (about one page worth): the movement, the shooting and special ability buttons, and the talent descriptions.  This simplicity does not translate well to other games, though.

Take X-Com, a game I’m going to begrudgingly give another attempt due to Tobold’s recent disciplinary action towards my whining (I don’t really think that, of course, I’m just being silly).  There is depth in X-Com that’s certainly not clearly explained.  There’s tool-tips and tutorials, but even with those, I expect that someone new to the genre would have a very hard time getting into some of the minutia within the strategy.  Of course, they can go read elsewhere on the Internet, but I’m not sure they should have to, really.

X-Com’s not a great example, of course, because they do have in-game resources available, just perhaps not as fully and in as much detail as I’d have liked.  Civ 5, though, really confused me in my last playthrough, though, due to a lack of clarity.  I just snagged the “new” expansion “Gods and Kings” during the Steam sale, and, to be fair, I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the changes they’ve made.  There was one, though, that was totally opaque based on the game documentation: tourism.  This new mechanic replaced the old cultural victory (which was my favorite to get; I love perks) with a wholly new system which was not clearly explained in the Civilopedia.

Eventually, at the point where my wife and I stopped wondering if we were going to win and instead started talk about how we wanted to win, I began exploring this new mechanic.  I read what I could, thought through it, looked at the victory page, and thought some more, but the way it was worded in-game made it seem insurmountable.  You have to accrue more tourism points (which you don’t get in any great quantity until late in the game) than all the other Civ’s individually accumulated culture pools (which you begin to accrue on turn 1).  That just seems impossible, and the entire explanation of tourism and victory was two short, unclear paragraphs long.

Eventually, I went to the Internet for a better explanation and found one, and now I understand how that would be achieved.  The game, however, did nothing to enlighten me on how it worked, though; it took outside research, and I’m a goddamn English professor.  If something’s so poorly written that a developmental English professor can’t figure it out, it needs revision.

Part of this undoubtedly comes from the curse of knowledge, the idea that the more you know about something, the harder it becomes to remember how to explain the basics to outsiders.  The game designers understand at the deepest level how the mechanic works, but because they understand it so implicitly, they can’t easily explain it in a concise way to outsiders, and due to all the aforementioned factors, they went with concision instead of clarity.

At any rate, my wife and I won a diplomatic victory (nothing says “IN YOUR FACE” like having more “world leader” votes on just your team than all the other teams combined), so it didn’t really matter.  But I’d think, in a game as “cerebral” as Civ, that they’d give their audience more credit for being able – and more importantly, willing – to read up on new things.


Stubborn (and willing)

P.S. Scree of The Cynic Dialogues is trying out a new blogging consolidation tool, and I’ve agreed to help (and I encourage you to help, as well!).  He’s asked me to hashtag my posts, something I’m notoriously bad at, but here goes an attempt:

#Civ #reading #games

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