Hey Video Game Developers, We're Not Idiots
We're capable of reading visual clues; you don't need to spell everything out to us.
All screen grabs from Alien: Isolation
There's a bit in The Fellowship of the Ring where the main characters go to a boring rural committee meeting called the Council of Elrond. After discussing some jewellery and some travel plans, the people in attendance somehow end up standing arranged in an awkward family photograph formation. Self-aware in front of the film cameras, they stare out at the audience, and an elf who looks like everyone's dad looks at them and goes, "SO BE IT. You shall be the FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!" And the music swells and you want to kill everyone on screen.
You were probably already aware of what a "fellowship" is. No one had to explicitly explain to you what it meant, but Peter Jackson kind of did anyway, and it felt jarring. There is a video game equivalent of this, and I call it the "Graffiti of Exposition". Sometimes when game designers want to get something across to players, but aren't sure that we'll really "get" it, they use props or other visual cues – a bit like writing: "THIS IS A SATIRE LOL" on the front of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal".
The otherwise fascinating, enjoyably terrifying and faithful Alien game Alien: Isolation takes 23 minutes to Exposition Graffiti, and once you get there it really breaks the atmosphere that developers Creative Assembly have spent a great deal of time and care to create. This is mainly because it's out of step with the subtlety of the narrative being told elsewhere, through the space station's logs, through the meandering of the score's orchestra, through the electrical sparks and dislodged piping, the ship shake and the dust clouds.
That's 23 minutes that it felt like the game trusted me to "get" the politics of the space station.
I am, for instance, pretty sure an adult human being on Alien's Sevastopol station would not have written this graffiti:
I mean, if you were serious about the nature of the "colonial pigs" (something even freshers think is a trite thing to say) in question, maybe you wouldn't draw a comedy pig next to it. If this is really a dystopic nightmare, you probably wouldn't bother telling other people about the dystopic nightmare they are living in. It could be, though, that the graffiti in the space station Amanda Ripley finds herself in has some merit in itself. So I began to commandeer time from the horror narrative to become AMANDA RIPLEY: GRAFFITI ART CRITIC.
"THIS LIFE FOR RENT." Is this a comment meant to direct the player towards the finite nature of human life, which is itself parodied by the nature of video games' penchant for quick and sudden death? It seems very sloppily written for a philosopher's hand, and I would have rather used a Sharpie. It could, however, just be the developers attempting to communicate that the people on the creepy space station think they are slaves to capitalist overlords. Which could have been conveyed merely by seeing a miserable living quarters or reading a crushing memo to the proletariat.
"F.U." I quite like the blue colour used here, closer to a nice aquamarine. I like the subtle drip coming from the U, and the dot gives it an artisan feel. I presume it means "Funky Utility-wear" because of that wristwatch. That, or someone is really mad at the wristwatch.
I haven't been introduced to a "Working Joe" at this point in the game, but they have been mentioned several times in dialogue and in the documentation found in the nice retro terminals. So this is sort of like an advertiser having a few polite conversations with you about you thinking that you might get a cat, before sneaking into your bedroom at night and yelling: "HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT OUR CATFOOD? IT IS GREAT."
"SOMEONE KNEW." There must be a reason that no one stopped to write this on a wall in the original Alien movie.
"WE NEED HELP." A very poor SOS message. It's written on a wall inside a space station, meaning the only people who'd see it are the ones who need the help. Also, your Sharpie's running a bit dry, mate.
"RIP Sevastopol." Does no one do real graffiti on this space station? Like "CALL XXX-XXX-XXX FOR A GOOD TIME", or "STEWART'S A BELLEND", or numerous bulging veiny dicks with the regulation three pubes on each ball?
"NO HOSPITAL, NO AUTHORITY, NO HOPE!" I like that this one seems to go over several different levels of concrete, and that the artist wasn't in any way put off by that, deciding not to make the lettering smaller and just fit it all on one wall. It's also admirable how consistent the lines are, despite the uneven surfaces.
Alien: Isolation is an atmospheric, well-written tense piece of game making. "Informational graffiti" in games has become somewhat of a trope now in game design, but it's usually very distracting and annoying, as if you're reading the scribbled notes in the margin of a book you borrowed from the library and they're all written by a student who only just got it. I'm not convinced it's helpful to the unobservant player to see these messages in this way, and it's irritating to those who do pay attention to your other careful world-building notes.
One of the most famous features ever written about games was the "Crate Review System" by Erik Wolpaw, where he surmised a rising trend in just plopping down a crate in your game when environment artists or level designers had run out of other props. Erik's "friend" Kevin says, "You'll see games with forklifts and crates, but you won't see one goddamn pallet. You know what a pallet is, right? Yeah, you worked at the warehouse, you know."
Where are the spray paint cans, Creative Assembly? WHERE? I hope to stumble across a giant warehouse of them in this game somewhere. Is the alien doing these Sharpie crimes?
Please, game developers, let's not make Exposition Graffiti a real thing.