World of Monstrous Design: Show and Tell

3 in a series of 4 articles in the World of Monstrous Design series.

I’ve been writing about the game Monster Hunter: World for a few weeks now, and I have some critiques. In general, my opinion on the game is that it’s very fun when you do get to play the actual game.

I wrote about how I didn’t appreciate watching my video games, but the most annoying thing I’ve encounter with this game seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of efficiently conveying the game to me. This is probably going to be the most negative article out of the series… so feel free to skip to the next one if it’s a bit too abrasive.

Show Don’t Tell

This is my biggest gripe I have with the game. If you’ve ever read about design, or storytelling, or film making or really any skilled art form, you’ll probably have heard the phrase “Show Don’t Tell.” Capcom must have thought that this meant “Put it in a cutscene to show the player why they should play the game, don’t let the game tell you how you can play it.” Even better, during the beginning of the game if you’re not watching a cutscene, you’ll probably see “Tutorial” wall of text that tells you what the game should show you. Truly genius. I already talked about the intro, and that has a bit of this “tell don’t show,” stuff too. Check it out, as I’ll reference some changes I may have made in an alternate universe.

In games with conveyance you doesn’t need endless cutscenes and walls of texts to explain powers that you or your enemies have and what the player can do. With designed games, you often understand the mechanics and strategies available to you by emergent experiences and immersive examples.

Capcom Can Design Games

Monster Hunter: World does signal subtle features, so Capcom knows how to do this, but they usually don’t. For instance: monster damage isn’t shown through a health bar like in Dark Souls. Instead, in Monster Hunter: World your interactions between you and the monster are finely tailored to communicate how effectively you are fighting, and what the status of the monster is. If you’re attacking a monster that’s well armored and you hit it in the thickest part of its shell your weapon bounces off and you stumble back. Wordlessly you’re told “This won’t work” and encouraged to try something else. If you’ve been hammering on a monster for a good time, most start to breathe heavily or drool and change their body language to convey that it’s really messed up. It’s really the best designed part of the game, and it’s a masterpiece.

Imagine if instead of your weapon bouncing off when you struck a too-heavily armored part of the monster your handler said, “Hey your weapon can’t cut through that because it’s armored there, try hitting it in the tail.” Actually, that might happen, but imagine not being able to see or hear what effect you’re having and instead being told how it’s working. It’d be an absolute nightmare.

If Capcom designed the interactions for it’s intricate mechanics throughout the game, instead of either front loading all of the info in boring cutscenes or a manual somewhere in the game it might not be so frustrating.

Welcome to the Company, the “Fifth” Company

Instead, Monster Hunter: World treats most other aspects of training like a boring corporate training video. How do you learn how to trap monsters? The Handler tells you all the things you have to do, and then you do it and watch a movie, or you fail the mission and do it over again. How do you learn how to stun flying enemies? You’re given a flash pod and told to hit the monster when it’s flying. How do you know how to track a monster? The game tells you to pick up the monster tracks and then tells you how the tracking system works: The Handler takes your hand and says “look at that track now, I guess we’ll need to use this system.”

It’s perplexing because they put characters in the game that would know these things and could show you how to do it. One of them sorta does guide you but really he’s still sitting back and yelling at you do do things until about 1/4 through the “tutorial” arc with Zora Magdoros. Usually the other “characters” only show up in cutscenes, and they talk at you saying “oh, good job fighting the Balrog, it was very lucky that the script said you’d show up just then, otherwise I’d have to wait for you to restart the quest.” Or they grunt solemnly because you’re watching an anime, not playing a video game.

A bit of backstory to Monster Hunter: World; you’re a part of the “Fifth Fleet” i.e. there are 4 other groups over 40 years that already went over to the world and have been working there that whole time. In the game these people show up and tell you about the story while your handler solves the mystery you were sent to solve. I didn’t find this very interesting nor educational. Instead, your character should work with them on hunts to show you how to approach trickier monsters with their experience. And by that, I mean I wanted to hunt with them!

How do You… Not Kill Monsters?

Trapping monsters is tricky: the game really encourages you to go ham on everything you meet, and that’s not a bad thing. Capturing monsters should be trickier. If you read my first article in this series I suggested we open the game, by working with a more experienced hunter in their party. They might have equipment to capture the monster and do that. Or they ask you to try to capture the monster, and if you fail they could try to show you how to do it themselves (while talking through it). Instead you’re put on a “mission” without half of the game and the Handler tells you how to do the chores, pick up the groceries, then trap the monster in subsequent missions. So it’s no wonder I not only forget you can capture monsters but how to do it. Better yet, if you already know how to trap monsters because you’ve played the other games in the series, then you could basically speedrun my hypothetical tutorial instead of being trapped in the current cutscene hell we get.

Wait I can do that?

How about stunning flying monsters? Well, this one is almost right, but Capcom really loves those cutscenes. I guess they have a whole studio of guys who wish they were making movies. This interaction is shown out of play. You might not think this is a problem, but here’s where the disconnect is: you can do a lot of things in cutscene that you can’t do in game.

Things like eat a platter of food, rescue The Handler while jumping off a giant monster, nod in response to NPC’s talking at you. You can even slide underneath a mud monster, pick up ammo for your wrist launcher, and shoot the thing in the eye in one smooth motion. Good luck pulling that off in-game. There’s a disconnect between “movie” you and “game” you, because the game takes control of you to do something special. This disconnect signals to you that the game isn’t happening — it’s a movie. So when I see my character pick something off the ground and stun a monster while I don’t control them, I assume I can’t really do that because otherwise I already would have done that right? I mean if I could do that wouldn’t the game make it kinda obvious rather than hiding it in a cutscene? Right? I mean maybe I’m obnoxious about this, but when the game says “it’s a cutscene now,” my brain turns off, and I go into movie watching mode because I’m not playing the game anymore.

Doing special stuff in cutscenes isn’t inherently bad: the Batman Arkham series has a bunch of cutscenes, or QTE’s where the Caped Crusader can do beatdowns, special environmental stuff like threatening specific baddies with ledges or the tire of your Batmobile, or throw explosive-juiced punches like at the end of Batman: Arkham Asylum, and people love those games. So cutscenes with over-the-top action is ok. But, here’s the thing: in those games, you’ve either already done the thing you’ve seen in the cutscene before, or it’s special, and you know it’s special because the language of game design signaled that to you clearly. “You’re in a QTE or cutscene, you might not be able to literally do this in-game, but you can feel like you’re part of it because you’ve been doing stuff like this the whole game.”

Throughout Monster Hunter: World I’m almost consciously wary of this because I’ve gotten burned on stuff like this: is the game trying to clumsily tell me that I can actually do that or should I ignore it because it’s part of the story and I’ll never do something like that?

Monster Hunter: World is not too Complicated

I don’t want this game to be simpler. Every time I look up a review or a description of the game, I keep hearing that the game’s “complexity” might turn off newer gamers. Yeah, sure, except that’s not the reason why I get frustrated with this game. The Monster Hunter: World experience is usually mashing the button to get through the parts that aren’t killing monsters. Instead of letting me experience different aspects of the game organically and showing me what the game can be, Capcom seems to think that I want them to tell me all of the things in their game.

The game has a sizable fan base here in the states and not one of those fans ever says things like “they should get rid of the switch axe” or “the monster AI is too difficult.” I think the reason the game comes off as “too complex” is because of the “tell don’t bother showing” mentality, and the boring tasks that clumsily ‘teach’ you the game. That’s what’s indecipherable not because the game has too many mechanics. There’s a good game in there, and once I finally grok it — that’s when the real hunt begins.

If you’re a big Monster Hunter: World fan and think everything I said is a load of garbage, then @ me! (I actually don’t have a domain-specific email yet, but when it’s there please do drop me a message). I might come back to respond to them, who knows! If you think I missed something, @ me here.