i loved devotion until i didn’t, or, drama is really important to making video games compelling and devotion isn’t dramatic

This is not about Devotion, a game which you should play, but a game that, as of the time of this writing, you probably cannot play, because it upset a lot of people in China who reviewbombed it so hard that it got removed from Steam. If you do get the opportunity to try out Devotion, however, I would recommend it, because Devotion is a Very Interesting Game.

If you’ve followed my work at all over the years, you know that I believe the best horror games are in first person (making the dangers threatening to you as well as forcing you to focus on the environment instead of what a third person character is doing) and you know that I believe the best horror games have a way to fight back.

The reason for this is simple: great horror comes from uncertainty.

If you know that the only outcomes are to run or hide, horror becomes more certain. Take Resident Evil 2, for instance. Great game. Scary, too. It’s scary because it gives you guns. If you couldn’t fight back and you walked into a licker, you’d be relatively certain that you could flee from that licker easily. Add a gun into the equation, and suddenly, you’re wondering if you have enough rounds to take the licker out, if you should just try to stun it and run past, and most importantly, if your gunshots will alert the nigh-invincible Mr. X to rush to your location to try to kill you. Having a gun in your hands makes Resident Evil 2 a lot more scary than not.

I’m not really scared by games about scary topics. I’ve lost my home, I live with people who scream at me, I’ve been abused and assaulted… Subject matter can be somewhat disturbing, but the root of horror, the thing that makes it work, will always be the presentation. Am I in a space that threatens and unnerves me?

A game like Layers of Fear does nothing to me. I can barely interact with it, it has a few jump scares, and the subject matter is just about some guy who butchered his family to make a painting or something. It’s not that compelling. I’ve known a serial killer, folks. He was in my home, several times. You’ll have to do better than that.

Put me in a game like Alien Isolation, where I’ve got a flamethrower and I’m hoping I have enough ammunition to scare the alien off and you’ve got a much, much more interesting game, a game that is truly scary because there’s some component of risk to it. A run-n-hide horror game has no risk, therefore it can’t really be that scary.

So when I tell you that Devotion is a horror game without a way to fight back and it’s really really good, I hope you understand that it’s coming from someone who has a pretty strong argument against games like Devotion. If I tell you it’s worth your time, I hope you understand the weight of that recommendation.

“But, Doc,” you might be saying, “I can’t help but notice that you haven’t said it’s good.”

Well, half of it’s good.

The half that’s good is good because it requires you to solve puzzles in order to progress. Solving these puzzles allows for subtle, interesting shifts in the environment that make you feel like you’re being watched. Like, hey, at one point, I walked into a kitchen, past a mannequin that was looking at a fish tank. When I walked back out, the mannequin had been moved just slightly, so it was watching me exit the door.

If you’ve played any number of first person horror games, like… okay, hey, that’s not that big a surprise, because you’ve probably seen it before, but the game does this kind of thing a lot. The environment changes in response to your presence, but you can never shake off the sense that something else is lurking in there with you.

So much of what makes a horror game work is presentation. It’s there in the sound design, the lighting, the choice of assets, the way things move and shift in the space. Nothing Devotion does is something I’d consider original, but it’s so dang great at presenting itself that it works extremely well. The story opens up in a fun way, the way the game is paced early on is superb… honestly, I really had a lot of fun with the game’s first half, especially the way some of the puzzles required me jumping through various rooms and piecing clues together in order to progress. It felt at once intuitive and enjoyable to play.

Without looking up a walkthrough (I did once just to see how far along I was in the game, but never needed help with it), I got all but one achievement, somehow missing one of the notes in the game. Like I said, super intuitive.

The first half of the game is like this, and it’s the best part.

Then you meet a ghost, and everything falls apart. You’ve seen her throughout the game, and she’s probably the game’s least interesting element, because she just exists to give you a few jump scares. Facing her, there’s no real sense of risk. She just shows up and when she’s gone, you progress. In this sequence, you have to run away from her. I didn’t realize this at first, because every previous time I’d encountered her, she showed up, startled me, and went about her merry way. This time, she killed me and I started over. Oops.

So I started running through a maze of hallways until I found an elevator, went inside, and proceeded to the next bit, which basically saw me walking forwards, holding down the W key, seeing some interesting sights (‘these are sinners, it’s none of your business’) and eventually getting to a part where I had to slowly walk over to one interact prompt, click and drag my mouse four times, then slowly walk to another one, click and drag my mouse again, then walk over to a third prompt and click. Then I woke up in a place I’d never been before, interacted with a couple things, returned to my apartment, walked to one of the rooms, and watched a video play.

I didn’t… really do a whole lot. For the last, I don’t know, hour of the game, 95% of my engagement was holding down W, listen to story being told at me, and nothing else. I found myself wondering why this story was being told as a game at all. It was a far cry from the clever puzzles and gradually changing space that had made the game’s first half so wonderful.

Is that good game design?

I don’t think so.

The art of game design is beautiful but difficult to master. Game design is a language, a way of communicating feelings and ideas to people. That legendary communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan is best known for his pithy saying “the medium is the message,” meaning that the means by which you communicate an idea is just as much of the message as the content itself.

Netflix recently released the Umbrella Academy, a wonderful adaptation of the comic of the same name by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. Both stories take on very different forms, even if they cover similar plot elements. They are both equally valid works that make wonderful use of the medium they’re in to tell their story. The medium alters the narrative.

When making a story-driven game, it’s crucial to ask yourself if this is the right medium for the story. It very well might not be.

The famous playwright David Mamet once wrote some of the best dang writing on storytelling I’ve ever heard, and I’d like to quote tnree passages here, because they’re important.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME. OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US. BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

He wrote it in all caps. I have no idea why.

But let’s consider that idea, right?

No one tunes in to watch information. You don’t love your favorite stories because they provide you with information, you love them because they fill a dramatic need. Drama is what drives stories.

What’s drama?

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

Seems pretty simple, right?

The cool thing about video games is that we can turn this into mechanics really easily, right? Like, every single level in a video game is generally about overcoming the things that prevent you from achieving a specific, acute goal. Walk into a combat arena and you find yourself faced with 5 monsters. Fight the 5 monsters, cool, you’ve done it, move on.

I think Devotion is amazing at this in that first half. The puzzles are fun, but they’re also barriers to progress, right? You walk into a room, you find a suitcase you can’t unlock, and you go “hmm, I wonder how I unlock this.” Then you explore the apartment and solve puzzles to get the key that lets you unlock the suitcase and progress.

Drama.

There’s obviously a lot of stuff we can get into regarding what makes effective drama (double and triple beats are scenes where drama loses its impact because repetition is boring, which is one of gaming’s biggest problems, see every game that makes you repeat the same objective 3 times before progressing, for instance; drama that’s focused on relationships between humans tends to be more compelling than human-vs-environment), but Mamet has one more nugget you should know.

He writes about how it’s up to you, the storyteller, to make drama important. Not the actors, not the director, you. In the case of video games, it’s you, the designer, creative lead, whatever. In screenwriting, he’s talking to his writers. He says things like “if it’s not dramatically written, it cannot be dramatically acted, so nobody will care” and stuff like that.

Then he says this:

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

One thing that games really suck at is understanding necessity.

In film school, my teachers hammered one very important lesson into me: if a scene isn’t dramatically necessary, cut it. If a scene exists just to exposit, it doesn’t deserve to exist. That scene must fill an emotional need. If it doesn’t fill a need, cut it. Trim the fat. Only include what is necessary to making the audience feel what you need them to feel.

Devotion’s last hour is just… like, hey, walk, press W, do nothing. There is no drama here. There is no compulsion to move forward. All you are going to do is get closer to the end. There was no reason to make this a game, because the physical act of holding down W does not really pair well with the narrative that’s being delivered to you.

Why would you want to engage in that?

It’s something I’ve encountered in a lot of games over the years: the player holds down the move button and simply listens as information is delivered to them, and… I dunno, because of my background, I guess I’m confused as to why that would be compelling?

There’s no drama, there’s no mechanical interaction, the game isn’t really giving you much of a mood — you’re just slow-walking through an environment — so… what is the point? Why do so many games do this?

Before angry Chinese players review bombed it, Devotion had a ton of great reviews. Obviously people really enjoy this sort of game. Layers of Fear did something similar. There are plenty of games that work like this.

But I can’t help but think that games could be better.

I’ve played so many games that repeat unnecessary information, that kill the game flow for no good reason, that have missions that lose a lot of their tension by repeating the same objectives over and over again… it feels… well, it’s a lesson I hope more developers learn. I’m sure plenty of developers already know the lesson, but they’re held back by deadlines or demands for content or engine troubles or publisher demands or whatever else. Like, there are definitely a million good reasons why games might not be able to trim that fat.

But… I dunno, hey, if you’re reading this, and you’re responsible for games, I hope this helps you out. If it’s something you haven’t considered, well… here it is. I hope it’s of some use to you.

Here’s that link to Mamet’s letter, by the way:

https://www.slashfilm.com/a-letter-from-david-mamet-to-the-writers-of-the-unit/

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.