Resurrection Post: Learning in the strangest places

Seeing as everyone is nattering about the upcoming Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location, and I’ve been attempting to apply some of the things I learned when Freddy made “show don’t tell” click for me in my current project, I thought it was appropriate to bring this post back.

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Something you hear a lot is that ever-popular old chestnut “Show, don’t tell.” It’s been said so often, by so many, and without further explanation that it seems to have almost become meaningless. It doesn’t help that if you ask for clarification, a lot of the folks spouting the phrase will just sniff, arch an eyebrow, and give you the “If you have to ask…” look.

I’ve often suspected you get this response not out of any actual intended snub or superiority, but because nine times out of ten, the individual saying it probably doesn’t know, either. At least, not in a concrete way that can be explained in a series of steps.

There’s literally hundreds of articles on the internet about this subject, and there isn’t really a step by step process to it. Either it clicks one day and you get it, you keep fumbling in the dark and tripping over it once in a while, or you never get it, and random chance seems to be a primary deciding factor. I’d like to think I was in the middle group, but recently I think it finally hit me, and from one of the most unlikely of places.

five nights

Yes. This thing. You know, that incredibly divisive game that has hundreds of thousands of people telling you it’s garbage based around a nothing concept, a cash cow that its creator is gleefully milking, but has just as many people claiming it’s the next great religion. There will probably be spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t played the games and might want to, you might want to skip this article.

I’m not going to side with either camp. Honestly, I think the first game is kind of shite. It was amusing for a few minutes. Had some interesting ideas. But ultimately I found it rather boring after the first couple of times Freddy or Foxy ate me. Then, after some digging, I looked at the sequels, and altered my opinion a bit. While, as a game, they are for the most part boring (at least, if you’re doing it right, which is to say, playing to win and you are not playing it on the ridiculous custom nights with all the AIs jacked up to maximum), it’s what the game is teaching us about telling a story that’s worth looking at.

If you just look at the game aspect, don’t dig too deeply into it, ignore all the stuff you can do in favor of mastering the things you must do, you won’t see much. Some dead kids, some potentially haunted robots, learn their patterns and lock them out/banish them with a flashlight/keep them the hell away from you, rinse/repeat for a half hour, watch small cutscene, never open the game again. But you’re denying yourself one of the more skillfully crafted stories I’ve seen in gaming; the developer just didn’t decide to spoon feed it to you via ostentatious CG cutscenes and long, droning narratives. (Though, to be fair, Phone Guy does tend to ramble a bit, but that’s more on the “game” side than the “story” side, as he’s typically explaining what you’ll need to know to try to survive the night, or major story points that can’t be conveyed in other means.)

The story behind the story is what’s interesting here. Murdered children. Possessed animatronics. Childhood trauma. Poor business practices. Ethical corruption. There’s literally hundreds of clues and story nuggets hidden in an environment that we, as players, are often glazing over because we’re not worried about actually reading that newspaper article on the desk, or noticing just what you see when Springtrap opens his jaw wide, because we’re more concerned about knowing where the hell the little bastard is and how close to us that puts him. And I think that’s the key, here.

The story of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria is told almost entirely through clues dropped through the meticulously crafted backgrounds. Nothing is there by accident. It all means something. And you’re soaking up that story without even realizing it. Even when the game becomes more heavy handed with its explanations – such as the “8 Bit” cutscene showing us just what’s really inside Springtrap, or when Golden Freddy is chatting with our eight year old self, warning us not to go into that next room – its still dropping clues and leaving them mostly to your subconscious to untangle. It’s almost like The Sixth Sense, in a way, that each time we notice something new and add it to the pieces we’ve already uncovered, it comes more into focus and we have another “aha!” moment… except that it’s even more intricate, as there isn’t merely one puzzle to be solved, here… and FNAF‘s creator doesn’t have a final scene to explain it all to the people who haven’t caught on yet.

The devil really is in the details. When you’re telling someone something, you can leave out detail. You can gloss over, just hit the high points, and you can deliver it all in a monotone. “This happened, and this, and that, and stuff.” When you’re showing it to them, each detail becomes important… even if it doesn’t appear to be at the time. You can go overboard with this, obviously – Georgie boy’s epic saga of flames and frostbite, wherein potentially royal bastards and dragon queens know nothing proves that, I think – but would we be half as freaked out every time Springtrap makes his slow approach if we were just straight up told “Yeah, Purple Guy killed a bunch of kids, their ghosts haunted him, he died, and his corpse is inside that suit” rather than piecing it together from brief glimpses of some of those events and the inference of others (and the motivations behind them) from small clues or details hidden in the environment that we’re so busy studying that we don’t even realize we’re missing those clues? I don’t think so.

Everyone trots out the example of, instead of saying “Craig was scared,” say something about the sheen of sweat on his brow, the copper penny taste of bile in his mouth, the thrumming of his heart. But take it to the next level. Show us other things. Not just for characters and their thoughts and emotions, but for setting and background plot info. A house that’s stood vacant since the death of its previous occupants might be a good example. Our protagonist goes in, and sees fist-sized holes in the drywall, collections of whiskey bottles in the corner, the stench of blood and alcohol laced vomit in the bedroom, where a bed that appears to be perfectly made (if not a little mildewy) sits, almost pristine amongst the rest of the damage.

What did we learn in a couple of paragraphs, not just about the locale, but about our potential antagonist/spook/victim (depending on how you want to play this.)? He’s an alcoholic, probably insomniac, likely in the final stages of liver degeneration or working on it, and he’s got a temper. And we learned all of that without ever seeing him “on screen” a single time or directly mentioning him.

Going back to FNAF, the example holds up. By the time he makes his first present-day on screen appearance in FNAF3, Purple Guy/Springtrap has already been pretty well established as a character. We know he was mentally unbalanced in some way, we know he probably worked for the Freddy Fazbear’s company – likely as a security guard – we know that he’s been killing for quite some time, that he has an unhealthy fascination with the Puppet and a strange fixation on Foxy. And yet we’ve only seen him on screen two or three times, and always briefly; most of that we learn from contextual clues, assumptions, newspaper articles, or things other characters say (unless you believe the Phone Guy = Purple Guy theory. I’m on the fence on that one.) We also know that Fazbear’s Inc. will go to extreme lengths to prevent scandal and conceal evidence (double check the Help Wanted ad in the first game, or Phone Guy’s legal disclaimer at the beginning of same for that), and might have been implicit in some way in the killings or the coverups. At the very least, they know something isn’t right with the animatronics, but persist in using them anyway, and act to remove anyone who might potentially expose that knowledge (Mike Schmidt’s firing, Jeremy’s transfer to day shift, Fritz being fired, hiding the Golden Freddy and Bonnie suits/animatronics).

I think the last time I saw this kind of layered, well-thought plot planning that never tries to beat you over the head with the answer was Silent Hill 2. And we all already know how I feel about that game. But somehow the lesson didn’t stick.

So, if you all will excuse me, I have to go finish FNAF4, preferably without peeing myself – there was a near miss the first time Nightmare Foxy got me, I tell you – and then, assuming my innards can stomach any more sitting and typing today, a little story I want to write. As an experiment. See if I can make the lesson work.

What’s your take? Is there something to be said for “hiding” the plot behind seemingly insignificant details, or am I smoking crack? Did I miss the point of “show, not tell?” What’s your favorite example of the idiom? And is FNAF awesome, garbage or middle-of-the-road, but with some interesting ideas to stea… I mean, learn and apply? Let us know in the box below!

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Interested in assisting a struggling author get and keep their feet back under him, so he can see how well the lesson stuck (and how Sister Location turns out)? Then please stop by my GoFundMe, maybe contribute or give it a share! Thanks!

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