Telegraphing for Better Storytelling and Gameplay

Half-Life HECU Marine and F.E.A.R. Replica Soldier

While watching a recent video of Errant Signal, where Campster talked about Half-Life and how the HECU marine was and still is one of the most compelling enemies in video games due to how its AI was way ahead of its time in 1998, it made me think about how they communicated. Of course, being computer-controlled enemies, they don’t actually talk to each other. They communicated to the player on what they’re about to do, which isn’t something that truly realistic enemies would do. But in this particular case, realism should give up some space to better storytelling and gameplay.

This should be a short and sweet blog post on my observations on the art of telegraphing movement outside of sports and fighting. “Telegraphing” in martial arts refers to the preparatory movement one makes before throwing a punch or a kick. While much of martial arts training meant for real fighting tends to focus on eliminating that preparatory movement to throw strikes quickly and efficiently through an opponent’s defense, telegraphing is a crucial part of theatrical combat.

But telegraphing isn’t just in the physical act of shifting one’s body to load up a punch or a kick, but also announcing one’s intention through word or deed in general. It could be as simple as a direct threat or as complex as a series of subtle hints that are meant to unsettle you. What separates real life from well-told fiction is how things are set up — the latter presents with context and nuance what may not usually be obvious in the former.

Half-Life and F.E.A.R.

Let’s start off with these two first-person shooters and how they made players think it did things smarter than they actually could. These two games have the most obvious and well-executed examples of telegraphing I’ve experienced, and they all come together to tell their stories effectively by providing visceral ludonarrative experiences.

Seemingly Intelligent Enemy AI

As shown here in the first part of this episode of Errant Signal, Half-Life was and still is a great video game achievement by Valve Software that took the medium to the next level. It almost didn’t come to be as the initial effort was not their best foot forward, thus having to restart from scratch that needed a year-long delay that was egregious at that time.

Nowadays, release delays are as routine as taking a piss, especially now with Shigeru Miyamoto’s famous quote — “A delayed game is eventually good; a rushed game is bad forever.”

One of Half-Life’s major technical achievements is the enemy AI, especially the human enemies — the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit Marine. The HECU gets sent into the Black Mesa Research Facility during the aftermath of the Resonance Cascade to do some clean-up — kill all survivors with knowledge of the experiment that went awry, including Gordon Freeman.

For a game that was made and released in 1998, this enemy AI was shockingly intelligent, making them feel realistic as human enemies who coordinated and conspired to kill the player character. There are recently released games that have enemies more brain-dead than this adversary in a game that came out a quarter century ago.

Much of that “realistic” intelligence that players experience from those enemies turn out to be due to how they “communicated” — they announced their intentions through their radio comms, which can clearly be heard. 

Monolith Productions would take that idea to the next level over seven years later with F.E.A.R. — a game that is still praised for its enemy AI. The human enemies in the game, the Replica Forces, do the same thing the HECU marines did in Half-Life, which is to telegraph their intentions through their radio comms while doing their best to outmaneuver and corner the player character.

But instead of just going “Fire in the hole!” whenever they throw a grenade, the Replica Forces take things further by communicating the precise location of the player character at any given moment. If you’re behind a wall, they will shout to each other that you’re behind the wall. If you’re hiding behind a pillar, they’ll announce that. If you’re jumping over a table, they’ll announce that.

It turns out the developers recorded voice lines for every single possibility. The real horror of F.E.A.R. isn’t the creepy little girl with psychic superpowers; it’s the creepy guys with guns trying to kill you who seem to know where you are at all times.

When analyzed further, the enemy AI of Half-Life and F.E.A.R. aren’t that intelligent at all. They have voice lines and some programmed reactions, and that’s about it. But they felt smart because of how that combination of telegraphing their intentions and movement around the levels made players constantly uncomfortable and challenged them to move around and not just turtle in one spot.

On that note, there’s a mod for adding the Replica voice lines into Half-Life.

Meanwhile, Call of Duty would later find a more obvious solution to turtling players — keep spawning enemies until they can be assed to move forward.

Telegraphing Horror in F.E.A.R.

There’s also something else about the horror elements of F.E.A.R. that can make your skin crawl amid all the shooting action and the slowmos. You see an upgrade pickup at the end of a hallway or tunnel. You know the game is about to jumpscare you when you go for it. You have no other choice but to face your fear and get it since you need to get stronger to fight the Replicas and finish the game.

The game telegraphs its intention to give you a heart attack, and your only choices are to let it or just quit the game. But what really makes this effective is that it doesn’t do so all the time. Sometimes, you go through a long hallway that may seem to have an obvious jumpscare at the end of it, but nothing happens. That unpredictability keeps players at the edge of their seats as they play through the campaign.

It’s a lot like fighting, wherein a skilled opponent will throw feints and fakes at you along with real hard strikes to confuse you and overload your mind. That unpredictability makes it a lot harder to determine whether the next thing coming at you is either a real attack or just another feint of a feint of a feint. The same thing can be done with storytelling to keep the audience on their toes.

Day of the Tiger Mission in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault

Let’s then look at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. I have great nostalgia for World War 2 games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. I still tend to play them every 6th of June, the anniversary of D-Day.

But this mission was pure bullshit. “Day of the Tiger” was infamous for its first phase — colloquially named “Sniper Town” — which has snipers everywhere with nary a hint of where they are. It’s safe to say that 99.9% of people who first played this mission got turned into Swiss cheese with rifle fire from seemingly nowhere.

You may think you’re missing something as you get hit from every direction, but there’s nothing really complicated about it. The snipers are just very well hidden and you have to practically memorize their locations after dying to them over and over again until you finally get through the whole thing. Seriously, I’m not kidding.

It’s realistic in that snipers would be like this in the real world, especially amid the dangers of urban warfare. But it’s not Ukraine in 2023 or Western Europe in 1942; it’s a video game. If I have to play Where’s Waldo with guns, I’d rather play Battlefield or Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, which are games I’m really bad at for some reason.

If you look up playthroughs of this mission, you’ll find countless comments of other people going through similar difficulties when they played it back in the day. It’s a common experience to be convinced of one’s incompetence as a child, only to find out decades later that virtually everyone who ever played this mission was just as bad.

And most of them are still just as bad at it.

But it’s possible to play it “perfectly” — memorizing where the enemies are and killing them as quickly as possible. Despite that feasibility, it’s still a badly-designed mission in a game that was released in 2002. Janky games were everywhere during this era, including my favorite game of all time.

Azmodan: The Worst Example I’ve Experienced

Diablo III was mostly a disappointment. While I did enjoy the gameplay for a while — it was great for playing while listening to Ladytron — I would get off of it once I completed the story for Reaper of Souls. The writing for that game and its expansion was a complete mess.

Remember, Deckard Cain died in it. That’s not much of a spoiler since it’s better if you don’t have to get into that game’s story. It’s a Diablo story written for children for a sequel that came out 12 years after the first game.

On the other hand, the story of Diablo IV is pretty good. Review coming soon.

One of the big baddies you had to fight in Diablo III was Azmodan, the Lord of Sin. He was built up to be the greatest battlefield commander among the Great Evils, with a strategic mind that not even the greatest of Heaven can match. With all that talk of him being cunning and devious, you’d think that he’d be playing you like a pawn on a chessboard.

From what I can still remember of playing the game almost a decade ago, I found Act III of Diablo III to be a hilarious experience due to Azmodan’s interjections throughout the questline. He spills his secrets every chance he gets like how a toddler spills milk on the kitchen floor. He loves to taunt you for being nothing more than a whelp against his great demonic armies.

Then when you get to finally fight him, he’s nothing more than a sponge. He does have those AoE pools on the ground and homing fireballs, but they’re nothing to worry about if you’re tanky and aggressive enough. I’ve since deleted the video of me killing him while my party mates cheer on just before server maintenance due to one of those mates no longer being a mate, but I swear that it did happen.

Anyway, Azmodan was a bad boss. Not the worst, but not good either.


The act of announcing one’s intentions through word or movement is an important part of storytelling. While it doesn’t have to be super overt like in a theater play, dropping a hint or two to foreshadow what’s to come can enhance the narrative. Of course, overusing this technique can only take away from it, so one must be aware of the potential for diminishing returns.

I thought of then writing about telegraphing in movie fighting and pro wrestling, as well as the need to eliminate it in real fighting. After all, it’s what “telegraphing” really means. However, I failed to convincingly tie it in with the games I mentioned here. That’s a topic for another blog post, I suppose.

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