Games are a storytelling medium, if they weren’t then this series wouldn’t serve any purpose beyond fueling my ego. But the point of this series is to look at the so-called “rules” of storytelling, language and game design to see how they can work together to tell better stories.
And there’s one rule that’s always spouted when it comes to writing that we should examine its implications for video games.
“The basic rule of storytelling is ‘show, don’t tell.’” — Julianna Baggott
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It should be a simple concept — don’t have characters or narrators tell the reader what happened by speaking to one another. Rather have those events be written out in full so we as the reader experience them.
Problem is that not everything needs to be shown. It’s rare in novels to read about the character’s bowel movements, unless of course the author is obsessed with such a thing. And it’s even rarer to have characters see to their most basic needs, beyond food and sex, in other mediums like TV and movies. The caveat to all of that is when those events are used for comedic effect. Take Bridesmaids and the diarrhea scene for example. Of course it can be used for dramatic purposes but those tend be around situations in which one character is caring for another.
But by and large these mediums don’t show everything. And it’s a point I’ll come back to in a bit when we talk about games. For now let’s focus more on the idea of “showing, not telling.” One of the issues faced by writers, particular those working in fantasy and science fiction, is how to introduce the world and the various concepts that make it different enough the world we live in and thus need some sort of explanation.
One argument for why fantasy is more popular than science fiction is the fact that the audience knows how to swing a sword, but they don’t know how to use a blaster. The idea is that to settle into the world people need a basic understanding of how things work, and so fantasy is more palatable even if most people don’t encounter things like horses they still know how to swing a stick and thus a sword.
Either way, there’s a lot of history and cultural experience that is not innate to the reader. Hence the use of exposition or info dumps. One of the most iconic examples comes from Star Wars and with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Followed by the scroll.
Oh that scroll. It does so much. It sets us up for what to expect from the universe of Star Wars. It details events far and wide and introduces some of the major players we encounter. The scroll also entices us and leaves us wanting to know more before we’ve even meet any of the characters. Most stories don’t begin this way, regardless of medium. Instead they give us a scene or scenes with the main character(s) to demonstrate the rules of the world and the personalities in it and how they’ll interact with those rules. It’s no different from a tutorial in a game really.
Where exposition gets boring and generally unnecessary is the gratuitous details authors chose to share about items within their story. We see this with food, drink, armor, weapons, technology, culture, people, places, ideas — basically anything that can be described and given a history is. George R.R. Martin does this a lot. Granted in his series A Song of Ice and Fire, better known to TV fans as Game of Thrones, the purpose is to serve as world-building. In doing so Martin is illustrating the economy and culture of various regions. But it rarely has any impact on the story beyond extending the amount of time it takes to read.
This isn’t something solely Martin does, lots of authors do it. The funny thing is that games tend to hide such information dumps. In some games they’re in the form of encyclopedias or other means of reference such as in the Civilization games, or Mass Effect. Games like Dragon Age and Destiny have more story-focused lore references. And then there’s games like Skyrim with it’s hundreds of books. These are systems that don’t need to be viewed for play, and generally just convey extra details with little in terms of tutorialization. Some games like Destiny went so far as to not even have them in the game, rather the Grimoire Cards had to be accessed online or through an app.
Aesthetic and production choices aside, the inclusion of that information never informs gameplay or the story being told, similar to novels. The removal or separation of that information is an aspect of games that novelists could learn from, padding their books out with a glossary, encyclopedia or other reference guide to help confused readers or lovers of lore. But where games haven’t learned from novels or movies and TV is to cut certain actions. Characters move from place to place, time to time, with little need to show the interviewing time or space. Games, however struggle with this.
Open world games like Watch Dogs 2, Horizon: Zero Dawn, GTA, etc. are notoriously bad at this. You don’t immediately jump to the next beat in a mission, but have to travel there across increasingly larger world maps that don’t allow you to fast travel during story missions. L.A. Noire was cited as one of the worst examples of this very thing. Though it’s from relatively early in the the history of open world games, its monotony of driving through empty streets should be reason enough to cut that part of the game. If not entirely then in part.
The rule of “show, don’t tell” can be argued every which way, and the amount of acceptable exposition changes with time and culture. Look at older books, like Shogun and the rest of the Asian Saga by James Clavell for example. There are countless times in those books, of which I’ve only read Shogun and Tai-Pan, where things are stated and not shown. Details are shared to the reader with little concern over whether or not it affects the pace.
And if you want a prime example of why you should follow the rule of “show, don’t tell” look at Suicide Squad according to Andrew Walsh — “Blow by blow, each moment of the film is narrated with direct exposition. The film, has other issues (the desperate need to explain that bad people are actually good underneath), but the failure to trust in the story and actors to explain the narrative is where the problems start.”
So no medium is ever without its issues when it comes to the concept of “show, don’t tell.” But by and large it’s a solid concept. The key is knowing when to follow it and when to break it. But that’s true for every rule.
Play Don’t Show
Games have the added caveat of “play, don’t show.” Which immediately brings to mind the question of whether or not a game should ever use cut-scenes. I’m not going to debate the issue and come down on one side or the other, as each instance has its own needs.
It’s like beginning a film with narration, generally it’s considered poor form to do so. But there are movies which do that very thing and succeed. Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper does just that. Games like Half-Life and Half-Life 2 forego cutscenes and choose instead to always keep the player in the perspective of the character.
But not all games are in a first-person perspective, just like not all novels are, and fewer TV shows or movies are. The most recent God of War for example is always in third person but taken from over the shoulder of the Kratos. The game never breaks from this perspective, whether going into the inventory or during scenes between characters where the player does not have control. It’s similar to what Half-Life has done but with different challenges technologically.
Halo is a great example of a game that switches perspective based upon an in-game interaction — namely driving vehicles — and that uses cutscenes. Whether that throws some people out of the fantasy of being a super soldier is ultimately a personal one, because regardless of that fact it’s still an involving game that does a lot of things right and well. Of course I have a great love for it.
Introducing New Worlds
The rule of “play, don’t show” is not as strictly enforced by critics as it so often is with other media. Part of that may be the fact that video games are quite young comparatively and have yet to put down tried and tested rules for their creation. But it still warrants further examination. My first thought on this rule is it’s inherently hard to follow, given there’s a certain amount of knowledge that a player has to take in, especially if they’re playing an RPG or a game with a character that has a backstory and experience in the world.
There’s a lot to learn about the world and a character’s place in it, not to mention the tutorial elements that the game has to get across to a player. Which is why most games simply choose to tell the player of their history and place in the universe. Both Battletech and Mass Effect do this very thing during the character creation process. Other games, most notably Fable, have the player actually play through the character creation as a tutorial that introduces the player to the world and the role of the character. But that’s rare.
My favorite game to talk about Firewatch, finds an interesting middle ground to this dilemma. Introducing the world and the player character of Henry along with basic tutorials through a combination of direct exposition, choose-your-own-adventure sequences and 3D exploration. It’s effective and moving for its brevity, even if it goes against the rule of “play, don’t show.”
Then again for most of it, it doesn’t even it show, but tells you the player what Henry’s history is. So maybe it just goes full circle on the whole idea of such rules! It’s so good at playing that it loops around to telling! Just kidding. Firewatch can tell us something because it’s so well written and made. But that’s always the case, and the argument for learning the rules — when you know them is when you can break them.
Items in games pose a particular problem for the whole “play, don’t show” idea, especially in games like League of Legends or The Witcher 3, where an individual item can have an incremental effect on the player character but no visual impact other than something purely cosmetic. Path of Exile is better at adhering to this rule given the gems one sockets into armor and weapons often have both a cosmetic or visual effect as well as a gameplay effect. So by switching gems in a mace your character may now start to do ice damage whereas before they did fire damage. This is shown by a blue particle effect when you swing the weapon and in game place because now enemies become frozen and stop attacking you.
The trouble with “play, don’t show” comes down to the game systems at play. If we’re meant to show we’re damaging an enemy, how is that supposed to play? Is their behavior meant to change? What about their appearance and animations? Are health bars appropriate? What about damage numbers such as we see in Borderlands 2?
The Future Of Play
Games are attempting to impart a lot of information about their world to the player and not all of it is playable. Be that because of game design, time and production constraints, story, or the limits of the technology and medium. Maybe virtual, augmented or mixed reality games will be able to solve this issue and allow for one to be truly “play, don’t show” but the likelihood of that is slim. Not just because of the aforementioned amount of data that needs to be shared with the player, but because of the inherited design expectations.
There isn’t always the need to reinvent the wheel, and that’s true for lots of things. Even if technically that’s what happens every time a game is programmed. From a design standpoint though, it’s smart to create something a player will already be familiar with. Fifteen years separate Halo and Firewatch but did Campo Santo reinvent how to move in a first-person perspective video game? No. They went with the tried and true design. And yes I know Halo was not the first game to do so either, it’s simply the game that popularized the method.
And that’s the thing — designs become popular. They inspire. They create new genres. They lead to advance mechanics. They become the basis for stories. So not all games will even strive for the idea of pure “play, don’t show” unlike other mediums which strive towards the idea of “show, don’t tell”. Finding what’s right for each game is up to the team behind it. As writers, we can help address those issues by asking questions about how characters in the world are meant to know things like where their food comes from, or why a particular weapon is better than another. If we’re not asking then there can’t be any answers.