In his book “Video Game storytelling” Evan Skolnick says that the famous saying “Show don’t tell” is a core principle in creative writing. However, Show don’t tell might fit perfectly into the medium of cinema and literature (where the audience can’t affect the actions of the protagonists), so what about video games?
In a game the Show don’t tell principle should be impossible to apply since you (the writer) don’t have much agency on the actions of the player. You can tell them where to go and suggest what they should do, but ultimately, they are the ones choosing if the treasure chest is worth the struggle or not.
This means that there are three tools that the writer can use to deliver exposition:
- character dialogue
- player’s actions
Let’s start with the obvious one, cutscenes. Since they are the closest thing to a movie in the video game world, we can easily apply screenwriting rules to them.
So the usual things: no boring monologues, no out-of-character lengthy confessions, no talking like a robot, and, if there is a narrator, he talks only if it’s necessary.
The principle at the core of Show don’t tell is the idea that the writer has to describe what’s happening in this exact moment of the story instead of simply telling the story.
Here’s the difference: let’s take for example the opening scene in the game God of war (2018).
The first thing we see is Kratos holding the Leviathan axe, in front of him there’s a tree with a golden handprint on the trunk. The God leans on the tree, resting his head right on the handprint, his expression sad, and somber.
The player is called to take action: “Press R1 to swing the axe”, after a few swings the tree in front of Kratos comes down. That’s when a boy arrives and says that he has found the plant he was looking for.
Skipping forward, we see that Kratos and the boy have brought the tree to a house. We follow the boy as he goes inside, lit some candles, and says a prayer in front of what looks like a human body wrapped in cloth and decorated with flowers.
As the boy starts crying, Kratos comes in. He says that now that person is “free” and then takes the body outside where he and the boy lit a funeral pyre.
This is showing instead of telling. Let’s see what the opposite looks like:
Kratos sits in his house cleaning his axe. A boy comes in and says “Father, I have finished arranging the funeral pyre for mother.”
Kratos responds: “Did you make sure that the trees were the ones that she specifically picked out before dying?”
“Yes!” Atreus responds. “I am so sad now, I really miss her”.
“Me too” Kratos replies.
It’s not that moving, is it?
Showing instead of telling has the added benefit of “forcing” the viewer to pay attention. Lots of players will prefer to skip unengaging and long cutscenes to go back to the action. And honestly, can you blame them?
A cutscene consists only of two talking heads delivering exposition to one another through a dialogue that sounds unnatural is not fun to watch.
Dialogue, here is where God of war (2018) shows the talent of its writers. But let’s start from the beginning.
If we’re talking about Show don’t tell it’s logical to assume that dialogue would be our worst enemy, after all, “tell” is basically the definition of dialogue. However, that isn’t always the case.
When it comes to movies the biggest problem is badly written dialogue that overexplains the characters’ situation or their emotions. In video games, you have to account for that and for the lack of “action” during the conversation.
Most players will start to roll their eyes or go get a snack from the fridge if a game forces them to plant their character in the middle of a room and listen to some boring conversation.
For example, in the game Days Gone (2019), the player has to complete a certain number of “spy” missions that involve sneaking into a research site and listen to the conversation between two officers in order to obtain information.
It doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, that’s until you realize that the listening part is roughly 2 minutes long and that the conversation consists of military jargon and the occasional backstory of an unnamed faceless NPC. If you don’t believe me, watch this yourself and let me know how “entertained” you feel by the end of the video:
So what does God of war (2018) do to avoid killing its players through boredom? Simply enough it delivers its exposition while the player is traveling.
A lot of the game consists of exploration, meaning that the player will have to be constantly moving the characters around and this creates the potential for a lot of “dead” moments where nothing happens and the gameplay feels a lot like a walking simulator.
The developers and writers of God of war (2018) decided to take this opportunity to fill the silence with interesting (but not always essential) lore told through stories and anecdotes.
For example, our heroes learn that in order to reach Jotenheim they’ll need a piece of a magical chisel, as they are traveling by boat to their destination, Mimir tells the story of Thamur and the chisel.
The conversation is timed so that it fits right into the travel time from the lake to the location of the chisel, and right as the talking head is about to reveal the end of the story, Atreus spots the giant’s corpse.
It’s a really impactful moment because the whole dialogue was written by taking the player’s actions into consideration.
Instead of a boring, silent boat ride, we get a tragic story of a father who died before being able to apologize to his son. And instead of a boring moment where the player is forced to stand still and listen to a story, we get to perform a task that keeps us busy but doesn’t distract us so much that we aren’t able to listen.
In Videogame storytelling Evan Skolnick says:
“In games, the old Hollywood axiom can be amended to, “do, don’t show”. If you can convey story information with active gameplay, that’s better than communicating it in a more passive mode, like a cutscene or a dialogue line.”– Video game stoytelling
But how do you do that? How do you communicate information to the player by making him act?
Let’s go back to the more familiar Show don’t tell. What is the type of information that we’re trying to “show”?
In the first scene of God of war (2018) the writers needed to communicate Kratos and Atreus’ emotions, but also explain what happened to them. So let’s keep that in mind and analyze another famous scene from the God of war videogame: the first time Atreus kills a person.
Kratos and his son get ambushed by some bandits on their journey. The God manages to get rid of most of them quickly, but the last man gets a hold of Atreus who finds himself forced to kill his attacker.
Earlier in the game, while they were exploring, Atreus told Kratos that he doesn’t want to kill people, that for him it doesn’t seem “right” to do so. Kratos responds by telling his son: “Close your heart to it”.
Now Atreus has done it, he has killed a human being.
As the player is fighting the bandits (as Kratos), in the background he can see the boy getting attacked and the scuffle ending with the bandit laying on top of Atreus.
The player gets control of Kratos again, he has to move the character towards Atreus to save him.
That’s when a cutscene takes over and shows the young man in a state of shock, sobbing and confused. Kratos tries to console the boy by holding him up and repeats what he said before: “Close your heart to it”.
The two get attacked once again, but this time the bandits take the form of monsters that came back to life. Kratos (controlled by the player) defeats them while Atreus stands in a corner of the room, frozen.
Through dialogue, Kratos tells his son to “collect himself” while he searches for a way out. He sees a chain hanging from the upper floor when the player finds a spot that Atreus can jump over he has to press circle to boost him up.
This is a move that the player has already used and will continue to use throughout the game: by pressing circle Kratos will help Atreus reach a platform above them and the boy will then drop a chain that his father can use to climb up.
However this time it’s different. Atreus doesn’t run towards his father, he has to be encouraged. Even after he reaches the upper level, he doesn’t appear to be nearly as fast or as enthusiastic as usual.
When Atreus stops walking, the player has to press square to make Kratos speak words of encouragement that will make him go on until the boy reaches the chain and gameplay can move on as before.
This particular moment in the game combines every Show don’t tell method we have previously talked about: cutscenes, character dialogue, and player’s action. All those things manage to convey the message that the writer is trying to send, while also keep the player entertained and engaged.
God of war (2018) might be a visually stunning, entertaining, and adrenaline-filled experience; but it’s the masterfully crafted storytelling that really brings the game to life. And those examples of the Show don’t tell technique being used are just the tip of the iceberg.