Showing and Telling
Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
The expression ‘show, don’t tell’ may be the most common piece of advice writers receive throughout their careers. It’s an alluring aphorism because of its simplicity; in three words, it condenses the concept of drawing audiences in by appealing to their senses and emotions rather than by stating facts. Author Karl Iglesias elaborates on this idea in ‘Writing for Emotion,’ saying: “Seeing a character’s anger through his body language or violent behavior will always be more interesting than reading “He’s angry.”1 It’s a solid piece of advice, but it skips over the fact that showing can have its own pitfalls. In reality, both showing and telling have their place, and both should be used with consideration and care.
As an interactive, audio-visual medium, video games have no shortage of options for showing and telling. While the written word is limited to description and dialogue, and films and television shows are limited to a singular narrative, video games can evoke the senses through sound, visual design, and branching narratives. These unique features give game developers the ability to create moods based on specific scenes, places, and characters, but they all come with associated costs. Writing and recording unique audio tracks for every scene is a tall order, as is creating unique models for every object in every area. It’s important to consider the story’s pace, as well, as taking too much time to establish a mood may bore players who want to ‘get back to the game.’ For the sake of the game as a whole, as well as the schedule and budget, developers must know when to show and when to tell.
When to Show, When to Tell
The Benefits of Showing
Game Discussed: Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015)
Traditionally, the concept of ‘showing’ in writing is about reaching the audience on a sensory or emotional level rather than a logical one. Author Sol Stein elaborates on why this concept is so important in “Stein on Writing,” saying: “The reader wants an experience that’s more interesting than his daily life. He enjoys and suffers whatever the characters are living through. If that experience is interrupted in order to convey a character’s background, or anything else that the author seems to be supplying, that’s telling, not showing, a major fault because it intrudes upon the reader’s experience.”2 Although Stein’s advice was intended for novelists, it holds for video games as well. In a story-driven game, players want to put themselves in the character’s shoes, which means piecing together the meaning of events as they would in their own lives. By directly telling the player what someone is feeling or what something means, it takes away from their experience, and they have less desire to play on.
One game that uses sensory and emotional details to immerse players in the narrative is the interactive film game Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015). In Her Story, it’s the player’s job to comb through archive footage of police interviews connected to the case of a missing man. The unique gameplay hook is the player’s ability to search the archive at will, which allows them to string together pieces of each interview in nearly infinite combinations. As a result, every player will see the same story unfold in a different order, and key facts that may crack one player’s case early may not come out for another player until the end. Part of the reason this irregular structure works is that every clip shows subtle differences in the interviewee’s emotional and physical state. While very few clips contain information directly relevant to explaining the man’s disappearance, each one can teach the player something about the woman being interviewed. Her clothes, her hair, her chosen beverage, and her gestures are all clues that the player can use to figure out the truth for themselves. If the game had simply told the player what the woman was feeling and thinking, there would be nothing to compel the player to go on, and the premise would fall flat on its face. By showing instead of telling, Her Story keeps players engaged until the moment they solve the case.
The Costs of Showing
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006)
Showing is an incredibly valuable tool, but like any tool, there’s a time and a place to use it. Too much showing can slow a story down, and audiences may lose sight of which details are meaningful. The costs of showing also come out in genres with standard runtimes, playtimes, or word counts. Showing costs precious time that telling doesn’t, and that time may be better served showing something more meaningful. For example, if the writer is working on a story where the protagonist needs to get from point A to point B, the writer should ask themself if showing the journey between points will teach the audience anything new about the story. If the journey reveals details about the plot, the characters, the themes, or the setting, then showing it is the right choice; if it doesn’t, then all the writer needs to do is tell the audience that the character moved between points without issue. By measuring every element of a story with that same skepticism, writers can ensure that they’re only showing what they need to show.
Video games sometimes struggle with over-showing, especially in their openings. There’s a temptation for developers to begin game stories with long tutorial segments that teach the player the controls. Attempting to tie these tutorials into the narrative can lead to extreme cases of over-showing. One example of this phenomenon occurs in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006). When the game begins, players must guide Link through a series of menial tasks in his village, each of which establishes his helpful attitude and his concern for others. While these are helpful character traits to develop early on, the different tasks don’t teach different lessons about the character. If those tasks only have one thing to teach, then they could have been condensed down to one or two tasks, with the first laying the foundation for his character and the second establishing a pattern. Alternately, each task could have shown a different facet of Link’s character or the world. As it stands, the game ends up boring the player because it’s showing the same thing over and over, and each iteration diminishes the value of the whole.
The Benefits of Telling
Game Discussed: Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005)
Those who take a prescriptivist approach to writing advice may look at ‘show, don’t tell’ as inviolable law, but telling can be as effective as showing in the right situation. There are times when characters need to complete a task to progress the story, but the specifics of the task have little bearing on the narrative overall. In the example from the previous section—the man traveling from point A to point B—telling allows the writer to efficiently convey that the man has completed his journey without wasting the audience’s time. In written fiction, this can be as simple as something like: “After breakfast at point A, the man drove to point B.” In a visual medium, a shot of the man getting in and out of his car serves the same purpose. The drive itself isn’t important; what’s important is what the man will do at his destination. In this case, telling gives the idea of how the man has moved through both space and time without slowing the story down.
The survival horror game Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005) uses telling to whisk players into the action, avoiding the pitfalls of games like Twilight Princess. In Resident Evil 4, players take the role of Leon Kennedy, who previously had a starring role in Resident Evil 2 (Capcom, 1998). Since seven years had passed between games, and the developers couldn’t guarantee that everyone who played RE:4 also played RE:2, they decided to begin the game with brief title cards that summarized the events of the previous games. By summarizing the details of the previous games, developers were able to bring unfamiliar players up to speed without boring those who knew the franchise. In the next scenes—the first, discounting the title cards—RE:4 uses a different kind of telling by having Leon go over the details of his mission in his inner monologue. As he stares out of the window of a car on its way to a little village in Europe, he thinks through the basic facts of his job: the president’s daughter has been kidnapped, and it’s his job to get her out. In many situations, this kind of telling would be frowned upon, as it pulls the audience out of the story. Itt works in RE:4 because it quickly moves the player past the details that can’t deliver on the promise of the genre. As a survival horror game, RE:4 is at its best when it’s filling players with a profound sense of unease. Any details that don’t add to that creeping horror run the risk of wrecking the tone. To combat this, developers decided to move through the setup phase as quickly as possible so they can start delivering on the promises of the genre.
The Costs of Telling
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo, 2011)
Telling can be a wonderful tool for writers who want to convey information to audiences without slowing things down. Unfortunately, it can also be lifeless, boring, or condescending if misused. Poor telling can manifest itself in several ways, such as exposition dumps or clunky dialogue. These manifestations invariably draw the audience out of the story, as it reminds them that they are not in a living world, but a fictional construct designed by someone with a point to convey. If that happens, the story becomes little more than an information checklist, and the audience won’t stick around to check the boxes.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo, 2011) has the opposite problem of Twilight Princess. Where Twilight Princess drags because it shows to the point of excess, Skyward Sword suffers because it tells players things the characters should already know. The most egregious moment occurs when Zelda’s father first tracks down Link and Zelda to remind them of the upcoming flight ceremony. Even though both Link and Zelda have been living in Skyloft their whole lives, Zelda’s father lectures them as if they are as unfamiliar with the world as the player. In a single paragraph, he proclaims: “As you know, each of us in Skyloft is but one half of a pair. We are only made whole by our Loftwings, the guardian birds that the goddess bestows upon each of us as a symbol of her divine protection. When we are young, every one of us meets our Loftwing under the great statue of the goddess. It’s quite a big moment, as I’m sure you recall.” This paragraph is full of information Link and Zelda already know, and Zelda’s father knows it, too. He uses both “As you know” and “As I’m sure you’ll recall” in the same breath, making it abundantly clear that they don’t need the information—yet the player does, so the developers had him say it anyway. Unfortunately, it has the side effect of reminding the player that they are not engaging with a world but being fed information with a purpose, so it does more harm than good.
In spite of the oft-trumped axiom ‘show, don’t tell,’ both showing and telling have a place in storytelling. To use them properly, writers should consider the purpose of the information they want to convey and whether it tells the audience anything new about the story. If it does, writers should ground that information in sensory details that evoke emotions; if it doesn’t, they can feel free to tell about in passing, making room for more important details later.
1 Iglesias, Karl. Writing for emotional impact : advanced dramatic techniques to attract, engage, and fascinate the reader from beginning to end (p. 139). WingSpan Press. Kindle Edition.
2 Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing (p. 124). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Her Story): Tord Tveid. Her Story – Complete Walkthrough [No Commentary | PC]. YouTube, 2016.
** Reference Footage (Twilight Princess) SourceSpy91. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – MAIN QUEST – FULL GAME Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.
*** Reference Footage (Resident Evil 4): SHN Survival Horror Network. Resident Evil 4 PS4Pro Full HD 1080p/60fps Longplay Walkthrough Gameplay No Commentary. YouTube, 2016.
SourceSpy91. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD – MAIN QUEST – FULL GAME Walkthrough. YouTube, 2019.
**** Reference Footage (Skyward Sword): ZorZelda. Zelda Skyward Sword HD 100% Walkthrough (1080p 60 fps) (No Commentary). YouTube, 2020.