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  • The Writing Game: Play, Don't Show

    [10.30.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi
  • 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.

    Those Beginnings

    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.

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