Pierman Walter

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Some games, like Undertale, give all of their exposition by telling the player directly what is going on and how they are supposed to feel. Other games, like Darksouls, give all of their exposition through dialogue, events, and scenery, allowing players to figure out what is really going on for themselves.


Basically, telling is like this:

The man in the purple raincoat notices you and stands up. He is a full yard taller than you initially thought when first seeing him. You are shocked when you realize his eyebrows are actually rows of smaller eyes. He walks towards you and waves, a big smile on his face. His mouth begins to tear open at the corners, but bandages prevent his whole jaw from tearing off.



And showing is like this:


http://piermanwalter.deviantart.com/art/Everyman-RPG-Character-Concept-Art-1-575360830


I like the Darksouls method better, since it allows different players to have different ideas. On the other hand, this method takes a huge amount of effort and talent to get right, and it is a lot easier to write a lot of interesting descriptions than to animate a thousand different sprites of the main character getting up and lying down. Also, the Darksouls method either works well, or fails horribly, there is very little middle ground. For example, dating sims often rely on subtle body language and facial expressions to tell stories, but if whenever a girl looks at you with affection and utter trust, she is always drawn like this:


image.jpg


, with no other clues as to determine how she feels, then the game is literally unplayable.


Do you have any personal preferences as to which one is better? What do you do for your own games?
 

Kes

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I do my games with Show.  I never tell my players what they should feel, but hope that, by the way I have shown the characters and their actions and reactions, they will come to feel a particular way.  But of course, it cannot be guaranteed that they will.  And that's fine.  As I tend to have a degree of ambiguity - at least at certain points - then I have to accept that a player may experience things differently. 


I personally dislike being told everything.  In a good story there should be room, at least at times, for alternative interpretations of what's going on. Your main character, unless they are one-dimensional, is unlikely to have god-like knowledge of what's happening, something which constant 'telling' would provide. That, for example, is the only way to set up a proper plot twist.  IMO, an effective plot twist never comes totally unannounced, but draws on subtle hints and clues, so that the player has a light bulb moment, not a WTF? moment.  Telling is also, IMO, a bit boring.  It undermines the sense of discovering for oneself (surely an integral part of the role-playing) what is happening in the world.  It prevents different characters having different reactions to the same event or to each other.  I want my actors to be different, to respond in ways which reflect their own personality and knowledge, to be excited or repulsed by different things, to see life through the lens of their particular hopes, dreams, aspirations.  Through that, the player can experience those events in a multi-faceted way, can wonder which reaction is closer to 'reality', can sympathize with different points of view and can realize that things are rarely simple to the point of being simplistic.  Telling reduces everyone to sameness.


And yes, you're right.  Showing takes a lot, lot more work.
 
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dragoonwys

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I usually like to play/do my games with more Show than tell. But like the creepy frozen dating face example, I also get that sometimes telling fits more than showing, especially with more abstract concepts such as the void or how death is shown in that world, like all souls return to the magical lifestream or the like. It wouldn't do if it's important and you show some abstract pictures to match that concept, but end up shooting right past the player's heads because they just didn't understand the images they were getting.


But other than that, with much more solid concepts such as the physical state of the world, culture and history of it, showing it with a decent amount of flavor/pointer text a bit later on would be nicer most of the time imo. It lets players fit the puzzle pieces themselves and it is quite satisfying when they realized that they finally got the full picture. You have a town of people who worship a feathered serpent? Have statues of said serpent appear in certain places in their town and priests making offerings to it. You don't really need to have an NPC who stands at the entrance that goes 'Welcome to X town, we worship a feathered serpent' to get that point across. It almost comes off as giving someone a wrapped present and immediately telling them what's inside before they even had a chance to guess, it subtracts from the sense of adventure a little.


As for emotions, they are something I feel that really should be invoked from being shown rather than delivered with a tell method. If you have a character who is supposed to be your MC's best friend and they die mid game and it's supposed to a big deal, you can't expect the player to feel sad if you never shown any of this supposed friendship the two have. Constantly having the characters repeat that 'You are my best friend' in dialog won't make me feel sad over the death of that person because I never saw that they were that close to begin with.
 

Punamaagi

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While I am fond of telling things rather than showing them when I write stories (drawn-out descriptions and introspection have always been my forte), I can't quickly think of any modern game where the old saying "show, don't tell" wouldn't strike true. Games are multimedia: most of them combine text with visual elements and sound, so it would feel a bit silly to describe something which could be shown via pictures or a scene, or even music and other sounds.


That being said, I don't mind a bit of telling in situations where it can clarify things or add a bit of flavour. For instance, my game has a minstrel but no voice acting, so I've briefly described his voice in his description and have other characters comment on his singing a couple of times. The main character's thoughts are also sometimes shown to the player inside parentheses, but they are not omniscient and can't know what the other characters are thinking.
 

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From experience, I'd say JRPG-style games tend to be more "tell" heavy than show, in most cases. And I think that's okay, often times players that want to engage in the JRPG style of game are looking for a good story to listen to. I like to think about the Persona games (particularly 3 and 4) that do an amazing job of telling a story while still engaging the player. I think that comes from the success of combining visual-novel elements with dungeon-crawling RPG elements.

For more action-combat oriented games, there tends to be a lot more character animation, moves, expressions, and feedback because a lot of those elements need to be exaggerated per the combat system. I think the "show" works better for these, or it's at least vastly more common.


Of course I'm making a bit of a generalization with these, but I believe the strengths of each kind of storytelling depend on the genre and style of the game. I don't believe one is necessarily better or more artistic than the other. Both take careful thought and planning to balance game plot and player involvement.
 
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Frozen_Phoenix

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Showing is usually better for a game, but telling is much easier to do so it's the best way if you don't feel like doing a lot of work.
 

Caitlin

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Show, don't tell is the worst advice I have ever heard, because it really doesn't say anything.  I don't follow it.  I try to have interaction between the reader, player or whatever.  I think there is an effective way of showing the player something without going out of your way to say that thing.  For example, Star Wars 6 (or the third of the original trilogy).  You had Darth Vader looking between Luke and the Emperor, torn between saving Luke and serving the Emperor before he finally grabbed the Emperor throwing him to his death.  This is something you don't have to be told what was going on, because you were involved in the story.  Meanwhile, the same man who wrote that, created the prequels and basically "told" you that Obi-Won and Anakin were really good friends, because you never witnessed it whatsoever.  He, also, edited that previous scene to add a not really needed Nooooooo!


So how do I handle situations? It's all about telling a story and now, you are not restricted by memory you have more of choice.  A scene that is important for the person to understand, you can either, have a wall of text or animate the scene in a game.  What do you think would be best?  Well, duh, the animated scene, while other times, an interesting story like the way that The Legend of Zelda works.  In the end, for me, it depends on what the intended feelings and what the player should know and not know.  A mystery game is not going to have a major introduction to what's going on.


I guess my rule is to go case by case, what works for one, is going to be bad for another one.  Just my opinion, though.
 

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I have a small question regarding this topic. I hope it's related to this, at least.


What do you guys mostly prefer when it comes to passing time, say in an opening cutscene before the game actually starts.


Do you prefer a short text displaying something quick and simple "Many years later", or do you prefer being told, for example through dialogue, how long ago it was since aforementioned event occurred?
 

Kes

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@Lynks Your question presumes a certain narrative.  In none of my games would it have been even remotely appropriate to do either a simple "Many years later" or dialogue telling me that time has passed.  In fact if I, as a player, were faced with either of those, there would be a good chance that I would just shut the game down thinking to myself "oh no, not again!"  Not every story is obliged to be a continuation of some epic occurrence of the past.
 

Lynks

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@Kes I suppose it doesn't really matter, now when you mention it. I was too stuck in the thought that I had to make it obvious an amount of time had passed between the opening and the point where the player starts out
 

BrandedTales

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@Caitlin I don't know that I agree it's the worst advice, although I do agree it isn't applicable in all situations.  I think that show vs tell isn't about whether or not there is something to read (or whether Vader needed to say anything in the scene with the emperor), but more whether what you read is explicitly feeding the specifics rather than giving you the context clues so that it doesn't have to.


As an example:  our hero gets woken up by his mom early.


Telling:  "mom, you know I'm grumpy first thing in the morning."


Showing: (the character won't get out of bed on the first call, and when mom tries again): "Mom, seriously... do you have any idea how early this is?!"


The first comes right out and tells the audience our hero is grumpy...  the second paints a more engaging picture that suggests the same thing.


I transitioned to game development from novel writing,and its beaten into you pretty strongly by editors that if you want to be successful, you show and not tell.  This is because any time I have to tell the reader (or player) how they should feel, I'm pulling them out of the immersion to deliver this tidbit.  It's a tremendous amount of work in a lot of cases, and one of the biggest areas I spent time between first and second draft (not sure how to show this yet, so I'm going to tell until I get a little more time to mull over a solution).


In game design, showing would seem at first glance to be easier since you actually have graphics to replace paragraphs (or pages) of complex description, but my experience has been that it is still just as much of an undertaking, and in some cases the effort won't be worth the time.  "Bad" showing is almost certainly worse than telling (IE a lack of context clues may leave your player confused).


I think it's almost always worth the effort to try and show before you tell, but remember that not everything can be shown, so don't force it.


Just my thoughts though. Could be wrong.  (;
 
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bustedradio

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@Lynks


Honestly I don't mind the whole "many years later" splash screen. It doesn't take me out of the experience. Hell, one of my favorite ps3 games, Neir, has a "1,312 Years Later" splash screen after the beginning cut scene and intro battle.


If you don't want to tell the player, you can always resort to a black/white or sephia color filter for the flashback. Or have the events of the past told by a narrator if possible. Kinda cliche, but it works.
 
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Kes

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I think the reiterated example of the (imo stale) trope about "X hundred years later" as the intro tends to reinforce my doubts about the telling approach.  Might it not be a good idea to break out of the assumption that this story must be the final working out of some ancient event?  Perhaps going for a 'show' approach might help people come up with something fresher?
 

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I prefer showing vs telling myself. Only thing is, I need a lot more experience with the showing part. Guess you have to start trying at some point, eh
 

RetroBoy

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Depends on the kind of medium you're working in but ideally you want people to feel and not be told how to feel. Truthfully though, I think the most important thing is telling a good and complete story. People are going to feel something no matter what you do, even if its boredom. You should just try to be engaging and keep the plot moving forward. If you're doing that and you are satisfied you did your best, that's all you can ask of yourself. You're ALWAYS going to want to go back and do revisions, so learning when to just take your hands off a project and say "This is good enough" is an important thing to get your head around. I bring this up because the whole "people pleasing" thing can be a real spanner in the works with that.
 

Studio Blue

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Tossing  my two cents into this conversation. First off, the old "Show don't Tell" argument.


"Show, don't Tell" comes from advice given to writers regarding their craft, and is widely misunderstood as "never Tell, always Show." That's not the point of the advice. What it means is that you want to Show as much as possible and Tell as little as possible. It also means that when faced with the confusion as to which to choose, go with Show. The reasoning behind this is very simple: Showing puts the onus on the reader to create the scene in their head, while Telling does all the work for the reader.


When is it OK to Tell in writing? When there is no other option. You can Show how a character feels, you can Show how a scene looks; but when it comes to an action, you should probably Tell what is happening. Lovely thing (and an advanced bit of writing advice) is that you can still combine the two:


Bjorn thrust his spear forward (Tell), ramming the tapered tip into the dragon's left eye (Tell). Blood squirted from the wound (Tell), a great geyser (Show), the mangled remains of the now shattered organ leaking around the weapon's shaft in crimson-stained clumps (Show). With a grizzled grim grin (Show), he pulled the spear out with a grotesquely slurping pop (Tell). His father would be avenged tonight. (Tell)


In video games, you're able to include a visual medium, meaning that you can Show far more than ever before. You can use varied character portraits to convey emotion, can use SE to deliver sound effects (a perfect example of that is Kekfa's evil laugh in FFVI), and use even the subtle nuance of characters looking away to get across a point. In short, you have more options to Show than a writer will ever have.


Having said that, there are times in a video game when you have to tell the player what's going on. Directly pushing the plot forward in small doses sustains a player during the Show scenes that force them to deduce what is going on. Reveals are usually Tells as well, and very few series are able to avoid this at all. In fact, Show-only storytelling in a niche, games like Dark Souls that only Show you whats going on and force you to piece the plot together are the exception and not the rule. That doesn't mean only Dark Souls games are good masterful games, some of the best games out there Tell quite a bit.


In short, it's balancing between Showing the good tasty bits to players, and then Telling them what they need to know in certain key moments that is the hallmark of good storytelling.


And it ain't easy.
 

LxCharon

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Like @BrandedTales I come a writing background where it's pushed pretty hard to show not tell. But I think it's being framed wrong here. It's not "SHOW, DON'T TELL!!!" It's a question, "Can I show this instead of telling it?" But @BrandedTales gave the best example, with the being grumpy. When writing for any medium, but especially visual mediums (like videogames) you should be asking yourself "Can I show this instead of telling it?" Because showing it will always engage the player/reader more than telling them. You want your player to know these things. And if there's anything that you can learn it's that people will always believe things more if they witness them rather than being told them. Yeah you can say that hero is grumpy in the morning all you want, but the player may not really believe it unless they see the hero grumpy in the morning. 


Though I think a better question for video games is "Can I make this interactive instead of showing it?" 
 

palinskyjoe

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I love this topic! Everyone has such fantastic insight.


I write for a living and had to endure endless years in classrooms debating the best way to write a story. In truth, there is no correct way. Showing is preferred by many because it is more interesting for the most part, but there are so many exceptions. One Hundred Years of Solitutde by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my absolute favorite books and it could be argued that all 400+ pages of the story are just one long "telling" of the history of a family and a town. Still, it is gorgeous to read and the way that it is told makes the reader a bit uncertain as to when events actually happen and how often history seems to repeat itself in small and bizarre ways.


But, like others have said, in games I think the whole idea is to make the story as engaging as possible. Little character movements or reactions can show a whole lot. Dialogue helps, but it can be easy to become reliant on dialogue in a video game and then a player is reading/listening more than actually playing anything.


The emerging field of Digital Humanities (specifically Digital Lit) encompasses the ideas of literature AND video games to sort of create a learning experience through insightful/artistic/etc. engagement. There are some wonderful examples out there for anyone who wants to "play" a book... so to speak.
 
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LxCharon

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I love that you brought up Gabriel Garcia Marquez @palinskyjoe! Though my favorite book by him is The Autumn of the Patriarch, it follows the same dynamic of being told rather than being shown, like a history. Another example that comes to mind is the original Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin, which reads like you're reading a historical text book more than a fantasy novel, and yet it works. But those still do a lot of showing over telling.


But showing vs telling goes deeper than a surface "Is this being shown to me or being told to me?" It's often the stuff that isn't said that is being shown and what creates a better story. It's knowing that Holden Caufield from Catcher in the Rye is a jerk and is struggling with depression, even though it never out right said "Holden had depression" but we know the symptoms we see he has them. Even in One Hundred Years of Solitude we see showing not telling. We learn Rebecca does understand at least a little spanish not because it's stated but it's shown that she understands what some of the characters are saying. 


Though I do think it's more of a recent push for showing not telling since the rise of television and movies, medium where it almost requires you show and not tell. 
 

palinskyjoe

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@LxCharon Oh man! Yes! Another amazing blend of showing/telling is in World War Z. It reads like a historical book while being completely shown through the eyes of people who survived the "zombie apocalypse." 


I can't remember what book it is, I want to say Madame Butterfly?, where the author never describes the appearance of the title woman and yet it is understood that she is one of the most captivatingly beautiful people around because of the way that people interact with her. 


I could honestly talk about this for the rest of my life, though. Stories are so interesting and rules sometimes stand in the way of writers who are afraid that they aren't following them correctly. But ya gotta write a whole bunch of bad stuff before you hit the gold anyway. 
 

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