Micro-essay: Show, Don’t Tell (…okay you can tell too)

I will say that before I even started reading this text by Eddo Stern, I kind of already had an idea of what it meant to compare a narrative in the “Show VS Tell” situation: how much content can delivered through expositional dialogue, and how much through artistic/symbolic visuals. Though I will say that I was quite surprised with Stern’s decision to focus solely on the genre of the MMORPG: not because of the genre itself (I personally find it logically makes sense to talk about it), but because all genres could technically count in discussing forms of presented narratives, and all genres should be talked about. About no, Stern really just wants to talk about MMORPGs (a personal preference I guess, but still kind of looks at only on side of the cube, when there so many other sides to look at). And even then, his discussion and defenses on the analysis of narrative aren’t really that compelling: while he does make his point, it just comes off as being bland, generalized, almost like reading a brick-sized game manual.

That’s what happens with the game “Cart Life”: in this game there isn’t any sort of lore or mythos to this set universe, but rather the game focuses on the idea of trying to prepare and open a cart business, and all of the information needed is given to us via long segments of dialogue texts between characters. In relations to the sense of creating a fantasy world (where one can temporarily escape reality to have a bit of fun), “Cart Life” isn’t that practical since it basically recreates a modern life situation. Doesn’t sound like much of a game universe most people would want to dive into: if anything, if one wants to play a modern life style game that can make them think or analyze, perhaps one would need something more abstract.

And that’s where “The Graveyard” comes into play. We’re given a game with no conventional narrative, no information as to what the player is supposed to do, none of that: you’re just an old lady visiting a cemetery, sitting on benches, listening to birds and the game ends whenever you decide to walk back towards the exit. So why is it that one can find something vague and simple to be much more interesting than something like “Cart Life”? Well as previously stated, mystery adds to intrigue and that gives the player more freedom to imagine, and to analyze. Who is this old lady? What is her story? Why is she the focus and why has she come to this graveyard? Never are we given the answer, but we don’t need to answer. We understand the concept and feeling that the game is trying to make us feel, all without any information, because we’re given the freedom to imagine a story being told in a moment as simple as visiting a park, or walking into a shop.

Games like this are more of an experience than they are what most people brand as games: some can be revisited, others are only meant to last only one playthrough. But then again, games are (like films and books) forms of art, so why not make something more abstract, more open to the mind. If anything, we’re seeing more games like these every year. Games like PlayStation 3’s “Journey”, for instance, is considered to be one as such where the player’s single goal is to go towards to top of a mountain where a bright light beacons over all, traversing a massive landscape in the process. The game can be finished in an hour, but it’s an experience that can be retaken over and over, and that experience retains. Even big budget games like “The Legend of Zelda” keep a sense of mystery to their universe, making us want to go further into its world in order to fully understand where we are and what it is we are trying to accomplish. Even with game elements being incorporated into a narrative (such fast travel, inventory limitations, or even checkpoints), a game can still succeed in storytelling through showing, as opposed to the more direct telling. Even generic games like “Call of Duty” can create story and lore through simply looking at the backgrounds (wandering through the streets of a ruined and dead German city during WWII).

And that’s not to say that the more conventional style of storytelling is bad or anything (heck games like “Skyrim” succeed by combining conventional narrative via NPCs with visual narrative via locations), it just somewhat lacks a sense of getting you faster into the game’s universe. We’ve seen massive MMORPGS create these massive mythos and history through original ideas (games like “Warcraft” or “EverQuest”) and even already existing mythos (“Lords of the Rings Online”, “Star Wars: The Old Republic”, etc.). However most of those original games do suffer from extreme conventional storytelling and only become more and more interesting if players really take the time (if they have the time and patience), while already existing mythos-based games are popular because of the players who already know of these universes through original source material (the Lord of the Rings novels and/or movies, the Star Wars films, etc.). It’s just that visual storytelling tends to be quicker and easier for players to become interested, while learning the history and mythos through progress (rather than trying to find the time to read all the texts and dialogue boxes that try to cram every possible bit of information out there). Granted it gives more of an option on what to do, but we do also lose options on how to emote regarding what we learn along the way. If one were to play the game “The Last of Us”, what would be more exciting? To learn the protagonist’s backstory through constant reading and exposition, or to actually witness said protagonist’s breaking point?

Stern, Eddo. “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games“, Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, ed. Frans Mayra; Tampere University Press, 2002,

Hofmeier, Richard. “Cart Life”, Microsoft Windows. 2011, Video Game.

Tale of Tales, “The Graveyard”, Microsoft Windows. 2008, Video Game.

William Forward

Micro-essay: Show, Don’t Tell (…okay you can tell too)

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