Showing And Telling: A Working Tandem

William Forward, Atakan Ozgen, David Panaccione, Lyonel Zamora

English 255

Carolyn Jong

February 3rd, 2017

Narratives are a necessary component in games in order to provide its audience with a sense of engagement. Whether these narratives are visual or expositional, each structure reveals a form of storyline or background component through its incorporation and function by allowing its consumers to witness the “fantasy” unfold within. But just how important is the narrative structure in videogames? Each form of narrative becomes crucial to its associated game whether it is how each narrative occurs, when they occur, what each form is doing, or how they make the game complete. The telling aspect within games is extremely important as it reveals parts, if not all, the information one needs to acquire in order to succeed but we all recognize that feeling when a wall of text appears to overwhelm our eyes and minds with information, we want to get to the showing portion of the game. Even though all the information needed is accessible through telling, the interactivity, entertainment, and amusement provided by the showing aspect, offers an effective tandem with telling when structuring a game since the player is not bound by one strict structure. By implementing different forms of narrative within games, it provides a more cohesive product as opposed to solely incorporating one or selected forms of narrative in order to maintain its audience’s attention. A combination of different narrative structures enables the player the freedom to explore its game play while simultaneously being connected and engaged in the game’s purpose.  

Unlike books or movies, games add a new element to storytelling through an interactive gameplay that players control as they play. This opens up a plethora of options to telling, interpreting, and even manipulating the story at hand. In the gaming community, there are two game structures that Jesper Juul has recognized that contain either selected forms of visual or expositional narratives or others that contain a combination of these narratives in order to project the games storyline or fantasy. For instance, in games of progression, the player must “perform a predefined set of actions in order to complete the game” (Juul, The Open and the Closed). One feature of the progression game is that it yields strong control to the game designer, since the designer controls the sequence of events. This is also where we find the games storytelling aspect (Juul, The Open and the Closed). The narratives found within progression games often occur in times of progress such as cut-scenes or checkpoints where the designer deems it necessary to include his input in order to inform and direct the player of new or necessary information. Commonly, in a piece of literature, when the author has written something or indicates what will occur, that is the norm, that is the way the story and the characters are going to unfold. In a game, while not always, the player can control outcomes through their movement within the game as a result of their control. Instead of going left when indicated, the player can choose to go right or in any other direction the map permits. However, a narrative structure that is limited to a progression style presents “an inherent conflict between the now of the interaction and the past of the narrative. [A player cannot] have narration and interactivity at the same time” which restricts the players possibility of engagement and roaming since they are unable to play the game in order to read the dialogue that uncovers the knowledge one needs to understand the game (Juul, Games Telling Stories). As we see in Cart Life, 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 the player via long segments of dialogue texts between characters (granted it’s a bit more helpful then when trying to start “To Build a Better Mouse Trap”, but it still wasn’t so engaging). By incorporating cut-scenes within the game play, the player is introduced to an expositional narrative framework since information about the setting, characters, plot, along with information that is helpful within the game, provides the player with a sense of direction. In this case, the player is given a sense of direction since the designer is telling the character information through internal communication via these dialogue texts. It functions by interrupting the players game play allowing them to read the information displayed before returning to the game and executing their plan. 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. So where’s the escapism here? Is it to strategize a business and survive? 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 (to create curiosity, intrigue, or more space for the player to actually conceive and analyze a game’s universe.

In games of emergence however, the opposite occurs as these games contain a small number of rules that provide a number of variations in which the game can be completed since there are no sequential guidelines that a player must follow in order to complete the game (Juul, Open and Closed). This is where the showing aspect is introduced when presenting the storyline as the amount of dialogue supported by the designer is limited to allow the player to experiment with the gameplay of the games narrative rather than the telling of it. These types of games usually pertain to card, board, action, and strategy games where its narrative framework does not depend on a backstory (“a contextual framework for a game narrative that is soon to unfold in real-time) being constructed in order for the player to play the game but rather developing a metaphorical relationship from a contextualized narrative (Juul, The Open and the Closed)(Stern, 6). In terms of The Graveyard , the player is given a product with no conventional narrative, no information as to what the player is supposed to do, how they are supposed to complete the game, who the character is, or what is happening; the player just controls 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. Although the game consists of open navigation, it can present a concept that is much more interesting as opposed to Cart Life to a certain extent. As previously stated, mystery adds to intrigue and that gives the player more freedom to imagine and 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 an 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 graveyard through the use of visual narrative. In this sequence, the use of illustration, video, and music through visual narration provides information through showing rather than telling forcing the game players to determine what is occurring while comprehending the games overall purpose. Nevertheless, the absence of expositional narrative presents sense of vagueness to The Graveyard, which prevents its players becoming submerged or engaged with the game’s concept, as there is no specific way to conclude the game mentioned throughout.

In both progression and emergent gaming categories, each have described the ways in which each player is challenged or engaged within the games they are playing since each narrative structure provides a unique function to their respective worlds (Arsenault, 68). With both The Graveyard and Cart Life implementing their respective styles, a game like Prince of Persia: Warrior Within incorporates a mixture of both progression and emergence to further engage its audience with the narrative it presents. While the game itself exhibits a style of progression through dialogue and backstory information, its ending depends on the players performance. The game is artistically and aesthetically pleasing through a visual narrative aspect as a number of missions rely on the player’s ability to navigate through impending obstacles on their own with only their mind as an aid. Depending on whether or not the player has located all of the power-ups, the Prince (the avatar) either kills the final enemy (the Dahaka) or is forced to kill the empress before leaving the island. The narratives conclusion thus depends on the actions performed by the player outside the cut-scenes rather than being lead in a single and constricted direction (Arsenault, 68-69). This will keep a player wondering and engaged in the storyline and gameplay without having the engagement interrupted by extensive dialogue, cut scenes, or a complete absence of plot. With the incorporation of both narrative structures, it allows the player the freedom to progress on their own and analyze certain situations in addition to not being bound to the game designers direction. By maintaining a level of intertwined plotlines and a combination of narrative structure, the game functions to keep the players attention and games fantasy intact (Stern, 7). The player becomes less focused on the designers instructions and direction of the game as they possess the freedom to navigate through the virtual reality world while simultaneously being enrapt with the games purpose through its limited dialogue.

With a mixture and combination of visual and expositional narrative structures in videogames, players become engaged and consumed with the games overall purpose since there are many factors that function in order to project and keep players interactive in the storyline. In the form of telling, players are introduced to the backstory of a game and are equipped with the knowledge pertaining to what they will need to execute in order to complete the game while a showing narrative form presents the player with a sense of escapism and freedom in controlling and observing what each character is capable of. As videogames incorporate these forms of narrative, each form becomes a working tandem in making the game more cohesive since the player is presented with the purpose, understanding of the game, and ability to perform tasks freely while being consumed in the games virtual world.


Arsenault, Dominic. Narration in the Video Game: An Apologia of Interactive Storytelling,  and an Apology to Cut-Scene Lovers. Dissertation, Université de Montréal, 2006-2007, pp.68-69

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

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.” Game Studies 1.1 (July 2001).

Juul, Jesper. “The Open and the Closed: Games of Emergence and Games of Progression. ” Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2002, pp. 323-329.

Prince of Persia, Consoles & Windows, 2004

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, pp. 6-7

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

Showing And Telling: A Working Tandem

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