On Storytelling: Play, Don’t Show

Words: 940 Approximate Reading Time: 6-8 minutes

I’ve been thinking about cutscenes, recently. Cutscenes in video games are something we’ve been dealing with for a while, and we’ve become quite used to them. There is plenty of arguing that goes on about what makes a good cutscene and sometimes whether cutscenes should even be in video games, though for the most part I think we accept that they have value. Sometimes it’s hard or maybe even impossible to get across some idea through playable events. Sometimes you want to focus the player’s attention on something so that they can process information properly. Whatever the case may be, we’ve learned to live with cutscenes in games. Storytelling does not exclusively take place within those cutscenes, but they are the most common way to engage with storytelling.

And yet, I think it’s still worthwhile to begin from the standpoint of being skeptical of cutscenes in games. Not in the way that we should get rid of them entirely. But with every cutscene we should begin with the question “why do we need to have a cutscene here?” Or put another way, could you have the player interact throughout the sequence in some way and get across the information you need?

Again, I think the answer will sometimes – maybe even often – be “yes.” But beginning from the standpoint of skepticism can help us think about the role of interaction.

A rule of creative writing is “show, don’t tell.” The rule means that rather than telling the audience about a character’s motivations or about the importance of some event or anything like that, instead you should use the setting or the character’s actions or the changes to the world to show all of that. Let the audience draw forth information from the clues you leave behind, rather than just saying what they should know.

It’s easy to find guides on the rule and how to implement it. There’s also some bits of disagreement here and there about how effective the rule really is. And sometimes the audience might miss the clues needed to understand what’s going on, and maybe telling the audience what they need to know is useful. Perhaps the rule should really be more like “show and tell.” But whatever the case may be, the reason we should value the rule is not that “showing” and “telling” are the two options you have, and one is bad and the other is good. Instead, the value of the rule is that you want your audience to be engaged with a work, and part of that engagement is tied up with their mental connection to the work. For example, if you tell the audience a character cares about all living things, and then that character goes out and kills all sorts of stuff, then it’s hard for the audience to care. The writing feels lazy, because the characters don’t make sense.

And so it seems like a similarly useful rule for video games is “play, don’t show.” Players feel more connected to events when they have the opportunity to work through them. Is an evil force threatening the world? Maybe letting the player fight that evil force and lose at the beginning will give them a desire to get stronger and win. Do you want a player to care about the death of a family member or friend in the narrative? Then giving the player time to talk to and get to know that person within the story will help them feel connected.

I find myself reflecting on a rule of game design proposed by Warren Spector, director on the original Deus Ex. The rule goes that if something cool in the game is going to happen, the player should be the one to do it. This rule may not always be possible to implement, but is certainly helpful as a starting position.

And I think we can expand the idea when it comes to storytelling to say that when something important is going to happen, the player should feel present for it. What can be done to allow the player to interact with the scene and feel like they are part of the story, rather than a mere observer?

It is easy enough to say that games have too many cutscenes and that we should be focused on more play-oriented storytelling. Actually implementing that rule is much tougher. Because the simple fact of the matter is that it all depends on context. If you were to make a game, the kind of game you were making, the story you were trying to tell, the themes you were trying to explore, the budget and time you have, all of that is going to influence what you can make. There won’t exactly be hard-and-fast rules for how to “play, don’t show.” And like with “show, don’t tell,” the line is going to be a bit blurry. What, after all, is the minimum for a player to feel like they’ve contributed and feel part of the story?

But that’s why I think it’s useful to start from a standpoint of skepticism. To ask “should we have a cutscene here…or could we give the player some form of interaction?” Again, sometimes a cutscene will be necessary. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense for a player to interact with a scene. Sometimes it’s important for the storytelling or theming to remove the player’s control. Sometimes you want to help the player understand something more clearly, and removing control will aid in that understanding. Whatever the reason, we want to think about how we can make the player feel invested and connected to the story being told.

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