You wake up, walk through the hallway and hit the like button. Then, you wake up, walk through the hallway and subscribe. Then, you wake up, walk through the hallway and leave a comment. Then,
Note: the writing with a strikethrough is cut content.
Earlier this year I finished my first novel, and it went great… oh. Yeah the novel sucked. I don’t regret doing it though because I learned a ton of things through its creation. This includes things I picked up from reading books and online guides. One of the reoccuring tips I saw from these was that you must “show, don’t tell”. For those that don’t know, “show, don’t tell” is one of the core principles that holds a good piece of content together. You don’t tell the audience Darth Vader is bad, you SHOW the audience he’s bad, by having him blow up a planet with innocent people on and, by having him… oh [dead youngling pic]
This applies to video games too. When I was a kid – an alive one – I always wondered why Grand Theft Auto clicked with me more than other, near identical games. Sure, GTA has a stellar open world, great story and characters and a wealth of content, but this dumbass only cared about being able to go on killing sprees at the time so… what made San Andreas work better than its contemporaries, even those with better driving and shooting? As I’d realise later – “show, don’t tell.”
San Andreas opens with you being arrested by Samuel Jackson. It’s one thing to show the villain being a pain in the ass to your character, but this game reflects that in the gameplay too. We’re told Samuel Jackson has complete control of CJ’s life and that’s constantly displayed. At first, it’s minor things – if you leave the state, you’re immediately given a six star wanted level.
But, at one point in the story, Samuel Jackson kidnaps CJ and moves him to the countryside, in part so he can no longer help Grove Street. Most games would leave it at that, making this a big story moment but nothing more. However, San Andreas SHOWS this by removing the ability to help with gang activities. Even if you manually return to Los Santos, you can no longer help Grove Street take over turfs. You can witness the Ballas attacking your gang members, but nothing you do has any impact on Grove Street’s power. You, the player, are completely powerless. Just like that, you’re no longer watching a character get screwed over, YOU are being screwed over. YOU are the one forming NWA to write “Fuck tha Police.”
This also applies to the level design. In San Andreas’ desert, there’s numerous stretches of nothingness. No missions. No NPCs. No hookers, damn. For a while, I thought this was filler; dead space to pad the map so they could boast about its size, Just Cause 1.
But, as I kept returning to the area despite it seemingly having less to do, I realised that the nothingness was a design choice. They weren’t just telling you this is a barren wasteland, they were showing you. No missions. No NPCs. No hookers. This place IS a barren wasteland. This is exemplified when you compare it to GTA V’s desert. In GTA V, you can’t walk two feet without stumbling on something to do or see. That seems like a luxury, but actually it completely kills the immersion. The game tells you this desert is a barren, out-of-the-way locale, but it isn’t.
This execution of level design mirroring concept is also seen in Ape Escape 3. Now I know the Venn diagram of San Andreas and Ape Escape 3 fans is just a caveman drawing of an ass, but hear me out, alright? In Ape Escape 3, there’s a level that takes place on a formation of flying planes. The level design is entirely centered around verticality. You’re constantly ascending platforms. Constantly dropping down to platforms. They even do the most evil thing a developer can do – there’s an area where falling from a platform doesn’t send you to your death, it makes you land at the start of the area. I take it back, this level is trash. Just like that, you now actually feel like you’re hundreds of feet in the air, because you directly experience the feeling of ascension and, you directly feel the fear of falling. That took me like three attempts to say.
Looking back at Rockstar, Bully is another game that nails “show, don’t tell”. In Bully, the fluctuation of power is a constant theme of the story. Once again though, it doesn’t just tell you via cutscenes that Jimmy is popular or a loser, it shows it in the gameplay. When you’re respected by the jocks faction, they’ll compliment you and wave. When you’re not, they attack you on sight. The most accurate simulation of high school I’ve ever seen. Your freedom in the school is directly impacted by how much influence you have – a perfect, in-game reflection of the story and its themes.
Now that I’ve removed Rockstar’s dick from my mouth, I can also give non-Rockstar examples. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an RPG where you play as a child that goes to a fantasy world. However, instead of this fantasy world being a generic, dark landscape that gives me PTSD over my emo years, the world is presented as if we were seeing it from the perspective of a child. Everything is bright and vibrant. Normal buildings feel big. Depression, a complex subject that a child may struggle to comprehend, is referred to in childlike ways – a guy “just suddenly lost his lifelong passion, feels empty inside and is always tired, for no reason.” They called out all of Reddit here. In an interview, the developers said they wanted this to be a game that a child would like. They did that not by dumbing everything down, but by filtering everything through the eyes of a child. THAT is good design.
Probably the best example of this I’ve seen, though, comes from Gravity Rush 2. This is a huge spoiler, so if you plan on playing this then… who am I kidding, no one’s playing Gravity Rush 2. There’s a sequence where you play as a queen. You wake up, walk through the hallway and sit on the throne until it’s time to sleep. Then, [repeat four times]. You guys are probably bored right now. That’s exactly what I and the game were going for. See, the whole point of this sequence is that the queen’s routine is dull. They could have shown her sitting on the throne, sighing with her hand on her cheek or something, and it would have conveyed the message well enough. But, I respect this sequence so much because, once again, it embodies the idea of “show, don’t tell”. It literally makes the player bored so they relate to the character more. That is genius.
Death Stranding does the same thing to reflect the monotony of doing delivery work. Except, they go overboard with it because half of the game is boring… Anyway, I’m gonna go bury my credibility as a game reviewer now, thanks for watching.
I was going to end this by talking about Psychonauts, a game where each level is a physical manifestation of someone’s mind. However, I haven’t gone a single day of my life without YouTube recommending a Psychonauts video essay to me. When I came out of the womb, the doctor started telling me about the complexity of Psychonauts’ thematic structure. So, I’ll just acknowledge that it’s the embodiment of “show, don’t tell” and that you should play it.
If used well, “show, don’t tell” is what elevates a decent game to a good one. While I haven’t quite mastered it yet… fuck, all of my favourite game developers have, and that’s no coincidence. If you’re interested in creating things in any way, playing games like these is an excellent way of experiencing the power of the technique first hand. Gaming is the only thing that makes you feel like Samuel Jackson just called you the n-word and, that’s amazing.
Fuck tha police, coming straight from the underground,
Samuel Jackson just called me brown,
Carl’s getting fucked by the six star police,
Sam’s a minority that has the authority,
Cut the beat
, I’mma freestyle the endscreen, Like and subscribe or you’re against me, Shoutout to NakeyJakey, NerdCubed, Call Me Kevin, Scott The Woz, I’m their successor, Josh the thot, watch my ascension, This profession I’m perfecting, Rest in peace to Juice WRLD and Etika you fucking legends