How You Got Videogames Wrong: …And film…and music…and literature…etc.

Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames). This month we’ll be looking at “Show, don’t tell”—and how it might not mean what you thought it did.


“Show, don’t tell,” is a fundamental lesson in crafting good fiction; in games we go one step further.

Storytelling In Dark Souls And Skyrim,” Erik Kain, Forbes, Mar. 201

Ain’t that something: Thirty-five thousand years of storytelling from the Chauvet-pont-d’Arc to Midnight’s Children and videogames “go a step further.” How so? Dive posthaste into the Ye Ol’ Interwebs and you’ll find the following answers: “Play, don’t tell,” sez the trope wiki; “Do, don’t show or tell” sez Elements of Play’s William Strife, on the basis that “[Books and movies] tell and show their stories respectively; however, games are about doing”; and let’s not forget the aforementioned Forbes article, which goes on to say that “story ought to be embedded within the gameplay itself, with only the briefest of interludes.” Has the world moved on from “Show, don’t tell”?

Sort of—just not for the reasons that you think. In 1961’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, American literary critic Wayne C. Booth wrote that “the line between showing and telling is always to some degree an arbitrary one […] Everything [the author] shows will serve to tell.” It’s a solid argument, and one would do well to read up on Booth, just for the hell of it. But it isn’t why videogame culture has had its falling out with showing and telling. No, for that there’s a much simpler answer: We never understood it in the first place.

The good news is that the mistake’s not entirely our faults. The common misunderstanding of “show, don’t tell” is, in part, rooted in the language itself—“showing” denotes displaying; “telling” denotes speaking. Which would explain William Strife’s above contention that showing is inherent to film, telling to literature. Ah but we must remember that the phrase in question originated in prose, a medium that doesn’t literally show anything (or seldomly anyway)…So why then do we expect its adaptation into film and videogames to literally tell? No, we must realize that the terms refer to storytelling functions, not sensory data. And in order to understand this we’re gonna have to follow the terms back—like, way, way back.

Like, BCE-back. Because when we refer to telling and showing we’re actually referring to two much older terms, diegesis and mimesis. Nasty sounding, ain’t they? Well, their bark’s worse than their bite, I assure you. “Diegesis,” for example, is just the unsightly smooshing of two kinder, gentler words: “Gesis,” which means “narration,” and “dia,” which means “to lead through”…resulting in the harmless sounding “to lead through narration.” Leading whom? you might ask, And to what? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see. For now let’s just simplify the whole thing and go with the safe definition of, “to report.” Contrast this with “mimesis,” a word you don’t even need Greek to figure out: “Mimesis…” you say softly to yourself, “mime…mimic…imitation…? Imitation!”


Diegesis and mimesis are the two methods through which a text conveys its information to a “reader” (viewer, listener, player)—and when I say the two methods, I mean the only methods, for reasons you’ll see shortly. Diegesis reports information, not in the sense of speaking but in the functional sense of, well, reporting; and mimesis imitates its information, the way holding one’s hands crossed at the thumbs and flapping one’s fingers imitates the information of a bird. And since both terms relate directly to telling and showing, we’ll go with the classic example of a writer choosing which method to convey to his readers that a character in his story is tall: The first method, diegesis, simply reports, tells…“Jack is tall.” Mimesis, on the other hand, conveys its information through an imitation of the very act of tallness-being and/or tallness-witnessing, which is to say, shows…“Jack banged his head on the ceiling fan.”

So what we call “telling” and “showing” can be henceforth referred to as “diegesis” and “mimesis,” respectively. Ah but let’s pull an Inception here and go three dreams deep, shall we: Telling and showing—or so we have just learned—don’t refer to literal telling and showing but to the terms diegesis (reporting) and mimesis (imitating); these, in turn, refer to two other (and equally nasty-sounding) terms, the syllogism and the enthymeme.

Let’s jump back to Inception for a moment, as it’s actually the perfect way to understand the two terms. You see, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film follows several people in the business of transmitting information—and by “transmitting information” I mean stealing ideas from the unconscious minds of sleeping victims. Where the plot picks up, however, is when our protagonist, Cobb, is asked by a client to, not steal an idea, but to plant one. The task: To “convince” the soon-to-be head of a multi-billion dollar company to break up his father’s company. “Is it possible?” asks the client. “Of course not,” says Arthur, Cobb’s partner, “…the subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.”

What Arthur is talking about here—in terms of effective information transmission—is the syllogism, a three-part deductive argument that consists of two or more premises from which a conclusion is inferred. The standard is usually something like, All M are P/All S are M/Therefore, All S are P. No matter what you plug in there—All men are mortal/All Greeks are men/Therefore, All Greeks are mortal—you’ll get an argument. It won’t always be a sensible argument…but you’ll get an argument nonetheless. What’s more, you’ll get an argument without even trying. Robots can create syllogisms; robots can understand them. Syllogisms are, at their heart, pure logic.

And that’s why (to get us back once more to Inception) the idea would never stick…The mind will always recognize such information for what it is: empty, lifeless, robotic.

Ah but Cobb seems to know another way to plant ideas, one that will stick: He and Arthur can’t just tell the victim’s unconscious mind that he should break up his father’s company…they have to invent a situation wherein the victim’s mind generates the idea on its own. Telling won’t do; won’t stick. They’ll have to play on the victim’s anxiety regarding his father, shape it so that he comes to realize on his own that this, breaking up the company, was what his father actually wanted all along—for his son to grow to be his own man, not to just follow in the footsteps of his father.

And it works. Why? Because Cobb made use of that other term, the enthymeme. Defined by Aristotle as a “rhetorical syllogism,” the enthymeme is a syllogism that’s had its minor premise plucked out, creating a “gap” which the listener must then fill in with information. And this gap doesn’t hold just anything—it has a “shape” to it, so that only a limited number of reasonable answers will fit. Take, for instance, our example from above: of the writer writing about a character being tall. If the writer simply says (tells), “Jack is tall,” then the writer is creating nothing more than a syllogism: This man is tall / Jack is this man / Therefore, Jack is tall. As we’ve discussed already, this tactic requires no real work on the part of the reader. But when the writer writes, “Jack banged his head on the ceiling fan”…well that’s another story altogether. Suddenly, an enthymeme appears…where before we had all the necessary parts, we now must supply our own minor premise. We must imitate (show) tallness in our own minds in order to grasp the information that connects the premise and the conclusion. Unlike the syllogism, which could be understood by a robot, the enthymeme requires that a conscious mind be about, and moreover, that this conscious mind be in possession of experiences from which to pull—experiences, in the case above, that deal with the average tallness of people, the usual height of ceiling fans, etc. And why is such a thing more likely to stick…? Because it’s self-generated. The argument required us…not as robots to parse its logic, but to comprehend its gap, to imitate the real-world tribulations of ceiling fans and humans, and to generate a solution.

In other words: User input.

It all seems so simple now, doesn’t it? A cutscene reports; gameplay imitates. It is via these two paths—and these two paths alone—that Nathan Drake leaps and scurries through our brain-ways. Either we are told what it is to be a Nathan Drake, via the myriad syllogisms that report his being, or we are shown what it is to be him, through imitation…not boundless imitation, but through a limited range of “Drake can dos” that allow players to fill in the enthymematic “missing premise” (what Ian Bogost calls “the simulation gap”) in various Drake-based arguments, my favorite being…All Nathan Drakes (Major premise) successfully explore Tibetan Villages (conclusion) by letting a cow fart in his face.

Oh if only it were that simple…

Because videogames are, as you’ve no doubt noticed, a confluence of many narrative mediums…film, photography, prose, music, etc. What did you think, that any other medium inside of videogames just…vanished? No, the efficacy of prose is not literally absorbed into a game, so that I can no longer “use” it the way people have for thousands of years. Rather than swallowing down all other mediums like so much inferior meaning, videogames instead have at their command a whole array of mediums within itself to better express itself. Numerous are the occasions that I have heard this or that videogame critic say that a cutscene tells—and in the medium of physicality, which is most succinctly the medium of videogames, a cutscene literallydoes—yet rarely have I heard the same critics discuss how the other mediums within a videogame show. And it’s time that that changed.

This, however, is a complicated stance…for there are those who claim that the distinctions of diegesis (telling) and mimesis (showing) apply differently to videogames and film than they do to literature, for reasons that I find, well, weird. In traditional film theory, mimesis doesn’t even exist…or maybe, it over-exists, so that the whole of a film is imitative. Who knows. Diegesis does, though, except it has been reconfigured to mean “the world of the film,” the world in which Cobb (to use Inception once more) resides and can take naps or whatever Cobb does when he’s not robbing dreams. This “diegetic” world is contrasted with what film theorists call the “non-diegetic”—that other world, the one that sees music laid out over Cobb’s day-to-day, and sees it all cut into scenes and those scenes into shots, etc.

Videogames, too, exist in such a way–at least according to the likes of Dave Russell. In his 2011 essay “Video Game User Interface Design: Diegesis Theory,” Russell laid out videogames in much the same way that film theorists have laid out film: into diegetic and non-diegetic components, so that the various doo-dads of videogames…the health meters and text boxes and characters, etc. all fall (essentially) into categories of World A and World B.  Like Wayne C. Booth’s argument regarding showing and telling, Russell makes a pretty strong argument regarding “Diegesis theory.”

And just like Booth also, I have trouble agreeing. You see, for me, theories such as Dave Russell’s, as well as those of film theory, focus to a fault on the interface of medium and viewer/player. It seems to me that the categorization of film and videogames into World A and World B reduces the act of storytelling to a state of sustained but failed marriage—they sleep in the same bed, but one never, ever goes in the other. And though it seems like I have the same issue with Diegesis Theory as Wayne C. Booth had with showing and telling, I really just think that informational modes should be able to get laid every once in a while—not that they have to…that they just can.

So here’s what’s up: I believe that many theorists have lost their sense of what it means to report, and what it means to imitate. Let’s take a picture from 2010′s Red Dead Redemption:

Before today, if I were to have asked you what shows and what tells in this picture, I can imagine what you would have said: “Well—obviously—the entire picture ‘shows,’ since I can, ya know, ‘see’ it…and there is no ‘telling’ at all, lest we include the title in the bottom right-hand corner” (Let’s not). Ah but we have since then learned to understand the terms “show” and “tell” as other terms…imitating, mimesis, enthymemes…reporting, diegesis, syllogisms. Do we not, then, have a different answer to the question now? Are we to say that the horse in this picture is simply imitated, when in fact there is clear-cut visual reportage going on: My eyeballs, having seen horses not only all my life, but in this particular game as well, report to me, “horse.” They also report to me, “Tree. Trees. Dead trees. Live trees. Grass. Bushes. Cloud strata. Sunset. Orange. Saddle. Gun. Man. (And because I’m familiar with the game) John Marston.” It doesn’t matter what visual perception theory you prescribe to–Feature Integration Theory; Recognition by Components Theory–the reportage still occurs. My visual sense is not required to complete an enthymeme (showing, imitating) to understand the basics of the scene before me (a horse and man at sunset in the west). Rather (due in part to the approaching photo-realism of the picture in question), I have only to complete a basic syllogism to understand much of it: A “horse” looks like a horse / This creature looks like a “horse” / Therefore, this creature is a horse.

Or more simply: That is a horse because it looks like a goddamn horse.

And we can say the same about the other features, too: “tree” looks like tree; “cloud strata” looks like cloud strata; etc. But this is not to mean that there is no imitative (showing) quality to the picture…As Wayne C. Booth pointed out, the two can be deeply intertwined (though I for one do not believe that this nullifies the use of the distinction). You see, the horse in question looks like a horse—which is to mean that it fits the myriad “horse” of my mind—that “horse” is reported into my eyeballs…but its stance is less so. “Is the horse,” I wonder to myself, “just standing funny, or is it in motion?” The first choice is almost true…that is until I consider the other aspects, such as the horse’s tail, which appears to be affected by forward motion. And what about the way the man is leaning on the horse? He could be just sitting that way, and the horse just standing that way…Ah but that other sense of mine, that sense of experience with the actual world the picture represents, suggests differently. And I use this experience to fill in the gap that exists between the premise “yo, there’s a horse” and the conclusion “The horse stands funny,” at which point the conclusion is subsumed by the premise and becomes data for the next major premise in the next enthymeme: “There is a horse that is moving” + “Going somewhere.” And I do this again and again, using more and more of my experience sense, this over and over…until I’ve included the trees, the clouds, the sunset…and finally arrive at a “final” conclusion: John Marston is racing through a desolate land to outrun inevitable night.

Which is to say: Even in the simple picture above there is clear evidence of reporting and imitating. Reported to me was all the little indisputable details, and from them I was able to fill in other gaps in the various premises until I had come to an interpretation. And that, friend, is what’s up. Every medium that is contained within the medium of Videogames can be broken down in this same way—cutscenes, in-game visuals, music, physicality. All of it. We must learn to begin thinking of the things we see and hear as being conveyed to us by the medium itself, a conveyance that can occur in one of two ways: a reporting, or an imitating. The cutscenes of Red Dead Redemption report much, but they also (regarding John and his son) imitate the positions of Nature vs. Nurture. The music of Braid syllogistically reports the presence of notes and genre, of BPM and scales, but imitate too: the experience of High Art…the trills of discovery. Even what we normally refer to as simply “gameplay” is inundated with numerous other facets that both “show” and “tell”: the basic reportage of geographical features while endeavoring up Skyrim’s Throat of the World (which looks, most syllogistically, like a damn mountain), and the imitation of conquest upon my realization that, having reached the top, the whole of the land rolls outward from beneath my feet. Or how about the Ratman graffiti that waits in the dark corners of the Portal series, reporting the presence of an Other…and the slipshod conclusions you draw from the text of the graffiti itself, filling in the gaps of the Ratman’s message. “Showing” and “telling” isn’t like “on” and “off,” at least not in the sense of a light switch. No, the two transform each other, fall over and into each other, over and over, until it’s almost impossible to see the difference anymore.

But it’s there. So close to impossible that our first reaction might to be just to call it that. Yet I think this ultimately undermines the task which was ours to begin with: to take the conveyances of the world around us and make not just sense of them, but meaning. And to assist in that task I offer the following chart by which we might begin to dissect the “shows” and “tells” of the world…the mimetic and the diegetic…the imitative and reportative…and make some sense of it all.

And why? Because I believe we’ve gone wrong somewhere. Maybe I’m making it wrongierer. I don’t know. But what I do know is this: You don’t call the sheetrock crew until the foundations set. And baby, we’re all crooked.




  1. JR

    Spot-on dissection of why most analysis of games has failed. And probably why so much writing and design in games fails to achieve “artistic” levels.

    • You know what, JR…I avoided reading this comment for a full day because I was so anxious about what it would say……..and you had nothing bad to say at all!!! Thank you :)

  2. Jake Bleepington

    This is brilliant: I didn’t know such ideas could be articulated so eloquently and blah blah blah. Seriously though, I’ve been trying for years now to explain to myself and others why I like certain books or games or songs or everything more than others and this has broken it down into very clear and concise reasons that make very logical sense. I’m an aspiring game programmer and musician and this was a very good read for me, thank you!

  3. I think your kind of missing the mark about what the whole “Do, don’t show or tell” thing. I am reminded of the parts of the webcomic Homestuck where you could walk around and examine things like a game, or even more how the whole comic is styled as a game with user interface functions. But it isn’t a game, it’s a crafted story that merely obfuscates some of it’s details, and features some interaction. And it seems like games are becoming closer and closer to that. I never played Heavy Rain, but it sounds like a good example of a story that merely told in such a way that resembles a game, rather then a game. Even a game such as Bioshock seems to have aspects of this, where the game is just a medium for telling the story. In RPGs or Adventure games you often have to go tracking around to piece together a story, and gameplay like combat and puzzles simply exist as filler more or less as far as the designers are concerned. And your right that “do” is not a new storytelling thing beyond “show” and “tell”, because it isn’t a storytelling thing at all. That’s where the confusion arises I think, because some people sit down and play some games to work though and get a story, and some just want to play the game, and the fact is that games made for the story are almost a completely different type of thing then those made for gameplay. They can be compatible, and even work well together, but people often just don’t acknowledge that there is any difference or that the two can exist apart from each other. Letting your character look around during cutscenes does not make the game any more a game or make the story any different. It does absolutely change the experience, and absolutely has it’s place, but it’s not making it any more or less a game. Or maybe that wasn’t your point. I guess all I am saying is, if you took a painting, which is basically all “tell”ing, and tried to analyze it as a story, well, you could probably do it in some cases but that isn’t really the point of a painting. And likewise with games I feel. Hence the need to “Do”. Ugh, I donno, at this point I am mostly just rambling.

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