Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tell and Show

God spoke and it came to be. This reality is at the heart of Catholic self-identity. As a people of God we are first and foremost a people of the word.

The Story of the Design

The order of events in the introductory sentence is worth highlighting. The first thing we learn in Genesis is that speaking; talking…vocalization…is contemporaneous with creation. The Lord said let there be light and there was light. He then looked upon the light and saw that it was good. God does not engage in an act of show and tell; he tells and shows.

The concept that creation springs from the voice runs throughout the whole course of the Bible from Genesis, to Moses hearing God and then writing down the Ten Commandments, to the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus. It is for this reason that Catholics place special importance on the disciples’ description of Jesus as the word made flesh. We think primarily of John in this context yet Mark’s emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophetic prediction, that he is the one foretold, is critical. The Greek concept of Logos shares with the Hebrew concept of creation ex-nihilo the belief that speaking is the original creative act.

This Biblical story of creation is predicated on an understanding of the senses as passive receivers of stimuli; our senses perceive reality but they don’t create it. This understanding is also the basis for many Warcraft class abilities. For example, the warrior ability is called Commanding Shout and the priest ability is Shadow Word: Pain. There are no class abilities entitled “Commanding Hearing” or of “Shadow Smell: Pain” because in the literal meaning of the word those don’t just make any sense; they wouldn’t reflect the way our biological senses actually work.

The Design of the Story

It is for this reason that I was astounded to read that the lead creative designer of Warcraft believes that the future of MMOs lies in, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s true that video is a visual medium but as a passive sense sight can never tell us what to do.

Let’s be explicit about how sight actually works. Human beings have two eyes that are physically spaced apart to create slightly different views of the same event. This parallax creates a contrast affect which the brain interprets as depth. What the brain perceives as movement is simply a changing ratio of depth affects. Sight tells us what’s happening but it can never tell us what to do about it. There is an exclamation point over the quest givers head but it has meaning only because someone somewhere told us it did.

I think the thing that confuses designers is that they forget that text is a visual representation of an oral fact. Written words have no power outside of the oral context; they’re random lines, gibberish. Human babies are born with the ability to make noises and their hearing is fully developed within a month. Sight is not formed until six months and reading happens much later. God spoke. Then he saw.

Depressingly, there is even an element of self-hate in Alex’s statements. He was speaking, to a journalist who was writing his words down, to be displayed on a video card and his statement was that video cards are more important than speaking or writing. OK. That makes a great deal of sense. (No, it’s stupid.)

Creation Stories

The most mind boggling thing about Alex’s interview is that doesn’t actually represent the way World of Warcraft is designed. After you create a new character (are born) you are given a cut scene which zooms into your starting area (home town) while a voice, yes an actual human voice, tells you what the story is all about. Then once the narration is over you are deposited in front of another being and (here’s a shocker) that being tells you what to do.

Why does that ring a bell? Maybe it’s because after God created the world and after placing man in it the first thing he did was start ordering Adam and Eve around. And of course they ignored him. Exactly like what most people do with quest text.

But that doesn’t mean that the best answer is to get rid of the story. One reason the Biblical story is still around 4000 years later is because it accurately reflects in a crude way the basic development of human consciousness. It resonates. While developers may get their egos (and career ambitions) tied up in hot properties like phasing the truth is that for the new players the redesign of the tutorial system in Patch 3.3 will have a much bigger impact on customer retention. Clue to the clueless: there is a reason that God names things the moment he creates them.

I’ve mentioned before how I hate flaccid clichés and “show, don’t tell” is now officially on my hit list. Normally I wouldn’t bother about it too much except for the fact it’s annoying that someone who presents themselves as a creative designer evidences such a complete lack of understanding of even the most basic creative design. Life itself. Perhaps before he starts spouting off to the press Alex might wish to think a little more before opening his mouth. Although, now that I think about it, the Bible doesn’t say anywhere that God actually thought before he spoke either. Which would explain a lot.


Kromus said...

Intresting post...I'll skip the religious stuff.

Now then, "show don't tell". /Berserker stance. I hate it when Theres something I don't know, or if I'm intrested in why somethings happening, I hate not being able to know. However, If i sense that I'll find out later (like, cliff hangers) then I'm calm. But If this were to be Blizzards confirmed approach, I'd be pretty annoyed.

Blizzard Lore is fantastic, I would argue one of the main features of World of Warcraft, because even for people that don't care about Lore, the lore ties all the stuff togeather, keeps it going in a linear direction.

I mean, I was annoyed when they just brought kael'thalas back in the video he says "yeah im back" pretty much. ???

/cry -- Hope i'm understanding what your trying to say.

Klepsacovic said...

"There is a reason that God names things the moment he creates them."
He doesn't name all of them, but to compensate, he tells us to name them. Pardon my religious phrasing, but the general order has been God makes something and then we say what it is. All art (games are a form of art) reflects this creation and is one of the ways that we tell. Our ability to show is limited, we have nothing new to show since everything is already there; all we can do is tell in a new way.

Azryu said...

It would seem your referencing parables and stories within the Bible as if they were factual- and no, this is not some attack on whether Christianity or it's holy book is true.

I am saying that to anyone who does not subscribe to this or similar faiths, your supporting evidence for this post holds little ground.

There are those stories which have morals/ideas that anyone, believer or not, can take away with them when the story telling is done- just like any other peice of liturature- but it seems you are leaning on the story of the Bible perhaps a little too much to invite the non-christian readers to a discussion where everyone is on the same page.

But perhaps this is not the goal- having everyone on the same page. Nor may creating something that is completely objective be in your intentions either, and Im sorry if my thinking here is not quite as clear as it could be (revising comments is quite a bit harder then revising a post).

Perhaps its written more for the self (I am not saying this is bad). Now I slightly interested myself in what you as a blogger aspire to do in your posts...

I am going to flip back a few pages in the PPI's archives and see if your introductory post said anything =P

Elleiras said...

You lost me at God. :p

Anonymous said...

religion in a bar ?? OMG !! I feel soiled!!

Though i can see how you can mix up the fiction of Wow and the fiction of the bible....

Cacknoob (the watcher!)

Sygor said...

@Cacknoob above:

Is that your way of saying it was not appropriate?

Anonymous said...

nope, its my way of being sarcastic....

Cacknoob (The sarcastic one)

lonomonkey said...

it's not about religion. It's about your senses. And I agree with Larisa too. Each sense has it place and just going with "show and tell" won't work well.

Some elements of a game should be shown and others should be told. Just like the fire on the ground wouldn't have the same impact if you were told "fire on the ground" and shown nothing, being shown every bit of story element is not the way to go either.

Larísa said...

@lonomonkey: just a small correction: this post wasn't written by Larísa, but by Elnia, the bartender of PPI.

Hinenuitepo said...

Well done, barkeep. :)

'flaccid cliches' indeed!


Elnia said...

@azryu. Read my second post on PPI, that's where I explain it. The first post is an RP introduction. RP, BTW, that I want to get back to doing. Sooner or later. sigh.

@lonomonkey. Reading comprehension FTW. That's a major part of what I'm saying.

lonomonkey said...

Eeep.. my mistake oh glorious bartender.

Tesh said...

Interestingly, DDO has a narrator in almost every dungeon. It's mostly a convention derived from tabletop D&D gaming and the GM (not unlike the game's "god"), but the combination of pointed narration and visuals makes for a very polished experience. Many times, it really *is* more efficient and efficacious to tell something rather than show it.

I'm also reminded of human history; for much of our time on the planet, and in many cultures today, oral histories are more important than written ones. That's not to say that Gutenberg was useless, just that there is something very primal about telling, and very useful.

As a visual sort of guy (I'm an artist) with a strong literary bent, I tend to use both as much as possible, and where appropriate. You just can't paint everything with the same brush and hope for blanket comprehension.

Nice article, Elnia, religious musings included.

Rhii said...

YES! Thank you Elnia, for putting into words so nicely how I have always felt about "show, don't tell." Stories are about telling, it's what story is. I often think it's amusing that modern sorts of writing classes use it as a mantra, but in all the bestselling thrillers the exact psychological condition of the protagonist is elaborated in painful detail. People like to be told things that can't be shown.

And, to those of you who are hung up on the biblical stories used as comparisons in the post, even if you don't find Christianity personally compelling, it's worth noting that the whole tradition of words having creative power is an old one and pretty basic in western culture (think children's stories with wizards and magic words... Abracadabra! Bibbity Bobbity Boo!). And part of that is because western culture has a lot of Christian history.

So, not to say that is right or wrong, but that the cultural influence is there, and that shouldn't necessarily be discounted. The culture you grow up with shapes how you view the world.

Anonymous said...

So, I think it's possible that there's a different reading of the phrase "Show don't tell".

I heard that phrase a lot from my writing instructors, and a lot since from some friends. What I understand "Show, don't tell" to mean is that it is more potent to illustrate my points in things going on than it was to tell me in text what's going on.

Like say I'm a quest designer. And I want to get across the idea that this tribe of trolls has been messed up by the war. I could have some scrolling text at the start of the area that tells you how the tribes are hard beset by hunger and war. Or, I could have you talk to some orphans, and have the matron beg you to collect some boar meat so she can feed her kids this week. To rub it in a little more, one of the kids can ask you to get him the shield his father was carrying when he died defending the orphans.

I think that's what he meant in the interview. Not less writing, just a change in how things are presented. In fact, when I've adjusted my own work to "Show, don't tell" I end up doing more writing, but it's always more rewarding.

Azryu said...

This post spawned a long conversation about existance with a friend of mine over ventrilo, and whether sight alone would give any meaning. Then we broadened that to any sense.

Would hearing language alone, without sight, touch, or any other sense, give meaning?

Would seeing color variations through sight alone give meaning?

Upon death, is the said lifeform aware that they are going to cease to exist? Do they understand it?

Or is it a case of just another variation of colors (fading to black- in the example of having sight alone), or a case of things going silent (with hearing alone)?

We've come to the conclution that understanding requires at least two senses.

Feeling pain through a sense of touch alone doesn't give any meaning, its just an occurance. No explanation needed. And the same can be said for every other sense. Upon death, to the lifeform, it could simply be a massive wave of what we understand as pain occuring, followed by a gap of time between when pain would be inflicted next (though, we understand that it wouldn't occur again).

This has been very intersting to ponder...

(Sorry about the "Comment has been deleted" up there. I have revised this many times with the hopes of being as completely thorough as possible).

Matthew said...

I think you may be missing the point. What they're saying is that in the past they had to rely on words to communicate everything.

Text told you to feed the starving horse, you fed it, you left. But the problem is there were no real consequences because the game world itself couldn't change so you got weird immersion-killing situations where everything was stuck and your character could never do anything permanent. Just telling the player in text that you killed X and saved the village means very little if X respawns 30 seconds later.

The thrust of the article is that they're figured out ways to let the player affect the game world so that you feel more immersed in it.

Generally speaking I agree with your entire post. I just wish you had actually carefully read the material to which you were replying to before you wrote it.