“Show, don’t tell” is writing technique. It is especially important in works of fiction. An example in the form of a question would be: which do you prefer, a movie that sets a scene by panning down from a shot of the moon and stars to a dimly lit city street and then into a window where several people are sitting around a fire. Or a scene that just starts in the room and one person announces “it”s a cold night tonight” and another responds “we’re in poor neighborhood, the street lights barely work.” The former is more interesting than the latter. Video games, much like movies, can also benefit from this technique and I have two examples of how to one game fails and another succeeds.
I recently completed a playthrough of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt made by CD Projekt RED. After finishing it I saw parallels between a quest chain in it and a quest chain in Dragon Age: Origins (which I will refer to as Dragon Age 1 or DA1 for sake of brevity) made by BioWare. Both involve the election of a king. I suspect that the idea of electing a king will strike some as odd. It was common amongst the Germanic peoples that took over after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. These elections were not free or universal. The local potentates would gather and elect a king from their own number; but I digress. Both games have this storyline but approach it in very different ways. In one, the entire quest is optional, in the other it is mandatory. The choice is between three candidates in one, the other just two. One merely tells you the differences between the candidates, the other shows you in how the characters behave, what they ask of you and what game mechanics you use to interact with them.
Skellige, an island chain of the main continent is the setting of the Witcher’s quest. The isles are inspired by the Hiberno-Norse, the syncretic culture of Vikings and the Gaels that inhabited the islands of the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Scottish accents and Norse names abound on the islands. The old King Bran an Tuirseach, of the Clan Tuirseach is dead. His widow Birna Bran forewent the Skellige tradition and did not join her dead husband on his funeral pyre. Bran’s son, Svanrige is one of the six candidates to succeed the King. The Jarls elect the King and tradition requires the candidates (the children of the Jarls) to perform great deeds to show worthiness. Geralt of Rivia, the protagonist and player character, arrives on the islands just as Bran’s funeral is about to begin and meets with his old friend, Jarl Crach an Craite. The Jarl has two children: his son Hjalmar an Craite and his daughter Cerys an Craite nicknamed Sparrowhawk. Both declare themselves candidates for the Kingship; with the candidacy of Cerys being portrayed as unusual and unlikely but not completely unrealistic. Birna despises the election of kings, believing it is begging and creates a debtor of the next king. She would prefer that the crown be dynastic and based on primogeniture. Crach does not weigh in on which of his children he prefers, letting them attempt on their own, but asked that Geralt help. Hjalmar’s plan is to find an Ice Giant that lives on a nearby island and slay it. Cerys opts to go to the isle of Spikeroog and aid the Jarl Udalryk an Brovkar, who is possessed and self mutilates to appease the voices in his mind. The player can agree to help Crach or not and is free to ignore the whole quest if they want.
The Dwarves Thaig of Orzammar is the last bastion of Dwarven civilization. Buried deep beneath the Frostback Mountains between the Kingdom of Ferelden and the Empire of Orlais. This is the setting of Dragon Age 1’s quest. The player picks one of six origins (Human Noble, City Elf, Dalish Elf, a Human or City Elf Mage, a Casteless Dwarf or a Dwarf Noble). All these origins bring the same result, the player character is recruited or conscripted into the Grey Wardens, an order militant dedicated to combating the Darkspawn (think Tolkein’s Orcs but lacking sentience and not as well written). The Dwarves battle Darkspawn constantly as the Darkspawn infest the Deep Roads, the ancient network of tunnels the Dwarves dug millennia ago. In the Dwarf Noble origin you are the middle child of the Dwarves King Endrin Aeducan. You had two brothers: the elder Trian and the younger Bhelen. The Assembly of Orzammar, made up of representatives of the Noble Caste Houses elects Kings. The throne has been held by the House Aeducan more or less continuously for a millennium, since the founder of the House Aeducan saved the Dwarven Empire from the First Blight. Trian is the presumed heir as the eldest son but is unpopular and his contested election would cause chaos. The middle child, possibly the player character, is the preferred choice. Bhelen is the outside bet as he is barely considered of age. Dwarven politics is based on a strict caste system, heritable from the same gendered parent. The hierarchy is Nobles, Warriors, Smiths Artisans, Miners, Merchants, Servants and Casteless. As the Dwarf Noble you see the player character be manipulated into killing Trian or being framed for Trian’s murder by your brother Bhelen and then exiled; eventually joining the Grey Wardens.
As Geralt you can set out to help the an Craites in their attempts to secure the throne. You find Hjalmar on the island of Undvik hunting the Ice Giant. Most of his crew was killed by either by the Ice Giant or by Sirens that haunt Skellige. Hjalmar and Geralt set out and find the Ice Giant’s lair along with one of Hjalmar’s captured crew, Vigi the Loon. Vigi alerts the sleeping giant to your presence either by kicking it or by screaming from his cage. After the fight Hjalmar declares that he will have Skalds sing of the battle that day and heads back to his father and the meeting of the Jarls. Can see a hint of the Beowulf and Sigurdr epics in there; a hero goes to slay a great beast and then becomes King. Blunt, self aggrandizing but traditional. The King Hjalmar will be the fierce raider and warlord in Skellige tradition.
On Spikeroog you find Jarl Udalryk in his longhouse, tormented by the voices of the gods in his head. They demand that he sacrifice, he must inflict pain and spill his own blood. Not finding the help he needs with the Jarl or the druid Hjort, Geralt asks around the village for Cerys’ whereabouts. Finding her unconscious in the ruined childhood home of Udalryk you get her outside and ask what she is doing. She thinks that Udalryk’s younger brother, Aki, is haunting him. Their father gave the Clan’s heirloom sword to Aki in defiance of tradition. Udalryk publicly questioned his father’s decision and was punished by being tied to a stake in waist deep water for three days. Udalryk survived and later while sailing with his brother was caught in a storm and Aki fell overboard. Udalryk claimed he did not hear his brother’s cries but was not wholly believed by the Clan. Cerys thinks if the heirloom sword is returned to Aki’s remains he will cease to torment his brother. Geralt, as a Witcher (and thus a professional monster slayer) finds the idea of the ghost (which are monsters that Witchers deal with) of Aki suspect as it does not follow the usual signs of a specter. But goes along anyway. The returning the sword idea does not work, the Jarl removes one of his eyes just before you get back to him. Then you notice something in his shadow. Taking Cerys aside you say that a Hym, a kind of demon, has latched onto Udalryk. Hyms are parasites that feed off the despair of the host, someone who believes they have done something truly terrible. There are two solutions, to trick the Hym into possessing a new host who merely believes they have done a terrible act but in fact has not. Or to take the victim to the Hym’s lair and kill it. Both are risky as tricking the Hym is extremely difficult and killing it will be hard; the Jarl may not survive the attempt.
I chose the trick the Hym. I waited in the ruined longhouse and Cerys returned holding an infant. She ordered me to throw him into the oven that I had lit. Udalryk storms in and demands that I return his child. A moment later I tossed the child into the oven and slammed the door shut. Udalryk’s men attacked me while the Jarl frantically attempted to open the oven. After the guards were dead the Jarl turned to me and asked why while the Hym seeing what I had done abandoned its host and loomed behind me. An infants cry is heard coming around the corner, Hjort walks in carrying the child. Cerys denounces the Hym and it realizes its mistake and dies. The Jarl is relieved but shaken. Cerys returns to the Entmoot the Jarl’s are holding.
In Orzammar King Endrin is dead. The succession has boiled down to two candidates: Bhelen Aedcuan, the last living legitimate child of Endrin and Lord Pyral Harrowmont, the late King’s confidante and prominent member of the Assembly. You hear (or know as a Dwarf Noble) is ruthless, implicated in the death of his eldest sibling and the exile of the other. But he has vowed reforms, loosening the caste restrictions and opening up with the surface. Harrowmont is a staunch traditionalist, Orzammar under a King Harrowmont will continue as it has for centuries; despite the fact that that is an inexorable trend downwards. In order to get the support you need, the Grey Wardens need to raise an army to fight the latest Blight, you have to help resolve the succession. The first task is seeking out the lieutenants of each claimant. Bhelen’s first task is to expose the double dealing Harrowmont has been involved in, promising the same land to two houses. Harrowmont asks that you publicly fight in the Provings (gladiatorial games) in his name. But here the differences end. Next both claimants ask that you kill the crime lord based among the Casteless in the Dust Town slum. Then they ask you to seek out the only living Paragon (a dwarf acclaimed as a demigod by the Assembly for some extraordinary feat) to seek their support in the election. You do and decide to help the living Paragon or a Paragon trapped in the body of a Golem. Returning to Orzammar you decide who want as King. Who you backed initially is irrelevant (though the betrayed party reacts poorly to the change of heart) and the scene plays out one of two ways. If Bhelen is crowned he orders the execution of Harrowmont. If Harrowmont is crowned Bhelen attacks you and is killed in the fight.
At the Entmoot (I use the name facetiously) you find that Crach is holding a feast before the election is decided. You see Cerys and Hjalmar arguing that Cerys should support Hjalmar. You then go off to with Crach to discuss your pay and his children. Sounds of battle are heard back in the hall and you return to find three great bears slaughtering the guests. After dispatching the bears you face another choice. Many of the Jarl’s sons and claimants were killed in the chaos. The Jarls declare that it is on Crach to determine who is responsible for the massacre and failure will result in the Clan Craite being held responsible. Hjalmar argues to go out and bash some heads; Cerys argues that the answer is to be found in the hall and finding out who did this is more important than brutalizing some random victim. Backing Cerys I searched the hall, determining the bears were some kind of lycanthrope, Berserkers to the Skelligers. Their change being forced by poisoned mead. Tracing the mead to Crach’s seneschal; we chased him down and Cerys’ interrogation finds that Birna planned the massacre. The evidence is not substantial but enough to bring before the Jarls. Birna denies the charges and it is not until her son, Svanrige, the only claimant other than Hjalmar and Cerys to survive, denounces her. She instructed him to leave the hall before the massacre and that is enough for the Jarls to sentence her to death by being tied to a rock and exposed until the seabirds eat her corpse. Svanrige is exiled for his mother’s crimes. Cerys was then elected to the throne.
It may seem that I explained in more detail the election in the Witcher than in DA1. But I think that the way these games told similar stories in fundamentally different ways. Dragon Age merely tells you what the candidates are like. The only different that you can see in their behavior is the first task they give you which is not even given by them, their representatives assign them to you to prove that you are not just an assassin. The way they rule is also abstracted, the epilogue merely stating what they did. In the Witcher you see how Hjalmar and Cerys act, what they plan on doing to prove their worthiness and how they approach the crisis of the massacre. Hjalmar is the classical warrior-hero, he seeks out glory through perilous combat with a monster. Cerys is more forward thinking, she sees a Jarl in distress (thus his Clan suffers as well) and tries to aid him. She approaches the problem methodically, proposing a theory and seeking proof. When Geralt proposes the two solutions to the Hym: either tricking it or the exorcism in the lair which involves directly threatening the life of the Jarl, she advocates trying to trick it first. When faced with the crisis of the massacre at the feast, Hjalmar suggests the brute force option. He will go out like any good hero and battle the problem (which ultimately will not provide any answers and leave Birna free and clear). Cerys advises caution, better to find the real culprit than the first you happen upon. Arnvald the Seneschal reveals the truth only when Cerys catches him parroting Birna. At the ersatz trial, Cerys presents the evidence and builds a case as best she can. Ultimately only the intervention of Svanrige, the man who would be king if Hjalmar and Cerys fail, brings out the truth. But only after the evidence is presented and he can piece together the story with the information he has. You see the kind of ruler Hjalmar and Cerys will be. Hjalmar will reign as the great warlord, fighting and reaving in the traditions of the Isles. On the other hand, Cerys seeks to unite the Clans and strengthen them against the existential threat of the Nilfgaardian Empire (the analogue to the Roman Empire that is currently laying waste to the last independent kingdoms on the continent).
You are lead to believe Bhelen is ruthless but progressive because you are told so. Harrowmont is conservative but honorable because the game tells you so. You can see King Hjalmar as the impetuous and brave warrior-king through the way he seeks to prove himself and how he handles the crisis. It is not unreasonable to expect Queen Cerys to unite and strengthen the clans when she sought to promote her election by aiding the Jarl of a Clan not her own and by her desire to find out the truth as opposed to merely visceral satisfaction. The Witcher does this by differentiating how you interact with these characters. The missions are very different. Hjalmar’s quests are combat and action focused. Cerys’ quests are focused on using Geralt’s detective skills and the game’s dialogue options. No such distinction happens in Dragon Age. The only mission that is any different is the first for Bhelen and Harrowmont. Otherwise the only thing that is not the same is who is the quest giver and what names are written in your journal. Dragon Age fails to show and opts to just tell. The Witcher uses the tools it gives to the player; combat, dialogue, investigation and builds quests around characters that show who they are by how you interact with them. In video games the player is an active participant in the story; showing instead of telling is a more than just a useful writing technique; it is a way to use the medium to its fullest potential in narrative-focused games.