Don´t show it – Play it

Thomas Vigild

Thomas Vigild

Don´t show it – Play it: How digital storytelling are levelling up

Experiments in interactive digital storytelling are blossoming these years. A huge range of newcomers are rapidly changing the way we experience and explore stories with one powerful tool: using interactivity and game mechanics as metaphors.

By Thomas Vigild, Game Consultant, Ludo Consult, Danish Film Institute, Vallekilde Højskole, Denmark



A well-known mantra for good storytelling is “Don´t tell it, show it”. But in this digital age of storytelling the mantra is rapidly getting old and transformed into something much more active than just showing your story. As more and more stories, IPs and universes are expressed through the means of interactivity and by playing, the new mantra for this era of storytelling could rather be ‘Don´t show it, play it”.

We live in a world shaped culturally by history, literature, movies, myth, art, and music. But now games and play are also a dominant medium. They bring with them new ways of thinking and telling stories. It is normal for the younger generations to play and more actively explore the stories and transmedia universes around them. They all grow up with the notion that interactivity is an inherent and equal part of effective transmedia storytelling, which would never replace, but enhance and develop established mediums like books or movies. And that means that we will literally have to think differently. The digital storytellers of today see the world through the lens of games, play and experiments, and they will change the world using the tools of games. And I would dare to say that the younger generations today spend more hours immersed in the stories of their favorite videogames than they do in the classics of literature.

With new digital tools and the expressive power of interactivity and player feedback one main trait becomes apparent when exploring new ways of digital storytelling – the use of game mechanics to metaphorically evoke an idea or experience and experiment with the metaphoric potential of various interactions.


Mechanics as meaning

In this regard the abstract platform game Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell (UK) is a prime example of storytelling through game mechanics as metaphors. Even though the player only controls one or more simple polygon shapes representing several out-of-control artificial intelligence entities, each shape is characterized with a unique name, personality and abilities, including the eponymous Thomas, which are conveyed to the player through the use of a narrator, voiced by Danny Wallace and whose performance earned the game a BAFTA Games Award in 2013. Though the shapes themselves cannot be heard, the narrator describes the personalities and thoughts of each shape as the game progresses. In this example the story is told not only through the narrator, but also by the game mechanical limitations of the shapes like how high they can jump, their speed or if the can float in water. This all ties into the larger story and acts as effective metaphors for collaboration, infrastructure, and life after death within a community.

But using game mechanics as metaphors is extremely hard work because the overall presentation, narrative, mood and characters play a huge part in the aesthetic interpretation of the interactions in the game. Scandinavian masters in this is the Malmö-based game studio Simogo, which over the last couple of years has transformed from hipsters into indie superstars with strong artistic and strikingly memorable games. Their milestone iPad games like Year Walk (2013) and Device 6 (2013) sets new standards for experimental digital storytelling, but never looses sight of the main core: having a strong and surprising narrative. Year Walk is based on an old Swedish tradition called “årsgång”, and in the game the player encounters and overcomes supernatural beings from the Swedish folklore like Huldra (Skogsrået), The Brook Horse (Bäckhästen) or The Night Raven (Nattravnen). Not only do the player learn a lot about Scandinavian mythology through playing the game, but Simogo also included a free companion ebook for the game listing all the different beings in the game and elaborating on their origins.

Device 6 also by Simogo takes a totally different approach to modern digital storytelling. Presented as an surrealistic spy thriller set in a unique Saul Bass inspired visual world, it plays with the conventions of games and literature, as you literally swipe through the game like an ebook, but play it like a puzzle game. Here the written word is both your map and your narrator, which creates a whole new genre of interactive entertainment by combining classic literary virtues with unique audiovisual puzzle solving. This novel way of blending puzzle and novella goes beyond the usual constructs of games, books, and apps, which was one of the main reasons the game was awarded the prestigious Apple Design Awards in 2014.


Books with interactivity

Another interesting trend in contemporary digital storytelling is the use of the written word presented like a traditional book, but using a wide range of digital tricks to enhance the storyline and reading experience. One believer in this trend is UK-based game studio Inkle, which specializes in ebooks riddled with choices – much akin to the popular Fighting Fantasy-books from the 80-ties. Their digital adaptation of Mary Shelly’s legendary tale of Frankenstein rewritten by the British writer Dave Morris is presented in fantastic presentation where the reader transforms into a player in the end of each page. Here you have to choose your reactions or ways through the story, and then the reading continues. There´s one big catch tough: you can never go back or change your mind, so your every choice sticks with you until the very end of the tale told. Inkle used the similar approach in their new digital version of Jules Verne’s classic 80 Days Around the World, where you in Inkles beautiful elegant app just called 80 Days plays Passpartout – the butler for the main protagonist Phileas Fogg – and then have to make some tough calls during their blazing trip through the world. Both games combines the power of the written word with the ability to affect and radically change the story, thus creating wonderful stories you have to actively invest and possibly replay in order to experience fully.

In the realm of digital children’s literature the new Danish story-app Wuwu & Co. also goes a long way to respect the power of the traditional book, but uses new digital tricks to open up it’s own universe and the imagination of the player. When the iPad is placed flat down on the table, the short stories in Wuwu & Co. are viewed as traditional pages in a book. But true digital magic happens when the child picks up the tablet and swirls it around the room. Then the app changes into a one-way magical mirror through which the kid can see, interact and play with the many different zany characters in the beautiful drawn and delightfully naive universe. In this way the story is not only told through passive listening, but also in terms of active play, being creative and changing the characters and the universe as the story goes along.


No words, just play and visuals

One final trend is the use of combining striking artistic visuals and puzzled-based gameplay to create entirely new forms of visual digital storytelling. A game like Monument Valley is not only an interactive puzzle, but also as a proper architectural structure and a finely-crafted composition within the frame. Inspired by the impossible illustrations of M.C. Escher the game centres around the girl Ida who has to solve delightful chapters all told through the subtle use of optical illusions, sounds and player feedback. The result is an zen-like experience, which is much more focused on enjoying the mood and story than cracking tough puzzles.

For more demanding brain-cracking and nerve-wracking puzzles the new Danish graphic novel Heartbearts seems to enjoy to tease and challenge the players as much as possible. While the story centres around a old dictator regretting his past, each screen on the iPhone is an enigma, which can only be solved by paying close attention to the story, the words and the ever-changing game mechanics.

All these examples shows us that modern digital storytelling is rapidly evolving past anything we´ve seen before. But they also tell us that stories – whether told digitally or traditionally – create the opportunity for individuals to look into a mirror, see themselves, and discover that they are not alone. Good stories are providing a window that allows readers or players to see, interact and experience other people’s circumstances and perspectives. And in this endeavor interactivity can be a truly groundbreaking tool in finding new ways of reaching new audiences.


10 recommendations for games exploring interactive digital storytelling


80 Days by INKLE (UK)

Available for iOS and Android.


Frankenstein by INKLE (UK)

Available for iOS and Android.


Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons by Starbreeze Studios (SE) and Josef Fares (SE)

Available for Xbox 360, PlayStation and Windows.


Wuwu & Co. by Step In Books (DK)

Available for iOS


Monument Valley by USTWO (US)

Available for iOS and Android.


Thomas was Alone by Mike BIthell (UK)

Available for Mac OSX, Windows, iOS, Android, PlayStation, Wii and Xbox.


Heartbearts by Kong Orange (DK)

Available for iOS.


Cloud Chamber by Investigate North (DK)

Browser-based. Subscription-based.


Device 6 by Simogo (SE)

Available on iOS, Windows and Mac


Year Walk by Simogo (SE)

Available on iOS, Windows and Mac


Tiny Thief by Tiny Ants (FIN)

Available on iOS, Windows and Mac





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