Show don’t tell is an important rule in writing, especially in a visual medium like video games. However, it’s also a rule taken too literally by some writers, who think everything has to be action in order to show rather than tell. Taken literally, dialogue would seem to be telling instead of showing, but in reality good dialogue can show a story far better than any action ever could.
There’s a perfect example of this when comparing Mass Effect and Mass Effect: Andromeda, in how they introduce their Krogan companion.
This is how Drack is introduced to the player in Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s a serviceable entrance, obviously throwing a wraith through a window showcases Drack’s strength and brutality.
“Who are you?” – Drack
Drack’s interrogative singles him out as a hostile, but commenting on his “cool” entrance makes him lower his guard. Then he immediately grabs Ryder by the collar and asks again, who Ryder is. So either he sees through the bullshit flattery of Ryder and is annoyed by it, or thinks it’s a method of subterfuge, because he seems really pissed that Ryder doesn’t announce himself.
You’ll excuse me if I didn’t just trust a stranger from the Nexus, they haven’t exactly treated us Krogan well. – Drack
Now this is expository dialogue, meaning that instead of the dialogue being there to characterize the person speaking it, it’s there to convey important plot information. As expository dialogue it works, it gets across the information Bioware wanted to convey, and yet it’s also so dry that it doesn’t do much else.
In fact, I’m not really going to tackle the rest of the dialogue, because it all serves to establish three things about Drack as a character:
- He’s an effective warrior, as evidenced by throwing a wraith through what I imagine is not ordinary glass.
- He enjoys battle, relishes in it, perhaps even driven by it.
- Is suspicious of non-Krogan.
That’s a respectable amount of information to start with. As I said, this is a serviceable introduction. Not good, not bad. It does its job, but there’s no imagination to it. Showing a Krogan loves battle and violence by throwing something through a window is, well, a bit obvious. Even worse though, is that all of the character traits this dialogue reveals are just “no duh” moments, they’re all stereotypically Krogan. You could have safely assumed all this just by looking at him.
The absolute worst part of this whole exchange is that Drack’s dialogue isn’t true to his character. When you meet him, Drack is dismissive of the Pathfinder’s ability and hostile to humans in general. Yet the moment you bring him on board your ship, Drack is one of the friendliest Krogan you’ll ever meet and affectionately refers to the Pathfinder as “kid.”
Now Wrex’s introduction [0:20-0:40, a mere 20 seconds] conveys so much information about his character that it’s actually a brilliant piece of writing.
“Witnesses saw you making threats in Fist’s bar. Stay away from him.” – C-Sec Officer
“I don’t take orders from you.” – Wrex
Right off the bat we see Wrex needs to establish dominance in any conversation and immediately lashes out against authority figures hoping to control him. We later find out this is in keeping with Krogan cultural norms, where asserting dominance is often the difference between life and death. To submit to the demands of this squishy human would be an intolerable weakness.
“This is your only warning, Wrex.” – C-Sec Officer
“You should warn Fist: I will kill him.” – Wrex
This one line of dialogue conveys not only information about Wrex as a character, but also important world-building information. First of all, Wrex is comfortable with killing and is confident in his ability to do so. Secondly, he wants people to know that Fist is marked for death, which makes perfect sense and leads into the world-building.
The Shadow Broker hired Wrex to kill Fist for betraying him, but Fist won’t make an effective example if he just vanishes one day. The Shadow Broker sent Wrex because he wanted to send a message to everyone that you don’t betray the Shadow Broker. This establishes the Shadow Broker in the player’s mind as a powerful and dangerous entity. I love this line in particular because it shows you don’t need to resort to sloppy expository writing like Drack’s dialogue in order to convey important information to the player.
“You want me to arrest you, Wrex?” – C-Sec Officer
“Heheh, I want you to try.” – Wrex
That one line reveals so much about Wrex’s character it’s almost ridiculous, because the fact of the matter is, Wrex is bluffing.
Wrex knows he could easily kill the unarmed C-Sec officers surrounding him, but there’s no way he could fight his way out of C-Sec Headquarters and murder Fist, let alone escape the Citadel. Yet Wrex is also a consummate professional and he has a target to eliminate, so he can’t have C-Sec constantly harassing him. So he bluffs, go ahead and arrest me, Wrex is telling them, but I guarantee it won’t be worth the trouble. Wrex’s words here speak legions about his character.
Even though Wrex is capable of amazing feats of strength and brutality, he doesn’t use brute strength as a first resort. He thinks strategically, he plans his moves carefully, and sizes up his opponents. He’s a brutal warrior who knows when not to reach for his weapon.
This twenty seconds of dialogue establishes multiple facets of Wrex’s character:
- He’s a warrior confident in his abilities and has no problem killing.
- Though he’s comfortable killing, he takes no pleasure in it unless he has a personal motive. Otherwise, it’s just business.
- He’s cunning, and will plan his strategies multiple moves in advance. Shooting his way through a problem is both a last step and last resort.
- He’s able to quickly size up his opponents, both in courage and in strength, and will seek to bluff and intimidate before resorting to violence.
- Wrex needs to establish his strength and dominance in a conversation.
Proud, cunning, dominant, violent yet not for it’s own sake, and even diplomatic in his own way. That’s a pretty respectable number of character traits for a twenty second conversation.
Even better, what we learn here in this scene does reflect the character we come to know. Through the course of the game we find out that Wrex is an old warrior, who has seen centuries of combat so it makes sense that he not only knows how to kill, but is completely comfortable with it. Yet we also learn that Wrex wants to reunite the Krogan and restore their once proud heritage of bravery, sacrifice, and strength. He hates the modern Krogan ideals of mindless bloodlust, so it makes sense that he would reject the glorification of pointless violence.
Wrex’s introduction is how a great example of how a light touch and subtlety can more effectively introduce a character than some flashy, yet empty action scene. Drack’s introduction is a microcosm of Andromeda‘s overall problem, it’s too obvious, unimaginative, and unpolished to successfully carry the story they were trying to tell.
In the end, there’s only two types of writing. There’s Wrex writing and then there’s Drack writing.
So be Wrex, everyone.