Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You Don't Have to Say It

I felt very fortunate to have attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo last week, same as I've felt every single other year at the show since it started in 1995. The main difference in my experience this year was that I really only saw just the one game I came there to demonstrate, so I spent mornings and nights catching up online on everything I missed. And looking back on all those many great-looking games that were shown, the one I wish I could have seen if I could pick just one is Journey, from the makers of Flower -- primarily because that game is pursuing a goal I happen to care about very much, which, as creative director Jenova Chen puts it, is to "tell a story without using any language" (source). Wordless storytelling is a minimal and powerful technique that's well explored and understood in other media, ranging from all-ages movies like WALL-E to blood-soaked manga like Lone Wolf and Cub, yet in mainstream games it's gone out of vogue due to our industry's focus on technology and content storage. After all, why would we remove words from our games when our storage media let us cram in more words than ever? Jenova Chen and team at least recognize that this isn't a rhetorical question. Wordless storytelling won't be a first for Journey (Chen's already done it very well with Flower), so I'd like to talk about other cases where this has worked well in the past, and why. I'm not advocating for it as a path most games should take, but then again if more games would just shut up, it wouldn't be the worst thing.

When I think of great wordless stories in games, the first example I think of is the 1987 arcade classic, Double Dragon. On the surface its story seems like the worst kind of gaming cliché: a pretty girl is kidnapped, so her boyfriend takes matters into his own hands by beating to blink-away-death everyone who stands between him and her (video). The difference with Double Dragon, as in all great things, is in the details: One of the thugs in the opening scene is wearing a yellow jump suit and carrying a machine gun; there's a tricked-out Trans Am in the protagonist's garage, and the building he emerges from bears the name "English Tear". These details gave the world a sense of depth for its time, inviting interesting questions. Double Dragon is one of many games where you're supposed to save the girl. But it's the first such game that made me wonder why she got kidnapped in the first place. It's the first action game I ever read anything into. These guys didn't kidnap this girl because she was pretty. They did it to get back at you for something.

There's more to Double Dragon. You can play the game simultaneously with another player, and if the two of you survive to the end, the grand twist is that the two of you must end up fighting each other to win the heart of the girl you were working together to rescue. There are no words used to express any of this (except a poorly translated you-win screen at the very end), yet it conveyed a complex relationship -- a good old fashioned love triangle, in an action game whose story was delivered without any language. The mechanics of Double Dragon were incredibly satisfying to me in their day, but it was the story, with its perfect expository scene and great endgame sequence, that makes the experience of it unforgettable for me. I've appreciated the power of wordless storytelling in games ever since then.

Other games even before Double Dragon's time were doing similar stuff. Several years prior, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner created an amazing computer game in Karateka, considered the first game with cutscenes in it. Karateka has a similar rescue-the-girl premise as Double Dragon, and likewise went to surprising lengths at building up its characters in what was a relatively simple game. The difference for me was that Double Dragon's story connected the player to the inciting incident of the story -- we see a girl take a hard hit and get hauled off moments before our character emerges, whereas in Karateka, our hero shows up in a separate scene after we see the fair princess get locked up in a cell. We don't empathize with the Karateka protagonist as quickly as we do in Double Dragon because there's less of an implied connection between the player character and the girl, and less of a sense of urgency to get her before something terrible happens. Nevertheless, Karateka and Double Dragon were the '80s equivalent of blockbuster action games, and they pushed the envelope in terms of cinematic storytelling in the medium. The reason they didn't rely on words, I guess, must be at least partly due to the technical constraint that there was no easy way they could have. But by having to give exposition and establish a setting and a mission without being able to use any words, these games delivered story in a far more elegant way than most modern games do. I think those techniques absolutely are extensible to today's games and could be used to tell the sorts of deeper, longer stories that today's players expect.

Elegant storytelling is conservative storytelling. Scenes should be enriched with as much subtextual meaning as possible before words are used to give any of it away. The more space and time needed to establish characters, places, and motives, the more the story runs the risk of becoming bloated and getting in the way of the gameplay. I don't mean to overgeneralize, mind you, since some of my favorite narrative experiences in games -- from Ultima V to Metal Gear Solid to Planescape: Torment to Fire Emblem -- happen to be very, very wordy. But I have a deep respect for games that can immerse me into the experience without having to talk me into why I should care.

For example, that game Journey evidently takes inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, which is a relatively more recent example of a game that delivered most of its story, including its own very strong expository scene, using very little language at all (video). And somewhere in between these two cases was Super Metroid, one of my favorite 16-bit games, which features an amazing endgame sequence that's rich with action and emotion yet goes over without so much as a word (video).

I happen to think players generally deserve more credit than most games give them, both in their capacity to learn and use complex overlapping systems and in their capacity to infer meaning. Occasionally there's a game like Braid or like Myst that invites players to explore with barely a word of explanation, and such games have a way of capturing fiercely loyal audiences. Because absolutely everyone, young and old, likes to feel smart. Conversely, absolutely no one, young or old, likes feeling condescended to. And so, games that express silent confidence in the player's ability to pull details out of the scene pay their players a great compliment by giving them the benefit of the doubt that they'll understand what's going on even though there isn't on-the-nose dialogue there to explain everything away.

Of my written work that's been published, most has been published online, with too little regard for length. Having hard constraints -- whether it's for an author working in print or a game developer limited by time or technology -- can bring about good practices that come undone when those same constraints disappear. Then it takes years for games like Journey to come around to reintroduce old ideas for a new generation. But you know? Works for me.


  1. This is one thing I might actually agree with you on, if not because wordless storytelling means less verbosity and pointless dialog. The Super Metroid scene is among my favorites.

    But the caveat is wordless storytelling has the potential to be incredibly pretentious.

    And I hated Flower, for the record. I hate almost everything related to modern gaming, so is says a lot that Flower is near the top of that list.

  2. I *really* enjoy storytelling that's done through expensive and epic cinematics like in MGS4 and FFXIII. As for wordless storytelling, the part I enjoy equal to the story is actually the byproduct of wordless storytelling -- the atmosphere (of isolation?) it creates.

  3. "Having hard constraints -- whether it's for an author working in print or a game developer limited by time or technology -- can bring about good practices that come undone when those same constraints disappear." I think this is a very valuable insight. Playing some 2600 games lately in Game Room, I was impressed by how developers like David Crane sometimes had to get really creative in terms of pushing the very limited constraints of the hardware. There's something delightful about seeing that kind of creativity and innovation.

    Movie recommendation for you, very much dealing with this idea. The Five Obstructions. Lars von Trier makes another filmmaker remake a movie numerous times, each time with different limitations. Give a creative person free rein to do anything and he may flounder from a lack of direction. Place limitations, and he may surprise you with what he can accomplish within them.