Hidden Narrative in Games and Literature“I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong.” (Lemony Snicket)
Fez the game doesn't really begin until you're about a third of the way through it. Gomez, the game's silent protagonist, answers an inconspicuous letter and finds himself unceremoniously granted a magical artifact that allows him to view the 2D world around him in 3D, then is dumped back outside his village to collect the glowing cubes that are scattered all around the world. However, as a player, it isn't until you run into a signpost, tucked away in a small corner of a stage, the first key to deciphering an omnipresent language that you do not understand, that you first realize exactly how deep Fez's rabbit hole is.
Fez is part of a growing segment of games and media types that explore a phenomenon I refer to as hidden narrative. These games feature stories that are largely hidden from the player, often told through side-quests or hidden events throughout the game – often by their audience lumped into broader, ill-defined categories of optional appendixes, world-depth, extra content, and liberal application of the game-designer's rule of “show, don't tell.”
At first glance it may seem that games would have a significant advantage over books in the field of hiding or augmenting a singular story with additional content. However, traditional literature actually possesses a strong foundation which can help illuminate and explain this technique as it exists in modern games. Case in point, this article will also be discussing A Series of Unfortunate Events, a set of novels written under the pen name of Lemony Snicket featuring a set of three rather unlucky children who are orphaned and forced to do clever things to survive the increasingly brutal and contrived scenarios that are thrust upon them.
I do not mean to imply that these are the only examples worth exploring – there are a large magnitude of books, movies, games, and shows that would illustrate the following points equally well. However, goals of scope and brevity make this article an unsuitable place to delve into them, and for the express purpose of illustrating what hidden narrative is and why it matters, these two stories are more than sufficient.
“Even though there are no ways of knowing for sure, there are ways of knowing for pretty sure” (Lemony Snicket)
What Exactly Do We Mean by “Hidden Narrative?”
When I say that a narrative is “hidden”, I refer to a story that is not explicitly told to the reader/player/observer, but can be reasonably surmised through inference and extra work. A major qualification of this definition is that the narrative be accessible through some means (usually closely related to the manner in which the “outer” narrative is consumed), but not directly forced on the observer. Ideally, a reader should be able to consume a substantial portion of the content without engaging with the secondary “hidden” narrative at all – and by this qualification, we can safely abandon not only mystery novels and traditional convolution and intricacy of plot, but also what is referred to by many as world-building through which an author fleshes out secondary spaces for a narrative to inhabit.
It could be argued that both Fez and Mr. Snicket occasionally play fast and loose with this definition as well. Certainly as A Series of Unfortunate Events progresses, the two narratives of the Baudelaire Orphans and VFD begin to intersect and intertwine. Admittedly, by the end of the series, they are so intertwined that VFD has become, in many senses, a character of its own. However, throughout this process, and even when the two stories are at their most interdependent stages, they strictly remain individual and separate affairs – at no point does the story of the Baudelaire Orphans become the story of VFD and vice-versa.
In contrast, Fez's hidden narrative is arguably its only narrative – a story so buried under puzzles, languages, and inferences that its characters would sooner abandon the entire thread and tell a simpler tale about a boy collecting cubes, largely just because they exist. But the game is tidy and finite in its denial, a game within a game – and it is not only quite possible for a player to engage only with the outer layers, but likely that many players without external guidance would never break into the real narrative embedded in that outer shell – and because of this, it is more than reasonable to refer to that narrative as an entirely separate and unique story.
Narrative and Agency
“There are many difficult things in this world to hide, but a secret is not one of them.” (Lemony Snicket)
It is the nature of hidden narrative to assert itself more and more as its container story progresses. In this way, hidden narrative takes on somewhat of a snowball effect – something that is merely hinted at near the start of a tale, to something that begins to lurk and manifest itself at both inconvenient and surprising times, to something that eventually either dominates or consumes its host narrative, putting an end to the original story.
Because at each stage of this process the two stories and their relationship with each other can look very different, it is more useful to consider hidden narrative in the context of its entire arc and relationship with the main narrative. As briefly mentioned above, hidden narrative can be thought of as a character in its own right (albeit an eldritch and inhuman one): it grows to possess its own agency and goals, often very different than those of the main character(s), and asserts those goals throughout the runtime of the text.
This sense of growth, agency, and purpose marks hidden narrative as being different than traditional world-building. A well defined universe impacts and influences its characters, but usually in a static, undirected way. Changes across that universe are usually feedback from the self-initiated actions of its characters. In contrast, the Baudelaire Orphans begin their journey specifically because of the actions of an unrelated narrative – and that narrative continues to influence and intersect with the children's path throughout their journey, regardless of their own personal goals or actions. Indeed, the Baludelaire Orphans spend most of their time running from this narrative.
What's the Point?
“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don't read is often as important as what you do read.” (Lemony Snicket)
A Series of Unfortunate Events may be a story about group of three children thrust into dangerous situations who must regularly do clever things in order to survive, but A Series of Unfortunate Events is not about that.
It is about a group of three children who discover they are characters in a dozen different stories with a dozen different heroes and villains and twice as many people in-between. It is a story about figuring out how to survive and live well in a world that can in turn be both very cruel and very beautiful specifically because of all the stories going on at the same time. “There is a kind of crying I hope you have not experienced, and it is not just crying about something terrible that has happened, but a crying for all of the terrible things that have happened, not just to you but to everyone you know and to everyone you don’t know and even the people you don’t want to know, a crying that cannot be diluted by a brave deed or a kind word, but only by someone holding you as your shoulders shake and your tears run down your face.” (Snicket, The End)
While Fez and A Series of Unfortunate Events may ultimately offer radically different worldviews to the reader and player, those worldviews spring from a common source: a belief in and a knowledge of a reality that is not just large, or complicated, or intricate, or mysterious, or exciting, or scary, but something that encapsulates all of those ideas at the same time: fully distinct and apart from us. The thread that runs through virtually all hidden narratives is that reality is, in many ways, more important than we are. It's this “reality” that hidden narrative pushes us towards and it's this “reality” that makes hidden narratives in books, movies, and games so compelling to us.
As readers and gamers and consumers, we obsess over these stories and secrets because we know that they matter. Hidden narratives matter specifically because in the real world literally everyone is a protagonist, literally everything matters, and outside of our private narratives and inescapably limited scopes of human contact, the world is just so, so big.
Works Referenced and Works Cited
Fez. 1.0. Polytron. April 2nd 2012. Video Game
“Goodreads.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events. EgmontUK: HarperCollins, 1999-2006. Print