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Use of a Wordless Narrative in Gaming

This blog post tries to explore narrative in games and tries to focus on how narrative can be delivered without a dialogue.

Introduction

Let us first start with the definition of what a narrative is. Like everything else, people have a gamut of ways of defining what a narrative. Let’s first go by what the Oxford says,

“A narrative(or story) is any account of connected events, presented to a reader or listener in a sequence of written or spoken words, or in a sequence of (moving) pictures.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Another definition of the narrative is given by Mr. Paul Cobley. He says,

“A narrative is a communicative relation which is often conflated with straightforward understanding of what a story is. Narrative is a particular form of representation implementing signs and how it is necessarily bound up with sequence, space and time.” (Cobley, 2001)

We generally associate the narrative with the written word. However, as Mr. Cobley said, it can also be a communicative relation. There are many aspects that affect a written piece. This includes the font, the spacing, the page colour etc. All of these factors are context driven. What meaning the reader derives out of them is a very personal and context driven one. Here, culture plays a big part.

Narratives in Gaming

The models of narrative meaning which are developed for text cannot be used as they are for computer games. Computer games are fundamentally different from narrative texts because unlike the conventional forms of a narrative structure, the player is the joint reader/author in some of the narrative structures in computer games. 

The manner in which meaning is constructed out of a linear text and a game is very different. While reading a novel, the reader constructs meaning through the words she reads and correlates it to the meanings of the words which she has come to understand because of her cultural surroundings. However, when it comes to playing a game, she will construct meaning out of the images, the music and many other signs and symbols. If one takes into consideration the fact the humans always think in terms of images and not words, then this medium of storytelling can prove have immense untapped potential.

There has always been a debate as to the need of narratives in gaming. This debate stems from the fact that the form of a game and a narrative is different and so is their purpose. Some of the discussions that emerge in this aspect is the notion that a narrative intrudes upon the gameplay and hence is a deterrent to the immersion that a gamer looks for in a game.

However, one cannot separate narrative and games. A human is a pattern finding machine. It will look for these patterns in all aspects of his or her life. Regardless of the use of written text in a game, the meaning is conveyed to the player through the use of a wordless narrative.

Iceberg Theory

“Hemingway called it the Iceberg Theory. The art of implication. Just give people the little pieces they need to imagine up the other half of the game. It makes [the player] more invested and it makes your work more adaptable and more rich.” (Boisvenue, 2011)

A human mind always looks for patterns and understands narratives much easily if they are laid out in the form of stories. Sometimes, the mind creates these stories based on the data given to them. Minimalism has been present as an art form for a long time. It is an attempt at telling a story, message or just a point of view with as less as possible. In the early days of video games, when technology was not capable of representing complex information, the game narratives were very simple and minimalistic. This resulted in the events of the game being contextualized only in the minds of the players.  One of the metrics for a successful game is the level of engagement that it is able to achieve. A minimalistic narrative makes the game playing experience a much more engaging one.

Mario

Mario Brothers is one of the early games that captured the imagination of the world. The player needs to push ahead while collecting coins and power ups while avoiding all that might cause damage to it. There are no instructions mentioned in the game. Yet, the player knows exactly what to do. Here are a few elements from the game:

Domain: Plumber named Mario

Target: Unlikely hero/ Underdog who wants to save the princess.

Domain: Bullet with a face.

Target: An object that will hurt you when you touch it.

Now, this instruction is never given to the player. What to avoid and what to collect completely depends on the player’s cultural capital with reference to what a black object in the shape of a bullet might mean when his or her character comes in contact with it.

Domain: Princess

Target: Represents a goal that the player has to reach.

Even though very few instructions are given to the players, the game is successful in becoming a very engaging experience. The requirement of construction of meaning based on a limited amount of input forces the brain to use imagination to fill up the aps thereby making the experience a very engaging and personal one.

Present and Future

One of the most recent and the most successful games that uses a wordless narrative is “Journey” made by “Thatgamecompany”. Gametrailers.com gives it a rating of 9.0 out of 10. The game contains no language, no text and no narrative whatsoever. However, it has been lauded as one of the finest games ever made. In the game, you start off dressed as a sand Sherpa in the middle of a desert. You have very few clues to guide you. All you search for is something that stands out in the middle of the desert and you have to head towards it not knowing what it is. As you progress slowly through the game, you learn the mysteries of the land, yourself and your scarf.

But what makes the game successful is the fact that till that the game is about mystery and discovery. It stays like this till the very end making it a very personal experience. Most of the review sites have fans saying that the simplistic but emerging style moved them to tears. Many said that it is a game about life proving how personal the game was for them.

Wordless narratives will prove to be a powerful tool to break the barriers of language and culture. The technological advancements in the field of virtual reality (with products like the Oculus Rift) will add another dimension to the entire gaming and storytelling experience. The story as the writer imagined will not matter as the understanding will be different for different persons. I believe that such kind of games will not only provide a personal and emotional experience but will also promote individuality.

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