Can A Game Be Narrative Without Words?

The vast majority of narrative games use language in some form (text or voice acting) to convey the story. However, it is possible to have a game tell a story without using words? Can A Game Be Narrative Without Words?

Taking you on a Journey

For instance, Journey  tells the story of a protagonist exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization before summiting a mountain entirely through sounds and visuals. Similarly Gorogoa tells the story of a boy summoning a legendary monster (with the help of five fruit and puzzles that seem to span a lifetime) entirely through images.

So arguably it is possible to have a narrative game without words. With that said, creating a game narrative entirely through visuals is difficult. Without using language to explain to the player as to what is going on, much is dependent upon how the player interprets those images and relates to them based on his or her own experiences.

For instance, while the basic plot of Journey is fairly straight forward (explore, climb), most of what makes it sublime are the exquisite images of an abandoned world that hint at something more than a simple platformer. At the end, you’re not just reaching a mountain top; you’re searching for something ineffable. It’s this ambiguity that makes the story more intriguing than one where you’re told precisely why your character is hunting through ruins or climbing a mountain.


Figuring out Gorogoa

Gorogoa is similarly ambiguous. As the player, you move puzzle pieces around to unlock worlds that seem to tell the life story of a man searching for something. Yet as a player, you’re never quite certain what the man is searching for (fruit? A monster?) and what happens in the end is only hinted at. Your goal is to find a way to fruit to summon a monster but…What is the monster? Why are you summoning it? What is happening to the world that is destroyed and rebuilt before your eyes? Are the boy and the old man the same person? Who knows?

The lack of textual explanation heightens the ambiguity of what is happening. As a player, you’re never told and must interpret it for yourself. In these two games, that ambiguity works (in my opinion, at least). But handled less expertly, it would result in a confusing mess.


Save the princess

As could be guessed, building a narrative game without text tends to work best when ambiguity is acceptable. Without text, you can’t know precisely what the protagonist’s goals are or even exactly what’s happening. But you can intuit them.

Aside from stories where ambiguity is desired, a lack of text (or minimal text) is often acceptable when the story is already more or less known to the player. For instance, ballet is an art form that is conveyed almost entirely through song and movement. With that said, the plots of ballet tend to be simple and known to the audience (think Cinderella rather than War and Peace). And games with minimal text often have similarly simple plots (think “save the princess” in the early Mario Brothers games or the simple re-telling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in The Path


Can A Game Be Narrative Without Words?

Complexity with certainty practically requires text to convey to the player what is happening. Even minimal text, such as “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!” or “I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle” do much to clarify what is happening in the game and what the player’s goal is. So while games can excel without words, creating a game without them requires a plot that either tolerates ambiguity or is so simple that the audience can follow it without clarification.

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This Article was written by: mutive

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