People play video games for a host of different reasons, whether you’re looking for interesting gameplay, sociability or story, you can find it when you pick up a controller or sit down at a keyboard. Many of us choose our favorite games based off the rich lore, dialogue and world we are able to interact with. We’re used to the typical story structure which is a first, second and third act with rising drama and a climax and we often experience a game like we watch a movie; what about the games that aren’t so straight forward?
There are a lot of really great games that follow the standard of story telling: Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Uncharted and Bioshock are all examples of this linear form of conveying the plot to help a player explore a bigger world. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either, it works for a reason. This formula disseminates information easily and entertainingly while still progressing the game.
Dialogue, elaborate scenes and exposition are standard in order to flesh the politics and climate of a game’s world, we learn by characters fitting together pieces of the puzzle for us. Picture this: your protagonist from Oblivion or Skyrim or Morrowind – somewhere in the Elder Scrolls Universe – is standing over a puzzle of Tamriel. He and a bunch of NPCs are putting it together in front of you while explaining what each piece means and how it fits. This is how players are used to receiving information gleaning what they’re given and piecing together the world almost in full.
Despite all this, there are games that break this norm, games that build a sense of mystery and intrigue by just not giving you all the information. This method can be undoubtedly frustrating and confusing but it can also be incredible! So what are some examples? Unsurprisingly, a lot of these games come from an “indie” corner. Games made by developers on a smaller scale without a huge budget often have to find ways to create their vision through non-traditional means; s great example is Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter.
Hyper Light Drifter is a game in which the player isn’t given a lot of information. You’re a pixel hero saving a pixel world which is nothing new. But the game’s story is palpable on the player’s tongue because every dungeon and area you traverse is reminiscent of a lost world. HLD (Hyper Light Drifter for short) has no dialogue; the only information that is sort of like exposition is through characters speaking in bubbles filled with pictures.
This kind of conveyance leaves the information open to interpretation. It engages the players sense of exploration and thirst to find out more. That’s really what these non-traditional game stories tend to do — they feed the players desire for story and for information. We piece together what we see and we build our own theories. It feels like a real exploration. A series that has been doing this most famously is From Software’s Dark Souls.
Dark Souls and, by extension, From Software themselves as the developer, do a lot of things right in terms of making their game playable and challenging, but their story telling is on another level.
It’s almost like playing a poem. So many parts of the story are open to player conjecture and tons of it is really hard and difficult to understand. It’s a convoluted maelstrom of information, none of which has been confirmed nor denied. It’s like reading T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” and trying to figure out what exactly he meant. Hint: you’ll never figure it out.
It’s the sense of wonder and the need to put together the puzzle that has us players cooking up crazy theories — everything from “who the furtive pygmy really was” to “why don’t characters move their mouths when they talk.” Hidetaka Miyazaki engages our sense of wonder and yearning to know more with a few cryptic words.
Finally Overwatch mania is sweeping the world, but so many players are wondering why there’s an absent story mode. The answer? There totally is one! It’s a of story of oppression, human rights and sentience…just none of it is given in-game.
All the information so far has been released in short clips and animations like this one. It’s a clever on the part of Blizzard, really. If you walk through the streets of Kings Row you can see a little shrine to Tekhartha Mondatta when he was assassinated by Widowmaker and in the home/second objective in Hanamura you can see the arrows Hanzo fired at Genji in the animation Dragons. It leaves fans of the series wanting more and in turn looking for more, to find little hidden hints of story and what is to come.
Story doesn’t always need to be given to us, and truthfully, it may even hinder our experience at times. It’s great to learn and engage with a game and getting to know every aspect of it is so much fun, but don’t neglect the games that approach information a little more subtly. Those games are often the ones that will fulfill your desire for exploration. As the old saying goes, “less is often time more.”