Since the origin of video games, they have been a powerful medium for telling emotional and thought-provoking stories. From searching castle after castle for your princess, to obtaining a relic gifted from the goddesses to bring about a new golden age, stories have been one of the most intrinsically rewarding parts of gaming since their early years. While the vast majority of games convey their message through hours of either written or spoken dialog, there have been a handful of games that exclude dialog entirely. In most cases, this is done to enable each player to interpret the story individually while. At the same time, players will decipher the meaning of the game in a way that it emphasizes the topics, morals, dynamics, etc. which are important to them. If a player interprets an open story differently than another, neither one is wrong because the game allows the player to decode their own story which fits within the limitations of the game’s more straightforward pieces of lore/story. Both player’s interpretations would be correct, because the developer designed it to be so. This is the beauty of video games without words.
While wordless games seem like a newer concept, thanks to games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus, and their ability to evoke such fond memories within players, they are not at all new. [Author’s Note: While Shadow of the Colossus has a small amount of dialog in it, it’s minimalist design and lack of a fully communicated story encourages individual interpretation, which causes many people to lump it into the same gaming category as games like Journey and Braid. If you disagree, that’s totally your call.] Games without words have actually been around since before the video game industry was actually established. A really great example of a game that lacks words to communicate a story is a game from back when patrons had to travel to an arcade to play. The grandfather of all gaming: Pong.
Technically Pong does not have a story; it had a goal. The point of the game is to beat your opponent in a digital re-imagining of table tennis by sending the ball at your opponent and having them miss. This miss granted you a point. The player (or computer player) with the most points wins the round. Since the arcade version of Pong was fairly difficult (to encourage the line of players to continue moving), this gave a wordless game a living and evolving story that changed based on each player. If you had been beaten by the computer controlled paddle several times before, and you had resolve to not lose again, then the story of this match might be interpreted as a redemption story. Say you have sunk a dozen pockets full of quarters into Pong and have gotten pretty good at it. So good that you have not lost in months. Perhaps the story of this match is that you have returned as the reigning champion to defend your digital belt from another starry-eyed contender. Will you send him packing, or are we about to have a new Pong champion? This is entirely up to the imagination of the player.
There have been titles that showcase how games without words can build a strong story better than Pong, thanks to the evolution of gaming as a story telling medium. Pong does, however, exemplify what makes these games as impacting as they are; players can fill in story pieces with their own narrative where the game lacks its own. Some games give the player very little, or nearly nothing at all, to go on (like Pong) and others give you enough that individual interpretations are fairly consistent among players. There is no formula for developers to follow that tells them how much freedom to give players as opposed to how obvious story elements should be. In most cases, allowing players to have as many opportunities to decide what in-game events mean on their own creates a compelling experience. In contrast, games that try to communicate a complicated story with a handful of moving pieces (each containing their own cause and effect structure) is where games without words tend to struggle.
A game (that I am very fond of) which suffers from this struggle is Hyper Light Drifter. While it is one of the better games I have recently played, I do not, honestly, feel like I got anything out of the ending other than the fact that I beat a difficult game. Hyper Light Drifter was not (effectively) communicating some hidden meaning that was open to interpretation. The events of the game were not left open so the player would fill it in with content significant to their own life. It definitely doesn’t give players as much freedom to construe their own interesting story when compared to other games without words. Instead, the history of the world, and the events in the game that are effected by them, is left for the player to discover. This is not a bad way to tell a story at all. A lot of fun can be had by trying to uncover exactly what happened.
What makes this dynamic in Hyper Light Drifter struggle is that each of the four areas you travel to (not including the HUB city) has their own intricate story that rely on the player’s understanding of the past events which put the world in the state that it is currently in. You do not start to get a concrete understanding of the history until closer to the end, and even then it’s still a very loose understanding. You can take on tasks such as decoding the game’s monoliths, which are all written in an alphanumeric language that has symbols which can be deciphered to some letter or number in the English language. Decoding them produces more cryptic and confusing information that does not really help the player interpret the story in a way that is impacting. Other important parts of the story are told by talking to character around the map. Doing this reveals art panels that tell a story relevant to the character or area they are in. A decent amount of these are easy to understand, and others can be taken several different ways, and nothing later on clarifies which instance is correct. Hyper Light Drifter has an actual story which doesn’t allow much deviation on the part of the player’s interpretations. You either understand it, or you don’t. This is not an effective way for a game without words to tell a story. Heart Machine‘s choice to limit the clarity of the story by using this gameplay dynamic should have been considered more during the early phases of development. The game’s premises could have been delivered in a more clear and impacting way without a single spoken word, it was just not done as well as it could have been.
In my honest opinion, I think Hyper Light Drifter would have benefited more from the inclusion of dialog, and instead should have the story communicated to the player in pieces throughout the game (as is seen in the majority of games anyway). I walked away from the story having not developed a personal understanding of it, and had to resort to a adopting another person’s theory as “my interpretation.” This defeats the purpose of portraying a complicated story without a wordsmith’s touch.
On the opposite end of this issue, Journey is one of the games without words that tell a complicated story very well. You understand what you need to do, and as the game progresses you begin to understand the significance of why you are doing it. The ending is very impacting and can be interpreted a couple of different ways. The pieces of the story that the game chooses not to present you do not feel significant enough that you can’t accurately understand the game’s meaning or story without them. Upon completing the game, there is no need to research theories on the game for you to feel a genuine sense of reward and empowerment for beating it. There are perks for digging deeper into Journey than the average play would, and the benefit for doing so is uncovering information that effectively helps the player refine their theories instead of convoluted them further. For me, Journey is a great example of how limiting or excluding certain aspects of games (i.e. spoken/written words) can improve them immensely. Not using written words or dialog in Journey is one of the leading factors as to why the game’s story impacted as many players as it did.
Simply put, the symbolism for important plot devices is presented clearly enough that every player who goes through that point in one of these games without words shares a consistent understanding with each other. At the same time, more flexible story elements allow players to develop their own explanation for what the symbolism means, and since the open interpretation of that story piece doesn’t weight that much on the story, each player’s interpretation can be correct. If developers continue to make games without words, and use the lack of dialog to encourage many different angles of analysis, then future gaming generations will also have their heartstrings pulled without a single word having been uttered.