How do you tell a story with­out words? We ask some of the best indie devel­op­ers around.

The se­cret of telling a heart­felt story… with si­lence

Games Master - - Welcome -

Stop us if you’ve heard this one be­fore. A lone wan­derer awakes with­out any sense of place, thrust into a ru­inous set­ting some­where in the great un­known. Their only choice is to ex­plore in the hope of dis­cov­er­ing a lit­tle more about the world around them, and in turn, to learn more about how they’re des­tined to fit into it. You’d be for­given for think­ing we’re re­fer­ring to ki­netic ac­tion game Hyper Light Drifter, the en­rap­tur­ing path of ex­plo­ration Rime sets you on, or pos­si­bly last year’s radar-slip­ping Hob. And we are – but we’re also re­fer­ring to a whole raft of other indie ti­tles too. These three speech­less dar­lings are stel­lar ex­am­ples of to­day’s un­der­dog indie devel­op­ers con­tin­u­ing to do what they’ve al­ways done: breed cre­ativ­ity from lim­i­ta­tion. Said cre­ativ­ity, in this in­stance, be­ing the abil­ity to weave mean­ing­ful and im­mer­sive sto­ries en­tirely with­out text or talk­ing. Silent but deadly? You bet!

Of course, this ne­ces­sity to do a lot with very lit­tle is noth­ing new for the in­dus­try, but it’s only in re­cent years, with the rise of the mod­ern indie de­vel­oper, that games have al­lowed cre­ative sto­ry­tellers to ex­per­i­ment in such a way. They’ve ex­celled at con­vey­ing emo­tion, feel­ing, and any nar­ra­tive con­text through less con­ven­tional con­structs than we’d typ­i­cally see in the triple-A space. For Raúl Ru­bio, cre­ative di­rec­tor of Rime, this is an ap­proach sim­ply not pos­si­ble with any other medium. “What makes a great story in a game is that un­like the the­atre, movies, or what­ever, you are not the pas­sen­ger,” he says. “In­stead, the player is nec­es­sary. Your ob­jec­tive is to grow the story around you.”

Rime and rea­son

This unique abil­ity to weave nar­ra­tive around the player rather than have one forced upon them, is pri­mar­ily what led Ru­bio’s de­vel­op­ment team over at Te­quila Works to make Rime an en­tirely word­less ad­ven­ture. Re­count­ing the story of a young boy washed up on the shore of a mys­te­ri­ous is­land, the game ini­tially drew close com­par­isons with the likes of The Leg­end Of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Ico when it was first re­vealed at Gamescom 2013. Dig a lit­tle deeper, how­ever, and you’ll un­earth a much sim­pler yet wildly evoca­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, one that ac­tively tugs on the player’s nat­u­ral sense of cu­rios­ity as they con­tinue to poke and prod at the many se­crets held within its world.

Where most ac­tion-puz­zle games feel the need to in­un­date play­ers with dis­rup­tive cin­e­matic cutscenes to keep them in­vested in the wider tale, Rime in­stead keeps things sim­ple. “The story changed from ad­ven­ture for the sake of ad­ven­ture into one that ex­plored in­no­cence, and loss, and grief. Even­tu­ally it re­sem­bled a fa­ble,” re­flects Ru­bio. “In the sense that a fa­ble has a struc­ture that ev­ery­one can un­der­stand. No mat­ter how old you are, where you’re from, a fa­ble is a story so straight­for­ward, yet it con­tains a mes­sage.” This de­sire to main­tain univer­sal ap­peal is key to silent videogame sto­ries’ avoid­ance of over­com­plex­ity, in the hope of guar­an­tee­ing some de­gree of emo­tional im­pact.

It helps that, as am­bigu­ous as the nar­ra­tives of games like Jour­ney, Limbo, and Hob can be, the univer­sal lan­guages of in­ter­ac­tion, ex­plo­ration, and mu­sic are al­ways on hand to prevent play­ers from be­com­ing too mud­dled. “The mu­sic helps a lot to con­vey mood and set an at­mos­phere and tone for things,” Alex Pre­ston, the cre­ator of 16-bit ac­tion-RPG throw­back Hyper Light Drifter tells us. “And the vis­ual stuff, whether that’s a char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion or a set­piece that hap­pens in the

world. Or just the colour and de­tail in a level, that stuff mat­ters if you want to draw the player’s eye over to a spe­cific el­e­ment in the game when we’re try­ing to con­vey some­thing spe­cific.”

Get­ting across what is go­ing on, what isn’t, and what might be pos­si­ble within a silent nar­ra­tive proves a tricky bal­anc­ing act. The story be­hind Hyper Light Drifter, for ex­am­ple, is that an an­cient race came and caused much dev­as­ta­tion long be­fore the drifter’s even­tual ar­rival – and that’s not the eas­i­est thing to pass on with­out di­a­logue. “With our world in par­tic­u­lar, there’s a lot of stuff go­ing on that we didn’t want to make su­per-ex­plicit.” An in­ten­tional choice long be­fore the game launched on Kick­starter, Pre­ston sug­gests there’s method in his mad­ness. “I think when you’re do­ing sto­ry­telling pe­riod, you want to give the au­di­ence enough in­for­ma­tion to draw them in and keep them in­ter­ested but you don’t want to push them too far so that it be­comes bor­ing.”

Trance-for­ma­tive

Both Hyper Light Drifter and Rime’s sto­ries are clas­sic cases of ‘show, don’t tell’, re­quir­ing a great deal of faith be­tween de­vel­oper and player that reach­ing the end of the jour­ney, how­ever mys­te­ri­ous, ev­ery­thing will have been worth­while. Suc­cess might be sub­jec­tive, but one thing that’s al­ways cer­tain is these sto­ries will be con­strued in dif­fer­ent ways by dif­fer­ent play­ers. Some­times in­ter­pre­ta­tions even sur­prise those who cre­ated them. “That’s part of the fas­ci­na­tion,” muses Pre­ston. “When I read other in­ter­pre­ta­tions, or I see a video that ex­plores in-depth why maybe ‘this part of the world is this way’. To me, that’s part of the joy in mak­ing a story that’s a lit­tle more in­ter­pre­tive.”

The same can be said for Rime which, fol­low­ing re­lease, touched play­ers to such a de­gree, many sent in their own re­ac­tions to its emo­tional con­clu­sion. “We re­ceived over 300 letters from fans,” re­veals Ru­bio. “They told us per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences of loss, grief, and they told us what they thought the end­ing was. All of them were dif­fer­ent. Some of them were sad and some of them were hope­ful, and that ac­tu­ally sur­prised me a lot. For me, the end­ing is that ‘ev­ery end is a new be­gin­ning’.” De­spite this be­ing the mean­ing Ru­bio per­son­ally had in mind, he’s quick to re­mind us that there is no wrong an­swer.

With the fu­ture of nar­ra­tive-driven sin­gle-player games re­cently be­ing called into ques­tion, it falls not only to indie devel­op­ers to con­tinue find­ing new and artis­tic ways to grip us, and en­cour­age the genre to thrive. Like the word­less wan­der­ers them­selves who per­se­vere in the hope of find­ing res­o­lu­tion, if play­ers want it, such ex­pe­ri­ences will be there. Pro­vid­ing we make our­selves heard.

Aaron Pot­ter

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