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
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.”
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.