On Storytelling: Minimalism

Words: 2077 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

When video games were starting out, the ability to tell stories was locked between one of two options. Games without graphics could tell fairly involved stories, leaving the task of visuals to the player’s imagination. Thus we got text adventures. Games with graphics had very limited amounts of memory, preventing developers from doing much of anything when it came to storylines. If developers wanted to tell a story, they needed to rely on visual cues.

As video games became more complex and the amount of memory available became greater – and the tools and techniques for creating games more sophisticated – developers were able to introduce dialogue, cutscenes, and voice acting. All things intended to help create a narrative and world that would keep the player’s attention and allow video games to compete with books and films as forms of art and entertainment.

As games have become more complex, though, we have seen a return to minimalist storytelling. In its purest form, minimalism relies simply on telling a story without dialogue. There is no text nor any voice acting whatsoever, merely sounds such as roars or yells, and visual depictions of events. The movements of characters and how they interact with their environment or with each other will tell a story on its own.

While I use the term “minimalism” here, I mean more generally the attempt to minimize stories in general. To move away from large amounts of cutscenes and dialogues and toward telling stories through the environment and character interactions. So in a sense, more minimalist storytelling can involve giving players fewer details and instead letting them puzzle out important story elements on their own. It does not have to mean “nothing,” so much as trying to cut back on what is directly told to the player, letting the story be experienced without being stated.

I wanted to explore this trend back towards minimalism and pull out a few principles that could be useful in the crafting of more minimalist narratives. While it is not absolutely necessary for games to have these minimalist narratives, there is a value in this trend because minimalism – or something approaching minimalism – best makes use of the player’s agency and the medium of video games themselves.

Guided by Necessity

I want to begin by reiterating a term that I brought up in last week’s essay. This term will help to guide how minimalism works.

The term in question is “logographic necessity.” Logographic necessity comes from philosophical writing and interpretation, and refers to the idea of writing only what is absolutely necessary to get across a particular point, and nothing more. In its ideal form, every word and punctuation mark serves an important purpose within the text, and there is no empty phrasing. No word is out of place, no adjective is unnecessary, no sentence exists as filler.

We don’t need to create everything according to this logographic necessity, or expect every story to live up to it. But it gives us a useful tool for seeing how stories can approach a more minimalist storyline.

Let’s just begin with text, for the time being. By “text” here I mean both actual writing that would need to be read, as well as those same pieces of text narrated by a voice actor. In both cases, whether it is flavor text, or dialogue, or narration, or anything else, it can be understood in terms of actual writing that is being conveyed to the player.

When constructing stories, we are dealing with a lot of text, and then with visual and audial cues. There are a variety of techniques available in video games to convey narratives, and all of those serve important purposes.

But while we have all of these tools at our disposal, it is important to remember that we want these different components to complement each other, rather than tripping over each other. If the game is giving the player a piece of information using one tool, we shouldn’t be repeating that information with another tool. Otherwise, the narrative becomes annoying in its clarity.

A good example of this is a lot of writing in role-playing games, particularly Japanese role-playing games. Often parts of the narrative – dialogue or cutscenes in particular – will serve as a way of stating information that is already clearly available to the player (and usually by extension, the main character). You may collect an item that has something written on it – a number or word – that is easy to puzzle out. Perhaps it points to a location in the world, one that is presumably already known. The game could let you figure this out on your own, but instead requires you to view a cutscene or dialogue interaction to understand the significance. Or the game shows you a clear visual piece of information, such as a character, and then the internal monologue or another character might react with “Is that So-and-So?”

Whatever the case may be, the story is essentially getting repetitive with how much it is trying to hammer into the player’s head. It gets to the point of being patronizing, because the information given visually is so clear, and yet the game essentially tells the player they are too dumb to actually act upon it. This is how the writing can trip over itself.

I give this as an illustration of how we can see what logographic necessity would look like in comparison. How much dialogue is actually necessary? We want to aim for what we can essentially “get away with” when it comes to the writing. So we look at each piece of dialogue and ask “is there a shorter/simpler way to write this while still conveying the same information?” That project ends up being much more difficult than it may seem at first glance. But by cutting down the text in various ways, whether by paring it down or even just cutting lines entirely that are getting in the way, we can start to move towards a more minimalist narrative.

We can now expand to not just thinking about text, but thinking about all elements of the game simultaneously.

We begin with the question “what information are we trying to convey to the player?” Once we have that objective in mind, we then ask “has that information been conveyed?” This second question allows us to highlight the ways in which the various elements of the game are being used for narrative purposes. Then we go through each element and ask “is this sufficient to convey the information on its own?”

It’s when we reach the final question that we find a few different branches. The answer could be “Yes,” in which case there is no need for the other elements. Meanwhile, if the answer is “No,” then we need to ask why it’s not enough. Is there a way to alter it so that it would be sufficient? Could it never be sufficient on its own and thus need some other element to supplement it? These are the kinds of questions we need to be posing. The solution depends on the answer, but ultimately, if an element of writing – a visual cue, a piece of dialogue, etc. – is sufficient on its own, then other elements should be discarded or moved more into the background. If it’s not sufficient on its own, then either that element should be revised, or it should be discarded to allow a different element to tell the story.

Key to this is making sure that the various elements are actually going to be seen or heard by the player. A piece of scenery that is tucked away in a corner might be enough on its own to tell a story, but by being tucked away it is also unlikely to be seen. If there is a purpose to hiding it – if the information is something you want players to discover – then it can be fine, though this information shouldn’t be something incredibly important to the overall narrative.

It’s also a good idea to train players to pay attention to these things. If you’re going to be using the scenery to tell a story, and you plan on pushing a lot of the main narrative through the game’s visuals, then you want to make sure that the player is aware of this and knows not just what to look for, but how to look out for it. Since a lot of players are often used to traditional storytelling devices, where narrative and dialogue and cutscenes are used to explain important information, we need to make sure players are aware of what’s expected and feel comfortable with this setup.

The objective with all of this is to remove dead weight. If something is said one way, don’t say it another way unless you really need to. Don’t explain everything to the player, but let the player figure some elements out on their own. In a sense, the goal is to let the story tell itself.

Overminimizing

Generally, when we’re talking about this principle of logographic necessity, we’re focused on a story or piece of dialogue being too long. But we should keep in mind that it’s also possible to create a narrative that doesn’t have enough material there.

When we aim for minimalistic stories, we are relying on other parts of the game to tell stories in lieu of dialogue and narration. But key here is that a story is being told in the first place. Sometimes games aiming for minimalistic narratives miss this component, though.

The most common problem is failing to provide a motivation for the main character and the player. I put these components together because in a sense they go hand-in-hand. The motivation of the main character becomes the motivation of the player in turn, and so we need to give the player a sense of what the main character’s quest is. Why should the player keep playing? Insofar as the game is relying on its narrative to answer that question, the player must be able to understand that answer intuitively.

The error is that quite a few games will aim for the “mysterious past” option. You begin with a character that just enters the scene – especially a broken world – with no clue about who they are or what they’re doing. They’ve just arrived, and your job as the player is to guide the character through the world to solve something. Sometimes the character’s motivation will be hinted at as the game unfolds, though often in such small pieces that there isn’t really enough to go on.

Supposedly, the purpose is to create an air of mystery. Why is the character on this quest? What could their motivation be? But that setup does not always work. Namely, it requires some narrative surrounding the character, and enough material to allow players to establish reasonable conclusions about the character’s motivation (even if there are multiple possible conclusions that could be reached). Just trying to create this mystery actually leaves the player with a sense of frustration, because it feels more like the writing is just lazy, rather than intriguing.

To reframe this problem more generally, in order for minimalist storytelling to work, there still needs to be a story to tell. If it’s not being told through text, it needs to be told some other way. The aim of minimalism is not to avoid telling a story at all, but to find other ways to tell that story.

Concluding Remarks

That video games are experimenting with minimalistic storytelling is great, because ultimately games should be relying on what makes them unique for storytelling purposes: visuals and interaction. We want to be encouraging games that rely less on the traditional forms of text-based storytelling.

But much as we want to encourage games to do this, we still want those minimalist stories to work. There are principles we need to develop and experiment with for constructing minimalist narratives within video games. We need to figure out what does and doesn’t work. And in particular, we need to have a good sense of why we’re trying to build up these minimalist narratives. Much as they can be nice for creating a sense of intrigue for a game, we have a tendency to get lost in our attempts to make things mysterious, transforming it into an attempt to make things confusing. Knowing the difference between these two is going to be our greatest struggle moving forward.

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