Following a specific evolutionary path, gaming has changed. What was at first created to be a mean of entertainment, a sort of way to kill some time and relax between chores or after a long day at the office, slowly turned into a powerful and versatile tool to be used to tell a story. Among the other changes, this evolutionary process saw the birth and introduction of the so called non-verbal narrative: the ability to convey emotions and meaning without having to resort to the written word.
When the goal is to create a title that tells a story, developers and designers have at their disposal a vast array of tools to get the job done. While traditional narration would mostly rely on the written word, either through the use of in-game text or dialogue, non-verbal narrative enables the team to use other parts of the scene such as specific visual details, sound, lighting effects, or even the player’s own imagination to convey a certain emotion or message. Hardware also comes into play, as haptic feedback and other specific hardware features can be used to achieve the same result.
Narration Comes in Many Ways
“The same scene could tell us two very different stories” said Professor Haggis, a former game designer now teaching at the University of Applied Sciences in Breda (NL), during his panel at Game Happens, a yearly event taking place in the Italian city of Genova. Even the most mundane of actions, waiting for an elevator to arrive for instance, could be used to provide players with more details regarding the world or the situation they are in. Specific audio effects such as crackling metal, rattling cables or, on the contrary, the almost silent arrival of said elevator, could tell us more about the status of the building we are currently exploring, its owners, and even enrich the story.
Blood trails or other props could tell a story of their own, but these often risk being overused and might quickly turn into cliches. Lastly, the way characters or NPCs move and react to external events gives us more information about them, their past and possibly their future actions. All of these details are essential to today’s narrative efforts and should always be kept in mind when developing a game. While providing developers with a cheap and functional way to branch out their story, non-verbal narrative elements should also be kept in check, though. Overusing any of the aforementioned techniques could result in a less than optimal experience that negatively impacts on gameplay or that might distract players from their main objective.
Several designers also opted for making non-verbal narrative the main characteristic of their titles. Journey is surely one of the most popular video-games that followed this path but some smaller developers such as Maggese, another one of the guests at Game Happens, are also experimenting with alternative narratives. “Depriving the player of guidance by eliminating all or most of the written narration forces them to resort to their imagination to understand what’s going on around them” was the idea behind In Her Spirit, a short experience about women, sexuality and abuse that was on display during the event. These games become dynamic and open: they are no longer linear and bound to what the narrator is trying to tell us and each one of us will be able to find a specific meaning behind the scenes and actions that the title has us going through. Personal experiences, way of thinking and opinions all come into play when you try to fully understand the message hidden in the game.
The evolution of video-games and of the gaming industry is resulting in titles that possess all of the features needed to be considered modern pieces of art. If we were to define art as the expression of human creative skill and imagination and the production of something that has some degree of beauty or emotional power, most of these alternative narratives would perfectly fit. Gameplay and entertainment values often become secondary, while the creator focuses solely on telling a story or sharing a message. These titles also show the full potential of the media as a vehicle for artistic expressive power.
Interactive and dynamic, video-games could be used as a new form of art where the viewer does not only passively observe the events unfolding in front of their eyes but actively takes part in shaping the story and in altering its results. Non-verbal narrative, as already mentioned, enables us to do just that: slightly modifying every event we are presented with by pouring our imagination and personal experience in the mix, as we try to extrapolate a personal take on the message and opinions the game is trying to communicate.
The future of gaming is uncertain. New technologies such as virtual or augmented reality and the relative ease with which smaller developers can now show their product to the world due to online distribution might further alter this media, transforming it in something that is barely imaginable. What we know for certain, though, is that telling a story will likely always be one of the main focuses of those who decide to create a video-game. The larger use of non-verbal narrative as well as other devices could result in the birth of a larger sub-genre, that of artistic games, which could one day be considered as proper pieces of art more than mere entertainment. Were this to happen, it wouldn’t be strange to see gaming shift to a more central position within the population’s cultural and intellectual lives.