Risky business: Subtext in gaming

Illustration by Zac Smith-Cameron http://iamzac.deviantart.com/

Before you start, you might like to read Part 1 of Jasmine’s discussion of subtext in gaming.

Despite the ability of subtext to enrich games, its inclusion is often neglected for two main reasons: it is simply forgotten and it is risky.

In the first instance, today’s increased emphasis on a game’s mechanics, rapid prototyping and reiterations, story often becomes a secondary concern. This itself is not a bad thing – but it does mean that it is easy to be well into production before the game’s story is fully fleshed out – and that makes it extremely hard to retroactively create subtext. Afterall, you must have figured out what it is you want to say explicitly, if you want to be able to whisper it implicitly. That is most easily achieved if you have planned the story ahead of time and are able to communicate it to all of your team (so that each member can craft their contribution to implicitly support the narrative ) – but it does require a strong shared vision and perhaps even a sense of authorship among the team.

Secondly, subtext is often neglected as it too much of a risk to implement – both creatively and financially. Subtext asks that players bridge conceptual gaps – what happens when a player doesn’t or can’t do that? It can leave a player confused and unsatisfied.  It can be especially problematic if you wish for players outside your language/culture to understand the subtext you created, as metaphors and symbols can take on entirely new meanings in other cultures, rendering it impossible to understand or worse still, creating unintentional subtext. I have heard anecdotes about how one studio was forced to increase the amount of fingers of its cartoonish game’s character models for a Japan localisation, as less than five fingers is often associated with the yakuza – a case of accidentally creating subtext.

If the player does miss out on the subtext, it can also mean that hundreds of hours embedding narrative elements into the art and design was wasted – and time equals money. This makes relying on subtext an inherently risky prospect. For the risk-averse AAA studios, this makes developing subtext laden games an unappealing prospect, especially since it is impossible to quantitively measure the financial returns subtext makes for a game.

So, how can we easily create subtext in our games? A few ways that I have discovered in my limited experience:

  1. Plan early – Encapsulate a central message or feeling that you wish to convey. Discover this as early as possible, so that all your design/art/code decisions can all be made to further your message. Try to keep your message as simple as possible – it’s easier to convey and players are more likely to tune into your message.
  2. Show don’t tell – Does the player need the world background story to play the game? Is there a way for the player to know a character’s internal grief, besides being directly told? Always ask yourself: is this necessary ? Is there a way I can imply this to the player instead of directly telling them in a pop-up box? Try to limit using text as an exposition crutch. Find other ways to feed the information to the player.
  3. Lie to the player – GLADOS from Portal is a great example of this. It forces the player to really think about what they’re seeing/hearing.
  4. Rely less on traditional visuals – One of the fantastic thing about making games is that our palette includes so many things: 2d/3d graphics, text, sound fx, music, vfx, code, etc etc When designing it is easy to forget about all the tools at our disposal. It’s possible to setup some interesting dissonance for the player by using conflicting elements (ie cheery music during a morbid scene). If you can’t find a way to imply something visually, try a different element to imply it.
  5. Embed meaning into every asset – try to make sure that every asset in some way supports the message/feeling that you want to convey.
  6. Consider your audience – a subtextual reference to Icarus is probably going to go over children’s heads, but one to Red Riding Hood would probably be picked up on.

Creating subtext is hard work, but it creates richer, better games and is the great trick of creating works that have the potential to be true classics.

One reply to “Risky business: Subtext in gaming

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *