Subtext: Making games better

Illustration by Zac Smith-Cameron

A common complaint among today’s game players is the quality of stories in games. I believe that it isn’t the plots or character development that is lacking, but the neglect to include subtext that creates inferior narratives.

Subtext is what we imply to players; what lies unspoken beneath the surface. It is the implicit content of a story; the thoughts and motives of characters; it uses metaphor to explore subjects instead of dealing with it directly (see Animal Farm or Bioshock). It is what compels people today to still be discussing Shakespeare’s plays, Kubrick’s films, Orwell’s novels, etc. It allows the player to feel ownership of the narrative via ‘their’ theories of the story (see discussions of whether the cake is truly a lie in the original Portal); but most importantly, it elevates a game from one that is fun, to one that also will resonate with you long after you’ve finished playing.

Bioshock could have been just another shooter in a sea of FPSs, but its clever examination of Objectivism and exceptional use of mis en scene elevates it above the pack. While Bioshock does cheat a little with the audio ‘diaries’ the player finds loitered about, it is mainly through examining and observing the world around them that players are able to piece together the narrative. Interesting questions arise when you stumble upon a corpse strung up to resemble a crucifixion, with “SMUGGLER” scrawled behind and boxes of bibles at its feet.

When faced with such questions or narrative ‘holes’ a player will either attempt to answer, ‘fill in’ or simply be confused; either way the player presses on further into the game to confirm their theories or to try to resolve their confusion.  Ideally, the game will never fully resolve all of its unanswered questions – after all, once a story becomes explicit there is little to discuss or think about. Some games such as Braid or Aquaria, I believe, very effectively offer additional pieces of story for the player (in exchange for completing ‘hard mode’ tasks), which don’t tell everything, but instead allows the player to refactor their thoughts and enrich their understanding of the narrative.

Even smaller, simpler games can benefit from an injection of implicit narrative. Consider the game Canabalt; with its superlative one-button mechanics, it has spawned hundreds of derivatives. While many are good games in their own right, I’ve yet to see one that matches the narrative depth of Canabalt. You never learn exactly what the man is running from in Canabalt; only see glimpses of hulking machinery in the background and know that it is frightening enough to cause the man to fling himself through windows and to ultimately die trying to escape it.

While it is still too early to say for sure, I believe that Canabalt’s layers of depth will ensure that it will still be played and discussed in ten years time, whilst its descendants will be all but forgotten.

Enjoyed this article? Read the second part of Jasmine’s discussion of subtext in gaming.

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