How do some games relay so much information without needing words?
Recently, I watched erstwhile YouTuber and former Pocket Gamer writer Mark Brown discussing the “invisible tutorial” of Half-Life 2. Brown’s main point is in conveying game mechanics to the player without actually telling them. A good point to illustrate this is with the intro to Dead Space. Visceral Games’ seminal third-person shooter received and continues to receive praise for its minimalistic interface, wherein information like health and ammo is conveyed through suit and weapon indicators. Following waypoints isn’t simply a matter of seeing a flashing icon on your screen but a glowing line on the floor which points you in the right direction. Even the various maps, interfaces and panels are portrayed through AR-like panels that appear in front of Isaac.
Basically, the UI feels like a more intuitive and immersive way to react to the game. So it’s pretty interesting that when it comes to actually teaching you how to play Dead Space, Visceral is pretty on the nose. As showcased in Brown’s video, Isaac encounters blood-covered text on the wall, telling the player to “Cut off their limbs”, thus indicating that Necromorphs must be killed by severing their appendages.
"Take Playdead’s Inside. Much like Limbo, it’s a side-scrolling puzzle adventure where you’re plunged into the ether without any information. All you initially know is that you’re this boy on the run."
But wait, there’s more. A short tutorial message in that fetching, AR-like UI tells players how to aim and shoot. Oh, and shooting off the limbs for extra damage is a thing as the text indicates. Got it? Well, if you didn’t, then an audio log outright tells you to shoot off the limbs. Then one of the few surviving characters tells you the same and another UI message states, again, that shooting off limbs is the way. Pretty crazy when you think about it, especially when compared to how Half-Life 2 teaches its mechanics without outright spoon-feeding text and information.
However, this video didn’t just make me think about how games teach you how to play them. It also brings up the topic of language in general. Thinking about language in video games is pretty much like thinking about it in real life. Some of us don’t really consider the task of reading and writing as anything but natural. Others tend to emphasize language, whether it’s the task of acquiring more knowledge or simply becoming fluent. Language in today’s culture is about so much more though.
Beyond influencing the way we think and form thoughts, language can enable communication on an innate level. I’m not just talking about speaking without words or inspiring thought in a way that the player may not understand through words alone. It could be ideas conveyed through a complete lack of words, through symbols and pictures or in a completely obtuse way. Environmental story-telling also works beautifully into this as we observe our surroundings and slowly begin to understand how things are.
It’s a complex art, honestly, one that walks the fine line between environmental story-telling and environmental design. Take Playdead’s Inside. Much like Limbo, it’s a side-scrolling puzzle adventure where you’re plunged into the ether without any information. All you initially know is that you’re this boy on the run. Mysterious agents are kidnapping other folks, you’re running hither and yon to avoid being torn up by dogs, the list goes on.
"However, the over-arching narrative is mostly non-verbal, relying on symbols and a fictional language to tell the Drifter’s heart-breaking story."
As time goes by, a few things are made clear to the boy. He’s capable of controlling people or at least their seemingly soulless husks to progress forward. Along the journey, this strange presence seems to be calling to him, almost beckoning him to discover it first-hand. Of course, by the end, we learn this presence is a massive creature that’s set free in order to probably die out in the open air. Who was the boy? What was the creature? What was the point?
Though the game does invite you to discover its deeper meanings for yourself, Inside’s narrative is completely wordless. The times it does direct the player with non-verbal communication are understated and nearly mute in their subtlety. The art-style helps the player discern environmental elements, calling focus to key elements even in more aesthetically gorgeous scenes. By and large, however, you’re learning to play the game and moving forward seamlessly without any instruction (or due to instruction on a more subliminal level, if you will).
Another great example of this wordless kind of instruction, albeit with very minimal sentences in the beginning, is Hyper Light Drifter. When the game starts, you have next to no idea of what’s going on. Its jarring, almost hostile and yet mysterious as you’re introduced to this surreal world. The gameplay a throwback to the classic Zelda formula of exploring dungeons, discovering solutions, finding new tools to aid one’s journey and eventually fighting a boss. However, the over-arching narrative is mostly non-verbal, relying on symbols and a fictional language to tell the Drifter’s heart-breaking story.
For all intents and purposes, the lack of any real information or explanation allows us to sympathize with the protagonist all the more – he’s basically a stranger in this strange land, using technology that the denizens don’t quite have to cure an illness. Throughout the game, we’re offered faux-hieroglyphics of events and left to either discern NPC intentions through symbols or simply guess at what relation a mysterious character may have to the protagonist. At its core, the game is using its environment and the destruction it’s faced to provide information into its overall history. This is stuck between apparent dreams/hallucinations of the Drifter as he falls further and further down the techno-organic rabbit hole.
"That’s but one example of how The Witness uses non-verbal communication to teach its gameplay mechanics while also further immersing the player into the main purpose of it all – having a different perspective on things."
Some games don’t just eschew language for the sake of telling a story. They may rely on language in a different way, such as teaching the player how certain things work. The Witness is a phenomenal example of this. Upon starting the game, you’re basically plunked down on a gorgeous island with no context or information. What are you doing here? Why are you the only person on this island? Eventually, you work out the various puzzles and mechanics that litter the island, solving them as they pop up. There’s no urgent push to finish every puzzle. At times, you feel as though stepping back and gathering more perspective from your surroundings is essential to moving forward. Over time, the island may feel like a test but one wrapped in an indiscernible mystery and purpose.
The Witness has a number of ways to teach you its puzzle-solving mechanics. The core concept, at least in the early going, is to connect two points by drawing a line from point A to point B. It sounds simple in practice…until you start getting line mazes and have to connect multiple points. However, the environment has a way of helping you by relying on shapes and visual associations. For example, one puzzle about connecting points had multiple endpoints for the player to choose. How did you know which one was the right endpoint?
If you observed the environment, some trees with apples provided clues. Certain trees with broken branches hinted at which paths to not take. It was very well-implemented – subtle but getting the message across without beating the player over the head. That’s but one example of how The Witness uses non-verbal communication to teach its gameplay mechanics while also further immersing the player into the main purpose of it all – having a different perspective on things. After all, it’s that perspective which will ultimately guide you to the true ending.
"For all the lore inherent in item descriptions, character dialogues, boss dialogues and more, the ability of Dark Souls to tell stories through its environmental design is incredible."
It’s not hard to find games that simply won’t give you the necessary information to do something. Having a tutorial isn’t a bad thing. That being said, games like Toki Tori 2 are incredible in their approach. You don’t gain new abilities per say. Rather, you’ve always had those abilities – it’s just that new gameplay situations emerge where you learn to use them. Suddenly, you’re travelling back to previous sections and using this newfound knowledge for different things. It’s incredible and once again, Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit goes into great detail about it.
Trying to guide players through traditional verbal means, hammering points home, again and again, is pretty essential in some cases though. Destiny 2’s recent Gambit mode is a barrage of information at times. When collecting Motes on the field, you’re told what you’ll get when banking them. The notification “Bank for small blocker” is followed by a small diamond symbol. Upon banking the Motes, you’re notified of the number banked and of a small blocker being deployed. On the bottom left corner of the screen, notifications of enemy and ally actions are displayed, keeping you up to date on what’s happening. Visual cues, especially when an enemy is invading, are also utilized. Given the competitive style of the game and how chaotic things can be, this kind of constant information flow can be essential.
Nevertheless, that games can tell so much more without their words are truly remarkable. For all the lore inherent in item descriptions, character dialogues, boss dialogues and more, the ability of Dark Souls to tell stories through its environmental design is incredible. The Vordt and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley in Dark Souls 3 are memorable bosses but seeing their spirits roaming the streets in Irithyll of the Boreal Valley tells us they weren’t always so demonic. The game is littered with such examples where it feels like the world is alive and not simply some abstract concept referred to in the lore, separate from the monsters we’re actually cutting down.
"Nevertheless, if nothing else, games that don’t need words to fully immerse players in their worlds and systems showcase the true power of language. Language and communication aren’t simply concepts to express information."
In terms of narrative, games have a wide variety of tools available. They can hold our hands, guiding us through each and every step of a situation, and keep mounting the tension. We can meet incredible characters and learn their backstories through comprehensive dialogue as much as nuanced facial expressions and body language. The story can be passed down through extensive monologue and cliché text crawls as well as it could through bits and pieces of lore, cobbled together in a rambling yet coherent history of the world.
However, games are an active medium by default. Participation is a given, whether you’re pressing the button or moving the camera around to take in the scenery. To have a game not just react to your observations but carefully ushering you through subliminal messaging, indirect clues and by your own observation is a testament to the power of media as a whole. Seeing the story unfold before your very eyes even as you’re the one who’s effectively progressing it, that too without a narrator pushing you forward from on high, is incredible even if the results seem a lot simpler in hindsight.
Nevertheless, if nothing else, games that don’t need words to fully immerse players in their worlds and systems showcase the true power of language. Language and communication aren’t simply concepts to express information. They’re tools to incite thinking, to push for action and to encourage discussion even if it’s within the confines of one’s own mind. To see that power utilized in a video game is wholly intriguing and speaks to the evolution of game design in this age of technological breakthrough.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.