Worlds without Words: What German Expressionism Can Teach Us About Game Design

Reposted from PopMatters Moving Pixels.

At the outset, the way in which video games typically use the word “genre” seems at odds with its more conventional literary and cinematic usage. But arguably, by emphasizing means of delivery, video game genre becomes the format informing emotion, which is not so far from the word’s more thematic meaning at all.

Just as the tropes of film genres train audiences to anticipate certain modes of behavior –we generally expect the action hero to kill to get what he wants, just as we hope the romantic comedy lead doesn’t— video game genres emphasize the power dynamic between players and events. Players, in turn, develop distinct emotional ranges and expectations with a given genre, and these are continually modified and projected onto by a game’s content. You expect to exert a greater level of tactile immersion with the full sensory space in a first-person shooter than you would a two-dimensional platformer, so a game like BioShock brings about its emotional reaction in part by violating that very expectation of (albeit illusory) player-character autonomy. Following on that, the comparatively high compression of a 2D platformer’s player-space interaction means the player’s main dialogue is always, first and foremost, with the space’s physical laws, rather than its social ones. In this way, platformers tend to fall along two major premises: man versus nature and man versus himself.

Thus in one sense, video game genres are more liberating, because they allow any number of thematic elements within the same conversational framework. You can have first-person shooter romantic comedies and political thriller visual novels, and these are okay. By treating play genre as the first element of its thematic structure, a game also frees up more space for distinct styles to its approach, borrowing from cinema, literature, and anything else it likes to create an amalgamated work. In its ideal form, this synthesis is seamless. More often, it feels like an unstirred mixture, with too-disparate components all trying to be too much of something the game isn’t. Film and literature don’t typically have this problem, or at least not to the same extent, but they have also had far longer to develop their respective thematic vocabularies. By comparison, new media has had to experience several waves of its own growing pains, first by adopting the conventions of older media, and then struggling over which of them to finally keep.

This is part of video games’ nature as an emergent medium: it does not yet have its own language, even if it does have its own ways for talking. For every openly cinematic game, there is a hardlining literary game, and a dozen more which reside somewhere inbetween and borrow from any and everything, usually subconsciously. This is not a value judgment, of course; there is nothing which says necessarily that visual or text-based story-telling is superior, or that a game can’t be functional despite its inconsistent parts. What really matters is whether the essence of the experience serves the main thrust of its intention.

Looking back to Jonathan Blow’s Braid, what does the player really call to mind? It’s unquestionably a well-crafted piece of work with complexities and nuance, with subject and substance so exquisitely interlaced that you absolutely cannot have one without the other. So why, then, the choice to reveal its surface-layer story with those large, unwieldy blocks of text? Exhausting the emotional complexity of its ideas with prose may be uncommonly literary of a game to try, but it doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. In using these huge chunks of, at once, needlessly detailed and frustratingly vague prose, Braid becomes drained of much of its potential richness and flavor.

Ultimately, Braid still works as an emotional dialogue with the player, because it uses the physical laws of its space artfully and confrontationally to communicate its ideas. But the prose sections still feel like a drag, and with no impetus to fully read or comprehend the text to progress, they don’t even function as a proper speed bump.

Compare this with Playdead’s recent XBLA release, Limbo. As I mentioned in my review, the game contains all of one word outside its title and pause menus, and while it may lack the nuanced specificity of Braid, I would argue it more than compensates through its visual design.

I spoke previously of Limbo‘s connection with silent era cinema, particularly the works of F.W. Murnau. What struck me most prominently about the title is how it reinforces Espen Aarseth’s contention that video games are first and foremost journeys before they are narratives (“Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse”, Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, ed. Marie Laure-Ryan, 2004). Limbo is not so much a story as a series of problems with limited solutions, their elegance drawing mostly from a combination of physics engine nuance and the game’s stark iconography. This is exactly the essence of a good platformer: it’s a conversation between player and physical laws, with the laws lending believability to its highly artificial set of visuals.

In a word, what we have here is great worldbuilding.

Drawing upon film again, the works of F.W. Murnau excel not simply for their use of light and shadow and their distorted stages, but how they eschews all but the most necessary of framing devices. Murnau’s later films particularly rely less and less upon title cards, with their singular use in Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924, U.F.A.) mainly existing as a critique of sentimental mandate: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” Murnau otherwise uses diagetic inserts and background design to flesh out his world, making his spaces feel lived in and genuinely experienced, even with their impossible physics.

In a similar vein, Limbo succeeds as an arc of experience because of this same spatial plausibility. It’s a stylized space, but one merry trot into a pit of spikes conveys all you need to know about cause and consequence. In doing so, it demonstrates how totally unnecessary textual elaboration really is. Do we need the developers’ blurb to understand the arc of our character’s journey? No. We’ve been trained in the circuity of this environment, so the ending scene doesn’t come as a surprise. All we need is the title and the game’s scenario makes perfect sense. In fact, all we need is the genre. You are not playing Limbo to find a boy’s sister; you’re playing it to solve the physical space, a persistent action which includes, but is not exclusive to, reaching the game’s ending.

Braid and Limbo both utilize the platformer genre as negotiation of the self. But where Braid is verbose, Limbo‘s narrative is rationalized by the player independent of the frame. The work is a shadow play, made up of gestures and uncertainties. In keeping its text minimal and simply part of its world, it trades an imposed narrative for an experienced one. Narration becomes conversation, conversation becomes journey, and journey becomes a story that is at once universal and intensely personal.

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