Project-Wordless Narratives

From Matters of Play
Jump to: navigation, search

An exploration of a play phenomena that doesn't rely verbal communication By Danny Hassett


For centuries, stories have been told with words. Performing arts added visual elements to story telling but still words prevailed. But what of the power of silence? Once visual elements have replaced verbal descriptions, why are words necessary? To convey the thoughts of the characters. But what if we made the character an active subject of the story? Video games do this and a few games have done this in a way without using dialogue or text to tell the player anything. The player gets told the controls and they're off to experience the narrative through strictly visual story telling. The player takes on the role of the protagonist fully, going through the narrative, forming their own opinions about it, and interacting with it however they want. Much like movies, however, these silent games didn't begin as full fledged stories.

They began as a game with simple mechanics that allow the player to play how they want. Jenova Chen pioneered this style of games as far as bringing them to the forefront of gaming culture is concerned.

Flow logo.jpg Flower.jpg

Chen created Flow as a way to experiment with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of the same name. Csikszentmihalyi's idea is that people will fully immerse themselves in an activity and therefore gain a feeling of energized focus. Flower was meant as a meditative experience, with players playing the game to relax rather than work towards an end goal. After Flower, Chen began work on Journey, a game with it's own, original story. The player wanders through a ruined civilization in a desert, left to piece together environmental clues, wall paintings, and their own imagination into an idea of what happend and what their journey means.

Jouney hs.jpg Abzu.jpg

Journey was the first mainstream foray into a wordless narrative and after it's success, Matt Nava (Art director for Journey) created Abzu which told a version of the Sumerian creation myth through strictly visual story telling. The myth is the story of Abzu (or Apsu), the freshwater god, and Tiamat, the salt water god, coming together to birth the other gods.


The development of these games was mostly about stripping down a game to it's base; only what's necessary and building up from there, seeing what needs to be added. This makes it so that the game is only what it needs to be without any bells and whistles. Beginning with Flow, these games have grown alongside AAA mainstays like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, Mass Effect, etc. With the inception of what we've come to recognize as mainstream gaming, these games have not only persisted, but thrived, being both critically and commercially acclaimed. What does this success suggest about the gaming community as a whole? Probably that they want things other than what AAA publishers say they want, but that's a different topic. These games challenge Caillois' continuum of Play: Being video games, they exist in a more ludic medium, but their own, internal rules are scarce other than the controls. During development, a big focus was not holding the hands of players; allowing them to explore on their own, trying not to create strict boundaries to stay in. There remains a path to follow, but it's up to the player how they do it and at what speed they do it. These games aren't competitive, chance based, or simulations, but rather a virtual form of ilinx. This is most notable in Flower and Abzu, Instead of experiencing ilinx in your own body, you are put in the perspective of a flower petal or a deep sea diver and control them in a virtual world. With all these games you are merely exploring the world in whatever way you deem fit. Where would Caillois put these games on his continuum I wonder?


Huizinga posits that all play has a goal. What he means by this I'm not entirely sure, but I warrant that having fun wasn't a suitable goal in his eyes. These video games have an end, so to speak, but the developers goal was to make a game that players come back to because they want to spend time immersed in those worlds. When I, personally, go back to these games, it's not to get something out of it, it's just to experience the story again, or be in that place again. Some could say that that's a goal achieved through playing, but I'm fairly certain Huizinga is talking about something more cut and dry than that. This play phenomena could be the base for a new wave of developing games; instead of focusing solely on multiplayer for player retention, developers could focus on creating an enthralling narrative and experiential single player that makes players want to come back to play it again. What if we separated goal oriented thinking from play? Could we not play simply for the pleasure of it? What if, instead of sitting and thinking about play, we just played? Thought has immense value, but why not enjoy what's enjoyable simply because it's enjoyable? These games, I think, are prime examples of playing for the sake of playing; the developers may have had intention, but they put it in our hands to experience however we want.