With the release of the beautiful platformer Fossil Echo, now confirmed for July, it’s a good time to look at one of the most interesting developments in smaller and indie-style games: games without words. This includes games as recent as Hyper Light Drifter and Dropsy the Clown, as well as slightly older games like Journey.
I suppose, for starters, I should acknowledge the apparent irony of writing about something that has no obvious writing. Wordless games use a combination of their music, animation, and game mechanics to get across story and meaning, without a specific language (and without having to read) — but although it is invisible, the writing in these games is still some of the best.
For a script writer, it is easier to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule when you have talented actors and animators on your side. Even more than in prose, writers in scripted media like theatre and film – and also games – are driven to avoid the dreaded, “John felt sad”.
Simply telling the audience that John feels sad removes some of the art of it. It’s much better to give the viewer clues as to John’s sadness, allowing the artists and actors to show how he feels sad. This is the first and greatest advantage that scripting can have over prose: all of this can be done without words.
Another advantage is avoiding the information dump or exposition – the “as you know, Bob, this is how my machine works,” kind of discussions. Just like showing John’s emotions in the previous example, the operation of the world in the game can be shown or implied rather than explained outright.
This is most obvious in well-crafted tutorials. Remember that great discussion about how Super Mario Bros. teaches players to play the game? You can learn the mechanics of the game without ever reading the manual (in whichever language). However, this showing rather than telling can be used in subtler ways than just demonstrating mechanics.
In adventure movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, viewers don’t need words to tell us that Indiana Jones is a treasure hunter, because the first thing we see him do is hunt for treasure. Though not quite as essential, a detail such as Mario being a plumber can be inferred because something the player does very early on is climbing through a pipe.
Entirely wordless games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Journey, or Dropsy take “show, don’t tell” to its logical conclusion: almost all show, with little to no tell.
A game like this can cross language barriers in the same way that a silent film or the opening half of Pixar’s Wall-E does. The game or movie can cut to the emotional core of the story without complicated dialogue or pages of lore (although even games with plenty of lore use this minimalist approach to great effect – see the Dark Souls series).
Unfortunately – and this may be why we don’t usually see this kind of game in the AAA titles – the agency of the player to look around on their own can remove some of the writers’ control over what they do show. Take a first-person shooter: without dialogue to convey emotion, the information in a character’s facial expression is all for naught if the player isn’t looking at the character.
Because of this, the kinds of games that we see taking the entirely wordless approach tend to be more retro-inspired, with simpler gameplay. Hyper Light Drifter isn’t the most complicated, but it is a more detailed action-adventure than most, and has suffered in certain reviews for its lack of explanation. It may be able to cross the language barrier, but the game might be a bit too complicated to be explained with showing alone.
On the whole, the idea of these wordless games harkens back to a simpler time where video games didn’t have to use a traditional story. Depending on the kind of game you are making (for example, a statistics- and lore-heavy RPG), cutting all the language out of your game is not always suitable. But if your mechanics are easily explained through play rather than a page of text, a game might do better without words.