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Filling in the blanks: Inferred narrative in small games

8:00 PM on 05.14.2011 // Tubatic

[Community member Tubatic compares games big and small to find out how much of a game's story should be left up to our imagination. Which camp do you fall into? Let us know in the comments! Want to see your own writing on the front page? Write something awesome and put it in the C Blogs -- Kauza]

At the encouragement of a few outlets over the past few weeks, I finally came around to trying out The Wager by Surprised Man. This game was created as part of this excellent 48hour game dev jam event called Ludlum Dare and, like most games that come out of the event, there's some brilliant design rattling around in this hastily put together frame. In short, I'm lovin' it. As I'm working clumsily on realizing my own game designing aspirations, the game got me thinking about story, choice and leaving things up to the imagination.

And to be direct, games leave less and less up to the imagination than they ever have. Take Final Fantasy XIII. When I watch those characters emote and narrate, I'm seeing the full realization of several professional people working to make the world of that game look as real and uncanny as possible. I see the pain on Sazh's face and a feel the fear in and tremble in Vanille's voice. Its exactly the picture that the team wanted to express, for better or worse. I'm seeing their vision. 

Conversely, I'm imprinting less of myself onto that work. Its a similar argument some have made about books compared to their movie adaptations. Aside from cuts made for time or feasibility, the world we see on screen, especially if we've read the book prior, may be markedly different from that realm we crafted in our heads, and by default, less personal.

As I watch Polom and Porom resolve to rescue their teammates in the original Final Fantasy II for North American release on the Super Nintendo, I'm seeing sprites bouncy and glimmer, expressing something for me to understand. I can't see the kid's faces, but the gravity of the moment isn't lost on me. The excitement and emotion I'm meant to feel comes from my own experiences and understanding. 

In that thought, we find one of gaming's forgotten arts. Nostalgia's one thing, but this is different. Retro goggles are a convenient excuse for loving those old school classics, but considering that games are still able to tap that unlabored headspace, maybe that's not all we're experiencing as we remember the old games. Like the indie devs of today, developers of the by gone bit era don't have the resources to show you the wrinkles in their character's eyes. However, they can leave some of the work up to you. 

In The Wager, the player travels the world in search of fortunes, spending time primarily in an overworld map navigating to hidden islands. When a new island is found, the user is shown a text screen that deals out details about the island and its value. Randomly, the user will find tribes of natives or some harrowing event that requires the player's luck or input to resolves. Simple choices are played out with sometimes dire results for your faceless but well named crew. Dangerous Tom, I hardly knew ye! 

Your crew are represented merely as names and ranks on screen, but, if you allow even the smallest inch of investment into the game world, you easily create a handful of inferences about this team of yours. Perhaps that one sailor that got promoted is looked upto as a senior member of the team. Maybe he's gruff and self assured. Maybe that encounter with the ship's parrot reveals a flawed seriousness in his character. And after 6 months at sea, what are these random swabbies like? 

That's all on you. The Wager remains content to let you infer all those details, or ignore them. As a result, the story becomes personal, because there's no other choice! With the user filling in the details, and with the game providing this larger operational framework, you draw a picture of this story as you, as if you've read it. Its purely simple, but actually effective! 

We see this technique purposefully applied by the works of Brandon Chung at Blendo Games. Through a handful of quirky story vignettes and charming illustrations, a simple game like Flotilla tells a story of a dying ship captain, several times over. Random missions, scant details and expressive style help the player build the world around the game that's actually there. What would take artists, directors and programmers years to craft and show, the player is building in seconds. You don't need million dollar art teams and graphics programmers when you can ignite the imagination of the player! 

When I see these games come out and craft stories and worlds so effectively, I become very hopeful for my own chances as a developer. As drop dead gorgeous as professionally made games have become, these small bite indie efforts are harnessing the mental capacity of their players to fill in for their smaller dev teams. While realistically neither is a replacement for the other, its heartening to realize that techniques can overcome the realities of independent limitations. 

What are you thinking D-Toid? How effect is this sort of narrative on you? Do you see these concepts as characters and detailed events, or are these cave drawing techniques wholly ineffective for you?

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