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Art design and game mechanics can tell better stories than dialogue, say developers

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Video games can deliver strong narratives without packing on explanatory dialogue, instead placing cues in art design and presenting players with an array of decisions to create compelling, immersive stories.

Author and designer Austin Grossman said that Space Invaders is an example of successful narrative design without dialogue because the other elements of the game carry the weight of the narrative.

"It's a tiny brilliant package of narrative design. The words ‘Space Invaders' do the entire job of narrative exposition," he said. "You know where you are and what you're doing, and the rest is just an heroic, tragic destiny. There's also the audio, the Jaws-like pulse of it. That brings you through a story without having to talk at you."

Arkane Studios' Ricardo Bare said that FTL: Faster Than Light is good example of a modern game that achieves the same goal.

"The developers give you this really compelling and strong concept: ‘I'm in space, I'm on a desperate mission,'" he explained. "A lot of the storytelling that happens is in the players' control, they have the agency. Every time you play FTL it's a little bit different. That's a great kind of narrative design, when you put mechanics in the players' hands that enable this dynamic story creation."

"A game like FTL in which the narrative is dictated by the player experience, in my experience, creates a stronger story."

"A game like FTL in which the narrative is dictated by the player experience, in my experience, creates a stronger story," said Chris Avellone, director at Obsidian Entertainment.

Game mechanics can tell a story, or a different version of the same story, allowing players to discover and interpret for themselves. On the subject of thatgamecompany's Journey, however, Clara Fernandez-Vara, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, the acclaimed indie title felt like the developers didn't successfully convey what the world was.

"The world feels like Super Mario: it feels like a lot of it is there for you, but it hasn't been there long," she said. She said that because of this lack of world stability, Journey does not have narrative design.

"There's different kind of narrative design in Journey," said Harmonix's Matthew Weise. "There's the world and the backstory, which is debatable, but then you have just the story of the characters' relationship. You keep getting paired with other people and you can't talk with them which means you have to communicate through nonverbal means, and everything you try to do is more meaningful."

Bare said that level designers can build environments that can instantly infer stories with props and placement of objects. Working with a game architecture to create cues like dirty textures and barricaded structures can also convey an area's backstory, removing the need for exposition dialogue.

So does language have any business in games? Grossman said that words and voiceovers are "anti-designed," an "inevitably canned" source that arises from what developers want you to experience, preventing players from crafting their own experience.

Grossman, who moderated the panel, has written for several video games over the past 20 years, including 1994's System Shock, the original Deus Ex and last year's Dishonored. He is also the author of two books: superhero fiction novel Soon I Will Be Invincible and YOU, another work of fiction with focus on the video game industry.