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Why We Suck at Subtext and How We Can Fix It
by David Kuelz on 05/13/14 02:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


               Many of you, like me, have ‘cultured’ friends, i.e. friends who look at you like you have mustard in the corner of your mouth when you mention that your job is artistic.  As a writer my friends are mostly storytellers, so when I argue with them it tends to be about the validity of the stories we tell in the game industry.  And yes, many of our most well-known titles care less about a character’s emotional arc than her cup size, but I’d like to think that the sheer number of successful story-based games is putting a dent in our reputation.  I’d like to think that titles such as Dragon Age: Origins or Bioshock Infinite are putting us on the same level as other media, but when I have my friends play said games, they come back to me with “it was good, but it was missing something”.

               And the suckiest thing: I agree.  When compared to pieces like Ordinary People and Caroline or Change, the problem I think game writers and narrative designers are really facing down is that we’re still, by and large, missing something; we’re missing something that makes us go glossy and awestruck, that shows us parts of ourselves without revealing the path of how we got there, underlining the great truth that we are too complicated to ever be completely understood.  

              We’re missing subtext.  And there’s a really good reason why.  Gameplay and subtext just plain don’t get along.

               For those of you who don’t deal with story on a regular basis, ‘subtext’ is defined by the Webster dictionary as “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text)”.  Essentially, in literature, subtext works as the ‘theme’ of the book, an undercurrent of meaning that flows throughout the entire story.

               But what makes subtext ‘subtext’ and not just a theme is that subtext is never actually communicated.  It isn’t in the text, it’s beneath it, lurking, evanescent and murky.  A book that uses subtext very effectively is Ordinary People.  The book never actively discusses why Beth doesn’t grieve the death of her older son or why she’s so cold to Conrad.  It never tells you why Calvin decides to confront her in the climax.  It gives you hints, but it never objectively explains anything.  You watch the family interact, evolve, and, eventually, spoiler alert, fall apart, and then you draw your own conclusions.

               How do writers do that?  How do we say something without saying it?

               Well, it never gets less tricky, but the key for me was when I discovered that subtext isn’t about the things the characters do.  What the characters do is the plot.  Subtext is about the things that characters don’t do, either because they can’t, won’t, or it doesn’t occur to them to try.  Ordinary People isn’t about what Beth does, it’s about what she doesn’t do.  The second that the subtext is directly addressed by the characters’ actions it loses its allure, and therefore its power.

               And thus the problem with subtext and gameplay: gameplay is characters doing things.  The alternative “press ‘A’ to sit on a couch, watch TV, and give up on your dreams” approach would involve some interesting mechanics, but I suspect EA wouldn’t go for it.  Gameplay about characters not doing things isn’t going to work out, which also means that we can’t have any subtext in our gameplay or it will cease to be subtext.

               …So what now?  We want to tell as much of the story through our gameplay as possible -we don’t want to bog down our games with bloated cutscenes- but one of our most crucial tools for making an impact on our player won’t survive the transplant from text to mechanics.  What do we do?

               Well, the best thing gameplay can do to help tell our story (at least in my experience) is give us insight into the main character.  The gameplay is how that character chooses to get what they want, and that choice reveals how they think about the world and how they think about themselves.

               Considering that subtext is about the things our characters don’t do, I’ve come to the conclusion that our best opportunity to create subtext is to put it, not into the gameplay itself, but into the limits of the gameplay.

               The most potent, most recent examples that I can think of are The Last of Us and Papers Please.  In The Last of Us you don’t have the option to try and talk to any of the many, many people you kill.  The option of negotiation isn’t even a part of the gameplay because it wouldn’t occur to Joel.  Or maybe it does occur to him, but he doesn’t think it will work.  Or maybe he just doesn’t want to.  Because we never directly address negotiation as possible we never find out exactly how Joel thinks, and therefore it works as subtext, giving us just enough ambiguity that we’ll dwell on it.  If negotiating was possible, and we tried it, and it didn’t work, then the story as a whole would be less chilling.  The fact that Joel kills first and asks questions later helps us make an impact on the player.  The story works better when the option of peace goes unaddressed.

               Papers Please works, in part, because of how few options you have.  Sure, you can accept or deny people, interrogate them about discrepancies, and decide how to spend your meager wages, but you have very little say in what really matters.  Out of all the different options you have in Arstotzka, the options you don’t have are the ones that struck me the most.

               In order to make use of subtext, we need to straddle the fine line of making an alternative to the gameplay visible to our player, but inaccessible because the character we’re playing would never go through with it.  Imagine an RTS where an enemy is invading a small island you own simply because they need the food on it to survive.  Imagine that the option of giving it to them or negotiating a trade was never discussed and you moved right into warfare.  I think you’d have some pretty interesting subtext about politics.  Imagine an FPS with a much safer, easier route through the level that is much more beneficial to all of the NPCs in the story, but is inaccessible to the player because our avatar’s sole objective is to kill his nemesis, the level boss.  I think, when I turned the game off, I would have a long hard think about revenge.

               It’s a common saying that we are defined not by our thoughts, but the actions we take.  I think that, just maybe, the next step in the evolution in our storytelling is to start defining our characters by the actions they don’t take, and if we look not at the mechanics but rather where the mechanics end, we can do it where we’re the strongest: our gameplay.


David Kuelz is a freelance writer and narrative designer based in New York City.  If you like what he had to say, he has free monthly newsletter with tips and resources that you can sign up for here.

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Greg Scheel
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I am going to have to reflect on how to use this, but you have given me the key I need to convey the meaning of one of the games I am working on.

Cyberpunk, and all good science fiction, are stories about the human condition told through a technology perspective, yet most science fiction games are just high tech shoot 'em ups.

Very insightful.

Michael Joseph
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Thanks for this topic. I think you are right that the lack of intelligent subtext in game stories is one significant reason why non gamers don't take games very seriously.

I think intelligent subtext

1) Requires the writer start with a respect for the intelligence of the audience. I don't think it's case of video games and subtext not getting along, it's that the video game world so far really hasn't had to care about subtext or intelligent multilayered stories. Most games subtext comes in the form of archetypes and stereotypes... subtext for the masses. Apparently the player CAN be trusted when it comes to figuring out what the writers/designers are suggesting in those cases.

2) Requires the subtext be the real meat of the story. The original Godzilla and King Kong films were loaded with subtext. Planet of the Apes is another good scifi example. It's fun to rewatch certain films as an adult and discover that we understand them more fully... that there was more that the author put there to be understood all along. In these stories, the characters are often tools of the author for creating the subtext. In other words, the subtext comes first and the characters are often reverse engineered to serve it.

3) Does not require an outwardly complex story, just complex characters and situations that characters must contend with. "Prometheus"and "Inception" aren't heavy on subtext. They are heavy on exposition and trying desperately to be epic. Any film by Stanley Kubrick from (1962 on at least) is a great place to start looking for examples of films heavy in subtext. It's part of why his films hold up so well over time.

Subtext comes from having something worthwhile to say. Non gamers like the late Roger Ebert didn't take games seriously because games haven't had much important to say about anything.

"Papers Please" is one of a few really good examples of games that have something to say. A game like "Papers Please" obviously starts from there. It does not start from "I want to make visceral, addictive, fun!" As for "Bioshock Infinite" I think it's story is a disaster. If you want to sell massive quantities of addictive fun then you've already committed to compromising your goal of crafting a story full of subtext. Better off just keeping the narrative simple (doesn't mean the characters have to be cardboard), maybe throw in a twist ending, and nailing the executing of the character design, dialogue, world design and aesthetics. Do what Valve does. Focus on selling the world, the characters and the encounters.

But for some reason certain designers want to take big budget first person SHOOTERS to some unattainable level of Citizen Kane-esque greatness...