Why Do Video Games Need Words?

Earlier this year, Mason Lindroth released a trailer for Hylics 2, the sequel to his 2015 psychedelic claymation RPG Hylics. For those who are unfamiliar with Hylics, Lindroth’s plasticine people have a lot to say about how games should be made. Amongst other things, Hylics satirizes the level-based progression systems and tedious monetary systems which are recurrent in the RPG genre. However, most interesting of all is Hylics‘ highly subversive take on how language is used in video games.

In Hylics, much of the NPC dialogue is randomly generated. This means that in the player’s efforts to work out how to proceed (Hylics is as obtuse as games come), much of the advice they have to turn to is unadulterated nonsense.

In my own experience, an NPC with a head like an upturned roast chicken told me the following: “LUXURIOUSLY I DEBASE OUR ENGINE OR I HARK OUR SPIRIT. LIKE A-APPAREL-MIRROR.”

I’ve seen people dismiss this “word salad” as a mere novelty; an attempt to add to the game’s already indulgent insanity. And while it certainly manages to do that, I believe that Hylics‘ dialogue is far more instructive than it appears. Crucially, Hylics‘ language teaches us not to rely on language—its dialogue is deliberately unhelpful—and as though removing stabilizers from a bicycle, Lindroth shows us that much of the time we can do well enough without it, both narratively and mechanically. Hylics is puzzling, and remains so to the end, but it can be conquered through persistent exploration and experimentation.

Of course, there are a number of video games which have foregone using words entirely. Heart Machine’s 2016 release Hyper Light Drifter comes most vividly to mind as a game which, not in spite of but in part because of its abstinence from words, gave me one of the most emotionally potent experiences I’ve had in a game: the story of an enigmatic ‘Drifter’ who journeys through a post-apocalyptic world to end a scourge of frog-monsters, crystal monsters, robo-monsters and more, and to find a cure for his mysterious illness (a clear analogue to developer Alex Preston’s own heart condition).

The Drifter’s illness is never introduced through dialogue; it’s conveyed far more viscerally through visual distortions, and The Drifter’s fits of bloody coughing. Likewise, the importance of The Drifter’s quest isn’t related to us by his proclaiming that “this is really important” or that he “must complete his quest, whatever the cost.” It’s sufficiently clear by the way he struggles forward, even while discharging significant amounts of blood.

As for Hyper Light Drifter‘s other characters, their plights are narrated through series of images which appear when interacting with certain characters, and relay a brief account of how the area came to be infested with various kinds of pixel-terrorists. These often include images of the bosses we should be pursuing. Not unlike Hylics, the rest of the NPCs will elicit, at most, a kind of distorted hum when prodded, which lends a sense of intrigue to the world, and invites the player to engage more intimately with the game to satisfy their curiosity. The rest of the game works more or less intuitively, as you open doors and fight enemies, while pursuing triangular shards which allow you to progress through the game.

An impressive moment of player guidance occurs near the beginning of Hyper Light Drifter, when the player emerges from their house to find a dog running in the direction of one of the game’s early levels, which the player will instinctively follow. There’s no doubt that Hyper Light Drifter owes a lot to The Legend of Zelda, but it’s worth considering that, were this a Zelda game, the dog would probably pop up with some abrasive sound effect and simply command you in the right direction.

It will likely be objected that this sort of minimalism is only appropriate to certain genres, namely indie “art” games; after all, what works for Hyper Light Drifter and Journey doesn’t necessarily work for Uncharted or The Witcher. However, I don’t find this persuasive, because the latter games were designed to incorporate dialogue. Suppose I said that “video games don’t need virtual reality,” a statement which most people would probably agree with. It wouldn’t be an effective rebuttal to this statement if someone cited a game made especially for the HTC Vive, and said, “this game requires virtual reality.”

I’m certainly not suggesting that we take existing games-with-words and merely subtract the words. I’m suggesting a thorough reappraisal of why, when, and whether a game needs them. Likewise, I’m not suggesting we have long silent cutscenes of characters shaking their heads at one another: I’m suggesting fewer cutscenes.

Consider this scene from last year’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by Ninja Theory. Senua, our heroine, opens a door on her journey to Hel to save her lover Dillion, and is suddenly overwhelmed by darkness.

“It’s dark. The darkness!” a voice says.

Now, I want to briefly make clear that Hellblade is an excellent game, and, ironically, one which manages to use language in some interesting ways to guide you through puzzles and enemy encounters. However, I find it baffling how common these instances of verbal excess are throughout the game. In Hellblade, every moment of self-doubt for Senua is accompanied by a chorus of voices telling her to doubt herself; at every dangerous encounter we are reminded that this is a very dangerous encounter.

Hellblade is a particularly unfortunate case as the game has so much success in conveying Senua’s psychosis visually, both through actress Melina Juergens’ motion-captured facial expressions, and through the game’s various illusions and flashbacks. In fact, Hellblade is a rare case which I honestly think would be improved if the words were stripped altogether, even with no other changes made.

By now, I believe we’ve established that there are viable alternatives to using words in video games. However, the question could still be asked, “why not use words?” or, in other words, “is something bad because it’s unnecessary?” My short answer to this question is “yes,” and there are two reasons why.

Firstly, words are less immersive: more often than not, they explain what would otherwise be felt. Dark Souls is a series which has thrived on experience rather than explanation—it evokes danger, for instance, through genuine mechanical difficulty as opposed to Hellblade‘s melodrama—and it has inspired a host of other games to create similar kinds of experiences, Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight being a recent favorite. In these games, because so little is explained to the player, they’re encouraged to engage with the world in a way which is more exploratory and experimental. In Hollow Knight, we are told nothing explicit about the Mantis Lords which reside at the bottom of the Fungal Wastes. However, everything we need to know is conveyed through environmental details: the broken throne of the fourth Mantis Lord hints at the later “Traitor Lord” boss, and the corpse pile at the border between the Mantis’ home and the terrifying Deepnest tells us why we have to fight them: the Lords are trying to protect their tribe.

When a game explains itself verbally, words can become a crutch, and they make players, myself included, far too lazy.

Secondly, redundancy in art is inherently bad. A great piece of art should be no longer, no larger, and no more crowded than it needs to be. I don’t accept that words in video games can be both unnecessary and harmless at the same time. They are often unnecessary.

As a final note, I want to clarify that I do not believe the inclusion of words in a video game to be inherently bad. Of course, many of the games I’ve praised do include some words, though I do believe that most of them could’ve had far fewer. Above all, I want to encourage a change in attitude towards words in video games. To include words should be a very deliberate artistic decision made by the developer, and I believe that too often the reason for doing so has been something like “video games include words, so our video game will include words.” In my experience, a minimalist approach to words in video games has almost always produced the richest, and most rewarding adventures.

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