Abstract vs. Concrete: Storytelling in Games

Nothing gets me like a good story. Undertale tore me up. To The Moon made me cry. Mass Effect made me feel like I was a part of a beautiful and terrifying universe. Journey was true to its name. One of these is not like the others, though. Undertale had pithy dialogue, To The Moon was a flashback in game format, and Mass…

Nothing gets me like a good story. Undertale tore me up. To The Moon made me cry. Mass Effect made me feel like I was a part of a beautiful and terrifying universe. Journey was true to its name.

One of these is not like the others, though. Undertale had pithy dialogue, To The Moon was a flashback in game format, and Mass Effect had as many lore entries as a D&D guidebook on steroids. Journey was a wordless, textless adventure that truly captivated without having to say a damn thing. How did it work? Why did it work?

Abstract (not like the academic kind)

The answer to these questions lies in the concept of abstract storytelling: making the player try to figure out what’s going on. Notice how I didn’t mention anything about the presence (or absence) of text. Wordless movie montages (or even entirely wordless movies) further their plot in concrete ways without spoken language. Yes, Rocky’s getting stronger, we get it. The first Donkey Kong has a completely unambiguous story, in spite of the fact that there’s no text. (I’d have used Mario or Zelda as examples, but we’ve got “It’s dangerous to go alone” and “Your princess is in another castle” to help us understand the subtle intricacies of their plots.)

Ah, yes, here we have an example of the Kantian philosophy, which edifies the protagonist through internal struggle. Astonishingly profound.

Likewise, games like Fez have text, but the realization of the depth and breadth of the world is shown to the player through exploration. “What’s happening?” is a frequently asked question in abstract games or also what are the skill based casino games?. Hyper Light Drifter capitalizes on that disorientation to make the player decide for themselves what’s going on. It might not even have a predetermined plot at all! Who knows?  Abstract games give clues and pointers, but never say outright the events of the past, present, or future. Online games give you the best opportunity of get a lot of fun from your home and even make money, you can get more info about this at https://www.newcasinos.com.au.

Concrete (not like the construction kind)

Concrete games, on the other hand, have no problem giving up the goods. We all remember in Ocarina of Time how Zelda explains with painstaking slowness the origin of the universe, which is backed up by the Deku Tree’s monologue basically outlining the fact that Ganondorf screwed everything up, and that racism is O.K.!

…and then I told him, “You take yourself and those filthy desert people and go back to Gerudo Valley, y’hear?” 

Storytelling of this kind can happen through the crappy monologues, but it can also happen in lore entries like in Mass Effect or books in Skyrim. It can happen through dialogue or flashbacks. It can happen through the discovery of hidden Easter eggs, like Bioshock or Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s audio files. Or, it can happen via internal monologues, like the next two games I’m going to talk about!

The Penn and Teller of Metroid Games

Surprise surprise, Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion are two perfect examples to illustrate what I’m talking about. Who’d have guessed that I’d pick these?

The entirety of the text of Super Metroid begins with “The last Metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.” The rest of it details the previous two games, as well as giving a brief prelude to the action that’s about to take place. But that’s it in terms of text! You would expect, given the nature of how there’s no dialogue in the game, that this would be firmly in the abstract category.

You’d be wrong, though. Everything in the (albeit minimal) story is quite plain, even without the aid of explanation. Upon beating the fourth boss, you come across the now shattered container that once housed wittle Samus Jr., the last Metroid. Okay, so maybe we don’t quite know all the details, but the baddies had the Metroid, and now they don’t. When we venture into Mother Brain’s HQ, we are greeted by a giant Metroid, who almost kills Samus, but doesn’t. It rather sheepishly flies away, only to return and save Samus’ life, presumably because it recognized our favorite bounty hunter from when it was a baby. It sacrifices itself in the process. Whoops, spoilers.

All of this is pretty much concrete. It doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, and has a solid, unambiguous narrative. If you’re still on board with me at this point, you’ll agree that viewing Super Metroid this way makes Fusion seem all the more ridiculous. All the internal monologues giving backstory about Samus’ relationship with her now-A.I. CO. All the “assignment briefings” that basically tell you what you’ve done and what you’re going to do next. When placed squarely next to Super Metroid, it doesn’t seem necessary to do all that hand-holding, especially since the devs clearly understood textless context clues (like the bones of a parasitically devoured boss, or the molted exoskeletons of distressingly large Metroid larvae).

The Takeaway

Whether a game tells a story abstractly or concretely isn’t a judgment about its quality. “I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel” might not be the best example, but the dialogue and lore in Mass Effect was tremendous! The equally prolix Ocarina of Time tends to fall short of storytelling excellency. Hyper Light Drifter is the strong, silent type, but sports a beautifully free-form story. Games like Proteus sport abstract non-stories that pretend to be deep, but aren’t.

Still others mix the two. Ori and the Blind ForestAxiom Verge, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons all have elements that clearly explain plot points, but others that deepen mysteries and give the sense of an incomplete picture that must be filled in by imagination.

There are tons of ways to tell a good story, and many good stories left to be told. They should make you feel like you’ve gone somewhere, done something. They should make you feel different than when you started. Whether devs do that with or without words, abstractly or concretely, is up to them. If it’s done well, players will feel it, even if they don’t quite know what they’re feeling.

Heaven knows, when I play a good game, I feel it. Like I said at the beginning: nothing gets me like a good story.