What The Silent Storytelling principle is

“The silent storytelling principle is where you unravel the story of the game through your actions rather than someone explain it to you.”

In today’s episode of Good Game Design we’ll look at the silent storytelling principle. Most games have a story of some sort but there are different ways for a game to tell it. Some do this through cut scenes or dialogue boxes, while others take a more organic approach through gameplay. The silent storytelling principle is where you unravel the story of the game through your actions rather than someone explain it to you.

A good example that comes to mind is Shadow of the Colossus. The short introduction in this game shows you bringing your dead girlfriend to this ancient temple to try and bring her life to life. Then some omniscient voice that calls itself Dormin tells you it might be possible if you kill a bunch of colossi. That’s it. You don’t get a lot of story in the beginning. Instead the true story of the Colossus story is revealed in the small details. When you kill your first Colossus these creepy black tendrils shoot into Wander’s body. That doesn’t seem normal. Then when you go back to the temple the voice just tells you to go slay more colossi. Eventually you might start speculating why he wants you to kill them in the first place. They don’t seem to be bothering anyone and they don’t even pay attention to you until you start shooting them with arrows or attacking them. “You stop it!” You start to wonder if maybe you’re the bad guys after all you’re just doing the bidding of some villainous identity.

This is amplified by the fact that Wander slowly transforms over the course of the game, turning more pale and evil looking as tendrils continuously enter his body. This isn’t told to you explicitly, you just start to form these thoughts as you destroy Colossus after Colossus. The ending confirms your suspicions. As it turns out you were never able to bring your girlfriend back to life, but instead you’ve made in possible for Dormin to be resurrected using your body as its vessel. It’s surprisingly in depth for what little story is actually told through cut scenes. Most of the story is felt as the player’s uncertainty keeps sneaking up on them while Wander slays innocent beasts.

A more recent game that has blown me away with its silent storytelling is the indie exploration game Gone Home. It’s an extremely story-driven game, so I want to be sure to warn you about spoilers before we proceed. Most of what you’ll learn about the story in Gone Home isn’t stated it’s discovered. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar returning home from college to your family’s house in Arbor Hill, Oregon in 1995. You find this out by seeing your name on your bags and by the answering machine message that plays at the opening of the game. The first thing you see is a note from your sister Sam on the front door that says not to go looking for answers as to why she was gone. The front door is locked but you can find the key if you search around the front porch area and find it hidden in a duck figurine. This teaches you that you might need to explore each room thoroughly in order to progress and find out what happened to your sister.

Little do you know that you’ll soon discover information on the other members of your family as well by analysis and deduction. One of the first things you’ll see as you enter the house is the family portrait on the wall and the main lobby. You’re a family of 4, mom, dad, Sam, and yourself. As the player you know nothing about these characters but you’ll learn their entire story just by finding things in your house. Let’s start with the mother, Jan. In the front closet you’ll find a name badge that belongs to her from the forestry service saying she’s a senior conservationist. You’ll also find a note near the beginning from a friend of your mom’s wanting to hear about the new house they moved into. You realized they didn’t always live here, this was a recent move.

A more recent game that has blown me away with its silent storytelling is the indie exploration game Gone Home. It’s an extremely story-driven game, so I want to be sure to warn you about spoilers before we proceed. Most of what you’ll learn about the story in Gone Home isn’t stated it’s discovered. You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar returning home from college to your family’s house in Arbor Hill, Oregon in 1995. You find this out by seeing your name on your bags and by the answering machine message that plays at the opening of the game. The first thing you see is a note from your sister Sam on the front door that says not to go looking for answers as to why she was gone. The front door is locked but you can find the key if you search around the front porch area and find it hidden in a duck figurine. This teaches you that you might need to explore each room thoroughly in order to progress and find out what happened to your sister.

Little do you know that you’ll soon discover information on the other members of your family as well by analysis and deduction. One of the first things you’ll see as you enter the house is the family portrait on the wall and the main lobby. You’re a family of 4, mom, dad, Sam, and yourself. As the player you know nothing about these characters but you’ll learn their entire story just by finding things in your house. Let’s start with the mother, Jan. In the front closet you’ll find a name badge that belongs to her from the forestry service saying she’s a senior conservationist. You’ll also find a note near the beginning from a friend of your mom’s wanting to hear about the new house they moved into. You realized they didn’t always live here, this was a recent move.

In the next room over, you find out by a newspaper clipping that the house actually belong to your great uncle who passed away, but your family inherited it and moved in while Kaitlin was away at college. You can see by the postcard she sends home that she thinks it’s weird writing a new address for her family. Eventually you’ll find a memo about a promotion for your mother as well as an invitation to a concert from her new male coworker. Another letter by the same friend from earlier urges Jan to spill the juicy details about her new boyfriend. While it turns out it was fairly innocent there are clues that an affair may have crossed her mind at some point, but before you jump to any conclusions about the mom lets talk about Terry, the father.

By entering the library you can see Terry’s workstation, he’s a writer. There’s a cork board full of ideas and ramblings about JFK and conspiracy theories. At first I thought he was just nutty, but it turns out he wrote a successful book about the subject and is working on the sequel. Some of the notes in the middle imply he wasn’t happy with the results of his work saying he could do better. Other letters in the library explained that the company he was writing for wanted to drop him because of his shoddy workmanship he submitted recently. To pay the bills he does small reviews of electronics for a magazine, evident by the letters and receipt for the TV in the living room. It would seem he is spinning his wheel, not sure how to get his career off the ground. Near the end of the game you discover a letter in the basement from his father reflecting on his book saying he could do better, the same quote that’s on the cork board. This sort of ties the piece together. He overworked himself in an attempt to please his father, but this lead to writer’s block which in turn lead to an unhappy marriage as he was consumed with his work.

Again, this is all deduced by items you pick up around the house, it was never told to you plainly. Finally, let’s talk about the sister, Sam. I haven’t mentioned yet that this game actually does have narration. When you find special items in the house and pick them up it will trigger various diary entries from Sam written to you, Kaitlin. This is regular storytelling but you find out a lot more about Sam just by examining things around the house. For example, Sam’s narration explain that she wasn’t fitting in at school but you actually feel her pain when you read the crinkled up note in the garbage about a kid making fun of her calling her the psycho house girl. Apparently there were some rumors about the house being haunted because of your uncle’s death. He wasn’t seen much outside of his home near the end. Her diary tells you that she finally found the girl who became her friend named Lonnie, but this evidence is clear from the notes and mix-tapes lying around the house.

It’s soon revealed that Lonnie and Sam developed feelings for each other and start a relationship, which is hard for Sam to deal with because of these new feelings but also because of her religious family. At least you can assume they are Christian by finding several bibles on the bookshelf in the main lobby. What I didn’t expect was the supernatural undertones present in Gone Home. The overall game feel is already spooky with the lightning storm outside and the eerie silence and darkness this massive house provides. The creepy theme is first alluded to by a book found in the living room under a pillow fort. You could assume this was Sam and Lonnie’s doing having a sleep over and reading about ghosts and hauntings. Sam tells you through her diary about how they dug into your uncle’s past and thinks he’s haunting the house, but I really understood that when I found the note they made hidden in the wall panel. They used a Ouija board to talk to Oscar and he said he wanted to come back, but they stopped when they got too scared. It gave me chills. I was scared too after that, especially when I saw the attic with glowing red lights locked in the upper hallway.

Perhaps the most disturbing discovery is when you find a sacrificial ceremony in the closet to bring Oscar back to life and the key to the attic. I didn’t want to go up there. Who knows what I would find? If you do have the guts to enter the attic you’ll find the last entry in the diary. It explains that Lonnie was going into the army but couldn’t go through with it and wanted Sam to meet her in Salem so they could run away together. That’s why your sister was gone. It’s a beautiful elaborate story that melds narration and silent storytelling perfectly into a rich tale that just left me sitting there taking it all in afterward as the credits rolled. You don’t interact with any people at all, but you feel the pain of each character as you discover what they were going through.

In most good game design episodes I have the principle I want to talk about first and then try to find examples in a video game, but when I played Gone Home, it inspired this whole episode. That being said I’m sure there are a lot of games out there that do a good job telling you details about a story silently.

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