First question is “When are words?” Are they the first thing you see or not?
Consider the first Zelda game. You’re just plopped somewhere with three directions and a cave after an opening cut scene telling you to find the triforce pieces but not telling you how. You are only spoken to if you enter caves, holes in the ground or certain rooms in dungeons. You don’t even get to read what’s written in the letter a hole-dweller asks you to deliver.
Words are only accessed by interacting, spatially, with your environment. They help to connect dots but the words themselves are not relied upon to convey a narrative. The opening text-crawl did as much of that as the game needed. In fact, if the narrative was “opened” by the text crawl, does it have any closure? There is more dialogue to read upon defeating Ganon and rescuing Zelda, but how much of your time spent playing was actually spent reading? If the text crawl opened the narrative, the rest of the narrative must necessarily be visual and procedural as you play.
Why must it? Because the gameplay will necessarily make up the majority of your experience with the narrative, and the only text that could possibly follow up on the opening text crawl (however loosely) can only be accessed through playing. Any Westerner who has played the first Zelda game, though, knows that the translations were famously obtuse. “Master using it and…” etc. So, for myself and many other Westerners in the early nineties, even the in-game text we would discover required a little bit of interpretation even after unlocking it through gameplay.
1986’s The Legend of Zelda, in my opinion, embodies the principle of an open world game. Nearly every detail of “how” you progress through the game needs to be deduced by the player, and the game only allows you to deduce by exploring and experimenting with different ways to interact with beings, objects and places. The only way to progress is to look for possibilities and test them.
What would explicit direction add to this? What does direction even look like? When you put in Sonic, it’s obvious just from the gameplay that you are expected to run to the right as fast as possible. Final Fantasy VII has dialogue. Lara Croft has a voice over explaining what specific buttons do.
If all this is still a little esoteric, ask yourself: should a game tell a story? If so, should it use the same narrative devices as a novel or a film? If not, what does the player’s experience consist of?
A video game might tell a story without requiring narrative structuring to make sense. Metroid II: Return of Samus and Bloodborne communicate the bulk of their stories through visual and circumstantial storytelling. The player sees things and is put in situations that reveal the story by implication. This means that the gameplay and the graphics do most of the work with storytelling.
If you know that the story will be told without words, that means you can use the words the player does hear and read with more freedom, since it is not their job to tell you the “important parts” of what’s going on. If the core story is relayed through gameplay experience, you can even have the diegetic text and speech contrast with the gameplay or supplement it. In Bloodborne, most non-player characters are completely incapable of understanding what’s going on around them for themselves, let alone helping you out.
Of course, the first Dark Souls game used similar storytelling years before Bloodborne, leading a YouTuber called RagnarRox to call the game “Zelda for grownups.” This was not meant to imply that Zelda was childlike- simply that Dark Souls built upon 1986’s LoZ implementation of open world and non-linear story-telling. No one tells you what to do in a Soulsborne game: it is up to you to experiment and figure it out, and most of the time if an NPC has something useful to say the meaning will not be literal or direct.
Another way to use words in a game that does not rely on them to do all of the work of storytelling, is to use their placement to determine their meaning. The majority of words in the first Zelda game is in the opening text-crawl. Words give you a naked premise and almost everything else that follows up on that premise is gameplay, meaning the interpretation of the player is needed for it to make narrative sense. It’s not that the words are “wrong”: it is that they are part of a bigger whole that involves things that are not words.
The Silent Hill games use this strategy often. The majority of Silent Hill characters do not know how the magic of the town works or what is going on: all they know are their own experiences. In Silent Hill 2, regarded by many as the most successful in the series, NPC’s are used in a way that’s even less useful to the player than the NPC’s in Bloodborne. James Sunderland, SH2’s main character, runs into a few different people, none of whom seem nearly as aware of the mysterious danger of the town as him. Each character has their own mutually exclusive set of concerns and separate reactions to the magic of the town.
The behavior that reveals that the other characters are not experiencing the same thing as James also usually put him at risk, such as getting locked in a room with a monster by both Laura and Angela. Neither one seem to know that James could die as a result of their actions and the monster that Angela leaves James with even has a name that speaks to its importance for her and it’s mystery to James: Abstract Daddy. To whom is the Daddy Abstract? To James, at least. Angela was yelling about “daddy” just before the fight. This tells us that every outsider who enters Silent Hill sees something with unique importance to them. The specific content of what the NPC’s say does not reveal as much as the patterns of their stories: each one is personal and traumatizing. Except for Mary which, along with Pyramid Head, reveals how the town is creating the personal, isolating hell of James like it does for everyone else.
So far, though, I’ve spent a lot of time taking about how the relationship between words and experience can inform storytelling. As a fiction writer, I can’t help but be biased in that direction. What I have not discussed, though, are video games where storytelling is either peripheral or nonexistent.
Some of my favorite memories of the PS1 involve a development studio called Artdink. In particular, two games that they created: Tail of the Sun and Aquanaut’s Holiday. Those were the very first open world games I ever played. In Aquanaut’s Holiday, the only thing there was to do was explore the ocean floor and attempt to communicate with sea creatures. Tail of the Sun was about a tribe of ancient cave people with a legend that the Tail of the Sun can only be caught from a tower of ivory. Hunting mammoths for their ivory constitutes a small portion of what the free-roaming world has to offer, though. Offbeat animals and oddities were found in the most remote and unexpected places. One of them was a pair of human legs with an ass. No upper body. Zero context. Then again, the only context offered by Tail of the Sun’s story is pretty minuscule, anyway.
Both games refuse to tell the player how to spend the majority of the time in their worlds. This makes them almost pure experience / gameplay with almost no reliance on words or any narrative. (The only modern successor to this pattern that I know of is an independent developer named Loren Schmidt, who has done some of the best non-narrative game design of the last few years. Link to her itch.io page below)
Perhaps the very first Donkey Kong and Mario games are the furthest possible extreme in this direction: no one who has ever enjoyed those games ever did so for the story.
It all depends on the nature of the piece you want to create- a story, a procedural/visual experience, both or neither. Like so many other artistic mediums, success depends on the nature of the germ (be it narrative, visual or something else) remaining consistent.
Consider Heavy Rain from Quantic Dream. It’s possible to finish the game in a few hours but a single play-through will not show you all the game has to offer. In fact, the majority of the game’s content can only be enjoyed with multiple play-throughs. The length of time of the story is relatively fixed (almost like the run time of a film) because the narrative is as close to cinematic as the technology of that day would allow. It is modeled after a film and time passes at the same rate as a conventional television crime drama. To say nothing of the fact that the plot is built on a race against time.
How would the dramatic momentum be effected if you could just go and do whatever you want as soon as you felt like it? If you take a break for weeks to mop up side quests off the beaten path would you be able to go back to the story and feel the same sense of urgency? I know I rip on FFXV way too often (in spite of the fact that there’s a lot I enjoyed about it) but that is precisely the weakness that the open world dimension brought to that game.
Games that are dominated and defined by their narrative typically rely on words more than any other kind. Although there are just as many narrative-dominant games that use sights, sounds and situations to do the same job that words do (Silent Hill, Bloodborne, etc).