[20 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The techniques for telling stories in games has often been dictated by the graphics. Long paragraphs of text were relied on for text parsers and by their 8-bit brethren. As the graphics improved, less detail had to be explained and could simply be observed: at first a chest or save point would be a symbol like a spinning octagon, then as a clunky abstraction, then something that looked very much like a chest. Today, graphic improvements are not quite at photo-realistic, but they are easily recognized by someone unfamiliar with video games. When one considers how far the medium has come along, it’s interesting how the old techniques for delivering narrative are still retained. A game like Bioshock is content to let its setpieces be discovered and explored by the player, but there is also usually an audiobook to spell it out for us. This is the room of the mad plastic surgeon one tape explains, here is where he did something awful to a patient. In Fallout 3 there is always a dimly lit computer monitor, waiting to be hacked, that will provide a few journals explaining the fate of each abandoned Vault or factory. The essence of the text parser describing what the graphics are supposed to be remains, still explaining what we are looking at like a guided museum tour. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is a bold step forward in video game story-telling by simply letting the player observe the world for themselves.
You play a spider that has stumbled upon a curiously bug filled house. Bugs are caught by spinning webs, you make those with silk, which is replenished by eating bugs, and you have to kill a set amount of bugs to progress through the level. Occasionally a portion of a level can be interacted with: a light bulb can flicker on if you bash into it and switches can be flipped at key moments. That’s it. No one talks and there is hardly any legible text (besides names), only what you can observe as a spider. In describing how barebones the narrative of the game Michael Abbott writes, “No amnesiacs. No aliens. No supernatural events or save-the-world imperatives. Just a simple, but startlingly poignant family tragedy revealed via the game’s environments, photos, heirlooms, and small bits of evidence left behind.” This passive relationship with the plot is also made possible because nothing in the game can kill you. Silk is only consumed when spinning webs, you are otherwise free to wander about and look at things calmly. One of the developers, Randy Smith, has a column at EDGE magazine and he does a loose post-mortem on the game. He explains, “As a spider, your lack of interest and ability to affect the story is natural, and you fill the role your character would in real life: you leave the house covered in cobwebs. The story often flirts with this separation between the concerns of your character versus those you yourself would have if you were present, and we stuck to our guns when portraying that irony.”
What’s interesting about the details of the plot is that because there is no audiobook, no text parser moment, their ambiguity is always intact. Each level contains hints about the former occupants of the house and their exchanges, but you are never quite told how they connect. We see a bottle of liquor and an empty glass next to a woman’s photo, but who was drinking it? We see a wedding ring thrown down a sink, a locket dropped into a well, but who was the original owner? The Bryce Family consists of two brothers, the talented N. Bryce and his weaker brother R. Bryce. A photo on the wall shows R. Bryce marrying a young girl (known as L.S. from envelopes and pictures) yet a locket down a well shows her picture with N. Bryce’s. Scattered throughout the house is evidence that their father, C.K. Bryce, may have hidden a treasure in the mansion. X’s painted onto walls and curious holes in the floor and ceiling seem to indicate R. Bryce was hunting for the treasure. Bills tucked away in a corner make it seem even desperate. A shovel in the garden comes across as ominous given the Autumn season, which when connected with a pair of unused train tickets indicates possible foul play. A dead body and a scattering of pills concludes your exploration, the last level and credits are just you catching a lone fly while the sun sets on the mansion.
A discussion on the toucharcade forums will help one appreciate the power of these ambiguities on the player’s experience. After one user posts their theory about the mystery and how L.S. and N.B. eloped, leaving R.B. to misery and suicide, another counters that he thinks R.B. murdered and buried L.S. (ergo the shovel) and then killed himself out of grief. One could easily argue that no suicide is present here at all: the pills next to the body are tucked away in a cabinet, which seems odd for a suicide. What if N.B. and L.S. arranged to kill R.B., then bury him, but ran away at the last minute because they couldn’t find the treasure? There is a letter on a dresser that one user assumes is a “Dear John” goodbye letter, but the still unpacked suitcase in L.S.’s room seems to contradict that the parting was peaceful. Technically, you’re never even quite sure who the body is. R.B. may have poisoned N.B. and left him there. The only thing’s consistent in the various user’s interpretation of the story are the two brothers, one woman, and a treasure that drove them all apart.
Another user at toucharcade, praised the game while totally ignoring the story. He writes, “the differing base point values of the insects, the score multiplier, which increases up to 4X and stays there as long as one stays on one web or leaps to another, the usage of hornets to replenish silk, and the shepherding of mosquitos and butterflies towards the most interconnected parts of the web network” all make each level a unique puzzle for maximizing points. You can observe this word purely as a spider and engage with it without any concern for the plot. And yet beneath the surface of the spider’s goals there is a story whose mysteries are never quite fully explained with audiobooks or text. The ambiguity makes sense because keeping the narrative strictly from a spider’s perspective makes the lack of answers seem plausible, even natural. The things we notice and wonder about are not things our avatar would ever have any reason to care about. Randy Smith eventually dismissed the accomplishments of the game’s narrative in his EDGE column, calling it an ‘elegant dodge’ and writing, “Spider is a game that strives to have an elegant awareness of the interactive media but doesn’t try hard to open up its frontiers”. Which is fair enough, all of the things done in this game have been done before with more advanced set pieces and art. Perhaps then what makes the story so unique is what it doesn’t do.