Worlds Without Words: What German Expressionism Can Teach Us About Game Design

At the outset, the way in which video games typically use the word “genre” seems at odds with its more conventional literary and cinematic usage. However, arguably, by emphasizing a means of delivery, video game genre becomes the format informing emotion, which is not so far from the word’s more thematic meaning at all.

Just as the tropes of film genres train audiences to anticipate certain modes of behavior (we generally expect the action hero to kill to get what he wants, just as we hope that the romantic comedy lead doesn’t), video game genres emphasize the power dynamic between players and events. Players, in turn, develop distinct emotional ranges and expectations within a given genre, and these are continually modified and projected by a game’s content. You expect to exert a greater level of tactile immersion with the full sensory space in a first person shooter than you would a 2-D platformer, so a game like BioShock brings about its emotional reaction in part by violating that very expectation of (albeit illusory) player-character autonomy. Following on that idea, the comparatively high compression of a 2-D platformer’s player-space interaction means that the player’s main dialogue occurs first and foremost with the space’s physical laws, rather than with its social ones. In this way, platformers’ interests tend to fall thematically within two familiar conflicts: man versus nature and man versus himself.

Thus, in one sense, video game genres are more liberating than many others because they allow any number of thematic elements within the same conversational framework. You can have first-person shooter romantic comedies and political thrillers that are also visual novels, and these are acceptable in either case.

By treating play as the first element of its thematic structure, a game also frees up more space for presnting distinct styles, borrowing from cinema, literature, and anything else games tend to create an amalgamated work. In its ideal form, this synthesis is seamless. More often though, such games feel like an unstirred mixture with too disparate components all trying to be too much of something that the game isn’t. Film and literature don’t typically have this problem, or at least not to the same extent. However, they have also had far longer to develop their respective thematic vocabularies. By comparison, new media has had to experience several waves of its own growing pains, first by adopting the conventions of older media and then by struggling over which of them to finally keep.

This is part of video games’ nature as an emergent medium: it does not yet have its own language, even if it does have its own ways of talking. For every openly cinematic game, there is a hardline literary game and a dozen more that reside somewhere in between and borrow from any and everything, usually subconsciously. This is not a value judgment, of course; there is nothing that necessarily says that visual or text-based storytelling is superior or that a game can’t be functional despite its inconsistent parts. What really matters is whether the essence of the experience serves the main thrust of its intention.

Looking back to Jonathan Blow’s Braid, what does the player really call to mind? It’s unquestionably a well crafted piece of work with complexities and nuance, with subject and substance so exquisitely interlaced that you absolutely cannot have one without the other. So why, then, the choice to reveal its surface-layer story with those large, unwieldy blocks of text? Exhausting the emotional complexity of its ideas with prose may be uncommonly literary of a game to try, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the most effective. In using these huge chunks of needlessly detailed and frustratingly vague prose, Braid becomes drained of much of its potential richness and flavor.

Braid‘s blocks of prose say plenty, but what do they add?

Ultimately, Braid still works as an emotional dialogue with the player because it uses the physical laws of its space artfully and confrontationally to communicate its ideas. However, the prose sections still feel like a drag, and with no impetus to fully read or comprehend the text in order to progress, they don’t even function as a proper speed bump.

Compare this example with Playdead’s recent XBLA release, Limbo. As I mentioned in my review, the game contains all of one word outside its title and pause menus, and while it may lack the nuanced specificity of Braid, I would argue that it more than compensates through its visual design.

I spoke previously of Limbo‘s connection with silent era cinema, particularly the works of F.W. Murnau. What struck me most prominently about the title is how it reinforces Espen Aarseth’s contention that video games are first and foremost journeys before they are narratives (“Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse”, Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Ed. Marie Laure-Ryan, 2004). Limbo is not so much a story as a series of problems with limited solutions, their elegance drawing mostly from a combination of physics engine nuance and the game’s stark iconography. This is exactly the essence of a good platformer: it’s a conversation between player and physical laws — with the laws lending believability to its highly artificial set of visuals.

In a word, what we have here is great world building.

Drawing upon film again, the works of F.W. Murnau excel not simply because of Murnau’s use of light and shadow and choice of distorted stages but how these films eschew all but the most necessary of framing devices. Murnau’s later films particularly rely less and less upon title cards. Their singular use in Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, U.F.A., 1924) exists mainly as a critique of sentimental mandate: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.” Murnau otherwise uses diagetic inserts and background design to flesh out his world, making his spaces feel lived in and genuinely experienced, even with their impossible physics.

Der letzte Mann (1924): PlayDead’s expressionist inheritance.

In a similar vein, Limbo succeeds as an arc of experience because of this same spatial plausibility. It’s a stylized space, but one merry trot into a pit of spikes conveys is all that you need to know about cause and consequence. In doing so, the game demonstrates how totally unnecessary textual elaboration really is. Do we need the developers’ blurb to understand the arc of our character’s journey? No. We’ve been trained in the circuity of this environment, so the ending scene doesn’t come as a surprise. All we need is the title and the game’s scenario makes perfect sense. In fact, all we need is the genre. You are not playing Limbo to find a boy’s sister; you’re playing it to solve the physical space, a persistent action that includes, but is not exclusive to, reaching the game’s ending.

Braid and Limbo both utilize the platformer genre as negotiation of the self. But where Braid is verbose, Limbo‘s narrative is rationalized by the player independent of the frame. The work is a shadow play, made up of gestures and uncertainties. In keeping its text minimal and simply a part of its world, it trades an imposed narrative for an experienced one. Narration becomes conversation, conversation becomes journey, and journey becomes a story that is at once universal and intensely personal.