April 9, 2010

Don’t count out dialog in games.

Someone please enlighten me: what is with indie game designers who come out with one visually pleasing game, then decide that they are the Lords of Game Design, with the authority to insist that every game must rely on visuals to communicate its underlying message?

I quote from a recent article by the Superbrothers, in which they privilege visuals and audio above text (they refer to text, somewhat inarticulately, as “talk”):

with videogames — a primarily audiovisual style of communication — talk can be disruptive, it can undermine. In this context, talk is noise.

This was the native language of videogames: synesthetic audiovisual expressing a meaning, where sound and image and logic come together and feel right, where the communication is nonverbal but nonetheless articulate, where you understand what’s going on the same way you ‘get’ the communication of a song, the same way you can be blown away by a painting or a piece of sculpture.

This argument is founded almost entirely on the unsupported assertion that words appeal to a tiny sliver of brain called “intellect,” while visuals and audio appeal to Everything Else. It’s almost as if the authors weren’t aware that songs have, you know, lyrics. Or that you can be blown away by prose and poetry, not just by a painting or a piece of sculpture.

Sure, video games are primarily audio-visual. So what? So are movies. And yet, dialog is terribly important in film. Imagine watching Citizen Kane with no dialog. You could probably get a vague handle on the plot, and who some of the characters were, and what they were feeling at any given point in time. But there’s no way that you’d come away from it understanding the central point of the film.

To be fair, the Superbrothers do suggest that text has some place in games: it’s just such a tiny place that it might not as well exist. It is dangerous to go alone. According to the Superbrothers, this phrase “tickles the intellect just enough for it to stir, but not enough to irritate it.” What an oversensitive intellect these fellows must have! What would irritate the intellect, I wonder? A second clause? Character development? God only knows what would happen to the Superbrothers if they played a game like Planescape: Torment. They might suffer a full-on brain hemorrhage.

Let me be blunt: some ideas are too abstract to explain economically with visuals alone. I’m making a game right now that explores subtle philosophical questions. Is the mind something separate from the body, or is it purely our experience of the workings of the brain? Can we trust our minds? Does God exist, and if so, are we bound to obey him? It’s a little difficult to come up with a discrete “synesthetic audiovisual” representing, for instance, the idea that the brain invents memories and rationalizations to make sense of other things we experience as real or true. These simply aren’t issues you can address by generating a world with mushrooms, turtles, blocks and coins and letting the player run around stomping on things.

The image is a blunt instrument–the written word, a scalpel. If games are ever to be a vehicle for seriously considering our lives, the state of the world, and the truth of our existence, we cannot just casually toss out the window our most subtle tools for exploration of those ideas. We’ll just end up crunched up against a telephone pole that way.