Two Extremes of Storytelling in Games

Lately I have spent time thinking not only about the story for the game I’m working on, but also the different ways of presenting stories in video games. My two game-development partners-in-crime are better at cognitive sorcery than me. They conjure ideas out of thin air, while I am more of a person who turns to other sources for ideas and influence. So today I decided to write about the two games from 2012 that impressed me the most with their narrative presentation, particularly because their respective approaches could not have been more different.

Katawa Shoujo and Journey

That’s right, Katawa Shoujo and Journey. One is a high-school romance story in the form of a PC visual novel (NVL). And the other is a PlayStation 3 experiment in minimalism where you wander through deserts towards a glowing mountain-top on the horizon. These two games display severe contrast in their aesthetics, mechanics, presentation, music, characters—damn near everything.

The one and only trait their share is that each packs a truly memorable story.

(Note: Katawa Shoujo contains some adult content. However, the official site in the link above does not show any. And players who would prefer not to see it can disable it in the settings, causing no impact to the narrative since the adult content is sparse to begin with.)

I’ll start with Katawa Shoujo since it came out first in 2012. But I want to insert a brief side-note first. I have discovered that most gamers do not have accurate ideas about how long it can take to develop a game. I’ve noticed it surprises people to learn that Journey required three and a half years of development considering you can comfortably complete the game in under two hours. Also surprising to most is Katawa Shoujo, which is ‘just a visual novel’, required five years of effort from over twenty people. I digress….

Katawa Shoujo is a story about Hisao Nakai, a young man in high-school who is hospitalized for months at the start for chronic cardiac dysrhythmia. Following his release from the hospital he transfers to a new school designed for handicapped students. The game goes on from there to chronicle Hisao’s struggle with the label ‘handicapped’ and how related social stigmas and presumptions affect his relationships with his fellow students.

I understand why some people dismiss Katawa Shoujo as just another lame eroge, but the moniker is misleading. The game, being a visual novel, has little else to rely on beyond its story; personally I think the art and music are great, but those things alone do not make a visual novel. Any great NVL demands an equally great plot, and the narrative of Katawa Shoujo is engaging, poignant, and surprisingly self-aware and respectful of the gravity of its subject matter.

The interesting aspect of Katawa Shoujo, from a game design perspective, is how it crafts its experience primarily through text. The ‘novel’ in the term ‘visual novel’ is well-deserved. By comparison, role-playing games often present volumes of narration and dialog but supplement that with interactive elements such as combat and exploration. The gameplay of Katawa Shoujo is nothing more than making decisions from a menu at fixed points, causing the story to branch off into different paths, resulting in eleven or twelve genuinely unique endings if I remember correctly. The narrative alone carries the entire game. That is what impresses me about Katawa Shoujo: it is an example of how a compelling story can drive a game to the extent that it can fill the gaps left by the lack of even basic gameplay mechanics.

Journey, on the other hand, adopts a silent approach to its storytelling. The player controls a masked, nameless character whose goal is to traverse a harsh desert, underground ruins, and a snowy mountain to reach a peak emitting a beam of light into the sky. This task is never explained with words. The character has no name, nor does anyone else who appears. No one ever speaks. Journey even goes to the extreme of rejecting text when explaining the controls in the early goings. Yet it manages to tell a story as equally powerful and memorable as the aforementioned visual novel by using everything except text.

Journey is a lesson in the value of aesthetics. Any form of narration happens solely through the combination of its beautiful orchestral soundtrack and its dreamlike graphics. At certain points the character reaches a confluence where Journey reveals the story of its world via a living mural that unfolds throughout the game. But again, there is no text, no canonical explanation for the player’s reference. Instead Journey expects each player to develop his or her own interpretation of those sights and sounds. The success of this design is impressive for the way it demonstrates that a well-choreographed blend of artistic aesthetics, music, and simple gameplay mechanics can be so-capable a vehicle for storytelling that it obliterates the need for any text or spoken dialog.

Katawa Shoujo and Journey present my two favorite stories in games from 2012. The former is firmly concrete in its presentation, depending almost entirely on its writing. The latter rejects all traditional notions of writing in video games in favor of an ethereal but equally powerful design. Most games fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, as will our own. But Katawa Shoujo and Journey, for me, represent two thoroughly disjoint but equally capable methods of storytelling in video games, and both are worthwhile objects of study for their respective achievements.

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