Of Course No One’s Paying Attention: Subtlety and Narrative Design in Video Games

One challenge writers face when moving from traditional media into video games is learning what, exactly, qualifies as “subtle” in the new medium. What works as a understated plot thread or gentle foreshadowing in a film or novel won’t necessarily work in a video game; and rather than examining why, it’s easy for a new writer to dismiss game narratives as obvious and hamfisted. (Many are, of course–there’s a difference between understanding a theory and executing it well.)

I’m speaking from experience, here–I had a hard time learning how to present anything subtly in games. Below, I try to save someone else from going through what I did.

Let’s establish our definitions first. When I talk about subtle elements of a story, I’m talking about aspects that we want the audience to perceive but not immediately, consciously register. Foreshadowing, hidden character motivations, and thematic throughlines are all aspects where we tend to value subtlety; a plot twist or a revelatory moment snaps into place in a more satisfying manner for an audience that has been subconsciously prepared.

So subtlety is a useful tool. How does it work differently in different media? I see two main factors (plus a third unique to games): length and linearity.

Length is an easy one to explain. Let’s suppose you’re writing a detective story where the hero’s partner turns out–in a shocking twist!–to be the villain. If your medium of choice is the 5,000-word short story, you can probably get away with hinting at the idea once or twice early on, and then not again until the twist is revealed. Your reader is very likely to consume the entire story at once and in a relatively brief time period–you can work on the assumption that he or she will have the entire narrative in his or her mind.

If your detective story is a film, you can still assume that your audience is going to consume the whole work in one sitting, but it will take longer–call it two hours instead of twenty minutes. You’ll want to seed additional hints throughout, or else risk that your audience is going to miss or forget them. You don’t want to go over-the-top, but you respect the fact that your viewers don’t all have photographic memories. If you’re writing a novel, we go to the next level again–I won’t belabor the point, but length matters.

There’s very likely another term for the concept I’m calling linearity–anyone who wants to write and correct me, feel free to do so. Despite the way the term is used in gaming, I’m not talking about branching narratives. Instead, I’m referring to whether the audience has control over the speed and direction of the narrative. Can the audience rewind? Pause? Jump from chapter two to chapter four?

A film seen in a movie theater is completely linear, while a novel or a short story is, in this sense, nonlinear. A DVD is somewhere in-between–if a character lies about an event depicted earlier in the narrative, I could theoretically rewind to the earlier scene to confirm that I, the viewer, remember it correctly, but it’s a lot more cumbersome than flipping between chapters in a book.

Linearity also impacts how easy it is to refresh one’s memory of a story. If I put a novel aside for a month, I can skim through earlier chapters to remind myself of the plot when I finally pick it up again. If I stop a movie halfway through and come back to it a month later, I don’t have an easy way to remind myself what was going on.

So of course, the less linear the narrative, the easier it is to make your subtle aspects especially subtle. Your interested, engaged audience has the opportunity to look back at the work as it moves forward, and to review earlier moments once a twist or revelation has occurred.

Based on these factors, a short story or a comic book–short and nonlinear–can support a high degree of obscurity. Films are short but linear, books are long but nonlinear… it all balances out.

But games?

Games tend to be long. Much longer than films, and–for 80-hour role-playing game behemoths–longer than many novels, as well. Most of them are also effectively linear–while it’s possible to reverse the narrative flow by loading a saved game, most players won’t. It’s clumsy and difficult and sometimes outright impossible, depending on the particulars of the system.

So let’s go back to that detective story where the hero’s partner turns out to be the villain. You’ve got a scene at the start where the partner subtly hints at his true motivations. Your player is genuinely engaged with the story–you write fantastic dialogue and have a cast of intriguing characters…

…but your game is 20 hours long. Your script is only an hour long, but this is an action game and most of the player’s time is spend running, shooting, and collecting achievements. By the time the twist comes along at the end, a month of real time and eighteen hours of gameplay have passed. Of course the player feels like the twist came out of nowhere–why would he or she remember that one subtle moment near the beginning of the game when it happened a month ago?

And that’s not even considering the factor that’s truly unique to games: interactivity. Let’s take a worst-case scenario and imagine your subtle foreshadowing is in the tutorial level. Your player may be enormously excited about the game’s story, but his or her attention is still going to be largely devoted to fumbling with the controls and figuring out how to survive. The same goes for subtle hints delivered through enemy combat barks or environment art–your player has other things to focus on, so the odds that your subtle elements will be perceived at all in these scenarios is low.

So, what? Does this mean subtlety is impossible in games? That themes and foreshadowing and so forth need to be so loudly, hamfistedly, and repeatedly flagged that your smart, literate, engaged player finds the whole game insufferable?

Of course not. You knew that already. I just like being bombastic.

What it does mean is that you need to pace and reiterate your subtle moments throughout the narrative. You need to build a story that works for the player who isn’t paying nearly as much attention as you are–not because the player isn’t smart and interested, but because he or she has a life outside the game and, when he or she is playing, isn’t 100% focused on story over gameplay.

Find ways to recap your plot points and your themes periodically, so that the player who took a break never loses the thread. If you want to hint at something particularly obliquely, make sure that “something” is either explicitly revealed shortly thereafter or that the story works just as well if the player doesn’t pick up on the hint.

Rewarding special attention is fine. Punishing your average busy player isn’t.

And when some clever fan takes all your subtle hints building up to a twist ending and puts them together in a YouTube video that makes everything seem obvious… take it with a smile. There’s a reason your story doesn’t work as a two-minute movie.

It’s because you wrote a great video game story. And that was your goal all along.