How to tell a Video Game Story without Words

First off, why would you want to do this? Why make things so abstract and obtuse? Three reasons:

  • Writing is hard. Bad writing is worse than no writing, in the same way, that saying something dumb is often worse than saying nothing at all.
  • This gives you more flexibility in what happens in the story because you don't have to write perfect dialog for every possible game state. In fact, now you can allow for game states you didn't expect, because...
  • By being abstract, you give the player a chance to construct a story with much more personal meaning than you as the designer could ever give it.

The third reason is huge. A good example is The Sims. Anyone who's played that game is full of stories they've crafted about their sims. A lot of them are even good stories, long and meaning backstories going beyond even when they had actually started play. You can imagine then, if The Sims character actually said things in English. If they talked? How would that change the story placed upon them by the player? The Sims banks on that abstractness because it lets the player fill in the blanks where it needs to, and attribute motives to their characters that the AI isn't sophisticated enough to have. 

Young Merlin was another game that did this, although the story was quite simple and they used speech bubbles containing iconography depicting what the characters talked about. Over a large timelapse, wordless communication seems to be more about actions and habits, while for singular scenes it is more about visual design and animation.

Metal Slug, The Sims, Nethack, Dwarf Fortress, Super Metroid, and just about any other game you've seen with a story told without words starts the player with a:

  • setting
  • premise
  • goal

From those three things, the player is quite capable of coming up with their own epic saga or romantic comedy or whatever.

How to practically solve this for events that are out of the player's scope depends a lot on how you want to tell the story; you could do obvious clues in the environment telling a story about what happened, show characters' memories and imagination visually in some way or simply design the narrative in such a way that the player will always be present (in some sense) when important things occur.

In Orson Scott Card's book 'How to write science fiction and fantasy', the way he describes it, is that it's a good plan to explain a couple of simple things in detail and leave the complexities of a subtext to the imagination. This applies to game storytelling, except in the form of playing up the strengths of interactive media. For instance, text boxes are inherently non-interactive, and voice acting is expensive and can be inflexible. On the other hand, showing the player something about the setting, like the dead bounty hunter being eaten by cockroaches in one boss corridor in Super Metroid, could let the player infer a lot more than could be packed into a paragraph.

Some Alternatives to total silence.

The chapter told a story about cave men, and all communication in that chapter was nonverbal.  I think they may have grunted, but most of it was through sound effects and pantomime.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the 7 Stars

If you've ever played Super Mario RPG:  Legend of the 7 stars, you may remember that Mario never talked in cut-scenes, but he put on elaborate pantomimes whenever he needed to explain something to someone.  You could do a game with communication like that, as well. Ico, Out of this World, and quite a few games from the early 90s tell excellent stories with few or little words.

Kirby's Dreamland 3 (SNES), has no words at all other than on the title screen and name of the stages/bosses, and every stage has it's own 'story' in the form of a puzzle. It also has great characterization, the animation and art is very expressive and the different powers granted to Kirby depending on which of his animal buddies he is riding are not only hilarious, they often are effective in building an impression of the respective personalities of the critters.

Or, as one might expect, nothing would stop you from going the wall-e route.  Lack of text will mean you obviously can't do dialogue, so any character development has to be shown through actions and possibly expressions/sound effects.  Still, as Pixar has repeatedly demonstrated if you do it right, there are plenty of good opportunities to inject an astonishing amount of character into an individual. Their Company Mascot is a desk lamp that they have managed to animate doing a surprise take...)