I believe it was 90s boyband heart-throb Ronan Keating who once claimed: “You say it best, when you say nothing at all”.
And while I can’t imagine there are too many comparisons to be made between video game narratives and the lyrics of a romantic comedy tie-in single, this expression is one that perfectly encapsulates the recent trend of how some modern games choose to remain ambiguous in the hope of being impactful.
Spoiler warning: the plots of RiME and What Remains of Edith Finch are discussed in this article! If you want to avoid spoilers, don't read any further.
2012’s Journey was one title that inspired this recent subset of games that convey emotion, feeling, and context through unconventional constructs, choosing to instead use tools like environmental storytelling and character expression. Wherever you fall on video games’ ability to succeed when taking a less straightforward approach to narrative, there’s no denying that it takes an element of bravery on behalf of the studio to commit to the prospect — let alone pull it off effectively. But how do 2017’s releases fare when compared to the likes of Hyper Light Drifter and The Witness?
“RiME tells a story with no words,” expressed Tequila Works CEO and creative director Raúl Rubio in a 2013 interview. Prior to being the wistful puzzle-platformer we know it as today, by this point RiME was still a relatively small endeavour caught in an identity crisis, before eventually re-emerging as something greater. Tequila Works’ ambition to spin a tale entirely free of speech always stayed intact despite its eventual gameplay overhaul, turning the island that our silent protagonist is forced to traverse into a character in itself.
While it wouldn’t typically make sense for one setting, however fantastical, to contain such a diverse collection of environments, RiME would later explain its reasoning for doing so. Allowing its lone explorer to traverse a luscious forest one minute, before venturing into a barren, sun-drenched wasteland the next via a single scene, the revelation that RIME’s story is one told from the perspective of the boy’s father is intended to be surprising, shocking and unexpected. It manages to avoid the cheapness of feeling “out of nowhere”, though, by giving players the ability to gather a few sentimental collectibles. Its ambiguity results in realisation, and this is all the more forgivable when considering that the telltale signs of its mysteries are not entirely hidden.
Throughout the bulk of your time playing RiME, it’s never once beaten over the player’s head; just the young persistent wanderer is doing the things you’re doing. Yet there’s always the desire to press on, largely due to RIME’s amazing ability to urge you to discover more of its world. Likewise, there’s never a point when the toys you’re gathering feel the need to serve some form of arbitrary purpose. Upgrading your character skills or unlocking weapons really isn’t RIME’s style, and thankfully this helps keep the simple act of collecting feel pure.
It’s only at the very end of the game that you’re rewarded for your enterprise by way of an unabashedly sentimental end realisation. Much like a Christopher Nolan film, everything suddenly clicks into place, and it’s hard not to believe you didn’t see it coming beforehand. But if RIME succeeds by holding all cards to its chest until the very end, one game released this year that takes this concept and applies it to not only narrative but systems and gameplay mechanics is Breath of the Wild.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
When Nintendo’s lauded fantasy action-adventure series returned earlier this year, it was obvious that it wouldn’t quite be cut from the same cloth as prior titles. Much more than the mixture of puzzles, action and exploration The Legend of Zelda series has been known for, Breath of the Wild instead places a great deal of emphasis on a player/world relationship, encouraging the player to forge their own story, for better or for worse. It’s with this in mind that many people’s 2017 game of the year, however well-formed, can also be considered one of the year’s most ambiguous.
For the most part, Breath of the Wild uses this hazy approach expertly. Tracking down shrines, happening upon humongous beasts, and breaking mythical horses is all made possible due to the game’s willingness to trust the player. But while this explicit emphasis on moment-to-moment exploration lends itself well to an experience, the story suffers. Admittedly, Zelda has never been a go-to source for thrilling plot - most entries tend to follow a“You’re the hero of time, rescue the princess, defeat Ganon” cycle - yet here, it’s dialled back more so.
Breath of the Wild’s ambiguous storytelling is more than made up for by this version of Hyrule’s preference to make itself unknown. While some may prefer to be given a more traditional motivation for edging into its mysteries, in an interview with Edge Magazine creative director Hideomaro Fujibayashi expressed his intention “[to] learn from the sense of adventure, exploration, and how it inspires curiosity”. He succeeded, and executed this sentiment masterfully.
Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild avoids being pretentious by giving players room to — wait for it — breathe. Since the game inundates you with hours of exploration-filled content but a relatively thin narratove reason for engaging with such, it never forces it upon you. Whereas RIME’s sense of mystery requires some degree of trust, it’s only mere moments after stepping off Breath of the Wild’s great plateau that it abolishes the very concept of doing so.
It’s not all sunset flies and red scarfs though. Because while games like RiME and Breath of the Wild twist and turn their open worlds into obscurities to marvel at, it’s surprisingly 2017’s most narrative-driven game that where this tact provides some degree of annoyance.
There aren’t too many moments when you can pinpoint or track the birth of a genre, but over the past few years, walking simulators — like or loathe them — have laid the foundation for many enthralling experiences. I could relay to you the ways in which Gone Home opened my eyes to the melancholic notion of revisiting the past, or how The Vanishing of Ethan Carter showed me the power of imagination, but for as masterful as these heavily narrative-driven endeavours tend to be, most leave a stumble at the last hurdle.
Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch is an infinitely rewarding — if relatively bleak — first-person tale. It recounts the titular Edith’s journey to revisit her family home, putting you in charge of wandering around the house in an effort to learn more about her various family member’s remarkably suspicious deaths. It’s a meaningful story due to how confidently it opens itself up to you, with particular shout out going to Barbara’s comic book-laden demise. Working your way through the house, you’re treated to a snapshot into each person’s final moments — well, all except perhaps the most important at all.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Early on we’re told that Edith’s sole reason for abandoning her family home is due to a disagreement between her mother and grandmother when she was young. This is beautifully relayed via Edith’s own internal monologues, yet when the time comes to learn of how grandmother Edie worked her way to the ever-distant old house as a result of the family flair up, we’re unexpectedly pulled away in favour of maintaining the unknown.
This tact is a common element of various walking simulators, who increasingly feel the need to remain ambiguous in order to be considered impactful. Not getting the chance to meet Delilah in Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture going cosmic at the very end. Much like in how traditional third-person actioners the final feeling your left with is the frustration of wailing on a final boss, walking simulators similarly feel the need to present you with a final obstacle. In most cases, an obscure narrative one.
The ability to challenge players with the apparent randomness of RiME’s collectibles, Breath of the Wild’s open-world, and What Remains of Edith Finch’s conclusion is always brave and well-founded. 2017 has offered up some of the most ambiguous story experiences yet, and while not all are successful, if the medium is to ever be considered intellectual and progressive as well as fun, such thoughtfulness is vital.