Iceberg Theory and the Evolution of Indie Game Writing

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  • Show, don’t tell.

    For decades, many writers have followed that wisdom like it’s the guiding light of the North Star.

    The Show, Don’t Tell writing approach posits that stories are best experienced through the actions, sensations, and words of their characters, rather than the exposition of the author.

    Anton Chekov first popularized the technique, and it’s been adopted by legions of fiction writers, most notably Earnest Hemingway and Orson Scott Card. These writers believed omission or restraint in writing left room for the reader’s imagination and resulted in a more powerful interaction between reader and work.

    Hemingway perhaps put it best when he wrote: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows, and the reader…will have a feeling of these things as strongly as if the writer had stated them.

    The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eight of it being above water.”

    Throughout my two decades of experience playing — particularly the story-heavy, RPG type — I’ve always noticed the writing takes an exposition-heavy approach. More advanced literary techniques are esqued in favor of an NPC vomiting plot progress.

    But as indie games have come to the fore, they’ve delivered a wave of creativity in the areas of music, gameplay, and writing. The innovation indie developers are displaying in each of these categories is raising the entire bar for the artistic standard of games.

    The use of the iceberg technique in indie games has been a particular fascination of mine. Let’s look at three prominent examples and unpack how telling the player less actually makes the storytelling more powerful.

    Control

    Ambitious yet flawed movies are often lauded by critics. Despite the obvious shortcomings of the work, these films typically earn good reviews and develop cult followings.

    Games are typically not so lucky, but Control could be the one to break the mold.

    There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay, but the mythos of the world is so good, some reviewers wished the anecdotes dug up in sidequests were the main focus of the narrative.

    Still, the iceberg technique is used to good effect here. Players are treated to a cold open, which engenders plenty of important questions. The main environment is known as The Oldest House, and lore you unearth describes world altering events (WAEs) and other-worldly travel.

    Heady stuff to be sure. But there’s no fountain that spews exposition down your throat. Your immediate questions are answered about the protagonist’s quest as you explore The Oldest House, but attention to detail reveals a world of majestic complexity and depth.

    You’ll never get as much as you want, and that’s the entire point.

    INSIDE

    INSIDE is a narrative of unfettered symbolism. From the movement the protagonist leaps from the dark woods, the side-scrolling format guides you through increasingly dramatic locals.

    The game begins by using recognizable tropes: uniformed men in a car and vicious dogs chase you out of the woods, a line of zombified humans shuffle through a factor for inspection.

    But as you move further into the game, you traverse a flooded office turned underwater graveyard, a testing site for sonic boom machines, and an upside down garden for pale humanoid puppets. Each new location features startling imagery and symbols, without almost any explanation or context.

    As a result, INSIDE both sparks your imagination and slowly detaches you from reality. Each new arcane machine or terrifying experience begs the player to impose their own theories on what’s happening, to fill in the canyon-sized gaps with your own meaning.

    In this sense, INSIDE leans heavily into the iceberg theory and practically falls head-first into postmodernism, where meaning is inscrutable by design. The game’s entire story hinges on the fascination of the unknowable, and sense of profoundness that this imparts on the player.

    Once you experience the adrenaline-needle-to-the-heart of an ending, you’ll only want to play the entire game again to see if you can divine any hints from the landmarks you pass on your way inside.

    Hyper Light Drifter

    Of these three games, Hyper Light Drifter is perhaps the most conventional.

    The game is a brilliant homage to Zelda, with a SciFi bend and a heavy dose of challenging combat. Unlike INSIDE, there’s a clear antagonist, even if it’s an unspeaking, all-consuming darkness type foe.

    Hyper Light Drifter’s restrained writing drops you into a ruined world on the brink of another disaster. We get flashbacks of the drifter’s previous adventures (or perhaps nightmares) but they’re vignettes that deepen the character without having the audience read a novel about his backstory.

    Likewise, the environments and denizens of the Drifter’s world are brimming with callbacks to a bygone era. The remnants of huge robots dot the land. Warfare between neighboring tribes hint at long standing feuds. Artifacts clutter up the lush environments.

    But none of it is overtly explained, and the story is richer for that, because it inspires a sense of awe and wonder at the world the player inhabits.

    And so it is with any piece of literature — analog or digital — that makes proper use of the iceberg technique. The more games adopt advanced literary devices, the better served the audience is.

    I’ll leave the last word to Hemmingway: “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events you know about a story, the story is strengthened. The test of any story is how very good the stuff you, not your editors, omit.”

    ———

    Zach is the content lead at Soundstripe, a royalty free music company that supplies creators and businesses with stellar music for video.

     

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