October 1, 1997 was The END DAY.
At least, according to classic NES action-RPG Crystalis, it was. Apparently, as a consequence of global war, the earth’s axis shifted (huh?) and creatures mutated (what?) and a great tower in the sky was constructed "to oppress evil forever."
You’re probably confused. So was I, as an eight-year-old boy playing Crystalis for the first time. But you know what? Sometimes a little confusion is exactly what you need.
As I made my way through Crystalis, playing the role of a cryogenically frozen warrior-mage (just go with it), it didn’t really matter that the game’s story made little sense. I filled in the gaps myself, inventing my character’s backstory and motivation. I became that warrior, and because Crystalis didn’t tell me I was doing it wrong, my version will always be the definitive one.
I’ve written before about the clutter of dialogue that modern titles rely on to push convoluted plots down our throats. Some of the writing is OK. Most of it’s not. That goes for games developed in the West as much as those from Japan.
If you were making a game in the '80s and '90s, you didn’t have a choice. Hardware limitations meant program space was at a premium. Text had to give way to make room for graphics and sound. And translators had to simplify things, since English takes up more on-screen space than Japanese kanji.
The games were better for it. And paradoxically, so were the stories.
Go back and read the script of a game like Crystalis or Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy Legend. Look at how much those games communicate without saying a word. And when they do speak, the text is so brief that it's poetic, at once direct and obscure.
Here’s an example from the final encounter in Final Fantasy Legend:
If this scene played out in a modern Final Fantasy title, you’d have ten minutes of soliloquy on the nature of mortality and free will, complete with effeminate heroes brandishing ridiculous weapons. Instead, you get one quick conversation, almost haiku-like in its brevity. When your party member shouts, "We are not things!" he doesn’t blabber on about the value of friendship and the power of love. It’s a simple declaration. The message is clear.
Everything about this scene — the necessarily sparse graphics, the weird, repetitive music, the surreal dialogue — helps to set the mood. And it’s a mood you mostly create in your own head, since you have so few cues to go on. What does God look like? Does he really just hang out in a bed near a river with a few trees? Once you kill him, what’s next? (And don’t you love your character’s response: "It doesn’t matter"?)
Some of these games have received modern remakes, but in almost every case, I prefer the older text. Compare, for example, the original localization of Final Fantasy 4 (then 2) on SNES to the remade version on Nintendo DS. Here’s how the infamous "spoony bard" scene plays out in the original:
Tellah: You're the bard! You did this to her!
[Tellah attacks the bard.]
Tellah: You swindler!
Bard: Please listen!
Tellah: You spoony bard!
Tellah: Shut up!
Tellah: Shut your mouth!
Anna: Please! Stop!
Here’s the remake:
Tellah: You — you're that bard! You're the one responsible for this!
Bard: No! Please–
[Tellah attacks the bard.]
Tellah: You spoony bard!
Bard: Please, things are not as you believe!
Tellah: I see quite well how they are!
Bard: I beg you, hear my words!
Tellah: Choke on your words!
Bard: Please, I implore you!
Tellah: Know this pain — Anna's pain!
Bard: But, Anna and I–
Anna: Edward, Father…Please, stop this.
One of these sounds like a real father, too angry and distraught to speak clearly. The other sounds like a junior-high production of a bad Shakespeare knock-off. It doesn’t matter that the English in the latter text is more technically sound (or that "spoony" was a strange localization choice in the first place). The briefer version is the better.
The case of Crystalis is even worse. The original NES version’s story was scant on details, but it hinted at a tale of science fiction, mutation, and magic. The late '90s remake on Game Boy Color ditched the sci-fi trappings for generic fantasy nonsense. In the process, it killed the mystery that my eight-year-old mind filled in.
You can see this principle at work in modern television and fiction as well. In the seven-book Stephen King series The Dark Tower, the characters see vague remnants of technology in a Western-flavored world that has "moved on." They’re never really explained in detail, but they serve to flesh out the setting and add feeling to the story.
On the other hand, the TV series Lost got bogged down in explaining the mythology it had built up. It essentially "retranslated" its lore, with more dialogue and exposition, until that became more important than the characters. That’s a recipe for failure in any narrative venture.
These days, you have to look hard to find a game that understands how to show, not tell. Dark Souls is one of the few that does it well. True, I couldn’t get past the game’s inscrutable mechanics, but I appreciated its narrative philosophy. It understands that the act of playing a game should communicate its story. And the little dialogue it contains serves to augment the player’s experience rather than overriding it.
Video games are nothing if not flexible; they can be abstract constructs of gameplay or semi-interactive cinematic experiences or anything in between. I just hope developers remember their roots…and include a moment or two of silence in their games while doing it.