People and Places Beyond Reach: Invisible Stories as Immersive Devices in Contemporary Video Games

Curator's Note

Videogame stories can be directly conveyed through exposition and dialog or indirectly (visually and spatially) coded in the very fabric of the game world. Many successful game narratives also increasingly rely on what I call “invisible stories”: discrete pieces of information, events, and micro-storylines that are alluded to but never fully developed, tentatively intimated but never brought into the spotlight. There are several ways in which such stories can be constructed and embedded in games. I will use the Mass Effect trilogy (2007-12), a series renowned for narrative complexity, as an example.

Entirely optional for players, the non-diegetic Codex is typical of many extended games, offering information otherwise unavailable during gameplay: genealogies of alien races or historical accounts. In some titles, the Codex can be insinuated into the story, as the case is in Mass Effect 3 (2012), where it’s integrated with Shepard’s journal. Similarly descriptive, but presumably diegetic, the descriptions of planets and moons scanned by Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 2 (2010) offer backstories of settlements, impossible to circumvent entirely (but easily dismissible) before landing or orbital scanning. In-game letters, diaries, and messages left behind by the absent and now-dead characters are also common. However, the most interesting example of invisible stories in the trilogy are artifacts retrieved by Commander Shepard on distant moons and planets in the first game. Many point to mysteries that will never be resolved and intimate colonial episodes that could – but rarely are – developed into full visibility. There is also at least one instance of such marginalia that becomes consequential: collecting at least 10 pieces of Asari Matriarch Dilinaga’s writings in Mass Effect, combined with several other conditions, may increase war preparedness in Mass Effect 3.

While such narrative strategies can be used in any genre (think about radio and television reports in Max Payne [2001]), they prove particularly fruitful in sf/ fantasy games, in which they can be used to extend gameworlds beyond what is immediately delivered to the player. It is entirely possible to complete a game without knowing them, the awareness and engagement of invisible stories may dramatically increase the sense of complexity and verisimilitude of the gameworld. They make the gameworld feel more flesh-out, more crowded with meaning. In some cases, such narrative tidbits can also provide narrative openings for later DLC or tie-in media.

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