Welcome to “Game Design by Dummies, for Dummies,” I’m your host, Trevor Hultner! On today’s episode, we’re going to talk about visual language and its use in games to convey certain information to players at certain times. I’m almost certainly going to be wrong here so use your comment-writing powers to let me have it below!
Visual media has an inherent problem when it comes to communicating ideas effectively. If I showed you an image of a ball next to a trash can, with no other context, the only thing you would be able to learn from it for sure would be “that ball’s next to a trash can.” You don’t know whose ball it is, how the ball got there, what the deal is with the trash can, or anything else.
If I handed you the image of a ball next to a trash can and launched into a 10-minute explanation of how the ball ended up next to the trash can, who it belonged to, why the trash can was there, et cetera, you would now solidly know the story, but the image itself would be superfluous.
Film can solve this problem using a combination of dialogue and consecutive imagery that not only gives you the same information I just spent 10 minutes giving you in that diatribe, it also gave it to you much more efficiently. Filmmakers have developed an entire century’s worth of work and study on “show, don’t tell” that I honestly feel kind of uncomfortable stepping on with this clumsy explanation. But for as difficult as it is to “show, don’t tell” in a movie, it seems like it’s doubly so in a video game. Whereas a scene in a movie might be carefully edited to show viewers something specific, that same scene in a video game has to deal with a pretty big issue: you’re directing the playable character. You have the freedom, unless the game locks you in place, to move around the level and almost completely disregard whatever it is you’re supposed to be looking at.
As a result, most video games take what is known as a “diegetic” approach: lots of player narration, dialogue trees, collectible story whingdompers, and so on. The player character is almost never able to break the fourth wall with this information, it’s just assumed they absorb it (and, as a result, you have absorbed it as well).
In addition to diegesis, we have something called “mimesis.” If diegesis is considered to be the act of telling a story, then mimesis is showing one. In any video game, there are moments where something unscripted happens to the player character and information is promptly conveyed to the player. It could be something as simple as an observed minor event or conversation between two unimportant NPCs. This doesn’t add anything to the main story or even the B- or C-plots, it simply gives the game some flavor as you move through it.
Sometimes, however, mimesis is necessary to help the player through a given situation.
Think back to Half-Life, or if you never played Half-Life, think back to Portal. In both games, you are given a very small amount of information to start with. An NPC Black Mesa scientist might tell you to go put on your HEV suit, but not where you’ll find it. You have to follow the right colored line to the right part of the facility to get the HEV suit. In Portal, you learn how to fire the portal gun, which surfaces are and aren’t “portalable” and how to use physics to your advantage almost exclusively by yourself, by trial and error.
There’s even a moment in Portal when you learn that you can use a Companion Cube to block certain panels from moving back into the wall — all because you had to get by one to see a series of scribbles on the wall, drawn by the mysterious rat man.
Whether it’s by objects in the environment or simple, consistent use of color to identify good items and events from bad ones, mimesis goes hand-in-hand with diegesis.
Control is a masterpiece in this regard. There is plenty to talk about regarding the actual narrative in Control, but this game puts mimesis to such great use that it’s kind of astonishing how easily you start to pick up the world’s rules without anyone explaining them to you. Red objects or people invariably mean they’re corrupted by the enemy Hiss hivemind. A room awash in a yellow light is one with a “light cord” that can transport you to a mysterious roadside motel. If you see purple mold covering the ground, you can’t traverse that area until you’ve completed the tasks one of the research scientists working on the mold gave you. White or blue generally represents the former Director or the Board of the Federal Bureau of Control, a strange pyramid located in (no joke) the Astral Plane.
You’re led down drab corridors by green signage pointing you in the right direction. Red lights above certain doors mean they’re locked — sometimes requiring a keycard, sometimes not. Green lights mean they’re unlocked and you can go through them any time after you opened them the first time. Set against a backdrop of the Oldest House and its oppressive, ultra-government Brutalist architecture, and everything in the game just… pops, even without an HDR mode, and even with the brightness turned down as low as physically possible. This game’s visual language is so strong that even I, a dummy, can explain it effectively. And isn’t that just neat? Thanks for stopping by, and catch us next time on “Game Design by Dummies, for Dummies!”
(Addendum: I wanted to make sure that colorblind players could enjoy a similar experience. Unfortunately, there is not a colorblind mode. With as much attention to detail paid to the game’s visual language as Remedy clearly put in, I’m kind of surprised. Hopefully, they will add such a mode through a future update.)