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Post-mortem, retrospective--whatever you want to call it, reflecting back on your experience after a game's work comes to an end is a worthy endeavor. It gives developers a reason to pause and take the space and time needed to assess all the things that went right, wrong, and everything in between, and consciously take those lessons with them onto their next project. So, after launching Third Power on Steam last month, my fellow devs and I took the time to collect our thoughts on the experience, and we had the honor of being invited to present them to our local game dev group, The Philly Game Mechanics.


You can watch the whole presentation here:

Below, I'll discuss the project from my own (comparatively) narrow scope as that of the Narrative Designer, and I'd be curious to hear if anyone reading has their own thoughts about making projects similar to this that they'd be willing to share.

What went right?

I think our strategy of using discoverable narrative elements throughout the levels that slowly start to reveal the game story worked really well. We worked together to tell a story from the inside out (spoiler: the player learns they are actually breaking out of the cave, not venturing in in search of treasure and fortune as likely would be assumed), so it was really fun to create hints that made sense both forward and backward.

I also really loved helping direct the use of assets for storytelling (which worked so well because of our UX/UI designer Irene's significant talent and great communication). I think we did a good job telling a story in a compact space that accentuates the gameplay and does not impede it.


Every time I work with a team, be it a game jam or a longer project like this one, I use it as an opportunity to get better acquainted with the game development pipeline as a whole. I keep up with every single Discord channel constantly, so I can better understand what is going on with the concept art, audio mixing, level design, etc. These projects are a great place to become educated in other fields and see how all elements of the process work together. I think everyone could benefit from this peek inside each department's process, but someone who wants to work as a narrative designer especially needs to understand the broad ins and outs of nearly every department from art to programming to audio.

Which brings me to my next point.


What went wrong?

I got a job during the early stages of this project, so I couldn’t do dive in as much as I would have liked right from the beginning. Being brought in after some elements have been decided on is a challenge that I like about game writing, though, so I still enjoyed this part of the process a lot. I was presented with gameplay elements--like having a human that turns into an intricate cube and solves puzzles--and from there, I built a narrative and crafted the game's story. Not ideal, perhaps, because I'd love to have been there from the beginning, but this is honestly how a lot of studios do it, so I welcomed the experience either way.



One issue with projects like this in general is that, since we are all volunteers, it’s hard to really take leadership in collaborative work. One of the reasons I pay attention to what’s going on all over the place is because, in theory and depending on the project, a narrative designer might direct artists to alter their work so that their creations strike the right narrative tone, tell the sound designers that their audio needs to feel a little more this or that to really fit the feel of the space, or even get into the nitty gritty on character design right down to what the MC’s gait might look like. In work like this, I don't feel empowered to come to a bunch of volunteers and direct their work in the way that someone in a leadership position might otherwise do. Since we’re all volunteering our time and most of us have other jobs, we don’t often have the time for multiple takes on the same game element and, to put it bluntly, who the heck am I anyway to be telling folks what to do anyway? In the end, just another volunteer on a pretty big (for a project like this) remote team.

That’s not to mention how many of us (myself included) couldn’t always be around for team meetings and things like that, so coordinating live was often difficult. But with this more laisser-faire approach, things come out a little less cohesive at best and disconnected at worst. I did my best to try and point people to the GDD and general agreed-upon elements of the narrative when I could, but didn’t feel comfortable “forcing” things, for lack of a better word, like I have on paid projects where roles are more strictly defined and people are compensated for their time.

I’ve also learned that even with a GDD or even just a narrative plan available, not everyone involved in the project is going to reference it when making their assets, which can be frustrating, especially when a lot of work was put into making it accessible and expecting that, since our team was spread across time zones and continents, members would work to keep themselves abreast of plans made that direct development. But, again, it's hard to be too mad, as again, everyone was volunteering their time.


Conclusions


I’m proud of the work we did. With our hodgepodge team of volunteers and in the short time we gave ourselves, I think we did a pretty great job, considering. I don't think Third Power is going to blow anyone's socks off necessarily, but we've got a ton of downloads and generally positive feedback for something done in such a short amount of time. (Probably helps that it's listed on Steam at the low, low price of free as well!) There's a saying that your first 10 games will suck, so hurry up and make those so you can make the good ones. Well, I don't think Third Power "sucks," but I do know we still have a long way to go. That being said, It was a really great learning experience that I'm happy to have been a part of, and I can't wait to see what the team does next.


Action Plan


As for what I've learned during my time on this project that I can apply to similar jobs in the future, I'll say that, though I’m not someone who has the luxury of putting a full-time job’s amount of work into an unpaid side project, on similar projects in the future, I’d like to try and be more present in live meetings when possible (but there’s a lot hanging on that “when possible,” haha).

Moving forward, I think I might also break down agreed-upon narrative elements for each department to try and help keep a cohesive vision from the start more accessible to teams without expecting them to study the greater GDD (even though I still think this is good practice).


Finally, if I am able to be more present on another volunteer project like this one, I’d also like to get myself comfortable taking charge a little more. Even as volunteers, if I can help us all stay on the right track, that’s less time wasted, less frustration, and a more cohesive piece of work we can all be proud of.



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Recently, I wrote about how I’ve been participating in my first ever game jams this year. The experience has been really fulfilling, not just because it’s fun to apply my skills and actually see a more or less finished product (albeit a rough one) come together, but also because of the amazing people I’ve had the opportunity to meet throughout the experience. Khenan Newton is one of those amazing people.


Khenan (pronounced kay-nin) is 25 years old, but he leads projects like he’s been doing it his whole life and then some. His passion is clear in how engaged he is, both in his own programming work and the time and attention he puts into guiding his teammates. He regularly encourages those working with him to branch out and try new strategies and is always available to answer questions and willing to walk folks through things as often as is needed. During our work together, Khenan would regularly stay up late figuring out bugs and reworking systems, and he says game development is the only thing that can keep him engaged and happily devoted for so many hours on end. His love for making games is apparent in his work and leadership in a way that really struck me, so I decided to learn a bit more about Khenan and where that passion comes from.


The original gamer in Khenan's family was his aunt. She got his grandmother into gaming as well, and Khenan spent his childhood playing on his grandmother’s GameCube whenever he got the chance. Pokémon and Legend of Zelda were some of his favorites, and he played Super Smash Bros competitively, but Khenan told me that gaming wasn’t just something fun to do in the off hours of his day; it went deeper than that. Khenan says he grew up in a house with six women and no male role models. He was cared for in that he was clothed and didn’t go hungry, but felt isolated and without a lot of the support, stimulation, or guidance from his family that he felt he needed as a young boy. He says he knows he “still got more than a lot of people,” but even so, he found himself immersed in gameplay on his grandmother’s console again and again as an avenue to enter worlds that, simply put, weren’t this one—and he couldn’t get enough of it.


I, too, relate to games serving as a childhood escape and refuge from an at-times difficult existence. For Khenan, games were the place he “learned to connect and rely on the support of others,” because it was with other gamers that he built himself a different kind of family and found community that he fit into and felt supported by in a way that outshone what he had at home.


Perhaps this sort of experience is what makes Khenan his own kind of role model now. Clear, organized, supportive, communicative, and understanding, Khenan is exactly the sort of person you feel lucky to have leading your project. When you’re not sure where you fit or are looking for support to branch out and be guided through new techniques and strategies, someone like him, a person who is excited to act as a mentor and reach new goals together with you, can be an absolute blessing. I don’t know that this is a conscious choice by Khenan, to be such a kind, almost older brother sort of presence in the teams he leads—part peer, part authority figure, but someone you generally trust and feel comfortable with—but he executes it flawlessly. “My philosophy for achieving fulfillment,” says Khenan, “is having people in your life that you can rely on, and they can rely on you. When you have that, there’s never a dull moment or a challenge that’s too daunting.” And indeed, the projects Khenan leads are often ambitious and experimental, but he supports his team throughout and generally gets impressive results.


Screenshot from Cell Shocked, on which Khenan worked as Project Lead and Lead Programmer


It’s clear that a sense of community is important to Khenan, and he and I bonded over our mutual respect for the fellowship and camaraderie games can bring to anyone and everyone who picks up a controller (or positions their fingers over the WASD keys, or gets ready to tap their touch screen) and dives in. Khenan and I agree that games are an avenue through which real connections can be forged and maintained. “Games are not just a source of entertainment,” says Khenan. “Games are an experience. Games are invokers of emotion [and they] provide the platform to share those emotions with others and connect people.” I agree wholeheartedly that games are more than a mindless way to pass time; they can create lifetime memories, establish lifelong bonds, and have a life-changing impact. That’s why people like me and Khenan (and so many others) love games in a way that’s beyond simply enjoying the gameplay itself; we assign deep value to the experience of playing and the connections we form between the folks with whom we play.


It's clear Khenan wants to take that value and add to it, using his career as an opportunity to give back to a form of media that feels like part of what shaped him. “I always knew I wanted to be involved in with game development. Games and the people surrounding them were the only things in my life that provided what my family didn’t,” says Khenan. At 23, he learned he loved programming game mechanics, reveling in the opportunity it afforded to revisit the emotions games invoked in him when he was younger. “The laughs, the happiness, the sadness, the fear,“ Khenan said, “were reproducible with a few lines of code and some cool features.” And through that work, he explains, Khenan strives to share those emotions and connect with others like himself.


Screenshot from Alma of the Forest, on which Khenan worked as Project Lead and Lead Programmer


In fact, Khenan has created his own studio, Plot Armor Studios, which he hopes will facilitate his mission to bring gamers together. His goal is to create things that satisfy those folks “who long for that game they can play with their friends for hours and hours on end and meet other gamers like them in the process.” Khenan’s dream is to “make it so they never have to stop or give up on that process,” because that’s how important of a role he feels games can play in people’s lives.


Two of the game jams I participated in had Khenan at the head as project lead, and I’ve seen firsthand how he brings his passion to the development process. He has also been working on his own solo project, Fantasy of the Last Originals, which I played a demo of last year at the Indie Arcade at Colorspace Labs before Khenan and I had officially met. Now he has his sights set on something even bigger. “My most ambitious goal,” Khenan says, “is to build an MMO that pays its playerbase just to play the game.” My mind whirs with the possibilities associated with Khenan's idea. “I’ll have to build a play-to-earn model, likely by building a system that facilitates a free market economy powered by the supply and demand environment of the game,” he explains. If this sounds far-fetched, remind yourself of all the other innovations games have brought to the forefront that we once thought of as odd or unachievable. I talk all the time about Achaea. Did you know that back in the 90s, that game was one of the first (if not the first) to implement microtransactions? Now think of how ubiquitous that model is today. For better or for worse, someone had to conceive of it and take the risk of trying to make it work within a game before we could get to where we are now, where free-to-play (or, if you're being less kind, pay-to-win) is just a way of gaming life and something we rarely give a second thought today. “Games are kind of like a bounce board for risky technology,” Khenan says, citing how the chances the gaming world is willing to take with innovative ideas often then clue in more cautious companies and major investors to what’s worth putting their resources into. “Video games proved to the world that people are interested in using VR,” Khenan says, “and video games will continue to improve the use cases for it, and thus even further encourage investment and innovation in other sectors.”



And while games are very much about innovating, they're also about humanity and how the world works, even when the action takes place in exotic and fantastic locales. Shoot, we all know about The Corrupted Blood Incident, in World of Warcraft by now, right? That’s old news in one way, but in another it's still incredibly relevant, especially since the advents of COVID-19. Games and the communities within them continue to operate more and more like the real world (albeit often set in surreal and extraordinary environments) every day, holding a mirror—often allegorical but nearly literal at times as well—to the lives of the players who enjoy them. Games have been a place to spend money for decades. It’s only a matter of time before games become a place to earn money as well, right? Someone just has to make it work, and Khenan thinks that someone could be him.


I’ve said before that, if writing a novel is like giving a lecture to your audience, then game development is like having a conversation with them, and if that’s so, then Khenan seems eager to “talk.” The thing about a conversation in the world of game development started by a person like Khenan is that anyone who loves games and joins in on that dialog is going to be better off for it in the end. So long as developers continue to be as passionate as Khenan is, games are going to continue to be an even deeper and more impactful version of that wonderful escape so many of us look for while simultaneously serving as one of our easiest ways to connect, forge friendships, build families, and know that no matter where we are in life, we never, ever have to go it alone.


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If you'd like to keep up with Khenan's new projects, you can find him on Linkedin, or check out what he's been working on here.



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**This article contains spoilers for the aforementioned three games.**


Since I'm a writer myself, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I love games with a good, rich story. There's a lot of skill and effort that goes into revealing engaging narrative through dialogue and cutscenes to be sure. Even if a game writer is allowed an unlimited word count to tell a tale, it's still hard to make something as engaging and entertaining as, say, Disco Elysium (350,000 words narrated!), despite having plenty of room to let the written narrative stretch its legs. That's why it's all the more impressive to me, then, when a game developer is able to tell a story that grips the player and pulls them fully in to the game's imagined world by using very few words, or even through using no words at all.


Below, we'll look at three games that really play with the idea of storytelling in minimalist spaces and discuss how the devs' narrative choices made these games memorable and powerful while examining if their storytelling remained effective.


Journey


I’ve already written about how in Journey, there is a story told within the gameplay that keeps me questioning but engaged, leads me to form a strong bond with my companion despite our limited communication, and makes me excited to move forward on our expedition together even if I don't know why we're doing it. All of this is achieved without a word ever being uttered by any character or creature within the varied climates the player gets to explore.



Journey’s story is there at the forefront more or less: you need to reach the mountain. But little else is explicitly revealed. Why are you on this mission? It’s never made clear, but then again, the why isn’t really the point of the game, is it? Sorry for the unavoidable titular reference, but the whole point of the thing is really the… journey after all. (Though there are those who have tried to break it down in great detail, if you're into that sort of thing.)


I ended the game with unanswered questions and was maybe a little let down at the lack of a big finish to celebrate my character's achievement of reaching their destination, but simultaneously, I felt ultimately satisfied and, honestly, wowed. I was initially surprised that I didn’t get the usual fanfare I expect at the end of a game, sure, but is that these devs’ fault, or is it mine for being conditioned to expect the end of a game to carry most of its weight? Did I not just have a fantastic time? Was I not just dropped into a world that was an absolute pleasure to explore and given an experience that was both engaging and beautiful? Did I not just enjoy every single moment of my time playing?


So often, games are monotonous grinding and repetitious failure, with the elation that comes from our eventual and hard-won success acting as the bolt of dopamine we need to keep doing it again. Journey, instead, was a gift of an experience, with no part frustrating or tedious. Instead, the gameplay itself, at every moment, was the reward, so the ending, instead of offering that fanfare and congratulations I’d come to expect, instead simply asked if I’d like to play again.


And the answer was yes. Yes I would.


Screenshot from Adventure Gamers


Gorogoa


Similarly, Gorogoa manages to tell a story without a single word in the actual gameplay. What that story is, however, is up for debate. Some people say it’s less of a game and more of an interactive painting. Others say that they have no idea what any of it means but that the experience was some of the most beautiful gameplay they’d ever had the opportunity to enjoy. Discussion of the theme of the game generates varied opinions, but what seems to be agreed upon is the general sense of sadness expressed throughout the gameplay. There’s a constant sense of searching, of struggle, and dissatisfaction, even though the player's achievements. We chase a gorgeous dragon-monster, try to find normalcy in a war-torn city, see our character broken, humbled, and seemingly desperate as he travels desolate landscapes to a destination that remains unclear. At the end, once the player has successfully completed the final puzzle, gathering all five orbs and arranging the panels just so, an elder version of the game’s main character appears to be absorbed by the sun, which then becomes the eye of the dragon it seems as if we’ve been chasing from the very beginning. Is this a happy ending? The score doesn’t make it seem so. The game is beautiful and engaging, and its story is perplexing.


Screenshot from Adventure Gamers


Does this mean Gorogoa failed in its mission? Is this a warning to developers of what might happen if you choose to forego text to tell stories visually or non-linearly or experimentally? Yes and no. While I’ve yet to find someone certain they’ve correctly interpreted what the game is trying to say, I’ve also had no trouble finding people who love Gorogoa despite its ambiguities and who delve deeply into discussing it and their own thoughts and feelings about both their and the character’s journeys throughout the game. And, while I’m sure they exist, I have personally been unable to find anyone who says that they regret having played.


One writer said that "Gorogoa’s overarching theme is curiosity,” and like Journey, perhaps the gameplay itself is more important than any why or where, exactly, we’re headed, just so long as we get there. Gorogoa’s vignettes pull you in, even if you’re not quite sure exactly where you’re being pulled to, and you feel calm, curious, worried, and victorious at all the right moments. Similar to Journey, I’ve found myself thinking of this game long after my first playthrough, despite the fact that there isn’t a single voice or clearly defined story point to call to mind. But just as the scenes and locations entranced me in Journey, so too have the peeks into the character’s life, struggles, and journey in Gorogoa come to me again and again as I continue to try and parse just what exactly it was the game was trying to tell me. It’s not that Gorogoa said nothing, but rather that it said so much, and I’m happy to have heard it all, even if its culmination still remains unclear.



The Unfinished Swan


The Unfinished Swan strays a bit from the former two games, as there is text within the gameplay, though there’s still no real dialogue between characters. The story in The Unfinished Swan goes two directions. First, we learn of a young boy, Monroe, who has lost his mother, and who escapes into a fantasy world after moving to an orphanage with only a single painting of hers to remember her by. Within the boy’s travels, we also learn the story of a king, so particular in his designing of his various kingdoms and castles that he continues to upset his royal subjects, who are less concerned with aesthetics and more interested in functionality. (Not being able to locate one’s house because the entire kingdom is painted stark white, for instance, isn’t particularly conducive to an easy life, the king's subjects might say.)


A room in The Unfinished Swan painted exactly to the king's liking.


Within the game, you begin by splattering black paint on the pristine white walls, floors, and decorations of the king’s design. The gameplay here is unique and interesting, but also a bit maddening at times. It’s very rewarding to find the outline of the room you’re in, but puzzles amid such an obfuscated and chaotic setting can cause one to struggle in ways that are, at times, less fun and more frustrating. Nevertheless, the distinct gameplay remains engaging and surprising, and the player is periodically rewarded with snippets of plot in the form of pages in a storybook narrated by, I’d like to imagine, the main character’s mother, as if she is reading him to sleep even within his dreams.


Another room in the game after I used my paint to make out some of the walls and objects within.


What’s interesting about the storybook snippets is that they could potentially be totally missable. The player has to reveal them by interacting with them, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve hit every one. If the storybook doesn’t have to be read, does that mean the story isn’t actually important at all? I don't think so, but it does seem like a risk to take in game design.


Unlike Journey and Gorgogoa, The Unfinished Swan's gameplay itself doesn’t reveal the story so much as hint at it. Without the little storybook pages, I would have had no idea that the entire environment was white because the king wanted it that way, or that in the second section, gray shadows were introduced into the landscape to appease the king’s populace.


The sea monster was also a delightful touch.


One thing I did like a lot, though, was the way the gameplay made me feel, and I do believe a bit of the story was told through those feelings. You start a bit frustrated, unsure, and uncomfortable. Like the main character, who is dealing with a deep and intense loss as well as the upending of his life as he knows it, you don’t really understand the world around you anymore. It’s hard to gauge what’s coming next, and while it is satisfying to feel your way through and answer the questions you had as you explored (What is that? Oh! A pond! Are those spikes? No, no, just grass. Where am I supposed to go next? Aha! A hallway!), you could easily imagine yourself as the little boy, learning to navigate this new world as an orphan: a world that has somehow both recognizable and incomprehensible at the same time.


After progressing through the at time maddening white-on-white environment, gradually, shadows are added in. Then colors, one by one. You stop splashing everything with deep, inky black splatters, which both reveal details and obfuscates them if you overdone, and start spraying water, which grows flowering vines that help you scale buildings and traverse canyons. Just as you were starting to understand how this new world works, it changes, but not all the changes are bad. These vines, once you encounter them and understand their purpose, feel like the first friendly thing you’ve met on your journey so far—unless you count the honking, titular swan.


What’s amazing about the game is that it manages to be breathtaking, even throughout its minimalism and simplicity. There’s a sea monster that makes you gasp, and a huge city labyrinth that wows you. The town you explore is beautiful despite its mostly monochrome feel, and, as I imagine Monroe does, you begin to become more and more at ease with your surroundings. The discomfort lessons. There’s still something missing, of course. Like life without a loved one, even the good times feel incomplete. But the world around you is also no longer an incomprehensible mess, and, while we need the storybook pages to tie the persnickety king's story together with the environments we're moving through, Monroe’s story is told through a mix of extremely brief interludes and the overall experience the player has helping him navigate this new world. The feelings of moving through the slowly adapting space helping you understand the things left unsaid within the game.


The world is starting to feel a little more familiar, while simultaneously remaining a puzzling place to explore.


Something that is in line with the other two games in this entry, though is the way The Unfinished Swan's story is left in some ways up to interpretation. The creative director, Ian Dallas, said that there were things that remain unclear even to him in the end. One big point of confusion is whether the king knows who Monroe is. Late game reveals that the king created a woman who never finished the animals she painted—understood to be Monroe’s mom. That makes the king Monroe’s father, but, since the story reveals that Monroe’s mother left before he was born, it’s unclear whether the king really knows if Monroe is his son, though he certainly seems happy to see him.


The king also doesn’t seem to realize that it was Monroe who “ruined” his life’s work, splashing paint on the pristine white walls and watering the wretched vines that are beautiful to me, the player, but a nuisance to the game’s king.


Something that remained unclear to me, though Dallas seemed steadfast on it, is whether Monroe’s adventure in the kingdom was real or a dream. “It’s not a dream. There’s a door. He walks into it. It’s a world that exists on its own,” Dallas insists, but he immediately follows it up with a statement that if someone does think it’s a dream, “they’re [not] necessarily wrong, either. It’s a stew of a bunch of different related thematic elements,” and Dallas says it’s open to some interpretation.


That being said, the idea that this world is literal, and not an allegorical dreamworld jaunt through Monroe’s grief kind of takes away some of the magic for me. I spent my game time thinking about how perfectly everything lined up. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, there’s a new mechanic to learn, a new reminder of the strange world you live in now that you have to navigate alone. There are times the ground literally falls out beneath you. Does that not represent the feeling of the loss of a loved one so poignantly? There’s one area, the only area where you take damage in the game, that is a hauntingly dark forest full of spiders. If you venture too far into the darkness, you get hurt, so you have to do your best to stay within the fleeting, dim lights along the way as you try to navigate forward, unsure of where you’re heading but hoping it’s better than here. If that doesn’t feel like a representation of depression, then I’m not sure what would! The area immediately after this frightening and steady slog through darkness grants you a new skill where you are able to build platforms that help you scale structures. (Like slowly rebuilding your life after loss, right? Right?). After you master that, you have to take another short jaunt in those dark woods, but the darkness doesn’t hurt you anymore. The spiders are gone. You’ve moved passed the worst of it by then. You have new coping skills. You're moving forward.


Your view at the end of your first foray in the dark woods.


Or, you’re literally just walking through a forest, I guess, and literally building some platforms to simply find your literal dad. Once it became clear within the story that the the king was Monroe's dad, I had one of those TV montage moments where all the storybook pages about the king's overbearing decrees and the repeated abandonment of his duties came rushing back. He’s so particular, gets mad and rejects things that don’t go exactly his way. It’s always his subjects’ fault the kingdom doesn’t run right, never his. Was this representation of abuse? Or lack of engagement in his significant other and future son's lives? Is that why Monroe’s mother left before he was born? Could it have been because of the constant emotional turmoil the impossible-to-please, narcissistic “king” put her in? It says the king loved her because she was like him. Was he holding her to impossible standards?


Or, again, perhaps everything we’ve learned so far is not allegory but literal. There is a literal king with a literal kingdom. He literally created Monroe’s mother in his own image and loved her because she was somewhat like looking into a mirror… literally.


It takes some of the magic out of it for me for sure, story-wise, anyway, but the game itself is still a fantastic adventure that I immediately recommended to a friend upon finishing. Since Dallas says it’s up to interpretation, I think I’m going to go ahead and stick with my own, which is, I suppose, another risk game developers run when they opt for a minimalist storytelling style.


One of the game's discoverable storybook pages.


In the end, minimalist storytelling in games is not simply a way to keep the narrative short. In Journey, it was a way to force the player to connect with the environment and characters they encountered perhaps more closely than they could have if they hadn’t had to interpret and feel things out for themselves every step of the way, unguided and free. In Gorogoa, it served as a way to tell an at times unclear and nonlinear story that plays on your emotions and constantly alters you perceptions in order to spark curiosity and invention. In The Unfinished Swan, minimalist storytelling ends up being a way to expand the experience of the game. Though things in the game’s narrative remain unclear, some of that lack of clarity works in the game’s favor, allowing the player’s preconceived notions and own fantastic ideas to fill in the blanks. The lack of a strict, defined narrative within the gameplay means that even the basic premise of the story can be up to the player’s interpretation, giving the game the opportunity to grow bigger and grander in the player's mind without the game devs having to spell out the possibilities themselves.


It’s never really explained why the swan acts as a guide through this alternate reality or dreamworld, depending on your understanding of the story. It’s also interesting that though the catalyst for the entire experience is the death of Monroe’s mother, the entire game is mostly spent examining the actions and whims of the king, whose story feels disconnected from Monroe’s until the reveal near the very end.


But despite those seemingly loose ends, I might say that this is a story of how, after she was gone, Monroe’s mother perhaps answered the things she had left unanswered for Monroe in life. If we imagine hers as the voice reading the storybook pages, then the game is that of a mother guiding her son through his grief and explaining things to him that perhaps she had always meant to get around to but unfortunately ran out of time before she had the chance. It can then be a story about the journey one takes on the other side of loss as well as a reminder not to leave important things unsaid. It can be a testament to a boy’s love for his mother and her desire to give him whatever it is she can, even in death.


Or, with the other, more literal interpretation, perhaps it’s simply a story of a boy untethered, finally able to meet his magical father in person, both for the first and last time.


Where we finally meet the king.


One could also argue, regardless of whether you take the world explored within the game as real or not, there is a bit of learning on the king’s side as well, as it becomes more and more clear that all his endless attempts at creating an everlasting legacy have failed, perhaps even when it comes to his son, who has personally (and unknowingly) destroyed all that the king thought was important. It could also be a lesson, then, about how as parents, we should not expect our children to live our lives, do our bidding, and be perfect cookie-cutter people that fit perfectly into our idea of what we’d like them to be. They will be who they are and do what is right for them, and like the king in the end, we have to learn to accept that.


And all of this is said by the game without needing to be delivered via text on the screen. Like Journey and Gorogoa, The Unfinished Swan's narrative, in being allowed to expand to meet the player's chosen interpretations, is given free range to be as big and impactful as we want it to be. Minimalist storytelling in games comes with some risks, as we've seen, but it also opens the door for the player to take ownership of the narrative and make it theirs, creating a dialogue between the developers and players that is both intimately collaborative and decidedly hands-off. It can be cause for confusion or breed a richer, deeper experience for the player—or both. In the end, minimalist storytelling can be risk and reward simultaneously: you have much less control over the player's interpretation of your creation, but the gameplay can certainly be made richer by giving the player more freedom to interpret the story on their own. It's not an approach that would work in every game, but I think there's room for both the Disco Elysiums and the Gorogoas out there to co-exist peacefully. They both bring something valuable to the table, and the players are the ones who win when game devs are willing to stray from the norm and give us more options, more gameplay styles, and more varied opportunities to engage with their work.



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