Examining Minimalist Storytelling in Games: The Unfinished Swan, Gorogoa, and Journey
**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 as 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.
Journey is one such game. I’ve already written about how 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
Similarly, Gorogoa also 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 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 wit 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 who Monroe is, 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 allegoristic 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 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's premise 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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