It’s unfortunate that some of the best storytelling is done in unsung details. Small details hidden in the margins of a scene or behavior that betray a deeper story. There are a great deal of examples of games that nail telling every kind of story, but there are always a few ones that manage to do something spectacular without saying a word on the subject. You know the old saying – a picture is worth a thousand words.
Games that are quietly amazing deserve recognition. To that end, here’s some examples of spectacular games that manage to weave a tale or two without relying on silly notions like dialogue.
Metal Slug 2 (Various)
For a simple game about running and shooting, Metal Slug manages to accomplish something pretty spectacular by telling the full depth of a narrative without any kind of on-screen or spoken dialog. The characters will mime, gesture, and emote in big, theatrical ways, but do so entirely in context of gameplay. Despite all of that, the games always manage to reveal some kind of twist.
One standout is the narrative of Metal Slug 2, here the players stage a campaign against the leader of a group of rebel forces after suffering a reeling defeat during the events of Metal Slug. The leader, thought dead, had formed an alliance with space aliens (as a result of the paper airplane thrown into space from the credits sequence in Metal Slug), and immediately following his second defeat by the players, he is betrayed by his extraterrestrial allies and is captured. The rebel soldiers that fought against the player throughout the games surge to the player’s aid, and together, they forge a path into the alien spaceship to recover the captured general and stop the incoming invasion.
Although action games, especially arcade action-platformers tend to lack gripping narratives, a tale of intrigue, betrayal, and camaraderie without a word said is an accomplishment worth applauding.
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (N64)
Developer: HAL Laboratory
Kirby games also aren’t particularly known for their narratives, but the story of kinship in Crystal Shards is very deftly handled for a game told exclusively in sounds, pantomime, and symbols. While the narrative isn’t anything particularly complex or vexing, the whole storybook aesthetic is very endearing and accomplishes a lot of the nostalgic warmth of a storybook or favorite fairy tale.
The charming interplay between the characters is actually very naturally told, comforting and oddly full, despite the lack of written or spoken dialog. Ceaselessly charming, it manages to pack so much heart into the silence, and for that, it’s a game worth indulging in.
The feeling of a rough pilgrimage settles into the very sands that drift around the player. The wind whips the fabric along the body, spiraling the player along an unmarked path. Puzzles and solutions emerge as part of the exploration, rewarding the player with new scenes, sights, sounds, and sequences to engage with. The narrative in Journey is betrayed by the title, promising that the best parts of the game are found in the journey. The amazing part is just how evocative the world manages to be, whose grandeur is just open and available for the player’s perusal, ready to have its secrets and meanings drawn out. Very well-crafted, cleverly executed, and hard to forget standing on the far end looking back. It’s quite the journey, and it’ss amazing both in the doing and in the memories.
Dark Souls (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Developer: FROM Software
Yes, yes, I know what you’re about to say: “But Dark Souls has dialogue!”
And that’s true, of course, but very little of the world’s backstory is actually conveyed through the characters you meet (well, aside from the introductory cutscene). Most of them utter phrases that are cryptic at best, nonsensical at worst.
Instead, it’s left to item descriptions and the world of Lordran itself to flesh out the rich history of From Software’s masterpiece, and the developer performed an absolutely sterling job in this regard. Every environment is steeped in incidental detail that hints at some of the events that transpired there, while the descriptions on many of the items – often overlooked in many other games – help to fill out a surprisingly deep backstory with vast amount of lore. You need to piece it all together for yourself – or use the excellent Dark Souls Wiki – to make sense of it all, but this piecemeal approach to storytelling, instead of battering the player over the head with expositionary dialogue and cutscenes as in so many other games, only adds to the feeling of discovery and mystery.
Both its predecessor Demons’ Souls and sequel Dark Souls 2 took the same approach, of course – The Old Iron Kings trilogy of DLC for Dark Souls 2 being a particular highlight – but for my money it’s Dark Souls – and the excellent Artorias of the Abyss expansion – that really nailed the task of creating a believable world with a staggering attention to detail to lore.
Super Metroid (SNES)
Developer: Nintendo R&D1, Intelligent Systems
Her mission is absolutely silently executed, with little more than the sounds of the cavernous planets, occasional reports of gunfire, and the dying sounds of the indigenous beasts. It really speaks to Samus’ character and resolve in just how little is said or thought over the space of a terrifyingly vast mission. Fighting some of the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy, Samus doesn’t utter a word – she simply completes her mission come hell or high water.
Despite this mission-first pragmatism that makes Samus somewhat unapproachable as a character, narratives follow in her wake. The clinging desperation of the baby Metroid, the fervent behavior of the invading space pirates, and the violent struggles between the various factions manage to tell such interesting stories around the silent and stalwart Samus. Super Metroid in particular manages to tell the deep and involved narrative of planet Zebes without saying a single word.
Ico (PS2/ PS3)
Developer: Team ICO
Probably one of the finest examples of a game which manages to tell a coherent story despite featuring next to no actual dialogue (what is there, is incomprehensible due to being spoken in an alien language – at least on your first playthrough), Ico‘s simple tale of a young boy seeking to escape his castle prison and rescue Yorda is a stunning work of art of many levels. The castle itself is a believable space, rather than feeling like a disjointed collection of rooms and areas, and the relationship between Ico and his companion is conveyed through little more than a held hand and co-operative puzzling. It was stunning when it was originally released on PS2 back in 2001/2002, and it remains equally stunning now, aided by an excellent HD remaster on PS3 alongside its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus.
Both games feature touching, silent narratives, but Ico just manages to beat its younger sibling through its intricate design and an environment that is as much responsible for conveying the story as the characters themselves. Ico and Yorda may be the heroes of Team Ico’s tale, but it’s the castle that is the true star. No wonder then that over 8 years on, The Last Guardian is still high on many gamers’ Most Wanted lists despite little actual information being released about its progress.