The Power of the Textural Story

By Josh Snyder

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Gone Home is a showcase for the power of the textural story.

It is a scene that many gamers can relate to. Maybe it is at a work function, and a co-worker corners you, maybe after one too many trips to the open bar. Or maybe it is a family gathering, and your aunt just has to know. “You play videogames?” they ask, slightly puzzled, mostly curious. “Why?”

Why do I play video games? That is not an easy question to answer, mainly because video games can mean so many different things to so many people. I know gamers who wait each year at midnight at their local Gamestop to buy the latest Madden, but think World of Warcraft is way too nerdy. Or the group of guys who all purchased a console and one game, the latest Call of Duty, and get together online a few nights a week, to kick back and relax over grenades and AK-47s. To them, a game of Madden or a few rounds of Call of Duty are an online replacement for the weekly poker game. It is just as much about being sociable and being with friends as it is trading for a star quarterback or hitting that perfect headshot from halfway across the map.

And then there are those who play World of Warcraft, who play video games because they get to inhabit fantasy worlds, and see that world through a different set of eyes. They can role play, they can be whatever they want, and that freedom is empowering.

For me, I have always been fascinated at how unique the medium is, how it differs from film and literature, while also being a mixture of those traditional forms of art. I have written on video game semiotics, which best sums up this view – semiotics as a study derives from cinema, yet video game developers have developed a set of symbols to convey language unique to this medium. Video games have the power of at once being so unfamiliar, yet being instantly recognizable.

But there is one aspect of video games which is unique to the medium that has become prominent in recent years. Video games are uniquely able to tell multiple stories, from start to finish, layered one on top of the other. A game can have a main storyline, a B-story and numerous side quests, all happening at once. But there is an additional type of story we can add to that category – the textural story, a story told through non-conventional means that adds history or context to the world.

So… what is a textural story? How does it differ from a side quest? Defining the textural story is just as much about defining what it is not as it is about defining what it is, and, of course, providing plenty of examples.

We Need a Definition

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Scenes such as this one from Fallout 3 may not look like much, but a closer look reveals an intriguing story.

Before providing those examples, lets lay down some sort of framework for what I mean when I use the term textural story. A textural story is one that provides history or context to a scene, setting or world, however, it is not necessary that the player experiences this story to complete the main objectives of a game. Textural stories are short stories, sometimes told within one scene, yet they hint at a larger story that the player will never get to fully experience. These stories are designed to entice the player’s imagination and to fill in the gaps as needed. And perhaps the most unique and important aspect of the textural story is that they are not structured or presented to the player in any traditional sense. These stories are not included in a player’s journal or quest list, they do not have any navigation points or any other HUD markers associated with them (forcing players to seek them out on their own) and they often offer no reward for completion. In fact, a typical textural story cannot be completed – they are simply experienced.

Developer Bethesda Softworks has been employing the use of textural stories in their games for years. In Fallout 3, the player can enter one of the many underground tunnels and stumble upon a motorcycle. Nothing about the setting – the lighting, the layout of the room, calls attention to that motorcycle, but if the player moves in the direction of the motorcycle they will then come across the lower half of a skeleton. Just a few steps ahead, the player might notice that the top half of a skeleton is hanging from a light fixture in the ceiling, and just a few yards beyond that, the player will come to an incline in the tunnel, and at the base of that incline is a pile of sandbags with a board propped against it – a makeshift ramp that a bored wanderer of the nuclear wasteland used to propel their motorcycle down, in a misguided attempt to have some fun in this bleak world, only to be decapitated by, of all things, a light.

This is a textural story. It is short, it partially paints a picture and invites the player to fill in the rest. It adds character to the world, yet at the same time it is not vital to experience to complete Fallout 3. But if the player blindly runs through the world and misses these stories, they will be missing out on a level of context and detail that can make a virtual world appear to be a real place.

To be fair, textural stories can share some characteristics of traditional video game stories, such as a B-story or a side quest. But textural stories differ in some unique ways. For starters, a B-story is best characterized as a story of great significance and is crucial in understanding the main story of a game, but might not be the primary focus. For example, the add-on mission Lair of the Shadow Broker for Mass Effect 2 is critical to the canon of Mass Effect, and provides closure to some important characters. The player gets to team up with Liara, a major character and party member from the first game, and together they get to track down the titular Shadow Broker, who played a major role in act one of the original’s plot. Yet the main story of Mass Effect 2 does not directly rely on the events of Lair of the Shadow Broker – viewed from that angle, Lair of the Shadow Broker is a nice distraction. But from the perspective of the add-on mission, it is central to understanding the world of Mass Effect, and therefore is a must-play experience to fully understand the world.

Side quests might seem like the most comparable to textural stories, but they differ in that they are trackable stories – the player has to do little to experience this story, as the game will almost always provide a journal entry or navigation point that directs the player to the next story beat. The Strangers and Freaks missions in Grand Theft Auto V are great examples of side quests – these missions involve meeting one of the many eccentric residents of San Andreas, and more often than not doing some sort of strange favor for them (sifting through the trash of a celebrity for a star-crazed elderly couple is just one example). These missions are not necessary to experience in order to complete the main story, they are smaller in size than a B-story, but are big enough to warrant navigation points on the map, to ensure that players do get the chance to experience them. When it comes to textural stories, it ultimately does not matter if the player gets to experience them, but doing so greatly enriches the overall value the game provides.

When framed in this context, textural might not seem like much more than a glorified easter egg, or as a more organic way of conveying supplementary information to the player. But viewing them this way is to drastically underrate their power. When it comes to the textural story, one game comes to mind, one that shows the power and impact these stories posses.

Heading Back Home

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A typical scene from Gone Home, hiding a large amount of textural stories.

Gone Home is not a traditional video game. The player controls the protagonist, a young woman named Katlin, from the first-person perspective. The game takes place within a large house her father inherited while she was travelling in Europe, which the family moved into shortly thereafter. When Katlin arrives, she finds the house is empty, and while exploring it for the first time begins to piece together the events that explain why the house is abandoned. The player is able to examine items and move them around, which is as far as this game goes in terms of player interaction. By examining certain objects, the player will learn more about her family’s move into the new house, and what events have transpired while she was out of the country, leading up to the aforementioned disappearances.

At first it may be tempting to label Gone Home a point and click adventure, but there are very few puzzles to solve, and the game provides a surprising amount of freedom in terms of movement throughout the house and the pace at which the player can explore each room. At times I was reminded of games like MYST, but again, those games placed a heavy emphasis on puzzle solving and atmosphere, whereas Gone Home is purely atmosphere and storytelling. So if it isn’t a puzzle game, or a point and click adventure, then what is it? One element of traditional video game design does manage to get through – the main story is told through journal diaries that the player unlocks by examining items within the house, a magical transfer of information that, logically, makes little sense. But outside of that, there is little of Gone Home that links it to traditional video game design.

What is the most intriguing element of Gone Home, and the one trait that may provide a clearer definition as to what type of game it is, is that the player can run through the house, only stopping to examine their surroundings when running into a dead end, and still acquire enough information as to “complete” the game (for Gone Home, completing the game is simply unlocking the last entry in the sister’s journal and finishing her story). But rushing through Gone Home only ensures that the player will miss the main draw – the stories that are discovered, told through letters from friends or from other pieces of information strewn about the home. In other words, the textural stories.

Failed Careers, Promotions and Vacations

The power of Gone Home is in how the game fleshes out the characters – their personalities, their history – without ever once including those characters within the game. This is proof that textural stories have potential as storytelling devices – I felt a closer connection to Katlin’s dad than I do most characters I encounter in video games, and never once did I actually interact with this character. There are numerous examples of these stories throughout Gone Home, and they all highlight how textural stories work and why developers should consider employing this technique more often.

One of the earliest examples of this is with the father, Terrence, an aspiring writer who could never quite seem to get his career off the ground. Shortly into the story, the player may come across a novel written by the father, a sci-fi thriller about a time-travelling hero who tries to prevent the JFK assassination. Stumbling into his study reveals research into possible sequels, and a letter from a friend, letting him know that he could find great paying work writing reviews of stereo equipment for a music and audio specialty magazine. The player gets the sense that the father may have been hesitant about this, although he agrees to do a couple reviews, if only to earn some income while working on his true passion. Then, the player finds a rejection letter from his publisher, who refuses to publish the sequel to his sci-fi novel. The player then learns that this has left the father in a state of depression, as revealed by a letter he receives from the editor of the audio magazine, criticizing him for his reviews becoming less about the product and more about his personal struggles.

This is not where the father’s story ends, but it is important to take a moment and explain how the player learns all of this information. Gone Home is surprisingly linear in design, and developer Fullbright does a great job of making sure the players progress through certain rooms in the house in a certain order. This starts out simply enough – entering the home for the first time, the player can either go left, right or up the stairs in front of them. The door to the right is locked, meaning most players will proceed left, skipping the upstairs portion of the house in order to explore the home floor by floor, starting with the first. Heading to the left, the player will first pass by the father’s study, where they’ll learn much of this information about the father, but the player will most likely proceed past it because of an eerie noise coming from a room just down the hall. In that room the television has been left on, playing a looping emergency message about an incoming storm, and as the player inspects the room they discover the next of the sister’s journal entries. It is plausible that a player not paying close attention to the environment might forget to backtrack to the study, or won’t explore it until later in the story, and even then, these notes are not just lying out on a table – they are tucked away in books, hidden underneath magazines. The player has to search to find all of these puzzle pieces, and then must put the puzzle together on their own.

Textural stories, when utilized correctly, can do a great job of making the gamer feel like the developer is anticipating their needs, which in turn builds a level of trust between developer and gamer. I am much more likely to meticulously explore the rest of the house if I believe I may discover similar, intriguing and hidden stories, a task I might not be as likely to undertake if the developer did not show me that my dedication would be rewarded.

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The father’s cork board, kept in his study, conveys more information and story than the average video game setting, but could easily be missed.

The player eventually learns that the father, who has for years unsuccessfully tried to get all of his novels in the time-travelling series published, receives a letter from a niche publisher who is excited to meet with him and discuss reprinting his original story, along with the unpublished sequels. But this information does not come until the end of the game, and during that time, from failed writer to possible career resurgence, the player learns about Janice, the protagonist’s mother. Janice has experienced the opposite career trajectory than her husband – a forest ranger working for the state of Oregon, she receives a promotion, and with it comes a prestigious job and a new employee to manage, a young ranger named Rick (and yes, plenty of Ranger Rick jokes get made). While Terrance’s writing career spirals out of control, Janice’s career soars, and the result is tension at home (a book on how to rekindle a marriage can be found in the bathroom off of the parent’s bedroom, a bit on the nose for Gone Home, but a pivotal piece to the story). Janice begins to drift away from Terrance, and even goes as far as to attend a rock concert with Rick, leaving Terrence at home. However, before the relationship can progress, the player learns that Rick is set to get married, and Janice is invited to the wedding. Right after this revelation, the player stumbles upon a calendar in the kitchen, and both mom and dad have decided to reconcile their differences and spend a week together, skipping Rick’s wedding, implying that their relationship may work out after all.

Janice’s story, of the almost-affair with Rick and turmoil at home, shows how diverse textural stories can be told. The majority of this story is told from letters sent to Janice by an old college friend, Carol. This is an interesting mechanic, as it means that the player will only get half of the story, and it will be filtered through Carol, who is clearly reacting to letters Janice has penned, letters the player will never read. Everything we learn comes second hand, in pieces, from a friend not even in the same state. This is even less direct character development than Terrence, who benefits from the player’s ability to read pages from his novels and reviews he has written. Yet Janice feels just as real, perhaps even more relatable, thanks to some excellent writing and unique clues scattered throughout the home.

Making the World Come Alive

Textural stories provide many benefits – they are yet another tool the developer can use to grow their world, or even to develop a character. Developers can use these textural stories to establish or expand canon – an important element in its own right. They create a sense of history that suggests these worlds are alive, and were there before the player arrived, and will continue to be there once the player leaves. More importantly, they can accomplish all of these tasks, and their implementation can be very light on developer resources. The return on investment can be huge – instead of having to construct long, elaborate cutscenes, developers can tone down the story, hide it in the background of the level or scene, and reward players who spend the time seeking these stories out, building a deeper connection for the player to both the developer and the world.

Although Gone Home may not embody all of the aspects of traditional game design, it does demonstrate how powerful the textural story can be, and this element is unique to this medium, a way to tell a story that novels or film simply cannot replicate. Video games do not always have to stand on their own – as I argued in my review of the eighth generation version of Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games should take a few cues from the world of film and employ scene transitions or establishing shots, to reduce the jarring aspects of a rushed story. But sometimes it is important that video games find their own footing and establish their own voice. Gone Home tells two stories – a story about a family in Oregon, and a story about the whole industry, and the potential power of the medium.