Back in the 10 Questions to Ask Before You Write Your Game piece that I used to open this series, there were two important questions connected to one another: What is the game about? and What is the game really about? The difference between those two questions is the difference between text and subtext. As the prefix suggests, subtext is the message that lies beneath the surface of the story. This layer of meaning is a major way to convey what you want to say with your work – your theme. It can be hard to talk about this in a general sense, since everyone does this a little bit differently, but I think I can use a few examples to illustrate the more common methods of communicating subtext.
In the Bioshock series, the text and the subtext aren’t very far apart. These games enthusiastically delve into big issues like free will, bigotry and revolutionary politics. Players were blown away by the thematic intensity of the first Bioshock, which used those themes not just to comment on real life but also to question the very foundations of video games as a medium. Do you have free will while playing a game if you’re just doing what the game tells you to do in order to advance? That was one of the big questions behind Bioshock and it was thrilling to see a game with such an intellectual, academic subtext. By contrast, Bioshock: Infinite stumbled with its thematic content. Even though the rebellious slaves in Columbia were fighting for their own freedom and the ruling elite was simply fighting to continue oppressing them, the subtext placed both groups on the same low moral standing, which is just lazy.
Of course, the above is all just my opinion and that’s the risk you run into when your story is blunt with its themes. Some people enjoy it but others will find it really obnoxious and dismiss the game altogether, even if it has impressive art and/or gameplay. Want to start a fight in a crowded room? Bring up the movie Crash. It was adored by critics and even pulled off an upset win for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but the resulting backlash was swift and vicious. Why does it evoke such strong reactions? Because the racial commentary is so in-your-face that the subtext basically becomes the text. You’re not even reacting to the story anywhere, you’re reacting to the opinions of the writer.
I’m not against obvious subtext on principle – it is often a result of real passion and can be an intensely emotional experience for an audience. Just keep in mind that the more you make your thematic intentions clear, it becomes more likely that your work will be polarizing.
Let’s look at a familiar game that takes a very different approach. The text of Final Fantasy VII is well known: a ragtag group tries to save the world from a genetically-engineered maniac. It also quickly becomes clear that the game is a parable about the environment and the importance of all life. However, speculating about what exactly the game is saying about these issues is where things get interesting. The game is so huge and the subtext is so layered that it can support a number of interpretations, sometimes even contradictory ones.
An example: When I watched a college friend play through FFVII (after playing it myself for the first time back in high school), I began to think that Sephiroth represented the atomic bomb. Think about it – he is the key weapon that makes the difference in the war with Wutai, a city with distinctly Japanese architecture and culture. However, when his creators lose control of him, he becomes a threat to all life on the planet. And if Wutai is Japan, does that mean that Midgar, a corporate plutocracy greedily draining the planet’s resources, is meant to be America? I can’t prove that the the writers intended to convey any of what I just said, but I can support it by analyzing the game’s story. This approach gives just enough subtext to allow the players to interpret the story in their own way. It’s an approach that is often very popular and respected, but requires sacrificing the idea of one clear indisputable theme.
Which approach is better? It honestly depends on what the writer hopes to achieve with the work. One thing I can say is not to try too hard. Subtext has a way of finding itself in a story naturally. In fact, sometimes there is subtext that the writer is not even aware of and that’s when it gets really interesting. But perhaps that’s a discussion for some other time.
This brings us to the end of our Story Series. If this is the first one you’ve seen and want to check out the rest, here’s the first entry with links to the rest. What do you think? Were there any aspects of writing you were hoping to hear about that we didn’t get into? Don’t be afraid to let us know and we’ll try and get to it sometime soon. Keep writing!
2 comments… add one
Well said. Something I think that gets overlooked even more commonly is the theme/subtext of the gameplay itself, which is often at ends with the theme of the story. Marcus Brigstocke has that famous quote, “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.” And while that’s funny and a salient point, really, that’s what Pac-Man is about.
People joke a lot about how RPG protagonists break into people’s houses, steal their stuff, and wantonly slaughter wildlife but, well, it’s true. And that often runs totally contrary to how the story characterizes the protagonist. I think a lot of developers shy away from thinking about things like that because it forces you to reconsider some fundamental design choices that are inherent in RPGs and most people are too conservative to stray away from unquestioned genre tropes like that.
I considered making a game where you play as a Necromancer, with permadeath and generic soldiers. and you could raise dead soldiers as different types of undead, and the mechanics would encourage leaning into this for power and versatility.
The theme of the game was about the main character hurting the people who hurt him, but slowly becoming the same things they are in his quest for revenge, and then you were given a choice to abandon everything or become the terror that created you. I felt that making the player do ACTUALLY TERRIBLE THINGS (purposefully kill soldiers just to raise them as undead types) was a good way to tie the gameplay into the theme. It would have been possible to beat without doing it (and I planned on having a secret counter that counted how many times characters under you died and were raised as undead, that would subtly effect the storyline), but it was an easier road to power.
Anyway, it never got out of early design, but I still love the concept, and I love the idea of tying mechanics into the story and emotions of a game.