How I Used the Destroying of Words in a Video Game to Emotionally Connect Players to a Story
A journey to the feeling behind the word fear
It may not be expected for a video game to go into stuff that’s deep, but that’s the kind of games I make. We have a medium in front of us that allows us to directly observe our own relationship to people, things and ideas, revealing to each one of us the way we actually are.
The feeling behind the word fear
I’ll first try and answer why I think it’s important to get to deep feelings. Or, rather, why it’s important to bother getting to the deepest feeling of all: the feeling behind the word fear.
I have found that when this feeling is out in the open rather than being escaped from, it can be finally dealt with. As when I’m not escaping from the feeling behind the word fear, it gets processed and there is essentially freedom from that feeling, for however brief or however long. And then, out of that freedom, I act. And my actions are no longer guided by fear, but from the freedom of fear, actually, not just the idea of being free of fear.
Now, there are, of course, numerous descriptions and words for this feeling, such as the fear of failure, the fear of not being good enough, the fear of being alone and words like loneliness and emptiness, but when making The Word Is Not The Thing, I was only concerned with the core feeling behind all of these.
I had to start somewhere
I set out for the player to have a chance to directly observe their own relationship to words. If they could see themselves coming up with more words as soon as they destroy a word on the screen, that very seeing would allow them to finally see the thing, in their own lives, for what it actually is without the word getting in the way, be it a wife, a flower, or a feeling.
When I was creating the word and dialogue design for the The Word Is Not The Thing, I first wanted to give off a sense of isolation and loss. The story is of a couple having lost their child, with a wife that is lost in grief. Also, characters throughout the game aren’t really concerned with talking with you, but at you. Secondly, I wanted the words in the game to blend environmental words, the emotional states of others, what you might be thinking, and how you might feel.
I’m not going to go into all the words I used throughout the game in this article, as there are over 150 of them, but I’ll talk about some of the words that, when destroyed, can give off a feeling that tickles that deeper feeling the game attempts to bring out.
So how did I use words throughout the game to build up to the deep feeling I’m talking about?
Words and the destroying of words as a way to reveal a story
I used words and the destroying of words as a way to not only reveal the story and how the characters feel, but also to bring out a feeling in the player. And if the player is really into it, they might discover for themselves, in the very process of destroying words, if they use words to escape from a feeling.
It’s silly for me to say what anyone might feel, but if one stays with a word long enough and really gets into it and then destroys the word, they’ll make their own discovery. The interactive nature of the video game medium allows the player to spend as much time as they want with a word and then destroy the word as their own action. This is important as no one can tell another person how they really feel.
The first word that begins to reveal the story and at the same time helps bring out the emotion we’re after is the word child. When confronted with this word, the player can observe their own emotional connection to it, and upon the destruction of the word child, they’ll feel something. After destroying the word child the player continues and confronts their first environmental word, which is home, and they walk through it, destroying it. The connotation of a home being destroyed is the destruction of what’s going on in this household, as the child has died and perhaps things are never going to be the same again.
Next, the player speaks with the wife. She can’t seem to go through her child’s room as the word emptiness confronts the player. As a precursor to how she might be feeling in the story, the player destroys the word emptiness. In the baby’s room, the player spends time with the word family and is faced with what that word means to them. As with what’s happening in the game’s story with the death of the child, the word family is destroyed.
Connecting the player to the story in a way that’s emotionally linked
Since the story is designed to blend together the character and the player in the way they feel, the words throughout the game reveal not only how the characters in the game are feeling, but at the same time allow the player to observe their own feelings associated with those words, ultimately connecting them to the story in a way that’s emotionally linked.
As the player continues throughout the game, they are further faced with the way a word makes them feel when they read it, but also the way they feel when they destroy the word and watch it break apart.
This was one of the design insights I had while making the game:
Are some people so attached to a word that they think they are the word? For example, if someone says they are motivated, and they might actually be, will they defend the word itself? Because without it, what are they? Obviously, they are what they are, motivated or not. But when they attach to the word, it becomes a part of their identity. Okay, so why do they identify with it in the first place? To escape from some deep down fear? To avoid the pain of being nothing? To avoid being destroyed? So when destroying the word, are you destroying yourself?
Words like hope, motivated, important, love, affection mean one thing when read, but, when destroyed, can make the player feel the the pain of losing them, which is the same feeling that is taking place in the couple from the loss of their child.
As the story progresses
The character and player as one continue their journey and are faced with a mirror. They choose to go inside the players head, where there’s a maze of words that are both positive and negative. In going through the maze, the player is getting to the deep hidden feeling that’s being protected through all these words, never allowing the character to really feel what he’s using words to escape from.
More words confront them as the story shifts from the outer world to the inner world. Negative words like useless, dumb, fear of being nothing, and positive words like smart, determined, and strong. And after going through words like me and I, they get to the final word: fear.
Upon removing the final word there are no more words. The player can observe themselves coming up another word to get away from the feeling, including their own inner explanation. If they can see that, the feeling is processed.
So essentially, by connecting the outer story of losing a child and the inner feelings that are taking place in the story by the use of emotional words, the player begins to take control of the character in the story in a way that reflects how they themselves are actually feeling. The journey throughout the game involves coming across words and explanations within the player’s own mind that serve as an escape from completely feeling the deep feeling the game is designed to bring about.
Now, it doesn’t matter why I think it’s important to get to deep feelings, or to the deepest feeling of all. It’s up to you to decide if doing so is important in your own life. It’s up to you to decide if acting from fear is more important than acting from the freedom of fear.