Story doesn’t always come from dialogue. Clever game developers know how to transmit plot and elicit emotion through a variety of other means; musical score, imagery, color palate, facial expression – the possibilities are endless. And, often, stories are all the more powerful for not resorting to words. As the old screenwriting adage goes: show don’t tell.
In light of this, we’ve put together a list of eight video games that tell a captivating story and immerse us in their worlds without the use of a single spoken word.
There’s something strangely soothing about the ambient atmosphere of RiME. Sound, visuals and gameplay come together to forge the story of a lost boy, a mysterious island and his journey back home. The narrative itself is literally carved into the island world our protagonist washes up on. Cave paintings suggest the origins of the strange isle and each mechanical puzzle the boy completes unlocks a segment of lost history.
Guided by a magical fox, the boy wanders the island searching each jagged cliff and turquoise bay for the answers he seeks. Though the game offers up no definitive resolution, elevated musical scores, intricate expressions on the face of our protagonist and dream-like cutscenes tell an abstract tale of sorrow, desperation and, most importantly, hope.
The Garden’s Between
Puzzle games often sacrifice narrative to focus on complex puzzle mechanics. However, this is not the case in The Gardens Between. Set on an array of sandbox islands populated by a collection of items plucked straight from the memories of childhood friends Arina and Frendt, this indie gem combines story and puzzling effortlessly.
The many objects inserted into each colorful stage (things like toy cars, alarm clocks and video game consoles) reveal deep truths about the lives and relationships of these characters without a single word being spoken. Controlling time is also part of the gameplay, suggesting Arina and Frendt want to remain locked in their past and present, not willing to separate and move into their own different futures.
The Gardens Between is a heart-wrenching tale of growing up and moving from childhood into adulthood, a true coming-of-age tale told in an incredibly original way.
Old Man’s Journey
Your aim in Old Man’s Journey is to aid an old man on his travels, overcoming puzzles whilst taking in the beautiful watercolor world around him. It’s a simple game with simple graphics, fuelled by a simple point and click system. But this simplicity is purposeful, and allows for the story to be the focal point of the game.
Guided by the contents of a letter he received, our aged protagonist sets out on a quest of both self-discovery and reflection, as he moves through lively cities and bustling harbors soaked in his own personal history. Wordless cutscenes depicting moments from his younger days tell the old man’s story, portraying a certain sadness which lingers on even once his hazy memories have been left in the past.
Ask anyone who’s played Journey for their thoughts on the game and you’re likely to get the same response; this game is a masterpiece. Somehow, Journey considers just about all of life’s big questions without the utterance of a single word.
Fire up the game and you’ll be treated to sandy dunes melting into a soft pastel sky with the sole point of interest being a bright beacon erupting from a faraway mountain. Our robed traveller simply has to get there. However, sun-drenched sands soon turn into dark caves, where drastic alteration in the color palate changes the pace and tone of the game. The accompanying score is stunning as well, with soaring orchestral swells saying more than any conversation ever could.
Virginia has been labelled by some as a run of the mill walking simulator. However, Virginia offers much more than that if, as the player, you’re willing to really dig into what is going on. Players control newly ordained FBI agent Anne Tarver as she tackles her first missing persons case. Gameplay is sectioned off into forty-two chapters, most filled with only seconds or minutes of gameplay before sudden transitions in time and place tear you away.
The overall story of Virginia might appear vague, but on a deeper level a seriously worthwhile tale can be pieced together from all the metaphorical clues, imagery and soundtrack.
At first glance Abzû seems to focus on delivering nothing more than a relaxing, colorful marine experience. But, just like the real-life seas Abzû draws inspiration from, there is so much more lurking beneath the surface. The ocean acts as the player’s world and, as the water flows from secluded coves into the bottomless mass of open water, the playable diver will be pulled through them on an unconquerable current.
Abzû’s narrative is hidden in strange dream sequences which may not initially make sense when examined on their own, but when you piece them together a powerful story emerges. One that will leave you questioning what exactly it is you just witnessed long after the credits roll.
Perhaps the darkest game on this list, Inside is a multi award-winning showcase of how a color scheme, tentative musical score and intricate backgrounds can elevate a title to excellence.
Inside plays heavily on its 2D puzzler roots but interactions occurring in the Orwellian backgrounds slowly begin to raise questions about the nature of the boy’s adventure into the strange scientific lab he eventually finds himself lost within. During the first few sequences these interactions are vague and forgettable, but they soon become unsettling, then disturbing, then something else entirely.
Without any spoken or written text, it’s left to the player to untangle the peculiar story of Inside. Fan theories have arisen since the game’s 2016 release, but PlayDead (Inside’s developer) have remained silent on a solid answer. Ultimately, the story, the boy’s fate, and the reasoning for his journey is all decided by the player.
Gris tackles one of life’s most difficult emotions, grief. Against the blank canvas of a white sky, a female figure casts a lonely silhouette. Falling from the heavens, she eventually lands far below on a desolate landscape devoid of color.
As the girl moves through the abandoned world, she gradually returns color to it, an elegant metaphor for the journey back from tragedy. Each color represents a particular emotion and adds another element of depth to both the story and the main character, emphasising our connection with her and powering the emotional tale. Color is the language the developers use to communicate a story here, and it resonates on a deep and powerful level.