essay

How much of the interface is story?

In reflecting on video games in general, I can’t help but to think about the interfaces between the player and the ruleset itself, that of the menus, options and configurations, and their role in the storytelling process. Because, it is through those that people actually play games. They push the buttons and actions happen, yet they know which combinations and timing by what they are told through the visual or even auditory layer between them and objects they are controlling. The interface is both everything and nothing.

In games like Assassin’s Creed and the early Fallout games, the interface serves a diegetic function: what the player sees is what the character is seeing. The stylized fonts and layouts are supposed to reflect that which is consistent with the character’s world. Things like vaccuum tubes (Fallout 2) and the shifting backgrounds (Assassin’s Creed games) help the player maintain their suspension of disbelief for as long as possible. Even when faced with options with saving or loading the game, they should be thinking of the world of the characters first and foremost; the actual text is overpowered by its presentation.

It is through examples like these that the interface itself becomes yet another option for the player to use in the construction of their narrative. In the process of acting out the character in the world, they can use what they are seeing, in the moments that both worlds overlap, to shape their experience. They are, during those boundary times, both character and player; they have the control to influence the world and act within it simultaneously. In changing options like sound levels or brightness, they affect their own experiences, yet do so while under the guise of being the character. They break the forth wall while they mend it at the same time.

Conversely, most games take the approach that the menu supersedes the reality of the game. It exists above and beyond that which the character is able to perceive and thus, when things like armor is changed in a RPG for example, the character is not aware that any time has passed or that they have changed in any way. The player has ultimate control of how time runs in the world with the ability to, at any moment, freeze it and change some aspect. These games construct the worldbuilding into layers that are accessed one upon another. A character might reach outward to the interface level, to inform the player to press a certain button on the controller, but is not aware of the highest level of the interface in which the player uses to control them and affect the world.

Then there is a third category that, instead of being too abstracted or intimate, serves instead as character knowledgebase. As the player discovers items, people and places, the game records them and lists them as part of the interface for the player to see. It is commonly composed of objects like a listing of the current quests or even beasts that are found outside the mind of both the character and the player, yet are maintained here, in this category of interface, for reference. Such an interface is increasingly common as the level of complexity has risen in many games and the grammars, both of politics and battle, need to be displayed in a place for the player to look at and consult when needed.

Games that fit this last category as those such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls series. The enormity of their worlds is too much for a single person, within the context of their fiction, to know everything and so some part of the teaching about the world, of informing what each item does, is taken over by the interface. Even games like those in the Diablo and Torchlight series use labels and text descriptions of weapons and armor to tell the player which might be better to use than the other. The interface, then, is used more than any other part of the game. In order to learn, the player turns to the hidden tutor that is part of the system that says if some is good or bad.

It is this last idea that takes an interesting turn in games like the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series especially as extra knowledge is contained in the codex that the player can access, even to the degree that the character herself would not know. Instead of knowing about some planets or a few areas, the player has an interface to what amounts to an encyclopedia — of even database — about the world or galaxy. She can learn about any detail of a culture, peoples or place by retreating into a menu and away from the character’s world. It is a reflection about the virtual contained within a separate yet symbiotic world: a pocket universe that is updated as the character, directed by the player, explores.

These present the most interest problems when it comes to storytelling issues. What if the player does not see some information that is contained within it? It might not be part of their narrative, sure, but it is also not part of what they use to solve problems and figure out puzzles either. Such data must be chosen carefully then. Anything that the character might know, as they go about their lives, could be tucked away in it. That would be the same level of knowledge that the player has too. However, there might also be occasions where additional details, for those players going to look for it, might also find more about the world in which they are playing..

Even more problematic comes the moment where the player discovers information they should not have — or are even lied to by the game. The menu could, although I can’t think of a example of it at the moment, relay contrary data or even misinformed details to the player. The simple fact is that players must trust an interface to give them the truth about the world on all occasions. Everything that the interfaces presents must be the exact data about the world and how it works for the player. Even if the player is shown information that the character does not yet have, or even might never have through the related story elements, the interface must show truth in order that the player understand, control, and build narrative through it. Fundamentally, it is the root of all story in the game: everything seen or done passes through the interface first.