In praise of silence in videogames

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation helped to popularize the silent film as a commercial vehicle for artistic expression, which subsisted up until the late ‘20’s with the release of The Jazz Singer, which was the first film to feature dialogue synchronized to video. These earlier works relied entirely on brief cards showing dialogue, facial expressions, and bombastic orchestral music to carry the drama, yet managed to clearly communicate emotions and plot elements. They weren’t completely silent, but lacked an aspect of modern film we often take for granted. Videogames share a similar infancy: in older games, text established rudimentary narratives, while basic sequences of player input followed by a visual and audio cue instructed players on a game’s control scheme. Technical limitations limited developers from constructing elaborate tutorial sections, so simply playing the game quietly instructed us.

These days, game stories are huge.  In some ways, these represent technological advancement, narratives told on a scale was possible decades ago. They often deal with complex human interactions, tough ethical and moral choices, and comments on gender, race, and other aspects of society through tons of optional characters and storylines which pile onto a game’s main narrative like footnotes in a David Foster Wallace work. But, as in Infinite Jest, this sprawl can serve to flesh out an incredibly dense and detailed artistic vision.

Sometimes, indeed, less is more 

Indeed, game narratives have actually usurped most modern films in complexity. I applaud designers for trying to expand the library of things possible with game narrative, and love an old-fashioned, well written plot, but I think there are other, more reticent ways to do this. Sometimes, indeed, less is more.

Games which harness silence as a means of crafting narrative and emotional meaning in their respective games tend to stand out to me. The growth of artistically driven games designed by small teams in the late ‘00’s has proven far more fruitful than Michel Hazanavicius’ attempt at reviving the traditional silent film with 2011’s The Artist. One of the games at the forefront of this flowering was 2010’s Limbo, which featured a final puzzle evoking the trauma of a car crash, wherein one throws a gravity-altering switch and sends a boy who is mid-fall careening to the right through a wall of glass (a windshield). For a moment, the sound gives out and time slows to crawl (perhaps the boy is seeing his life flash before his eyes). Here, the simulated experience of such an accident seems reticent and muted so as to heighten the emotional and physical toll it would take upon a person.

In Kentucky Route Zero, one experiences the distinctly American version of exploitative industrial growth miles away from its epicenter, within the bars, churches, gas stations, and dainty houses enveloping a series of decrepit streets and highways. Offsetting the occasional burst of musical magic in the game, we stumble upon moments of muted melancholy along the side of the roads. Workers push grounded aircrafts in desperate attempts to set them airborne. We stop to go meteor-watching with some locals, trying our best to draw out Conway’s final job as a delivery man. The sound of motors pushing their drivers through concrete jungles becomes so commonplace that it seems to morph into something more akin to a visual. A man unknowingly loses his gas station from the shackles of debt, all while cheerfully giving us directions to our next destination. Often while driving, players find locations which have no visual associated with them (the screen may even fade to black), with only a handful of text and ambient sounds through which to visualize the scenes game’s protagonists stumble upon.

Silence forces us to internally fill in the gaps, creating a sense of space from very little. Shadow of the Colossus features no traditional enemies (save for its colossi) or other characters to converse with, aside from our trusty horse Agro and the indifferent god of the land Dormin; we’ve only our sword emanating a beam of light to guide us. The game’s protagonist, Wander, is an outsider and a mute, serving as a vessel through which the audience can enter and live in the game world on their own terms, much like Ryan Gosling’s stoic characters in Nicolas Winding Refn’s films Drive and Only God Forgives. For all the plainness of its empty grasslands and deserts, its mountainsides, forests, rivers, lived-in ruins of once-great temples and monuments, and wayward fauna quietly beckon us toward them, so as to satiate our curiosity. A place which appears desolate on first impression slowly and quietly reveals itself to be more by allowing us to connect to the space’s more realistic, minimalist nature.

Desert Golfing relies solely on a handful of sound effects and a straightforward visual design of simple geometric hills and a dyadic color scheme to allow players swift entry into its two-dimensional planes. Its starkness lends itself to miniature delights every time we manage a hole-in-one, yet its lack of musical fanfare upon victory brings a sobering reminder of the insignificance of our accomplishment.

Silence forces us to internally fill in the gaps 

Even games which fall to the side of the traditional “art game” wheelhouse have benefited from employing silence. Shooting games like Halo and Counter-Strike often feature no music in their multiplayer modes, shifting the mood of the experience toward something a bit more zen, each encounter with another player from across the world a narrative of its own.  Riding the waters of the Great Sea in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker could be particularly relaxing when the in-game sun goes down. The music pulls back and leaves only the sound of parting waves as Link steadily glides toward nowhere, recalling, say, quiet nighttime canoe excursions on Boy Scout campouts.

Another Zelda game, Ocarina of Time, features a small area which is just a bridge allowing us to leave the protagonist Link’s home of the Kokiri Forest; no music plays, as if to suggest within Link a sense of melancholy over his departure from home to the world beyond. Grand Theft Auto V, with its carefully curated soundtrack of, well, every genre, can be startlingly effective with its in-game radio turned off; the sounds of bystanders and engines roaring soundtracked my traffic-abiding playstyle perfectly, and I’m pleasantly reminded of short trips through suburban streets not unlike those of Los Santos to local convenience stores. The harrowing streets of Silent Hill feature barely any sound at all, save for the player’s footsteps and the terrifying ringing of a pocket radio when a monster is nearby.

Silence in games can prove so effective, so profound because these quiet snapshots of humanity are easily relatable to our experiences in the real world. When I was in middle school, our history class visited the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. It was, to put it lightly, a sobering experience. I wasn’t old enough to truly understand genocide, but walking through those dimly lit halls, peering upon old photographs of war prisoners and stealth bombers, reading over newspaper clippings reporting home the day’s fatalities, and even watching old war propaganda films not unlike The Jazz Singer, I certainly had a better grasp of what it must have been like than any textbook could have given me. Out of respect for the dead, the students were told not to talk when listening to our guide explain to us what all of these artifacts meant, or when hearing stories from concentration camp survivors. Even as young preteens who get off on disobeying authority, we conceded, because that felt right. In the moment, we were stilled, overwhelmed.