The Piggy Bank of Words
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The Piggy Bank of Words
Workshop Diary 4
Translator: Austin Wagner
Storytelling without words has always captivated me. Sometimes I spend entire days looking for the right words, the ones that that fit the atmosphere, style, or age of my story or its characters. Then once I’ve found them, a spend another however-many days getting them in the proper order – even on the last read-through I keep shoving them around, swapping them out so they’ll more precisely convey what I want to say. Of course it’s never enough. I could easily continue the word smithing well after the book has come off the printer.
And then along come others, daring to tell their stories without words. Even years later, my stomach still twists into knots when I think of them. The audacity! How fascinating! I can’t get enough.
I know that visual storytelling utilizes an entirely different toolbox: pictures, colors, gestures, it’s show, not tell, be it a film, comic book, animation, or commercial. But for my part, it’s videogames that are the most interesting, maybe because it’s impossible to remain a passive recipient; I have to become a participant, a shaper in the story. I see it not from the outside, but from the inside, and this is what’s most similar to writing. And the stories without words sometimes teach me more about writing than any text ever could.
One of my favorite silent videogames is Journey. There’s no narration, no dialogue, no signs or subtitles, it gives the player zero instructions about what they have to do, where they have to go, what the goal is. We control a red-cloaked figure, nameless and faceless, who awakes in the middle of a seemingly endless desert. Only one thing juts out of the landscape: a lonely mountain in the distance, which could just be a mirage. The game doesn’t explain what you have to do, but it’s clear we have to reach the mountain. But we choose the path ourselves.
For this story without words to work, it has to speak a visual language common throughout all the world so that anybody can play the game. It’s the same for the journey – maybe not consciously, but from all the other stories we’ve consumed, we recognize the structure of myth known as “the hero’s journey.” We know there will be a struggle, a myriad of trials to test our mettle, that companions will enlist with us, that we’ll have to descend into the depths of the underworld, and then, with strength renewed, strive for our goal. It’s easy to translate these well-known elements into a visual language. The codes are straightforward: the fading light promises danger; sharp colors and unlimited energy of movement freedom; hostile weather struggle, as the wind blows you back to where you came from. Throughout the game we can always see the mountain in the distance, so when we lose sight of it for the first time, even without words it is clear that the darkest challenges will follow.
Another game similarly built on common experience is Gris, with an even more universal story: we control a girl working through trauma who has lost her voice and is incapable of speaking or sharing what happened to her. Nothing else remains, just gestures, colors, and spaces. The game takes us through the phases of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – without using a single word to say as much, and this pain syncs up beautifully with the inability to put trauma into words. Each stage of grief is a different color in the game, which tell a story all on its own: anger is red with dust storm attacks, and we can only progress with high enough “toughness” – literally a mechanic of the game. Depression is a blue into which we sink deeper and deeper until we finally realize it’s black, and we’re in the depths of total darkness. Acceptance is yellow: it slowly guides the character from the darkness like a trail of lamps. Beyond the colors, the symbolism speaks a common language, like the upside-down buildings when we’re losing progress, or the acquisition of abilities needed to solve logic puzzles and which allow the character to control, say, anger, or use it as a tool, or ask for help from others. There’s no need for narration. Any word would be an over explanation. Even without words we understand the common language of grief.
But as a speculative writer, the thing I find the most interesting is how the worlds of these games are built. In Journey, for example, we never know where or when we are, what this empire’s name is, its government, its currency, the names of its great leaders. When worldbuilding in speculative fiction, the biggest trap is falling in love with our own creation while it swells into a monster: it dominates the plot, the characters, the theme, and before long we’re reading nothing more than a fictional history book. Building an expansive world is the greatest hubris – when it should only be as big as needed for the story (It’s no accident that one of the greatest worldbuilders of all time, Tolkien, didn’t stuff The Lord of the Rings with the best of Middle Earth, but instead used appendices, The Silmarillion, the multitude of constructed languages. Nobody would have plodded their way down the road to Mount Doom if they had to pick up the entirety of Sindarin grammar along the way).
This is what silent storytelling teaches us: if the player pays attention, they can learn a great deal about the civilization in which this red-cloaked pilgrim is wandering. Even if they only find ruins, gravestones, and the remnants of palaces, slowly, piece by piece a picture emerges of an empire which once ran on light magic, where carpets were turned into flying jellyfish, and which was eventually destroyed by never-rusting automaton beings. Journey says nothing about any of this, not one word. The player has to piece it together – if all of this were revealed in the prologue, a history lesson with background narration, the player might just impatiently click on.
The player wants to be active, not sitting and examining the history books and lexicon of an invented world. Readers want the same thing: to be a part of a speculative world, to learn the mechanics by doing it themselves, little by little. No matter how hard we work on the chronicles stretching back centuries into our invented world, no matter how much we invent, from royal crests to the laws of the cheese guild and everything in between, we must exercise restraint.
However big my world is – however big being possibly the greatest temptation in worldbuilding – I always think about silent storytelling. I may have the words, but I want to use the least possible amount of them. Only as many as needed to understand, to show the plot through the impact the characters and setting have on one another. Anything more would be ostentatious. I don’t want to give the reader a final exam on made-up worlds. Instead of words, I search for the tools silent stories would employ: instead of an explanation, details blending into the background, instead of history lessons, symbolism, instead of fine print operating instructions, only the gears and frameworks needed to project the illusion of completion.
In his MasterClass lecture series, Neil Gaiman gives some advice to budding writers: imagine you’re not getting paid per word, but that you are paying for every word you put down; a writer’s tax. This is how we can hold ourselves back, resist falling in love with our own voices, learn self-restraint, cut back the flourishing stylistics.
Silent videogames teach us something of this.
And if we do have to pay our taxes for a single written word, well then I believe words used for worldbuilding can have double or triple the tariff. Before every single story I remind myself before I fall head over heels in love with my creation – if I had to pay per word, I’d think twice about whether they were needed in the first place.
I set the piggy bank next to the keyboard and start saving for a holiday.