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Diegesis is a way of storytelling in which objects and events are directly inscribed in the product. This term applies to many models of narrative creativity, in particular to cinematography and video games. A narrator in a work can be diegetic, i.e. a narrator who inscribes himself in the events of diegesis, being a direct part of it.

In cinema, in addition to the diegetic narrator, there can be diegetic sound — this is the sound that exists in the world of the film, and not superimposed on top during editing. Diegesis in the film was given great attention by adherents of the cinematic direction of Dogma 95. The Manifesto of Dogma includes a number of rules that directors must follow, for example, the absence of any scenery or props, only diegetic sound, the absence of special lighting, imaginary actions (murder, shooting, etc. etc.).

Video games, in turn, have a lot more bias, which are more difficult to explain through the events of the narrative than in the same cinema, since they have more levels of viewer involvement. From the soundtrack to the start menu, games have many elements that are not explained by their world. The bias that fill video games have long become a kind of special language in which the game and the player communicate.

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Due to the intuitive unnaturalness of many game elements, such as the pause menu, health bar and minimap, many developers are trying to bring more realism to the game interface. However, due to the already established image of communication between the player and the game, excessively realistic explained elements can rather annoy the player, which will greatly reduce the immersiveness, in contrast to the clear and simple interface for the experienced player.

Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores 2008) was one of the first to draw attention to this and tried to realistically fit in-game conventions into its sci-fi world. Various scales about the state of the game character, usually displayed directly on the screen and not inscribed in the inner world of the game, were presented in the form of parts of the main character’s spacesuit and were located on the back, perfectly visible to the player. When entering an airless space, the oxygen reserve indicator turned on, and the semicircle on the right blade indicates the amount of stasis charge (in-game resource).

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At the same time, various explanatory elements, which in other games are usually represented by pop-up windows, and the map turned into the interface of the Ishimura spaceship, on which the game takes place. This element of the game world is semi-interactive, which was not the most convenient for some players, especially when using the map. The interface itself has a strangely absent depth, while subjecting itself to perspective distortion, which together resulted in a rather repulsive picture. It was difficult to understand if the interface is on the screen or inside the world, how far or close this interface element is. I think such difficulties have arisen because of my already established experience of communicating with games in which conventions are present in my usual form. Dead Space is an example of a game that tried to turn all conventions into diegetic elements while doing great in some and failing in others.

Next, I want to analyze games, the diegetic elements of which are not only ideally inscribed in the game world, but also are using language understandable to the player, almost without causing him any obvious irritation.

Life is Strange 2 (DONTNOD Ent., 2018) uses the character’s inventory to expand the story through items from his backpack with no practical use rather than choosing a keychain or a patch as a customization element. The inventory represents the entire contents of Sean’s (protagonist’s) backpack — various items, for each of which the character has a commentary, a menu for selecting and tracking collected souvenirs, a map of the characters’ movement across the United States and Sean’s sketchbook, in which new drawings and notes appear as the plot progresses.

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This interface is inherently inscribed in the game world — it contains only what is really in the backpack of the protagonist, in contrast to the oversized inventory that can be found in other games. At the same time, it has an interface that is familiar and understandable to the player, which does not tear him out of the established way of communicating with the game.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD 2017), in turn, combined the idea of ​​a diegetic interface with another thing very familiar to modern gamers — smartphones. Link at the very beginning of the journey receives the so-called Shiekah Slate — a kind of magic tablet that stores the power of the shiekah race. It contains a map, a selection of special abilities (which Link can use thanks to this very tablet), a task diary and a save/exit menu. All these elements are incorporated into the design of the tablet itself.

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The most interestingly explained element of the world is the photo mode — it is also part of the shiekah slate and allows you to capture beautiful views of Hyrule without the rest of the game UI. And take a selfie.

The new Animal Crossing: New Horizons has taken about the same path, but even more literally. Nintendo Direct on September 4, 2019 showed brand new gameplay, including the NookPhone. This is a smartphone specially designed for Nook Inc. (an in-game company that provides the player with a residence on the island). It stores recipes for crafting, a player reward system for completing tasks, a photo mode, a rescue service, etc. A whole collection of various in-game conventions, easily solved using a simple tool familiar to the player.

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A very special application of diegesis has been applied in Nier: Automata (PlatinumGames 2015). It’s not fair to say that the interface was inscribed in the game. Rather, on the contrary: the various elements of the game were inscribed into the interface, as if it were just the conventions of the game that explained the world diegetically. In the pause menu, it was possible to change the screen expansion and take an action that directly affects the main character. For example, take out the operating system chip and literally get a new ending out of it. Or remove some of the elements of the on-screen interface. The menu also contains inventory, a choice of upgrades, various chips, etc. Various diegetic elements are present in the game at almost every step: loading screens are stylized as android loading.

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Diegesis in games is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has the potential to increase immersiveness, but it is always very difficult to predict the player’s reaction. There is a dangerous possibility that the attempt to create a diegetic element will not justify the time and effort invested in it. Many elements of the game, when trying to increase their realism, may require additional animations, models, which will increase the development time. And the benefit is a big question. Therefore, in my opinion, it would be more rational for game designers to choose the path of incomplete diegization — it is enough to partially explain this or that element of the game through the world, as AC: NH, BOTW, LIS2 and many other games did.

Written by

Game Designer & Artist

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