The (Im)possibilities of Communication

bientot_600During my time as a student of language, I’ve become convinced that there is no direct one-on-one connection between thought and speech, and between logic and language. This is one of the reasons why communication between people doesn’t always go according to their intentions. This is sometimes obvious in real life, but it can also become highlighted in art.

In video games, communication as a central theme—rather than just something that happens—is a rare thing; however, in a recent article I’ve highlighted two games that do focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of communication. Surprise, surprise… it’s two works by Tale of Tales. First of all, The Endless Forest, about which I’ve written before here, and secondly Bientôt l’été, their latest title.

The article was my first published piece on Nightmare Mode, and was featured in Critical Distance‘s “This Week in Videogame Blogging”.

This article was originally published as Communication Impossibilities on Nightmare Mode, but is now printed below due to the downtime of the magazine.

Communication is the weirdest thing. It just kinda works, unless it doesn’t. In practice, it works not because the connection between thought, intention, and language is perfect. It isn’t. It works because we usually share large parts of our worldview and knowledge with the people we’re speaking with, and because our minds are really good at filling in conceptual gaps wherever we see them. In cases where there are minor hitches in communication, we’re also very good at pretending there aren’t any. We ignore them, or we aren’t even aware that someone else might not understand exactly what we’re saying in the same way that we do.

When communication breakdown reaches a certain point, though, we become painfully aware of it. We cannot express ourselves in a way that will make the other understand what we want to say. There are no words, no gestures, to bridge that chasm between us that suddenly looms very wide and deep.

Not a lot of games seem to tackle this problem head-on, and it’s perhaps easy to see why. A lot of single player games have practically no dialogue at all, and those that do have more often feature it in a straightforward manner. Sure, there’s plenty of lies and deceit in games, but the meaning of words is rarely put into question. Either someone’s telling the truth or they’re not, but it’s usually clear what they’re talking about.

However, it is certainly possible for games to shift their attention to a different level, and start to question the fabric of communication. The best way to put communication forward as subject of your game is to introduce non-standard limitations to the communication on the one hand, and to create an environment that stimulates communication on the other. A perfect example is Tale of Tales’ multiplayer title The Endless Forest.

All players in The Endless Forest incarnate as slightly anthropomorphised deer in the game’s forest. There is no chat function in the game, but instead, the deer avatars can use a range of emotes and gestures. As can be easily observed, this forces players to devise a way of communicating that uses no words as such, but that instils meaning into gestures, like a primitive sign language.

Players will eventually want to find some way of coming to grips with this form of communication, because one of the central aspects of The Endless Forest requires cooperation with others: appearance customisation. There’s a broad selection of decorations and colours for your deer’s coat and antlers, a range of masks for your face, and even a few full-body transformations. The thing is, you can only get those if another deer casts the appropriate forest magic spell on you. Consequently, a lot of deer interaction will involve getting others to cast the right spells on you, and somehow signifying to them that you’re content with the results.

Thankfully, the gestures available to the deer aren’t too difficult to link to our own conventions of communication. There are clear yes/no headshakes, you can bow or curtsy to thank someone, rub flanks to show affection, etc. Tale of Tales themselves suggest a basic vocabulary on their website, and some players, such as Flyra, have written short guides on their own deer’s language, combining individual gestures into more complex ‘phrases’ in a process that mirrors one way in which human language might have evolved at some point from one-word to multiple-word sentences.

Looking at communication in The Endless Forest, I would say that Tale of Tales have stripped down the options available to us, first of all to take us out of our comfort zone and ensure that we take relatively little of the ‘real world’ into the game, but secondly to show the possibilities of communicating using such a small set of options, and still be able to get by in the context of the game. Although I personally don’t believe the system does or is even meant to represent actual animal communication, it does show us part of such a form of communication might work.

This minimalistic approach is echoed in Thatgamecompany’s Journey, where the player is limited to ‘chirps’ and the basic movements to signal intent to other players. While this approach was inspired by The Endless Forest, Journey goes a bit further, to the point where it becomes extremely difficult to construct any form of unambiguous communication between players. In this Gamespot article, the interviewed UC Berkeley linguistics students take a look at the game, and argue that the lack of slightly more nuanced calls or gestures hampers the game’s ability to let communication grow. For example, at least a way of distinguishing positive/negative would be needed in order for players to clearly communicate their intent. That said, since Journey is more goal-oriented than The Endless Forest, players will eventually gravitate towards particular actions that further those goals, whereas in the relatively goal-less The Endless Forest, less ambiguous communication might be essential for any sort of meaningful cooperation to arise at all.

Fast forward seven years, and it seems Tale of Tales have returned to the same theme again, though from a different angle. Their latest title Bientôt l’été is about communication as much or even more than The Endless Forest is, but to me it seems it approaches the theme from a much more pessimistic and wistful angle. Instead of focusing on how we could get a workable system of communication from minimal means, the game shows us how despite our elaborate languages and other technologies, communication can still fail utterly and leave us feeling empty.

In Bientôt, the studio’s second multiplayer title, our avatars are future humans, plugged into a holodeckish system on which an abstracted representation of a North Sea beach with a French café is projected. We walk across the beach, picking up phrases that have washed ashore, and remembering them for later use. Here and there, apparitions appear: a tree, a pier, a dead dog. If we approach them, they disappear and are replaced with a chess piece. These, too, we tuck away for later use.

In the café, we meet our partner, plugged into another holodeck somewhere, but of course actually just another player behind a PC. Seated across a chess board, the players can use their pieces to bring forth the sentences found earlier on the beach. Again, there is no regular chat channel, no easy way of communicating. Just the prescribed sentences, the silences you let fall. An occasional sip of wine or drag of a cigarette. The sentences are snippets from slightly awkward café meetings taking place somewhere in the past, in Marguerite Duras novels, and they deal with love, attraction, repulsion, losing oneself.

As in The Endless Forest, Tale of Tales places us in a situation where communication is constrained. Of course, this too offers possibilities. There is potential meaning in the positioning and movement of chess pieces, and the sentences have an obvious and direct verbal meaning. The question is: can they express what I want to say to the person that is sitting opposite me?

One of the game-like possibilities in Bientot l’été is to pick the ‘right’ sentences, those that feel like logical and/or surprising replies to what your partner has just said or done. There are echoes of collaborative storytelling and poetry to be found here. However, eventually you will always run out of things to say, and this again highlights the problems inherent in communication. Ultimately, in Bientot l’été there is nothing that can be gained from a conversation except that conversation itself, which is doomed to be imprecise and imperfect.

In a way, this part of Bientot l’été is not that different from some conversations in real life. Particularly when dealing with love and relationships, it can be really difficult to even realise what exactly it is you want to say to someone, let alone find the right words. The café situation in the game is merely a dramatic exaggeration of that problem, and not really essentially different from it.

At the same time, the game also comments on the additional problems of communication over a distance, with the internet being the obvious reference point. By choosing a futuristic setting depicting a historical setting, and allowing the settings themselves to bleed into each other at some points, the game blatantly points towards its own artificiality, and that of all conversation. It says: “look at what you’re doing here: you’re having a broken conversation of borrowed sentences with someone you don’t know, probably sitting at the other end of the table/world/universe. How can you be sure the messages you send each other aren’t even more distorted than you think they are? Do you know what ends up at the other end?” No, we don’t. We can only make an educated guess, and fill in the gaps ourselves.

To make matters worse, Bientot l’été questions the reality of your conversation partner. They’re represented as ghost images, mere holograms, and there’s no sure way to tell the difference between an actual conversation partner and the computer simulation that’s also available in the game. Sure, the game says there’s a difference, and ‘talking’ to a person feels different – there’s more of a connection, especially in the way your sentences are replied to. But there’s always a distance, that nagging feeling that makes you wonder, like Joe Dassin does in the game’s spectral jukebox: “Et si tu n’existais pas”. What if you didn’t exist?

These are, on some level, silly questions. If we’d continually pose them we’d go mad, and would be unable to communicate at all. But there’s definitely something to be said for looking at them through the window of a game, to re-examine what we take for granted. The Endless Forest shows that if we really want to, we can make do with even a tiny set of linguistic tools to eke out some form of basic communication needed to cooperate. It is an ode to the pragmatism that underlies all animal and human language from the very basic to the highly complex. At the other end of the spectrum, Bientot l’été laments the absence of an essence of truth and reliability in communication. It sings wistfully about how when a bridge is built from both sides of that vast chasm, it ultimately fails to meet in the middle, crumbling at both ends, the other side always just out of reach.