The (Im)possibilities of Communication

This art­icle was ori­ginally pu­blished as Com­mu­nic­a­tion Impossi­bilities on Night­mare Mode, and was fea­tured in Crit­ical Dis­tance’s “This Week in Video­game Blog­ging”.bientot_600Com­mu­nic­a­tion 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.