Visual Rhetoric in Deconstructing Game Worlds

Zachary Duma (27189397)

Professor Carolyn Jong

ENGL 225B – Video Games and/as Literature

18 April 2017

              Ian Bogost writes about procedural Rhetoric in his paper Persuasive Games stating “procedural rhetoric entails persuasion ­­­- to change opinion or action” (Bogost, 29), this is to say that a game tell the player the story and convince them it makes sense. Bogost also uses the term persuasive games to say “videogames that mount procedural rhetorics effectively” (Bogost, 46), some games tell their story very well and it is these games that easily convince players of the changes in the game world. There are different ways for a game to convey the story but as games are developing so are the methods they use. Independent games (Indie games) do not have the same corporate ties as the ‘AAA’ industry and as a result the developers have creative freedom to explore new ideas and methods for gaming. Hotline Miami and The Stanley Parable are two games where as the player progresses through the game the world itself deconstructs, the game needs to show the player these changes in the world and convince them that the world is, in fact, changing. These games are examples on how Indie games develop on existing storytelling methods to present their ideas in a unique way. Both games greatly use the environment to show this world deconstruction, Hotline Miami combines this with NPC (non-player character) interaction and The Stanley Parable makes use of a narrator which comments on the player’s actions. Both games are examples of developers experimenting with different ways to present rhetoric in games, in this case through imagery which parallels the development of the game world and progression of the story.

           Hotline Miami is a game where the player is a hitman set in a retro 16 bit late 80’s Miami, throughout the game the player runs various missions in which they receive a phone call telling them to go to a location and conduct massacres against the Russian mob. The game runs the player through a set of events for every mission, the player starts off in the protagonists (Jacket’s) apartment where he receives a phone call with coded instructions for his next job. Next Jacket goes and completes his ever more gruesome job, afterwards Jacket always stops somewhere, be it a convenience story or pizza place, and every time the same person in always working at every location you visit, who is also known as Beard.

           The phone call and Beard are sum up the majority of NPC interaction that Jacket takes part in, although fairly simple the game makes the most of it to develop the game world and show Jacket’s ever-increasing insanity. For each level you go through slight variations on this order of events, but then after one stage you will go to the pizza restaurant and all of a sudden there are dead bodies all throughout the pizzeria, but Beard is still working the counter and ready to talk to you and serve you some pizza. Ian Bogost defines visual rhetoric “the practice of using images persuasively” (Bogost, 28),  this is exactly what Hotline Miami is striving to do, these sudden changes in the world are not acknowledged by anyone, there is even a portion where you talk to Beard while he is clearly dead. These visuals passively show the player that the game world is slowly becoming more decrepit, the player can see all this death that may or may not be real. Another point of visual interest is that Jacket’s friend Beard works at every place Jacket visits, he always has something for Jacket and everything from him is ‘on the house’. Even the text in the boxes ebbs and flows with the music creating this surreal picture in front of the player that shows how out of focus Jacket’s world is. Throughout the game Jacket has limited interaction with other characters, most of his conversation is with Beard, who generally makes comments towards Jacket about the game world. This becomes significant at one moment the first time there is a body in the convenience store and Beard starts saying that the body is not real and is the first and only time someone directly says that the world Jacket is seeing is falling apart. This sequence is in place to present the idea of reality being altered to the player, after this all the changes become more extreme.  But because of the lack of verbal interaction much is implied through the changes seen throughout the non-mission areas, and looking at the changes between the various states of the convenience store the player can see and feel the gravity of the characters actions. Jacket is constantly surrounded by death and as a result he sees nothing besides death, he fails to tell reality from imagination.

            The Stanley Parable is quite different from Hotline Miami in tone and game play, but it uses similar methods of storytelling to show the player another game world that deconstructs as the player progresses. In The Stanley Parable, Stanley starts in his office and the narrator for the game tells the player what to do and where to go. But the player actually has the choice to do what the narrator says or not, as Stanley roams through the world the narrator will adapt to the choices the player makes. If the player chooses to explore and take their own path through the world the narrator will eventually reset the world multiple times. As the player chooses their paths the game ‘breaks’, things in the hallway start changing and the story the player repeatedly goes through the same opening hallway. “This is really what we do when we play videogames: we explore the possibility space its rules afford by manipulating the game’s controls”(Bogost, 43), The Stanley Parable tests this statement to the letter as the player roams around this office space causing the world to change. Once there was an extra door, another time there were none, and if Stanley progresses down one route he will end up in an empty room full of developer textures.

           All these changes to the game world emphasis how the players defiance causes the game world to deconstruct, both the visual representation of these changes and the comments from the narrator show this breakdown of the game’s sequence. This type of story development puts the pace completely in the player’s hands, the world become more chaotic the more the player rebels and the opposite if the player wishes to simply abide. Bogost states “nonverbal transmission, these modes still maintain a tenuous relationship, and are at risk of appearing inferior to verbal discourse” (Bogost, 20), it is indeed much more likely that a player will realize what is going on if the voice in their ear is describing what is going on but visual rhetoric is still a part of procedural rhetoric. In this example with little context and no audio, one can compare the images of the multiple door scenario and the way it changes throughout the game. From these visual changes one can get idea of how the world changes, how the story progresses, the game intentionally ‘glitches out’ with the player now given new, more complicated choices as a result of rebellion against the game.   

           “Procedurality refers to a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes” (Bogost, 2-3), from this one can say that procedural rhetoric is a way of understanding a particular games rhetoric, using rhetoric to refer to aspects of a game’s story. There are a few ways a video game can help the player understand the events of the game, but just like how video games as a medium for storytelling is quite new, so is the term. As a result the industry as a whole still pushes and strives to develop on new ways to convince the player how a world works. Independent games is an area where this sort of experimentation may take place, with limited ties to a corporate organization developers have more creative liberty to explore and experiment as they see fit. Hotline Miami and The Stanley Parable are two examples of indie games where the developers explored how they could use visual changes in the game world to represent the deconstruction of the game world parallel to the progression of the story. In Hotline Miami  Jacket and the world around fall apart, both become more insane as time goes on and the very fabric of Jackets reality fades in and out of reason and logic to the point at the end where nothing seems real but the locations are the same. However Stanley unlike Jacket has more freedom of movement and choice to what he does and if the player chooses to follow a different path from the narrator the game will show how the player is disturbing the game world as the same areas repeat themselves but are never really the same. Both games rely on this visual representation of events to convey to the player that their action are indeed changing the world around them, this games show that a fresh look on how to tell a story can result in something unique and fantastic.

Works Cited:

Bogost, Ian. Excerpts from “Procedural Rhetoric.” In Persuasive Games: The Expressive                   Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. 1-39.

Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Hotline Miami, Dennaton Games. Sept 2013. Video game.

The Stanley Parable, 1.4. Galactic Cafe, Davey Wreden. Dec 2016. Video Game.

Visual Rhetoric in Deconstructing Game Worlds

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