The word “ellipsis” is used in linguistics not to refer to this nice series of three dots: . . . but to refer to the process of leaving stuff out, especially stuff that the listener already knows.
Here are some examples of linguistic ellipsis:
A: So you enjoyed that Insane Clown Posse concert this weekend?
B: Yeah, loved it.
Normally English grammarians would say that loved it is an incomplete sentence, but even they, I hope, would be forced to admit that B wouldn’t be more correct to instead answer, “Yes, I loved the Insane Clown Posse concert this weekend,” and in fact, this would probably betray that B was being a mite sarcastic, and we might doubt his dedication to the juggalo lifestyle. (This is dictated, by the way, by what’s called the Gricean maxim of quantity–essentially, that a good collaborative conversation member doesn’t give any more or any less information than is necessary to complete the circuit, and if they do, then something’s up. See also: “It says here on his resume that he’s got degrees from MIT and Harvard.” “. . .Well, he’s got degrees.”)
I could have said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have set your heart on marrying a Cypriot goat farmer,” but I didn’t.
Again, I didn’t doesn’t have an object, and without an object didn’t doesn’t really have a meaning; it’s the most lukewarm, repetitive verb on the market. But what it does do is signal to the listener: I’ve already told you this if you’re paying attention. This “I didn’t” asks for the participation of the conversant.
It’s pretty well-trod that the fuzzy category of “literary” storytelling leans on a kind of conceptual ellipsis a lot. For sale: baby shoes, never worn is the shortest well-known example. (Or check out Stephen Aubrey’s 280-word short story “Cohabitation.”) If it was For sale: baby shoes, never worn because my baby died it wouldn’t really have the same panache. And this sounds so trite and absurd for the same reason B doesn’t say “Yes, I loved the Insane Clown Posse concert this weekend–” we already know. Literary storytelling requires you to already know. (Which can of course become opaque and alienating quickly if you don’t already know.)
But I’ve been thinking a lot about a property that isn’t exactly in competition to win the National Book Award yet absolutely understands the power of storytelling ellipsis–Red Hook Studio’s dungeon-crawler video game Darkest Dungeon. As a brief detour, I’m compelled to mention that the narration in this game, which is most of its writing, is astonishingly sumptuous and melodic. Read the following aloud with resigned, wry dread for best effect:
You remember our venerable house? Opulent and imperial, gazing proudly from its stoic perch above the moor. I lived all my years in that ancient rumor-shadowed manor, fattened by decadence and luxury, and yet I began to tire of conventional extravagance . . . At last, in the salt-soaked crags beneath the lowest foundations, we unearthed that damnable portal of antediluvian evil. In the end, I alone fled laughing and wailing through those blackened arcades of antiquity.
But my personal little treasure in the storytelling didn’t hit me until probably 20 hours into the game. Let me set this up, especially for folks who aren’t familiar with video game conventions. In Darkest Dungeon, you go through a lot of player characters. They don’t come with any kind of attached backstory; their names are randomly generated. Like, they could be different-colored squares and the game wouldn’t change mechanically. They aren’t making decisions or showing you their innermost selves or anything. They’re blank slates to you. The game has all this beautiful writing, but your main action in the game isn’t experiencing a story, it’s forming strategy and biting your nails over randomly generated damage numbers. (And, if you’re me, spending literal hours putting together parties and equipping them with items.) So in that sense, it doesn’t fill the slot of a “story-based game” in the way that I think people coming from literary storytelling and looking for storytelling in games will pick up on right away.
One mechanic in Darkest Dungeon is a kind of sanity scale. When a character gets freaked out enough they say freaked-out stuff, much of which is pretty archetypical (though punchy and well-crafted). Here’s one paladin-y class:
Eyes down, you cowering sheep!
Light fades. The mission is benighted.
The pain is my penitence!
But . . . then there’s the line I have gotten from this fellow one time and one time only:
Why did I trade her for this life? She loved me…
This never comes up again. And that’s what makes it so special to me. (I mean, maybe in the final boss fight? I’m not there yet. No spoilers.) There’s no clunky scripted dialogue tree about the Crusader’s lost love. Listen–I love video games, but they aren’t that great at allowing you to manifest your agency through conversation, so those exposition convos always show their hand a bit too firmly for my taste, not that I know how to fix them so don’t @ me. But this kind of ellipsis-based storytelling works perfectly. You don’t have to tell me any more of the Crusader’s story. I already know.
Red Hook Studios has put out a set of backstory comics as well, and I was delighted to find that they all take a super complementary tack. One page. No dialogue. You always have to put the pieces together yourself. Here’s the Crusader’s, although my favorite is for another class, the Grave Robber. They never show you too much. They never overexplain. You’re never suspicious of their dedication to the juggalo lifestyle, as it were. They make you a participant in a conversation.
(There’s also a boss called the Shuffling Horror that shuffles your party order. God, that took me a long time to put together, but it felt so good when I did.)
I think this is especially interesting given past trends in video game storytelling. What’s the comparative advantage of video game storytelling? I’ve regularly heard the idea that it’s supposed to be your participation in plot; your ability to complete a story circuit. The idea goes that choosing what to do integrates you into the story and gets you invested. And I’ve speculated that the reason ellipsis works so well is that participatory element. So shouldn’t this idea of “choosing what to do” be working? But what I see, especially in AAA games, tends toward variants of “You’re going to have to go defeat this guy, but you get to choose whether you convince him with a pre-written line after clicking on the statistics to be good at convincing people or shoot him in the face with a gun!”
(Listen, I have a lot of nostalgia for Fallout 3 too, but that wasn’t its finest moment and you know it.)
The facts are that until computers can be your DM, we just aren’t going to get meaningful choice in video games–it’s impossible. So to some extent, relying on that to get people integrated and invested in a story is a dead end. I mean, it’s not like that’s an indictment of video games; books don’t have any reader input at all and humans seem to like those fine. Honestly, knowing that Telltale Games often end the same no matter what you do took the fun out of it more than it would have if I had just thought I was playing a visual novel. We’re going to have this problem for a long time, because programmers can’t tell a computer to plan for literally all eventualities. But choosing and the illusion of choosing whether to shoot a dude or read a pre-scripted line has never given me the electricity of completing a circuit the way that For sale: baby shoes, never worn does the first time I heard it.
(In fact, the other example to immediately come to mind of effective non-choice-based video game plot is also all about completing this circuit in your mind and not in the plot–it’s the moment at the end of Portal 2 when the ceiling opens up and you see the inviting plaster-white surface of the moon. You’re being railroaded, I guess, but it feels so good.)
That’s why this line is so intriguing to me: it forces you to complete a circuit. And I think Darkest Dungeon understands the impact of that better than 80% of the big-deal story-choice-based games I’ve played.