“Borrowing” vocabulary: Diegesis

While working on games, I’ve come to notice how often the games industry borrows vocabulary to other media; mainly from movies and literature due to their shared strong narrative component.

I was thinking about game interfaces and HUDs and I remembered a word I had heard associated to film music. The example was a scene from Casablanca (1942) where Sam is asked to play “As time goes by”:

[google-video]http://video.google.fr/googleplayer.swf?docid=-4762321617067761203&hl=fr&fs=true[/google-video]

What you need to look out for are the two pieces of music in this scene: “As time goes by” heard when Sam plays the piano, and the ambient strings heard when Mr. Bogart appears and everyone starts chatting.

The difference between these two pieces of music is that, for “As time goes by” we can see Sam performing the tune, whereas the other piece of music comes from an invisible, intangible orchestra the characters can’t hear. Film people say Sam’s tune is diegetic, while the nondescript orchestral piece is non-diegetic (or extradiegetic).

The Wikipedia page for “diegesis” sheds more light on the matter:

Diegesis may concern elements, such as characters, events and things within the main or primary narrative. However, the author may include elements which are not intended for the primary narrative, such as stories within stories; characters and events that may be referred to elsewhere or in historical contexts and that are therefore outside the main story and are thus presented in an extradiegetic situation.

The concept of diegesis is embedded in Narration, as it was defined by Greek philosophers in opposition with mimesis, and permeates most narrative art forms. Moreover, since the Narratology vs. Ludology debate cooled down a few years ago, it has become widely accepted that narration (in its broadest sense) is present in most games, which leads to acknowledging the validity of the existence of diegesis/mimesis in a game.

But how does all of this translates to real-world game development and design? A simpler, more utilitarian definition given by √Čtienne Souriau (and mangled by me) goes like this:

Diegesis: all that is supposed to occur, according to the fiction which the [narration] presents; all that this fiction would imply if it were supposed true.

What this simpler, easier to handle definition allows us to do is to give some examples of diegetic and extradiegetic elements in existing games, which might give you (the reader) a better way to express what you mean when designing, criticising or just playing games. That’s the beauty of accurate vocabulary!

Game interfaces are the element that would most benefit from a better understanding of diegesis. Since they are used to convey most information related to the game state, they are instrumental in how the player relates to the fiction evoked by the game. Non-digital games tend to have interfaces (boards, cards or figurines) that symbolize game elements without being integrated in its fiction. Card¬† and dice games often have evocative names, but they are mostly abstract activities with little to none fictional elements, which might explain why their interface (cards) has derivated towards the purely mathematical. Their function can be thought of as mimetic, i.e. as a direct expression of the game system with no fictional component. Board games, however, have stronger fictional components and many try to let players develop a narrative. This led to their interfaces becoming highly specialised objects displaying different levels of diegesis. For example, let’s compare these two boards:

Diplomacy board

Diplomacy board

Chess board

Chess board

Both games are fairly cerebral, turn based strategy games built upon the same theme (war), and yet their boards show large differences, both in appearance and their diegetic levels. Chess is an old, old game and probably lost much of its narrative elements throughout his history. Its current form is fairly abstract and doesn’t reinforce the original theme, which remains only in the standardised shape of the pieces. Diplomacy‘s board, on the other hand, goes well with the fiction its designer intended for the players to play in. By mimicking the look of a WWI political map, the players are encouraged in buying into the game’s fictional world in which they are world power leaders plotting with or against each other. This leads us to say that Diplomacy‘s interface is diegetic, while Chess ‘s is almost entirely non-diegetic (or almost mimetic, if you want to see it that way).

As games become larger and more complex, their interface starts integrating objects of different diegetic levels. This might be because complex systems are easier to be understood via narrative (sequential) methods rather than by symbolic (simultaneous) ones. Modern non-digital games often feature cards, figurines, boards, books or any other material, some being used to reinforce the narrative while others are there just to help the player keep track of the game state. For example, in pen-and-paper roleplaying games, the rulebooks, character sheets and the dice are extradiegetic interfaces just because medieval -or space- heroes dont walk around with sheets of paper describing what they can or can’t do. But when the GM takes the role of a shopkeeper or hands them a map the players have been given, he or the map become diegetic interfaces to the game being played.

Video game interfaces are very interesting case studies. They can be roughly approximated as a combination of two elements: a display and an input method. The displays shows the state of some game objects (or all of them in simpler games) using a given perspective the player is able to modify (or not) by using the input method. This input method is also used to modify the state of game objects using predefined rules, which are very often opaque to the player (in opposition to non digital games). Both the display and the input method can have different diegetic levels. A good example for a diegetic input method is using a joystick as an input method for controlling a flight simulator. The associated display can also be diegetic if it simulates being in a plane cockpit, but not if it allows the player to see his plane from afar. First-person cameras are often diegetic while third-person cameras are often extradiegetic, with one notable exception:

Lakitu, from Super Mario 64

Lakitu, from Super Mario 64 (1996)

The reason why I’m okay with calling a tortoise-that-floats-on-a-cloud-holding-a-camera-on-a-perch a diegetic third-person display is because he is embedded in the fictional Mario world through a variety of cheap tricks (refer to the game’s introduction, or the mirror room). Strange at it would seem, thanks to these pirouettes the player just accepts the presence of a floating camera as something coherent with the game world he moves in.

Although interfaces are the most easily observable objects, it is important to point out that diegesis can also apply for game mechanics, if you think of them as narrative ressources. To remain with my previous example, the fact that Mario has an arbitrary amount of lives is extra-diegetic: we were never told why Mario was able to come back from the dead a limited number of times, nor why did he gain one extra life when he collected a certain amount of coins. Mind you, I’m not judging the quality of “n lives” as a game mechanic, I’m just saying that the designers of the game didn’t think necessary for that particular mechanic to be diegetic.

A recent counter-example to this is the new Prince of Persia (2008). Some have argued that this game heralded the “death of death” in videogames, but I believe that isn’t very accurate. You “die” a lot in that game, and you still get that old tinge of failure when you miss that platform and plummet into the void. The only difference is that your death is presented in a diegetic manner: When you fall, Elika’s superpowers (which have been properly introduced earlier as of divine and benevolent source) kick in and she rescues you at the last moment. The mechanic’s almost the same, it’s only it’s diegetic levels that vary.

Again, I could give many of different examples, but that would only lenghten this (already quite tedious) post.

If you had to take something away from this article (it’s okay if you skipped the above), let it be this:

Diegesis is applicable to all kinds of games, but there’s a simple tradeoff: an object with a high level of diegesis has more sense (narratively) and works towards the overall coherence of your game world. However, diegetic elements are harder to “read” and do not convey information in a clear and concise way.

Having precise and inambiguous names for our tools is half of the battle won. A designer aware of this property will be able to fine-tune the levels of diegesis of his game elements to strike a perfect balance between immersion and accessibility.

Hope it helped.