Okay, today’s episode is gonna be a little bit weird, because I’m gonna use an example from television rather than from games. But it does serve as one of the clearest-cut examples of what we’re gonna discuss, and, as students of design, we should be looking to and learning from design in all media, not just games. So let’s do this. [intro theme plays] Last time, we talked about how important it is to get the most out of every sentence you write in a video game, because of how few words per minute games usually get. Today, I wanna go over a few techniques for achieving that. The first is information density. Information density is the idea that we can pack layers of meaning into a single element of our narrative delivery, whether that be an image, a line of dialogue, or a song. And while this concept is simple, in games we use it far too infrequently. Some of our best game narratives, like Silent Hill 2, and some of our best game mythos, like Dark Souls, rely on it to be able to condense their worlds and their stories into surprisingly few words. So, the television example I’m gonna give is called Mr. Robot. It’s fantastic. It’s certainly one of my favorite shows from last season. But there was a moment in it that really made my jaw drop. It’s the kind of moment that makes James go, “Pbbbth, all right, I’m done, I quit. I’m done being a designer, I will never do something better than this, I quit.” Now, this is gonna require some heavy spoilers to discuss, so if you’re still hoping to watch this unspoiled, you want to leave right now, right away. Is everybody good? Spoilers are incoming in 3… 2… 1, leave the room! Okay here we go. The part I wanna talk about comes at the very end of episode 9, “Mirroring”. Even the title provides us context, but in this episode, the main character and the character who has sort of been set up as the main antagonist are both falling apart. They’ve both, essentially, hit a psychotic break. Everything is spiraling out of their control. The antagonist gives a monologue on the wonder that he felt the first time he took a life. And then the music starts. The scene cuts, and they’re in the protagonist’s hideout. The antagonist is discussing the plan that the protagonist has been working on the entire season. And the antagonist asks, “Why did you do it?” And the protagonist responds, “I don’t know. I wanted to save the world.” And over all of this, this haunting piano music plays. And it takes you a few bars, but then you realize what it is: It’s “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies. And that realization causes everything to come crashing in. And this is the first thing to know about embedding dense layers of information: You need this moment of realization. You need to create that moment that clues the player in to the fact that there’s more going on here than just the surface level information, and pushes them to start paying closer attention and carefully analyzing everything you’ve laid out before them. And there’s a lot to be found in this episode. The Pixies’s “Where Is My Mind?” is a song about going insane, but it’s also one of the most pop-y songs The Pixies ever wrote. It has this whole theme of going mad in a world that is superficially pleasant, but, at the same time, it’s a song about letting go: themes that mirror what the whole show has been about. But more than that, what other famous piece of modern pop culture is this song associated with? Fight Club. By bringing in this intertextual reference of Fight Club, they force the viewer to completely reinterpret how they hear that last line: “I wanted to save the world.” Fight Club’s vision is salvation through destruction, and, in some ways, through a very self-indulgent, self-centered form of destruction. Up until this point, the viewer has probably embraced the protagonist’s view of the world, and the revolution he’s about to cause. But this moment, this one small musical clue with all of its layers of information and reference, cause us to pause and perhaps reconsider everything we’ve thought up till now. Because much of the episode mirrors Fight Club’s Tyler Durden reveal, the writers are doing everything in their power to give the viewer the tools they need to see what the show is doing with that music at the end. Then with one line of dialogue, and one piece of background music, they are able to give the viewer an astonishing amount to think about, and perhaps even make the viewer second-guess their perception of many of the earlier scenes in the series. And not only have they done all of that, but they’ve managed to use the viewer’s heightened awareness during this moment to plant a seed in their mind for later story events. In the very last shot of the scene, the protagonist looks toward a popcorn machine in which a gun was hidden in the previous episode. Now, even though a fair amount of the audience would’ve picked up on that connection anyway, just remembering the gun in the popcorn machine, by putting the viewer in a heightened observational state, the director is doing what they can to ensure that as many viewers as possible recall that crucial information without the show having to explicitly call it out. Hey, remember the gun??? Leaving that information implicit allows the show to do more with less. It keeps the viewer thinking about it, and it allows them to convey all the information they need without having to be heavy-handed about it. And this is all hugely important for what they’re trying to set up in the next episode: an episode that takes place several days later, but where they don’t show what happened in the intervening time at all. The viewer is supposed to keep thinking about that gun. What happened with it? Did it play some role in the portion of the story we didn’t get to see? Of course, none of this works if that haunting piano melody isn’t also just perfect for that original scene in and of itself as a piece of music. It still needs to be powerful and impactful even if the audience doesn’t get any of that subtext we talked about. And that should always be the first consideration for these things. But it just goes to show how much more information we can pack into some of our sequences through subtext and layered meaning, freeing us up to use other space to serve our narrative in different ways. It seems like such a simple thing: using internal and external referencing to increase the amount of information any one part of your world or narrative may contain. And yet, in games, it’s a tool we underutilize. I’m curious to hear your thoughts, though, because there are games that do this well, and I’m willing to bet there are plenty I don’t know about. So, comments. If you have any examples of high information density that you have seen in a game, let me know. See you next week!