Information Density – How Mr. Robot Does a Lot with a Little – Extra Credits

Information Density – How Mr. Robot Does a Lot with a Little – Extra Credits


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!

87 thoughts on “Information Density – How Mr. Robot Does a Lot with a Little – Extra Credits

  1. a level in a game called majin and the forsaken kingdom (which has a lot of hidden messages about the environment) and also a level in skyward sword are both set in a desert that used to be a sea referencing the aral sea which people have dried out

  2. I highly recommend TEXHNOLYZE if you enjoyed Mr Robot. It is an anime by Studio Madhouse, the people behind Haibane Renmai and Serial Experiments Lain. They also worked on several movies including Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Paprika, and Perfect Blue. Studio Madhouse as information density locked down. I fully believe TEXHNOLYZE is their masterpiece.

  3. There's an indie game called Hyper Light Drifter which tells its story with no words. Also, it's cyber-punk, so it's right up your alley.

  4. I enjoy Mr. Robot (maybe because of my field of study) but I have my problems with it… it's too predictable. For example right off the bat we find that the main character isn't someone you can trust. When you hear e-corp change to evil corp by every single person, I feel like I became an observer knowing I'm watching a bias view…
    Aren't these things we want to avoid in telling a story?

  5. I keep wondering why people keep saying Mr. Robot.
    I disliked the whole atmosphere and the first few episode I watched just felt sooooo long. Especially the first episode where he was constantly talking.
    But knowing this information it does sound like it is worth watching.

  6. Information density is used infrequently because it's hard. It's very hit or miss with the audience and can be hard to implement effectively. With this particular example I'm willing to wager that the majority of people did not get the reference. Especially if they are under 25.

  7. The writing style of Roger Zelazny does quite possibly the greatest quality of information density that I have ever encountered. His short stories are better for this but his novels such as The Amber Series and Lord of Light. Check it out.

  8. Packing the most meaning into the smallest amount of words used to be called Poetry Analysis class, and if you've studied it you have a foundation for writing in all modern mediums: copywriting, web writing, video game writing. English Major win!

  9. In one of my favourite games, Valley by Blue Isle Studios, the player goes around (amongst the main part of the game) fighting maybe-magic maybe-mundane creatures and collecting energy in the form of blue orbs to power their super-suit. And there's a final reveal near the end that makes you look back at every single moment- from questions you asked before you even had the super-suit and promptly ignored in favour of epic parkour, from the mechanical rewards of defeating enemies, from the entire plot- and makes you go, 'Oh god.'

    Also, if you haven't played it, DO IT RIGHT NOW. No ifs, no buts. Valley is an exceptional game, the first-person equivalent of Child of Light, and it's absolutely phenomenal in a whole range of things. Especially the… okay it's basically as perfect a game as I can think of, but its use of music and musical cues is especially skilled. There's a really good sequence near the middle of the game where you go down a tunnel. And they make two or three minutes of running and the occasional jump feel as good as slaying a dragon.

  10. I know its not a videogame, but… Steven Universe suprisingly manages that pretty often, and in a way other highly praised animated shows don't. Soooo many rewatch bonuses, so much contextual info, so much double meanings…

    Even Rick and Morty and Gravity Falls don't manage that density nearly as well. Of course, unlike SU they don't have a long setup time, which is problematic for other reasons.

  11. I assumed that the guy was imaginary. It's easy to spot after watching fight club. Took me a while though, until the heroin episode.

  12. I'm late to the party on this episode, but thanks so much for making it. I just now got hooked on Mr. Robot. As to games which DO use information density–Planescape: Torment and its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera. Incredible writing, extremely layered narrative, "failing forward" approaches that make failure or PC death interesting and actually provide valuable information to the player–these two games are the most information-dense games I have played (well, I've only played the beta content on Tides of Numenera because the official release isn't until Feb. 28th, but you get what I mean). I think Bioware tries to do that a little, at least in the sense that in ongoing series (say Mass Effect 1-3 or Dragon Age 1-3) they layer a LOT of references, easter eggs, and player choices from previous games into the last (or most recent) game. But it's still limited. I'm having a hard time thinking of other games that are as layered and dense as the Torment games. Possibly The Stanley Parable, but I haven't actually played that. I'm sure there are a handful of other indie games that do it, I just can't think of any right now.

  13. I recall reading recently about a mathematician who attempted to analyze poetry from an information theory perspective. He gave up. Humans, simply put, can pack more information into an artwork (poetry, movies, games, paintings, whatever) than should be possible given our current understanding of information.

  14. during the final boss of portal 2, parts of "I am not a moron" can be heard as part of the final boss theme, hinting at what this moment means. that's the only one i can think of.

  15. Don't tell me you didn't know from the episode where his dad came to help him out while he was locked in by the drug dealer's brutes? (i'm sorry if i can't describe the episode properly lol)

  16. Actually a better example of this exists in a game. At the end of the final raid of World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor there is a cinematic. The Merlin character, stares at a portal which the major antagonist of the expansion has just gone through. Slowly the camera pans down. In front of the portal lies the distinctive staff of the expansion's major antagonist, a very powerful warlock named Gul'dan. Our wizard just narrows his eyes and says "hmmm". Then the staff disappears in green sparks. Another character comes up to the portal and looks at the wizard. "You don't believe this is over" she says. "Gul'dan and the devils he served are not so easily vanquished" replies the wizard. Now, obviously they are setting up the next expansion of the game. But more importantly their conversation shows that they know this moment is a tipping point. The tone of the game is going to change. The big guns are going to come out, both for the good guys and for the bad guys. This game isn't going to be focused on one world anymore: this game is now about an entire universe. It's scope has widened. We thought this game was epic already, it's famous for being epic in it's scope: but it just got even more epic. Because that entire universe that is out there: yeah, they're all trying to destroy us.

  17. Might be silly to make a comment of this type after more than a year, still to me a game series that does this consistently is the Persona series, besides that there is the obvious Undertale, the underrated but still very good Jade Regent, and the best games in the Fire Emblem series. Oh yeah, Fallout New Vegas does this beautifully with it's quest names, sometimes making what initially seems like a boring quest interesting by subtly or not so subtly hinting about it's nature. And of course Bioshock does that expertly.

  18. I think a fatal flaw exists in this idea. Not everyone knows both The Pixies and Fight Club. I certainly didnt. So all this extra "density" is just noise obscuring the signal to me and others like me.

  19. Yeah, no. I mean, I totally understand the concept but while being a fan of Mr Robot (the first season anyway) and having watched (and loved) Fight Club I couldn't make the connection if my life depends on it. It's a long, very long slingshot.

    Now, reading the comments here I must say something: how many of you missed Fight Club? Sorry, not only it's a good movie but also a very famous one. I can't imagine any kind of movie/videogames artist or designer not having watched Fight Club. It's like a painter not having saw the sailing of the Sixtine Chapel, not even on Google Images.

  20. BioShock Infinite. Often times you can hear modern music being played in the background with old instruments. After you meet Elizabeth and your on the beach Elizabeth will explore all the goins on of the beach and its activities. All while this is happening the song "girls just wanna have fun" is being played on an organ out of site. I didn't recognize the song until I was watching a video the developers made explaining how the coded Elizabeth to wander around the beach without getting to far away from the character.

  21. i might be (a lot) late on this, but i think the dark souls trillogy works for the best if you consider information packing on item positioning, music, even architecture. they did not do a good work but a MASTERpiece with the game. The best example i can remember is on the second, where they put the ring away from the old king, so when u figure it out the entirety of the game comes to you like a rock and you realize that he has been nothing but trying to prepare you to be the man he couldn't, and as through that, defeat the evil he wasn't strong enough to defeat.
    Disclaimer: i hardly believe anyone will read this, but had to make peace with my mind.

  22. Mr.Robot is one of the most racist tv programs I have every watched. Not even in season 2, and a Latino is already a rapist/drug dealer and Indian guy a pedophile. There is white guy boss in an Asian organization for reasons I cannot comprehend and the people of colour you encounter are extremely tokenized. Maybe I am reading too much into the series, but to me, it seemed like they apologized white people for doing bad stuff but completely demonized any non-white character. White people had a right to a deep background story and reason to do bad stuff. But minorities? Nah, we are shit in there. Tokens for the protagonist to play hero with.

    In storytelling, I beg to differ, Mr.Robot did very bad. Regardless of the good premise shown in chapter one. The idea stagnated after chapter two. If you compare Mr.Robot with series like Shameless (which have extremely good storytelling) you can spot how different they are. Shameless don't just have a very varied and interesting cast you can relate to, but the story kept moving even in the slowest of the moments. You know what people in Shameless speak about is real, it happens, is not an opinion is a fact. Character do bad stuff regardless of the race but they do have stories behind what they do. Maybe you don't agree with them, but you can see why they do stuff. Meanwhile, Mr.Robot's narrative is truly (and I mean TRULY) opinionated. It seemed to me like they kept pushing this idea of good vs evil that is more an opinion than a fact. Just in one occasion they questioned the entire premise by inferring morality can be a shade of gray, when the protagonist is leaving the "secret" layout saying that morals aren't binary what I remember made me think "First smart thing you say in all the fucking serie" and then he betrays the thinking that they may be a scale of gray by using a deus ex machina. It seemed very unlikely to me that a group of annoyingly smart hackers would rather kill millions of people that look for a different approach to solve a problem, and that they needed a white self-victimizing boy to find a back door. The more I kept watching the less the series makes sense. It was extremely dull and unlike Shameless didn't add a thing to my person or my opinion about society. Never made me question myself or gave me something to doubt my own morality. It was shallow and superficial; a wannabe cyberpunk minus the actual repercussions or self-sacrifice. The protagonist was a nerd Rambo who cannot be found or destroyed. The hacker "elite" and mr.Robot was not even close to representing what hacktivism is really about. So, at the end, it was a huge disappointment and as a person who knows hackers, it was like watching an 80's movie about them.

  23. HOLY FUCK. Just watched the episode like a year after watching this video for the first time and just revisited it. My brain is melting…

  24. You think you know everything in Mr Robot but after one line of dialogue you rethink the entire season and what all of it meant. There are alot of plot twists in the series and you can see the writers had meaning for every piece of dialogue.

  25. I love the intent of this video, but I don't think this is an effective or good example of "good design". I mean, it's excellent aesthetically but not genius by any means imo. it assumes the viewer of Mr robot has seen fight club, knows the song was played in that movie, knows the lyrics of the song, understood the lyrics of the song, and then realized that that song was playing in that scene in mr robot. it's hinged on too many assumptions to be considered "good design", it's more of a good homage.

  26. Kid Icarus: Uprising is a really interesting game in this regard, because there is SO much dialog that you hear through the entire game. It's all entertaining and gives personality to each and every character. Much of it might be considered superficial, but it does an excellent job of leaving just too little information about the characters that it lets your imagination run wild: thinking, imagining, and theorizing the backstories of characters and what each of their motivations really are. The music contributes to this as well actually!

    Magnus, a human mercenary amidst this war of gods and their armies, is a clearly experienced warrior. He fights his way into a dark lord's castle to take the dark lord down. He says he's in it for the reward money, but it's revealed he knows the dark lord personally, and his theme music is among the most heroic and inspirational in the entire game. There is definitely an untold story here that ties in deeply to the overall narrative.

  27. That connection seems way to convoluted to be useful… Though maybe if I'd ever heard of that song, or seen/read fight club…

  28. That kind of information packing is tricky, because you have to know a majority if your audience can work it out. The problem with that particular reveal is that it requires I've heard the song, heard and understood the lyrics, seen Fight Club, and can put all those pieces together while watching an unrelated show.

  29. This was one of the few shows that genuinely annoyed me. I wanted to leave and do something else, but NO, I had to watch the next one. This is now one of my favorite shows of all time, up there with Breaking Bad, and Arrested Development.

  30. Man, I absolutely love this channel. Learning so much about subtle tools of game design is making me urge more and more to create my own game.

  31. I know this video is over a year old, and I know Undertale has already been brought up in the comments below, but I wanted to point out one particular example that neatly mirrors the video's point in the same way that another commenter mentions the anime Durarara!

    The musical piece that opens King Asgore's fight – not the actual fight theme (which is just called ASGORE), but the short midi sequence that immediately precedes it while he talks to you in the battle screen – is called Bergentrückung, a common trope in early middle european storytelling often translated as 'King under the Mountain'.
    This is HIGHLY layered information, because it describes the situation in 2 separate ways as well as recontextualizing how you may think of Asgore as a character. First, there's the very literal interpretation that Asgore is, in fact, very much an actual king under an actual mountain in the story (Mt. Ebott). There's also the meaning as a storytelling device, however – Bergentrückung refers to the concept of a powerful person or ruler going into exile for a long time, typically 'until his people need him', at which point he returns in all his power and glory and saves his kingdom. This is very much Asgore's situation in the game, having been sealed WITHIN his kingdom underground, biding his time until he's able to save his people by claiming the souls of fallen humans.
    This, combined with his downcast gaze during the fight and wide sweeping attacks (as though he wants to hit as hard as he can without having to see what he's doing) highlight the fact that he *does not want to hurt you*, but sees doing so as a necessary duty to his people as their king.

  32. I saw this a year ago and it made me want to avoid the show Mr Robot. I thought that I would inevitably run into a reference to something obscure that I wouldn't get. This definition of "information density" is really just including things in a scene that references something outside the scene. The viewer gets the information not from what they are watching, but instead from their memories. Of course that doesn't always work since people don't all have the same memory, but weirdly it almost always works if we all grew up in the same culture.

  33. Mr. Robot also does this at the fantasy dinner scene in a later episode. Basket Case by Greenday. Love how they use covers without lyrics so you can put it together yourself.

  34. The real qustion is how dense can media get without being overly complicated and to the point were most people dont understand to pick it apart

  35. How would you externally reference in a game through music that's in another game? Wouldn't the copyright issues get you sued?

  36. I feel like Sonic Adventure 2 did this so well with Shadow.
    Although I bet most people here aren’t too into Sonic games and won’t know what I’m talking about.

  37. I think any piece of fiction's references (or "intertextuality") and symbology should be as internal as possible. When it references something by a line or piece of music, what should make you go "OHHHHHHHH! THAT!" should be something that has meaning because of what you experienced earlier. Aside from true cultural luggage, like for western civilization the Greek myths, the Bible, probably King Arthur & Robin Hood, Shakespeare, and a few other bits of literature, and a few household-name-famous events, moments, or quotes from history (some of which it would be difficult to avoid, considering the English language is FULL of biblical or Shakespearean phrases and idioms), other more "pop culture" references should be the insanity peppers of narrative flavor. Don't use them at all, ever, except to entertain exactly that sort of person who likes them. Nobody else wants them – whether they realize it or not.

    Every "I've got a baaaaaaaaad feeling about this" in the Star Wars prequel is a pop culture reference to STAR WARS – the movie/trilogy everyone loved. They're making a pop culture reference to something within their own ouevre, and it still doesn't work. It just pulls you out of the experience and makes you think "Oh yeah, I remember that from a GOOD movie I liked! God the prequels are awful." It's an OBVIOUS ham-fisted attempt to link itself to something the audience LIKES, and use the goodwill and perception of depth the audience has of the original work, to add to itself… without actually doing the work.

    I also find it breaks immersion almost every time, in any work of fiction, to make references outside itself. It makes me go "Oh hey! I remember that from a work of fiction… just like this. This is a work of fiction. I'm not really in this world watching these events unfold." Fiction requires the SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF, the willingness to forget that it's a made up story, and let yourself be drawn in. Pop culture references can very easily stop drawing you in, turn you away, and sit you right back in your creaky computer chair in your real world. Too much or too obvious nudging and winking at the audience just reminds them that they are an audience.

    It works fine in parody and in certain types of comedy. But that's also where insanity peppers work best.

    All that being said, I don't think a discussion of good (or bad) use of intertextuality is really the same as a discussion of information density. Sorry, I don't think this video covered the intended topic.

  38. I would REALLY like to just put in a quick word here for Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon, a game with tons of rich story told almost entirely in subtext, because at 2:23, when you talk about a moment of realization to clue the player in that there's more going on here, I immediately had a moment from that game come to my mind. It's in the milk house level, where in the background of your level environment, there's a smashed window. Under a trap door in the same level, a bottle lying on its side next to a reddened rag has a label which is partly legible. It's chloroform. These details were incredibly exciting to pick up on, and had me starting to scour the details of other levels for repeated themes and hints, so that I could begin to solve the mysteries of the game. And one of the intensely powerful things about that game is that there is NO dialogue whatsover, and very little instructional text beyond the basic controls tutorial in the first level. It lets me feel so much smarter than some other games, because it lets me figure it out on my own.

  39. I remember experiencing a moment exactly like this in the latest season of Rick and Morty, the one where we go to the Citadel (spoiler free dont worry). We watch to the end of the episode, listen to the speech as the haunting melody plays in the background, tugging at our memory- and then the airlock opens, the soft sung wordless “ahs” begin, and everything suddenly CLICKS on what just happened.

  40. it's only after seeing this video again after managing to get a copy of Fallout 1 that I realise how perfect some of the game over lines were, while I know that this episode referenced Fallout 1's "war never changes" line, some of the game over lines were perfect for adding to the atmosphere of the world and how the world treated the character you play as the first one that comes to mind being "the darkness of the afterlife is all that awaits you now, may you find more peace in that world than you found in this one"

  41. This isn't the best idea but from a standpoint of games where you may not even have a story focus, monster hunter tends(especially the older ones) to pull this off well with the music. the best themes of the series that really convey danger always tend to be the ones that relate back to the series longtime running them "proof of a hero". Conveying danger and personality of the monster by moving the main theme to a minor key or changing in some way, it kinda leads to this moment of both hype and pure worry. The themes that I can think of off the top of my head would be, The voracious devil, Alatreon theme(real creative naming I know), and murmurs from the land forbidden, I'm sure there are more but I cant think of them right now. these are probably the three themes I remember best to, so it worked.

  42. Full metal alchemist brotherhood has a very good realization moment, though it comes to the viewer before the protagonists

  43. left at 1:23 because spoilers… hopefully eventually I'll watch the show and think to come back and watch this

  44. Doki Doki Literature Club The most desirable character in the game commits suicide, right after the other most desirabe one does and the entire game goes off the rails and then the main antagonist, whoy ou don't really know shows up right in front of the corpse and says "we need to talk"and in that moment you know exactly who did what and when and why and the entire game snaps into focus

  45. It's so weird to think that fight club isnt as much of a social touchstone anymore. It sucks reading how many people in the comments have never heard the song before and how no connection with the pixies

  46. That scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone when Dumbledore lies to Harry for the first time and Harry notices. It's not effective in the same way that TV scene is, but when I read it for the first time I could tell Dumbledore had something significant on it's mind and kept waiting to find out what.

  47. Would something like Roxas getting Oathkeeper and Oblivion as keyblades after the fight with Xion count as this? When I played the first game I just thought they were powerful, and cool looking keyblades, then in 358/2 Days when I see Roxas, wielding them, and why he got them I was able to connect the dots. Oathkeeper for him making a promise to Xion, and Oblivion because he had actually begun to forget she even existed. They are the only lasting symbol of Xion's existence, even as Roxas can't remember her actively.

  48. I feel like this entire episode could be re-titled "The Failure of Symbolism: relying on cues that are far from universal because you can't be arsed to actually SAY what you mean." I've seen Fight Club. I've seen Mr. Robot. I even enjoyed both. But having a shared musical strain did exactly NOTHING to tie the two together for me.

  49. But this requires intertextual knowledge that many people may not have, so all of the information and context is inaccessable to a large portion of viewers.

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