Inside the digital spaces of video games, the smallest details can tell the biggest stories.
This can sometimes feel contrary to the ever-increasing scope of video games. By design, games are explosive, built to give room for players to explore and exist. In order to add context to these pixel playgrounds, many developers often turn to one of the oldest tricks in the game design book: flavor text.
Flavor text is an agent of video game minutia. With humble origins that can be traced back to card-based and traditional role-playing games, flavor text refers to written descriptions that add color to a game world, like descriptions of items in your inventory menu, or the little blurbs that sometimes appear on loading screens. It’s one of the most simplistic and effective tools available when it comes to bringing a game’s world to life. Subtle, unobtrusive, and a reward for the astute video game explorer, flavor text has aided in making many of the best video games more immersive than it’s often given credit for.
Sitting on the fog-engulfed streets of Silent Hill 2’s titular town is Neely’s Bar. It’s a small place, ramshackle and abandoned; a far cry from the commotion and revelry normally associated with a bar. When protagonist James Sunderland enters Neely’s Bar, it isn’t much to look at. A lone wall, however, contains one of the most interesting—and perplexing—things in the game.
Scrawled on the wall in faded red text are two simple sentences:
“There was a HOLE here. It’s gone now.”
Despite its apparent lack of purpose, the declaration is a stellar example of ambient flavor text and its ability to add to a game’s overall atmosphere. Silent Hill is a place of mystery and centralized horror. To James Sunderland, the town is a place of misplaced grief and sexual frustration. The flavor text found in Neely’s Bar illuminates the tension and misery of Silent Hill 2.
Even now, nearly 15 years later, Silent Hill fans can interpret and analyze the line numerous different ways. It can be a sexual reference to some, or a commentary on James’s relationships. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the right interpretation is. What matters is that the message scribbled in Neely’s Bar means something to each person who encounters it.
Dark Souls, From Software’s 2009 action role-playing game, has been both lauded and lamented for many of its enigmatic design choices. The game’s narrative ranks chiefly among these points of contention. With little to go off of in the form of explicitly stated plot and exposition, Dark Souls—for better or for worse—made players seek out tidbits of lore wherever they could find them in order to better understand the fantasy world of Lordran and its cursed inhabitants.
Because of From Software’s decision to hide Dark Souls’ story from plain sight, the development team used flavor text to enrich the numerous weapons, armor, and items that players encountered on their journey. Each line of solemn description sheds a sliver of information to the discerning adventurer, allowing Dark Souls’ obscure myth to be fleshed out for those who sought it.
The flavor text of Dark Souls stands out because without it, there isn’t much else to the land of Lordran. Despite its evocative castle spires and mysterious crystalline caverns, Dark Souls’ world is one that functions more as a blank canvas than anything. The creatures and locations that players encounter are defined by the player’s own knowledge of them, giving those who spend the time reading item descriptions and other pieces of flavor text a much more personal connection with the game’s overall experience.
One of the game’s most intriguing lines of flavor text comes from examining a weapon called Smough’s Hammer. The fearsome weapon is massive, capable of bludgeoning anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in its path. The great hammer was once wielded by one of the most iconic bosses in Dark Souls, the Executioner Smough.
Obtaining and examining Smough’s Hammer tells a tale of subtle depravity:
“Great hammer of executioner Smough, who guards the cathedral in the forsaken city of Anor Londo. Smough loved his work, and ground the bones of his victims in his own feed, ruining his hopes of being ranked with the Four Knights.”
This piece of flavor text adds weight to how Dark Souls players understand Smough. Much like his hammer, Smough is gargantuan. His intimidating appearance and powerful hammer are dangerous enough, but the underlying taboo of his cannibalistic vice paints him in a totally evil light. By simply reading one piece of Dark Souls’ plentiful flavor text, the player’s entire understanding of a character is warped as his dark habits are exposed.
It isn’t just single-player games that feature flavor text. Online multiplayer titles have long employed flavor text to color and flesh out the player-driven worlds. From EverQuest to World of Warcraft, these large games have employed flavor text to make players feel that they are part of constantly evolving worlds.
Destiny carries on this tradition in a way that feels unique from other online games. Developer Bungie crafted a space saga that has attracted thousands of players, but also left them feeling isolated because of the game’s lack of dedicated storytelling. Throughout Destiny’s first year, players have been left high and dry in the narrative department.
Despite the lack of readily accessible storytelling, Destiny excels in the flavor text department, blending humor, intrigue, and occasionally sheer badassery within the written lines attached to the game’s weapons and armor.
Just about every equipable and consumable item and weapon in Destiny has deftly written flavor text that gives players a sense of place in the game’s planet-spanning universe. Interplanetary travel can be a tiresome affair, but Destiny’s flavor text serves to make players feel as though they are a part of something bigger than the surface-level story by fleshing out different characters and historical events.
Destiny’s flavor text is similar to Dark Souls’ in that it can inform while still creating a sense of intrigue. One example, the obscure A.1F19X-Ryl Scout Rifle that was available when the game launched last year, is among the game’s most haunting:
“Trepanning is the art of cutting the skull open to let the gods in.”
The rifle’s flavor text elevates the weapon from a simple killing tool to one that carries an overtone of sanctimonious purpose. To “trepan” is to perforate the skull; this is a clever play on a real-world term that crafts a strong sense of what the universe of Destiny is actually like.
The flavor text of Destiny isn’t all grim quotations and grotesque imagery. It’s often at its best when the game drops its serious tone. Dozens of Destiny’s weapons and armor feature flavor text almost seem to come out of left field. Eschewing the otherwise serious tone of Destiny, these pieces of flavor text are as memorable as they are unique.
The Hustler’s Cloak, a Hunter-exclusive piece of armor, is a good example of this:
“They say you will never find an impractical Hunter. But what do ‘they’ know about dashing cloaks?”
It’s with flavor text like the Hustler’s Cloak that Destiny sets itself apart. The whimsical nature that many lines of Destiny’s flavor text contain instill an ascribed personality to the different character classes in the game. The Hustler’s Cloak is just one example, but it is indicative of the ability that flavor text has to build upon and improve the framework of a game with a few choice words.
At the end of the day, flavor text is never essential, but that’s part of what makes it special. In a time where video games are coming out more frequently than ever, it’s the games that go the extra mile that are most fondly remembered. Flavor text might be the smallest, most subtle way to make a game truly stand out, but hey—clearly it works.
Raymond Porreca is a freelance writer from Philadelphia, PA. Follow @rayporreca on Twitter for more video game-related ramblings.
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