The intrinsic semiotics of video-
In search of games' narrative potential
An article by Frederic SERAPHINE,
Animation instructor at the Image Institute of the Indian Ocean
First published on Amazon Kindle, KDP. ASIN: B00Q1A0170
Table of Contents
Abstract .............................................................................. 1
Introduction ........................................................................ 2
Story Telling, Game and Experience ................................. 6
The semiosis in video games ........................................... 20
Theoretical Design perspectives behind game Semiotics 34
Conclusion ....................................................................... 46
Ludography ...................................................................... 46
All Rights Reserved © 2014 Frédéric SERAPHINE
This article aims at highlighting semiotic devices that are proper to
the field of game design. By analyzing how current games handle
their story telling, it will try to identify the process of signification
within games in order to understand how it could be enhanced.
This article will make use of concepts from Ludology, Semiotics,
and Narratology; yet this paper's intent is to give new perspectives
in the domain of game-design. It is a first attempt at identifying a
language specific to games; a language that would permit the
emergence of richer contents within games.
It is likely that games have the ability to convey emotions, ethical
values or stories. Some games already do. But we have yet to
understand the workings of this signification. What really belongs
to games? What is borrowed to other forms of art?
Keywords – Game semiotics, game design, ludology, narratology,
Whichever tool or media might they choose, artists will try to
convey emotions and stories through the mastery of a chosen
technique. And history of art is made of relentless reinvention of the
medias by the artists. Rules of story-telling for cinema were
constantly questioned in 120 years of existence. Video-game being
at the scale of media history, a rather new mode of expression; it has
yet an unexplored potential as a narrative media. Video-games do
have the ability to convey a narrative; and many gamers will share
their memories about playing a game they liked, by telling its story.
Maybe the way video-games are currently telling stories is still
immature. For example the overuse of tutorial levels in
contemporary games is very analog to how story-telling used to
depend on inter-titles in the cinematography of the early 20th century.
Inter-titles were a crutch for a cinema which had not yet identified
the narrative potential of its own tools. Such things as cut-scenes,
and tutorial levels which use is broadly accepted in current games,
are probably of a similar nature: mere crutches.
As a result, the narrative potential of video-games, is still a subject
of debate among game scholars. From the end of the 90s, in
opposition to Narratology as an academic approach for game studies;
scholars of northern Europe started to introduce the field of
Ludology. One of them, Gonzalo Frasca, an Uruguayan researcher
who graduated from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark,
published in 2003 an essay called Simulation versus narrative:
Introduction to Ludology.
In this essay, for Frasca (2003) one of the main purposes was to
challenge the idea that video games should be considered as an
extension of drama and narrative. Opposing the narratological
approach on game studies, and bringing in Ludulogy as the “still-
nascent formal discipline of game studies”(p.222).
For this purpose, Frasca is highlighting the concept of Simulation,
as a ludological pendant to Narration. He splits this concept into two
genres: the Paidia and the Ludus. Paidia could be vulgarized as the
sandbox aspect of simulation, while Ludus is its aspect that relies
more on rules and constraints. The point of his thesis is that games
and narratives provide authors with “essentially different tools for
conveying their opinions and feelings”(p.222).
Nowadays, as opposed to what Frasca was stating back in 2003, the
most natural approach to video-games’ studies actually became
Ludology. And the common idea prevailing in game studies is that
narratology is not the right theoretical tool to study video-games.
Yet, Narration doesn't simply rely on Representation as Frasca was
stating. And, as Simulation is all about reproduction of an
experience, Simulation itself is subtending a strong notion of
Representation. Representation coming from the Latin root
with the repetition prefix re; basically means make
something — or someone — present anew. Simulation on the other
side comes from simulare
which means copy or reproduce. So it
appears that the concept of Simulation tends to be very close in
signification to the concept of Representation. Simulation with its
underlying meaning of copy or reproduction, is simply a particular
form of representation: a representation of an experience. Making it
the best experimentation tool for scientific studies.
So Narration doesn't simply rely on Representation; for instance, in
the context of literary narration, words are not representing, they are
rather signifying. Representation itself is just a mere tool in the field
of semiotics. Even if Frasca is stating that “the storytelling model
Gonzalo Frasca, “Simulation versus narrative: Introduction to
Ludology”, The Video Game Theory Reader, Issue n° 1,
September 18, 2003
Wikitionary, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/praesento (accessed on
October 25, 2014)
Wikitionary, http://en.wikitionary.org/wiki/simulare (accessed on
October 25, 2014)
— for game studies — is inaccurate and limits our understanding of
the medium along with our ability to create more compelling
; it is unlikely that the will of narration could limit the
evolution of video-game as a medium. Quite the contrary, there is
still a lot to explore in the narrative aspect of game design. Narration
might not be the core of game design, it is still an immeasurable tool
to convey emotions. And semiotics could be the key to a better
understanding of the narrative potential underlying in game-play.
One of the dimensions of semiotics is the field of semantics. The
concepts of semantics are at a deeper abstraction level than
narratological concepts. Semantics are based on the relationship
between two key concepts: The signifier, and what it stands for, the
Can we find signifiers in the constitutive elements of game-play?
Video-game being by nature a mixed media, when can we consider
that a signifying element is part of the game-play? If the game-play
can be the vector for a meaning, will this meaning derive from
semantics or from pragmatics? As game-play is an ontologically
abstract concept, does it have a potential of denotation as well as
connotation? Finding out how to signify using the tools provided by
game design could, in the end, allow the emergence of a form of
video game auteurism. Narration has this incredible potential to
convey strong emotions. Only mediums that have this experiential
ability to convey emotions and meaning are broadly considered as
art. In his thoughts about game ethics, the game philosopher Miguel
Sicart (2013) defines his will for the recognition of games as a form
If a new medium is considered to be art, then
it becomes culturally legitimate for it to
explore and communicate important meanings
about our lives and culture.
The present article is making this vow its own, and places it as a
leitmotif to devote this reflection. However there is still a whole
grammar and vocabulary to identify and establish for story-telling
in video-game design. Despite its high subtended level of
Frasca,”Simulation versus narrative:”.221,
Miguel Sicart, “Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay”,.
17, Kindle locations 375-3379, MIT Press, 2013 (Kindle Edition)
abstraction, game-play has an unfulfilled potential as a narrative
I Story Telling, Game, and Experience
According to the game designer and theorist Jesse Schell
(2008), the designer — may he design games, chairs or
whatever — always aims to create an experience. However,
in the case of game design, the game itself isn't the
experience. The game is the tool to trigger an experience
for the player. Schell presents us the Story as one kind of
experience among others. He describes the will of “true
interactive storytelling” as an unreachable goal and
presents us two “real world” alternatives to this dream.
The first method is the “String of Pearls”, consisting in
telling a “completely non-interactive story” within the
game. This story is the “string”, and along this string, the
player is given moments of “free movement and control”
where he will have to reach a fixed goal. These moments of
gameplay are the “pearls”.
The second method presented is described as “The Story
Machine”. This method consists in creating a free
playground proper to create interesting stories that the
player will be able to enjoy and retell.
Schell also states that an artfully shaped and balanced story
can be handled within a game, through indirect control over
the player's freedom. Formulated in another way: to keep
control over the story, the designer shall manipulate the
player's impression of freedom within the game; control his
But Schell is making a mistake invalidating the possibility
Jesse Schell, “Chapter 2, 15 and 16” in “The Art of Game Design: A
book of lenses”, Taylor and Francis, 2008 (Kindle Edition)
of a “true interactive story-telling”. He tends to impute his
reasoning to others. As he thinks that only a technological
leap, permitting players to establish communication with an
artificial intelligence, could permit the existence of this
“true interactive storytelling”
; he states that it is not worth
trying, as long as the technology is still not there. He does
not even consider that maybe, this solution of his own he
proposes, is not the only possibility.
Maybe we have been taking this issue from the wrong side
for years. The common belief concerning storytelling for
video games is that we should aim at telling “interactive
stories”; and it is indeed a noble goal, and a difficult task.
Perhaps should we simply aim at telling a story — may it
be linear or interactive — with interactivity as a semantic
tool. In other words, we should not try to create interactive
stories, but rather stories interactively told.
The String of Pearls and the Story Machine are totally
efficient storytelling tools for video-games. They are doing
exactly what players expect from them. They convey an
experience and keep it interesting. The method of the String
of Pearls is using storytelling as a reward for the player; as
it is in the human nature to enjoy a good story. In words of
The string of pearls method gives the player
an experience where they get to enjoy a finely
crafted story, punctuated with periods of
interactivity and challenge. The reward for
succeeding at the challenge? More story and
But, when it comes to the “string” phase, as the player loses all
Ibid., Kindle Locations 5172-8075,
Schell, “The Art of Game Design:”, Kindle locations 5076-8075
control over the game, it kind of ceases to be a game. It may become
a great movie or novel, but it relies on principles which are not those
The method of the Story Machine, is for the moment the only
storytelling method that truly relies on principles intrinsic to games.
However, the stories it conveys are in fact randomly generated.
They are not the fruit of authorship. A game based on the Story
Machine method will make a broad use of mechanics to randomly
generate story-telling modules. One could tell the story of his
character in The Sims for example; however nobody would be the
author of this story. The story would, in fact, become peculiar to the
player. This method is extremely rich and has broad perspectives of
evolution. In truth, the utopian method that Schell was imagining to
reach the dream goal of a “true interactive story-telling” is in
absolute, just an evolution of the Story Machine method. A
simulated world with AI crafted so finely that communication with
non-playable characters (NPCs) would become so natural and
transparent that it would be difficult to make the difference with real
However, Schell thinks that to tell a story in a way that would be
peculiar to game design; there would be a lack of verbs. To prove
his claim true; he makes a quick comparison between the verbs of
games and the verbs of movies.
The things that video-game characters spend
their time doing are very different than the
things that characters in movies and books
spend their time doing:
Video-game Verbs: run, shoot, jump, climb,
throw, cast, punch, fly
Movie Verbs: talk, ask, negotiate, convince,
argue, shout, plead, complain
Actually, this list is biased and aims at orienting the reader's point
of view. In fact, a movie character could also do everything listed as
game actions. And even though the listed verbs proper to the
vocabulary of communication in movies are arguably difficult to put
Ibid., Kindle locations 5150-8075
into game actions, game verbs cannot be summarized into
stereotypical actions that most game characters usually execute. In
truth, the right point of view on what video-game verbs are, should
be less centered on characters' actions. It should put the focus on
any possible interaction between the player and the game. To cite a
precise example, in Blizzard's (1995) acclaimed real-time Strategy
game (RTS), Warcraft II
, the player is given control over a
medieval army to defeat his opponent's troops. The player does not
control a particular character, the player controls a godlike
disembodied warlord. His control over his units is indirect, he can
tell a soldier to attack an enemy unit, but will not have any control
over the fight itself.
Strategy games are revolving around verbs that are from various
lexical fields. If we take a look at any strategy game, we realize the
player can command, select, build, explore, spy, economize, spend,
harvest, mine, lumber, upgrade or destroy. However, those verbs are
aiming at entertaining and building the gameplay experience of the
player. These are verbs that are used as mechanics within games.
Those verbs are the game-mechanics of Warcraft II.
Game mechanics could be defined as patterns that always occur
when the player executes a given action. Generally, the game
mechanics are the tools given to the player in order to beat the
challenges proposed by the game. Miguel Sicart (2008) in an early
article attempted a formal definition of game mechanics.
I define game mechanics, using concepts from
object-oriented programming, as methods
invoked by agents, designed for interaction
with the game state.
To cite a handy example for vulgarization, let us apply this
definition to the central game mechanics in a game that
Ron Millar, Chris Metzen, “Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness”,
Blizzard entertainment, PC version, 1995
Miguel Sicart, “Defining Game Mechanics” in “The International
Journal of Computer Game Research”, Volume 8 issue 2, Game
Studies, http://gamestudies.org/0802/articles/sicart , December
2008 (accessed on October 30, 2014)
In Miyamoto's (1985) Super Mario Bros. the main
mechanics of the game is the Jump ability. The agent — the
A button when pressed — triggers the method, which is
Mario's Jump. Mario's jump can interact with the game
state in many different ways. Mario could jump over a
platform; defeat an enemy by jumping on his head; or
discover bonuses by jumping under a special brick.
Even a game such as Super Mario Bros. does have a story
to tell. In truth, classic games are generally using a common
pattern to tell a story. This pattern is making use of two
layers of story-telling. A general layer that applies to the
game as a whole, and a layer that will apply to the levels of
the game. This pattern is inherited from a game design
necessity. Classic game design needs to give the player a
goal in order to make him achieve a challenge. In Super
Mario Bros. the two layers of story are modeled on this
game design necessity. The first layer is the main goal of
the game, this goal's aim is to motivate the player to finish
the game. In this case, the first layer of story is Bowser
kidnapping the Princess Peach and Mario trying to save her.
This story line will constitute the motive for the player to
keep playing until he reaches the end of the game to free
The second layer will constitute the level design, when
Mario is reaching a new zone he will have to cross this zone
from left to right; so he will be able to continue his
adventure. Yet the levels he will have to cross are never
peaceful straight lines, and he will have to make full use of
the jump mechanics to reach his goal. In a way, it is already
a story — a very simple one — told with game-mechanics.
The story of Mario, who will save princess peach from the
Shigeru Miyamoto, “Super Mario Bros”, Nintendo, Nintendo
Entertainment System, 1985
infamous Bowser, thanks to his ability to jump.
Undoubtedly we can affirm that if there is a video-game
language, some of its verbs would be Game-mechanics; and
later on, we will study in depth the workings of its
signification. However, game mechanics are verbs only
when the subject is the player himself. One could not
imagine a novel in which all the verbs have the main
protagonist as a grammatical subject. So in video-games,
game mechanics are just one kind of verb. Eventually, what
form could take verbs with other subjects than the player
within a game?
A game featuring a story always happen to be set in worlds
in which the player is given some liberty. In most situations,
this freedom is given through the control of a character. But
as previously stated, with the example of real-time strategy,
this is not a rule that applies to every type of games. Thus
there are three distinct types of actions — verbs — we can
identify in games.
The first type, is actions executed by the player; the second
type concerns actions that affect objects controlled by the
player, and the third type is actions occurring between non-
playable elements of the game. The game experience as a
whole is feeding on all the three categories. We will name
these categories later on, in the chapter about game
To illustrate, we will take a look at a fairly recent game.
Naughty Dog's (2013) latest masterpiece of survival horror,
The Last of us is making a broad use of these three
categories of actions to craft a very fine story.
It is a game centered on two survivors of a biological
apocalypse. Indeed a kind of fungal disease have spread
around the world. Infected persons are turned into blind
zombies as the incriminated mushroom, the cordyceps,
colonizes the brain of the parasitized hosts. The pandemic
has lead to an uncontrollable societal situation; and civil
war outbreaks all over the territory of United States. In this
context, Ellie, one of the main characters, who is the only
known human to have survived the parasite, represents
mankind's only hope to find a vaccine. Joel, an aging man
who lost his daughter — by the hand of a non-infected
soldier — in the first days of the pandemic; is sent to
protect Ellie on her trip to join the Fireflies, a group of
paramilitary rebels who are conducting clandestine
research to find a vaccine.
What made The Last of us stand high in esteem for players
is mainly its way to handle story-telling. Yet primarily, let
us not be fooled, The Last of us is not centered on a story-
telling game-play. The Last of us is basically a third person
shooter with a story-telling based on the String and Pearls
method. The game's main mechanics are, walking, running,
taking cover, shooting, aiming, reloading, grabbing objects,
throwing and searching clues. It is a mix of mechanics of
third person shooters and survival horrors. In other words,
it is very close in terms of game-play to the latest Resident
However, a lot of efforts were put to tame and enhance the
archaic structure of String and Pearls. Wherever the String
phase could be avoided, the designer chose to handle the
story-telling within the game-play sequences. Let us walk
through the first minutes of the game and analyze how it is
making a brilliant use of in-game actions/verbs.
The story starts with a very short cut scene introducing us
two characters, a father, and his daughter. We will start our
detailed description from the moment the gameplay starts.
But by now, we will make it short about the introduction
Neil Druckmann, Bruce Straley, “The Last of us”, Naughty Dog,
Sony Computer Entertainment, Playstation 3 version, 2013
The story starts in 2013 in Texas; the set is a living room; a
father is coming back late at home and his daughter
presumably fell asleep while waiting for him. When he
comes back, he is on the phone with a certain Tommy,
talking about work. His daughter hears him and wakes up.
She was waiting to give him a watch as a birthday present.
Later in the evening as she fell asleep again on the couch in
front of television, her father is carrying her to her bed.
After an ellipse, later in the night, the phone is ringing,
waking up the girl. It's her uncle Tommy on the phone, he
calls her by her name, Sarah; and asks in an anxious tone to
talk to her dad. But suddenly in the middle of his sentence,
the communication is cut.
From this moment the game starts and the player takes
control of Sarah. The player has a very limited choice of
actions. Sarah can only walk around and execute some
contextual actions. To put it briefly, Sarah can walk, very
slowly; she can also open doors and observe some objects
of the house.
By limiting the range of possible actions, the game is
orienting the way the game should be played. It helps to
build up an ambiance. Indeed, simply by experiencing the
limits of the gameplay, the player is likely to understand
what to do to unfold the story; in this case, mainly exploring.
The fact Sarah is walking slowly in addition to the
environment of her home at night is modeling the anxious
mood of the game experience. If the player decides to
wander around in Sarah's room, she can observe objects in
the room. In particular, a birthday card Sarah forgot to give
to her father. For instance, even if it is not the most obvious
example, there is a dialog between Sarah and this object.
Sarah has to make a contextual action — using the cross
button of the Playstation gamepad — to observe the object
on the table. It is an action of the first category — just like
walking or opening doors — triggered by the player himself.
Yet when she observes it, it triggers a dialog part where she
explains what it is. So the object affected the player's
character, it is an interaction of the second category.
Basically, an action of the player triggered a sequence of
narrative actions. Some may say it is a short term return to
the String and Pearls pattern. But Sarah could as well not
observe this object on the table and continue to walk in the
house. It is a way to reward players who like to explore, by
deepening their experience of the game's background story.
When the player leads Sarah outside of the room, she starts
to call for her dad. The player controls her movements, but
she does not cease to be a character with her own motives.
The player now understands why he is moving the character;
he is not the character, but he is her accomplice and he now
knows the goal to reach. The player could directly take the
stairs and go to the ground floor. However, there is light and
the sound of a television coming from the room next door.
Other recent games would have used an artificial trick —
like a red glowing contour — to indicate to the player where
to go next. The use of logically integrated visual clues —
without any Heads-up display (HUD) — is a really simple
way to show the path, but it keeps the immersion, and as a
result enhances the experience. It is a brilliant use of visual
and audio cues to control the player's actions. When
addressing the correlation of storytelling and level design,
Schell advises the same observed solution. He describes it
as control over the player's eyes.
One of the keys to good level design is that the
player's eyes pull them through the level,
effortlessly. It makes the player feel in control
and immersed in the world. Understanding
what pulls the eye of the player can give you
tremendous power over the choices players
want to make.
However the examples given in the book are merely
scratching the surface, Schell was mainly addressing this
issue with pure level design, in the sense of design of the
environment. While in this example from The Last of us,
not only visual clues in the environment are used; but the
game also makes wide use of the camera's position and
spatialized sound effects. The game keeps control over the
overall shape of the environment, the signs it conveys, the
point of view from where it is displayed and even the sound
it emits; but the player keeps his feeling of freedom. The
player does not even seek control over those parameters
because he is too busy controlling the character and
experiencing the story.
Inside this room, judging the environment, the player
understands it might be the father's room. It now looks even
more natural that the character came here first to look for
him. The player doesn't realize it, but he was manipulated,
he was given an impression of total freedom as in fact he
was on a rail track. A player feels he could go downstairs
first, but the camera angle, the light under the door and the
sound of the television will convince him to take a little
look into that room first. Without this implicit rail track, the
rhythm of the storytelling would have been weaker. Player's
could have visited the entire house before entering the
father's room; it would have discredited the controlled
character as being part of this story. The television
broadcasts a live report about a fire in Boston. Sarah
realizes it is nearby her home.
Suddenly, there is an explosion and the broadcast stops.
Schell, “The Art of Game Design:”, Kindle locations 5466-8075
Then the player is urged to press the left stick, with a quick
time event — an icon appearing on the screen to tell the
player to press a given button — When the player presses
the button, the camera automatically turns toward the
window. At this moment, there is another explosion in the
district, this time, visible from the window. As in the rest of
the game, quick time events will take a prominent place; this
sequence serves as a kind of gameplay tutorial; yet it is less
intrusive than popping up a verbose explanation about
game controls on the screen
However, if the player had decided to go downstairs
anyway, the explosion would have been triggered while
Sarah was walking down the stairs. And the player would
definitively miss the sequence with the television, but the
rhythm of the storytelling would be kept intact.
When Sarah finally reaches the ground floor, through a
window, we can see police cars with sirens wailing,
crossing very fast. Suddenly her father's phone is ringing.
Once again it is a way to orient the player. if the player
decides to pick the phone, Sarah can see her uncle left
several messages to her father. Now Sarah is in the kitchen
and she can see the note her father left earlier on the fridge.
A message she supposedly already read before; left to tell
her he would come back late from work.
Outside the house, we can hear a dog barking, as if
something very unusual was happening. But while Sarah is
crossing the house, the dog barks of pain one last time,
Sarah startles and then the ambiance becomes strangely
silent. The dog got killed by something out there. Even if
there was no real “dog object” in the game, we could
consider this event as belonging to the 3rd category of
actions: An action of a non-playable object on another non-
But later in the game, Last of us is no exception and also makes use of verbose HUD
playable object. This use of sound is a method often used
in movies to build up the suspense, but in this situation, the
game-play didn't stop at all.
When Sarah reaches what seems to be the office of her
father, he arrives suddenly through the door.
He is very distraught; he talks about the neighbors who
seem to be sick and urges his daughter to keep away from
the doors. At first, while he is talking, the player still can
play and move Sarah around. But when suddenly the
neighbor enters the room, the player loses control, and we
go back to the string phase. In a cut scene, her father shoots
the neighbor turned into a zombie and takes his daughter
outside where his brother is waiting to take them away.
This first gameplay sequence of The Last of us is one
example of today's game story-telling at its best, for the
First of all, The Last of us is a survival horror game based
on third person shooter mechanics; however, the game is
introduced without the shooting mechanics. It is focusing
on a character which is not the main protagonist of the game,
and it forces you to experience what it is like to be a
harmless little girl in that apocalyptic situation. Even if the
game doesn't give the player an experience fully playable
— as there are some non-playable cut-scenes — it makes
an admirable effort to build up most of the story telling in
the playable sequences.
Secondly, we will later discover there was a dramaturgical
reason for this introduction to the game.
Indeed, further in the introduction, the player starts to
control the main character of the game, Joel. In this first
sequence, Joel has to carry his daughter Sarah to protect her
from the infected people who attack them. He puts himself
in a situation of danger, and this gameplay sequence is just
about escaping the zombies. In other words, the player's
freedom is still limited to locomotion. At the end of this
sequence Joel fails, and Sarah is shot by a soldier who
received the order to let no one leave the city.
This whole sequence was dramaturgically speaking, a
prologue to the story; as we will discover that it was
introducing the game's main theme: the filial relationship.
The rest of the story happens 20 years later and introduces
us to the character of Ellie, that Joel will have to protect,
even though he is afraid of this responsibility — because
of what happened to his own daughter. Slowly, the
character of Ellie will echo the character of Sarah. She will
not replace Sarah, but she definitely puts the character of
Joel in the same situation again. A father struggling to
protect his “daughter”.
This opening sequence is entirely part of the game's
dramatics, and the scene where Joel carries his daughter to
save her, is a variation on the principle of Chekhov's Gun,
at the difference it is told through gameplay. In words of
Anton Chekhov (1889), “One must never place a loaded
rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make
promises you don't mean to keep.”
By extension, in dramatics, Chekhov's gun, became the
generic appellation for the principle of placing an element
or a situation that will take a wider importance later in the
Indeed, the game is introduced with this sequence where
Joel has to carry Sarah in his arms, and ends up failing in
saving her life. At the end of the game, Joel finds himself
in the same situation and have to save Ellie who fell
Wikipedia contributors, “Chekhov's gun”,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov's_gun (accessed on
November 1, 2014)
unconscious. Even though the game is based on mechanics
of shooting and infiltration, the fact it starts with Sarah and
ends with Ellie reveals the game's intention to address
deeper issues. The classic video-game theme of survival in
a post-pandemic environment becomes incidental to the
father-daughter relationship that Joel — who lost his
daughter — and Ellie — who is orphan — are building
throughout the game.
To summarize, in this introductory sequence, the game is
establishing a dialog between the player's actions and
environmental actions. Player's actions being therefore
limited to basic locomotion movements; environmental
actions and camera scripting were vectoring the passive
narration. A narration that serves to convey strong emotions
and ethical questions to the player. Cutscenes aside, it was
an interactive experience making sense and questioning
morals throughout a story deeply nested into the gameplay.
The game is a tool conveying an experience to the player.
This experience can be ethical, emotional, fun or immersive.
However, a game experience should never limit the feeling
of freedom of the player; because it is the heart of what
makes it a game experience. Yet a better understanding of
the signification workings specific to games is necessary to
enhance the story experience games can offer.
II The semiosis in video games
The field of Semiotics is often defined as partitioned into
three different sub-fields: the Semantics, the Pragmatics
and the Syntax. However it is unlikely that all the three
fields could intrinsically apply to games. That is why this
chapter will focus at first mainly on Semantics and
Pragmatics; but also on concepts proper to Semiotics.
Syntactics being implicitly affiliated to Linguistics, and its
main purpose being the construction of sentences; study of
game semiotics through Syntactics would seem difficult
and unnatural. However by the end of this chapter, we will
try to approach a definition of what could be game
Trying to understand the underlying semiotics in games, is
arguably a necessary step in the evolution of game design.
This article will intend to bring a highlight on this field
which seems to be still rarely explored.
For explanatory purpose, we will expose a few basics of
semiotics as described by Charles Sanders Peirce (1894).
Semiotics is generally described as the theory of signs and
First of all, the basic studied concept in semiotics is the sign
or representamen. Representamen are denoting objects.
And Sanders separates representamen's way to denote
objects into three categories: the icons, the indexes and the
symbols. The icons, also called likenesses, are signs that
intend to look like the object they stand for. Photographs,
sound recordings or even imitations are relevant examples
of this category of signs. Icons are generally standing for
the object, just as if they were the object; it is a unary
The indexes, or in Peirce's early words, the indices, are
signs denoting their object in virtue of a real relation. Peirce
gives us the example of a clock indicating the time of the
day. Another handy example to add could be smoke as an
index of fire. An index is generally defined by a binary
relationship between the sign and the object. The sign being
ontologically different from the object it stands for.
Finally, the symbol is a more complex sign. Symbols are
signifying through conventions or rules. It is a ternary
relationship between the sign, the rule and the object it
stands for. The word bird, for example, is signifying the
actual animal through the convention of the English
language. Thus there is a ternary relationship between the
word, the rule of the language, and the actual bird.
But Peirce does not only define signs with their way to
denote objects. He also defines them intrinsically, with the
terms of qualisign, sinsign, and legisign; and as represented
by an interpreter with the terms of rheme, dicisign, and
argument. Peircean semiotics defined three trichotomies of
The first trichotomy defines signs' own phenomenological
categories. This first trichotomy starts with the qualisign.
The qualisign is the first possibility of signification; a sign
yet to be embodied, a unary impression prefiguring a sign.
Then comes the sinsign, which is a sign with an actual
connection with reality, it is determined in space and time.
And thirdly is the legisign, a sign existing as a convention
or a rule.
The second trichotomy, the one described at first; it is the
trichotomy of icon, index, and symbol.
The third trichotomy is based on the interpreter's perception
of the signs. The rheme is the primary interpretation of a
sign, it represents all possibilities of interpretation. It is a
variable data affording some information, but not
interpreted as doing so. A dicisign is also called a
proposition, it necessarily involves a rheme as part of it.
This proposition may be true or false but does not give any
reasons for its truthness or its falseness. And at last comes
the argument, which could be defined as a sign denoting
another sign as its object. The argument is the rule
Charles Sanders Peirce, “What Is a sign”,
§3-§6, 1894 (accessed on November 5, 2014)
defending the truthness or the falseness of a proposition.
Those nine words and their mutual relationship are defining
Peirce's Theory of Sign as a whole.
However this short article will focus on the way signs
denote their objects in video-games; thus we will mainly
refer to game representamen with the terms of icon, index
In words of the field of Semantics, we would talk about
signifiers for representamen, and about denotation to
designate the object. This article will also make use of these
words when it judges it necessary for a better intelligibility
of the thought.
In semiotics, the whole process of signification is called the
semiosis, it is describing the production of meaning in a
complex system of signs, might they be intentional or
unintentional, human or non-human. Semiosis is
commonly described as a triadic concept. A sign and a
context producing a signification. If someone raises her
hand in a classroom, it will mean she is asking the teacher
for the authorization to talk; however if that person raises
her hand in the street, it may mean she is asking for a taxi.
The sign is the same but they belong to a different semiosis.
This comprehension of signifiers through a context is
commonly accepted as what defines the basis of Pragmatics.
Thus as stated earlier, the game is conveying an experience,
and an experience is a form of context; so what we will try
to understand is the workings of the semiosis in video-
So basically, to understand the semiotics of video-games,
concepts from semantics and pragmatics will have to be
identified within games. To recognize those processes we
Charles Sanders Peirce, “Philosophical Writings of Peirce”, Dover
Publications, Kindle locations 1997-7992, 1955 (Kindle edition)
will have to identify the different signifying units from
games, from the shortest to the most complex. This paper
does not pretend to be able to find them all, but it will
attempt to establish a basis for future research.
Of course, there is the easy part of game semiotics; games
being simulations, they will often try to reproduce a
realistic experience. For this purpose games will make a
wide use of icons. In most cases, the constitutive elements
of a game level will be mere icons. Within a game level, a
3d representation of a tree is a sign that intend to look like
the denoted object. So this representation is an icon. The
same statement can be made about the sound of the wind in
the branches of the tree, it is an iconic representation of the
real sound. As long as there is no interaction with the player,
or with other game objects, every signs in a game
environment are icons.
However, to get a better perspective, let us come back to
the lifeblood concepts of ludology Frasca borrowed to the
French Sociologist Roger Caillois (1961): the paidia and
the ludus. Caillois, back in the 60's was talking about games
in the conventional sense; he was classifying games on a
continuum going from ludus to paidia. Ludus being a game
existing under a set of rules of play, while paidia defines
games existing as an unstructured and spontaneous
Games belonging to the paidia are more
likely to use icons as their building blocks. On the other
hand, games belonging to ludus are based on rules, in virtue
of what — as symbols are based on a relation with a rule —
they are likely to make more use of symbols. One of the
most archaic occurrence of the ludus is the game of chess.
The rider in a chess game — considering it is representing
a horse — can be perceived at first as an icon; but it is in
Roger Caillois, “Men, Play and Games”, trans. Meyer Barash,
University of Illinois Press, .13, 1961
fact a symbol because it is implying the rules of movement
attached to it in the chess game. Only the rider can move in
But for now, let us come back to video games. For this
purpose, we will take again the well-known example of
Super Mario Bros., in which every level feature special
yellow blocks with a question mark symbol. The question
mark in itself is a linguistic symbol; when used at the end
of the sentence, it signifies the sentence should be
interpreted as a question.
In this case, the question mark and the yellow block are a
symbol peculiar to the world of Mario. This symbol notifies
the player that if he jumps under this particular yellow
block, he will get a special bonus without knowing what it
is in advance. It could be a mushroom, a flower or a green
mushroom. Please note that all these bonuses are also
variations on symbols.
The world of Super Mario Bros. is making use of a symbol
everyone knows — the question mark — to formulate a rule
of its own that everyone may understand at first sight. In
this way, it creates a symbol proper to this game. It is
already a form of semiosis.
But if we imagine a player coming from a culture that does
not use question marks in its writing system — despite how
unlikely it might be in our contemporary society — this
player might have to experience several times the use of the
question mark block in order to understand empirically the
random factor of the bonus generation.
On the other hand, in a 2d platformer, a floating platform is
an index. A platform alone indicates a surface on which the
player's character may stand. In most classic platformers,
the level design will involve three key features in order to
create a challenge: goals, risks, and paths. And these
features will appear in the game as signifiers.
Let us now place the previously described platform sign in
a situation we may encounter in a Mario game. We picture
a game situation where there is a goal, a path to reach it,
and a risk. Mario is in a castle, on the right side of the screen
there is a door. This door is a sign — more precisely an
index — it indicates there is an exit to this part of the level,
so this door will be a goal to reach.
In the middle of the level, there is a pit full of magma. The
magma as an icon represents fire, but as an index, it
indicates one may be burnt if he touches it, so it becomes a
symbol of danger. The magma is a risk.
Also, over the magma, there are several levitating platforms.
As a singular sign, the platform is an index; it barely
indicates that Mario could stand on it. But the combination
of the door on the right side, the magma — that prevents
Mario to simply walk to the door — and the platforms,
irregularly aligned over the magma, is transfiguring what
would be an abstract patchwork of decorative platforms,
into a path. The signification of the path arises from the
combination of the signs.
The combination of the signs is a virtual context, a game
semiosis. This path of platforms would not have been
comprehensible in a different game semiosis.
This example is a very simple one, and the semiosis serves
the designer's objective. In a platformer, the designer's
objective will be to challenge the player's ability to
correctly jump from platform to platform to reach a given
goal. What if the designer is driven by a different type of
goal? What if the designer aims at conveying an ethical
message or a story?
The three ideas of goal, risk, and path mentioned before, are
there to be symbolized in the context of a platformer, and
by extension in the context of action games. But other types
of games, with other types of motives, may involve other
types of concepts.
For example, in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
one of the hidden objectives of the game design was to
enhance the identification process of the player. In the
Legend of Zelda series, the main character — generically
called Link — is an avatar of the player. The player can
name him however he wants. The Legend of Zelda is one
of my all-time favorite game series since my childhood. If
I grew an interest in video-games, it is because of this
particular game. For me, Link's name had always been
“Fred” and not Link. He is a projection of my own
personality. And this strong identification process was
brilliantly controlled by the game semiosis. Link is a mute
character, except a few “Yes” or “No”, he does not
pronounce any sentence in the game. However, he is
unconsciously perceived by players as a talking character.
How come is this even possible?
The player's perception of the dialogs is manipulated by the
virtual semiosis. For instance, when the player presses the
interaction button in front of an NPC, the game never
displays the line of the avatar; the NPC will directly answer
a hypothetical question. His answer to this unasked
question will include enough indices of the question's
existence to have the player formulating the question in his
own mind afterward.
Even when the game gives several options to the player, the
options will take the form of very general topics. It is only
when the player chooses a topic, that the answer he gets,
will give him indices about the question he supposedly
Shigeru Miyamoto, “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”,
Nintendo 64, Nintendo, 1998
Here's a made up example to clarify this point: When a
player interacts with an NPC, the game may ask her to
choose between talking about flowers or clouds, without
any more precision on the nature of what Link will ask. If
she chooses flower, the game will not display the sentence
Link supposedly pronounced. The NPC will answer
something like: “Oh, you want to know more about the
magic flowers of the north? Maybe you should see my
grandmother, she might be able to help you!” The NPC is
summarizing the question of Link within his dialog part.
With this summary, the player can formulate the question
in his own words. Thus he will be able to assimilate his
avatar as an extension of himself. After all, the choice of
the generic name Link might not have been innocent. The
main character is the link between the virtual world and the
Now let us regress to the example of real-time strategy, for
it is a type of game that proved itself an excellent
storytelling device. In strategy games, even if in most cases
the goal will consist of destroying your adversary's
infrastructures, it does not stand as a law.
The motive of strategy games is to challenge the mind of its
player. Unless it is challenging for the player's mind to do
so; the motive of a strategy game is not to have the player
crushing his enemies.
Even in Westwood studios' (1992) Dune 2: The Battle for
— considered as the earliest real-time strategy
game — mission goals were more heteroclite than mere
confrontation. This game was the first RTS, but every
ingredient of modern games was already there.
Joseph Bostic, Aaron E. Powell, Brett Sperry, “Dune: The Battle for
Arrakis”, Westwood Studios, Virgin Interactive, 1992
In this game, to earn credits — Dune's currency — one
would have to harvest the Spice. In some missions, the goal
could be simply to harvest a certain amount of Spice. In
another mission, the player would have to send a single unit
in an enemy building. In every mission, the player would
have to get to know the terrain and build the necessary
infrastructures to reach the goal of the mission. So, in fact,
an RTS game would need signifiers for the following
concepts: goal, knowledge, and resources.
In opposition to a platformer, for example, enemy units
don't only play the role of obstacles. Despite the fact they
may attack you or defend themselves, they may be
obstacles, just as they may be themselves the goal of your
. In an RTS, any object geographically localized
on the map, or anything quantifiable may become a goal.
So in Dune, the goal could be identified only through
knowledge. In a classic mission, if the player has to destroy
the enemy's basement, she will have to find the basement's
location first in order to prepare her strategy. In Dune —
just like in Warcraft later — the player sees the map from a
top-down point of view. But the player can only see the
parts of the terrain already explored by his units. When his
units will leave a part of the terrain, he will know the
topography, but will not know if an enemy unit walks in
there. This system is called the Fog of War
, it is an index
of unexplored or unmonitored parts of the map. It takes the
form of a totally black zone when it is yet to explore. When
units leave a portion of the terrain without proper oversight,
it becomes grayish, and would not update in case of an
enemy intrusion. Black zones indicate that a part of the map
is unexplored, and the gray layer indicates that we can't get
For example if the goal is to capture particular enemy units.
From the German military concept Nebel des Krieges introduced by
the Prussian military analyst Karl Von Clausewitz in 1837
enemy’s position unless we send our own units there.
Knowledge is symbolized through the contrasted semiosis
of unexplored, unmonitored and occupied parts of the map.
The resources are indicated by the amount of credits
displayed in the HUD. But knowledge of the terrain will
also help to find the reddish fields indicating the presence
of Spice to harvest. One may decide where to settle a
basement only after checking if there is Spice nearby.
A player may have a lot of credits, if she has no more Spice
to harvest, the context indicates her that she will soon run
out of resources if she does not explore to find other fields
Also in Dune, any infrastructure the player may build need
power. To furnish electricity to her infrastructures, the
player will need to build wind-traps. Those are small power
plants capturing the wind power to transform it into
electricity. But building wind-traps will cost credits and
space. In fact, ludologically speaking, the wind is not the
resource. Arrakis, the planet where the game is set, is wind-
swept literally everywhere on its surface.
No, what indicates the second resource after credits/Spice,
is exploitable space. On Arrakis, you have two types of
terrain: Sand and rocks. Sand indicates that exploration is
possible but not settlement; as black rock zones are the
index of a plausible settlement. But these black zones
constitute a really small amount of most game maps.
Resources are quantifiable only within the semiosis of
collected credits, available settlement space, and
exploitable spice fields.
To summarize, in Dune, knowledge permits to identify the
goal's position and to find resources in order to establish a
strategy to reach this goal. It is based on concepts that are
quite different from those used in 2d platformers.
In Warcraft 2, in some campaign missions, different goals
were given to the player along a single mission. The
succession of goals to reach was building up a story within
the gameplay. This game series even introduced special
characters in the form of unique units. Warlords,
commanders, and other important characters — may they
be controllable or not by the player — were participating to
the story-telling just like a movie actor would do.
For instance, one of the key events of the game was the
death of Anduin Lothar. This event was happening during
one of the last missions of the game. The inability of the
player to save this character was organized by the level
design. The character was an NPC, he was in a zone the
player could not reach with his units, and was ambushed by
Even if the games we took as examples, dot not take story-
telling as an intrinsic priority; the succession of different
goals to reach, the scripted actions of game characters and
the overall control over what the player should do, meet the
description of what defines a narrative. A report of
connected events presented in a sequence of signification
modules. In linguistics, those signification modules are
words and sentences. In movies, the modules take the form
of shots, sounds, and sequences. Namely, what are the
modules intrinsic to games?
A game level, for example, has more to do with a difficulty
progression module than with a signification module. In the
previous chapter, we defined three types of game
verbs/actions. The actions performed by the player, actions
of non-playable game objects affecting the player's avatar(s)
and finally actions that are only affecting non-playable
objects. For a simplification purpose, we will call the
actions of the player actum
, the actions affecting the
and the actions occurring between non-
playable objects factum
. So we may now affirm that the
littlest signifying modules in video-games are the objects
and the actions. Objects can be categorized as different
types of signs, while actions can be divided into the three
previously mentioned categories.
Also, will we call an association of objects and actions
acting as a semiotic proposition, a ludophrase
. What this
paper defines as a ludophrase is an in-game interaction that
changes the course of the game.
Once again we will use an example situation from Super
Mario Bros., as this game's brilliant simplicity and
popularity make it a wonderful vulgarization device. If
Mario jumps under a question mark block, his jump is
basically an actum. And when the block releases, for
example, a flower bonus; this interaction of two non-
playable objects is a factum. No matter if it is a
consequence of the actum, as Mario can still be moved by
his player during this consequent action. The relation of
causality between the actum and the factum is induced by
temporality. This small interaction sequence is already
definable as a ludophrase.
Some will say that what I just described is simply a game
mechanics. Yes, it is, but only secondarily. As it is a
ludophrase which is, in this peculiar case, reused all along
the game as a game mechanics. All game mechanics are
ludophrases, but all ludophrases are not game mechanics.
Then if Mario decides to touch the flower, the action of
Neologism from the Latin Ludum which means game and phrasis,
which means diction.
Mario — may he be walking or jumping — is still an actum;
but the transformation of Mario is a tactum. The contact
with the flower affected Mario's appearance, but also his
range of actums.
When Mario touches a flower, he becomes able to throw
fireballs. The activation of this new possibility of action is
also a tactum of the flower. However, the action of throwing
fireballs itself is still an actum.
The entire sequence of Mario touching the flower and
transforming in Fire Mario is a second ludophrase. The
succession of these two ludophrases is constitutive of a
rudimentary in-game narrative. The glue sticking signs and
actions together is a form of game syntax.
The semiotics of time plays an important role in the
Syntactics of games. For instance, we saw that the
immediate consecutiveness of an actum and a factum
implied that the factum was a result of the actum. Also, this
rule of consecutiveness applies to most actions. Except that,
an actum can never be a direct consequence of a factum or
a tactum. The actum is highly depending on the player's
eagerness to act; it can be a reaction but will never be a
consequence. But in video-games, what mainly stands as
syntax is the virtual semiosis itself.
III Theoretical Design perspectives behind
What if we design games without the purpose of adapting a
storyline to justify the game mechanics? What if the game
mechanics serves the storyline? What if we forget about
mechanics and make a game only out of ludophrases?
Since the appearance of video-games, what seemed like the
most natural way to create content was to stick to the formal
definition of games: A form of competitive activity or sport
played according to rules.
The notion of interactivity
implied the notion of competition indirectly. Not all video-
games are about competition. But in truth, most games
provide the player with challenges. Games are about having
the player doing something. It is then difficult not making
it look like a challenge. But challenges are not necessarily
If we take the example of a game like Will Wright's (1989)
; the game does not ask the player to compete
with anyone or anything except himself.
In Sim City, the player is given the challenge of building
his own city and making it prosper. It is a challenge because
the settlement of the city is not made easy. For example, the
player will have to balance a budget, to build industrial
zones while taking into account the effects of pollution or
to control the criminality rate in his city. This game is a
simulation, and in a simulation, the player is given a lot of
parameters he can influence. The game will consist in
observing and understanding how one's own changes in
these parameters affect the simulation. And actually, it is a
pretty fun experience.
To make it look more like a “game”, the designers also
included a game mode with timed missions; in another
Those scenarios were placing a context in order to give a
goal to the player: it could be about reducing the criminality
rate in Detroit, or rebuilding the city of San Francisco after
a major earthquake. The game could be, or a never-ending
simulation, or a timed scripted simulation. But in every case,
the game happened to be entertaining, mainly as an
(Accessed on November 11, 2014)
Will Wright, “Sim City”, Maxis, Pc version, 1989
experience that involved a form of interactivity challenging
the player’s mind.
A video-game does not need rules or competition to deserve
to be called so. What defines the essence of a video-game
is its ability to convey an entertaining and interactive virtual
experience. This experience may be a challenge, a
competition, or even a story. Goals are essential to invite
players to interact, and challenges enhance the player's
experience. But if the player's experience could be
enhanced by something else than challenge — without
abandoning interactivity — would it still be as entertaining?
It is not a challenge to enjoy a good story, but it is still
Along a hundred and twenty years of history, movies
managed to adapt literary stylistic devices and even to
create devices of their own. It would be interesting to see if
video-games could do the same. Who knows what form
could take a metaphor in a game's virtual semiosis? For
instance, the repetitive process of game mechanics could be
stylistically assimilated to an anaphora. A game mechanics
is a repetition of ludophrases that helps the designer to
emphasize the inner workings of her game. Game
mechanics are a peculiar form of Anaphora, yet anaphoras
could arguably take other forms in video-games.
Let us imagine a game which is aimed simply at providing
a moving experience. Why would such a game choose just
one camera system, or just one set of game mechanics? For
example, camera systems are generally chosen for their
particular ergonomic contribution to a specific type of game.
Thus, third person shooters will use a camera attached
behind the avatar's shoulder, because it is the best way to
see the avatar while keeping the ability to aim and shoot.
For instance, it follows from the evolution of the gameplay
of the horror game series Resident Evil, that workings of
the game camera do influence the feelings of the player.
Shinji Mikami's (1996) Resident Evil
, was the Japanese
take on the survival horror genre introduced in France by
Frederic Raynal (1992) with Alone in the Dark
Evil will later become a very prolific series, and its
gameplay will change a lot. At this time, the survival horror
genre was defined by a specific camera system. Indeed, in
the first Resident Evil — maybe partly for technical
optimization purpose — the camera was always standing
still. Technically, this system permitted the use of pre-
rendered background graphics.
As it was pre-rendered, the background could bear more
details; and more processing power could be used to render
the 3d characters in real-time. Yet this technical decision
was used to participate in the semiosis of fear the game was
aiming to convey. The still camera as a semiotic device was
limiting on purpose the virtual semiosis.
As an example, when the player was in a narrow corridor,
and a zombie was walking hidden behind a corner, the fixed
camera was a way to limit the information the player could
get. The semiosis of this ludophrase was composed of the
visible environment and the sound effects. Visually, the
player could see the iconic representation of the corridor.
He could also maybe see indexes, like blood spills on the
floor, indicating that someone — or something — was
bleeding here before.
From an audio perspective, effects could indicate the
presence of a zombie in the corridor. The player could hear
audio indexes of its steps and of its growls. But as the player
Shinji Mikami, “Resident Evil”, Capcom, Playstation version, 1996
Frédérick Raynal, Didier Chanfray, “Alone in the Dark”,
Infogrames, Pc version, 1992
do not control the position of the camera, he must cross the
corridor with fear of what he may find behind the corner.
This feeling of fear is almost impossible to convey through
a virtual semiosis that makes the player potentially
The notions of ergonomics and comfort of play did not
always affect game's emotional potential in a very good
manner. From the 4th episode of Resident Evil
, it was
decided to change the camera system. In this episode, the
game mechanics radically changed. The game adopted the
third person shooter camera. This camera permitted to have
wider environments and less scripted ludophrases. This
gain in freedom had to be paid with a loss of emotional
potential. Indeed, as the camera allows the player to be
virtually omniscient, it becomes more difficult to create a
feeling of anxiety when the player knows he holds all the
cards necessary to face any danger.
In the end, the game will feature more gory scenes and
overwhelm the player with a lot of enemies to compensate
this absence of fear in the game-play. The gory scenes will
convey a feeling of disgust; the overwhelming assault of
enemies will convey stress. But only an equation with
unknown factors can provoke fear and trigger courage.
Where Resident Evil 4 overwhelms the player with dozens
of intelligent and organized enemies to cause a vague
feeling of stress; Resident Evil was succeeding in
discomforting and scaring the hell out of players with just
one zombie walking very slowly in a creepy hallway. It was
Nowadays, games are focusing on simplicity and comfort
of play. And some types of features are depreciated because
Shinji Mikami, “Resident Evil 4”, Capcom, Gamecube version,
they don't meet the ergonomic standards of our time.
However, despite its bad ergonomics, the still camera is a
good semiotic device. If a designer aims at creating a
discomforting experience, it should still be considered as a
weapon of choice.
If a game rather aims at providing a narrative experience to
its player, maybe should it not choose a particular game
system as a sports game would do.
Maybe should it prefer ludophrases that are matching the
mood the game aims to convey? A game does not
necessarily have to bear only one set of mechanics from the
beginning to the end.
For instance — for ergonomic purpose — in The Legend of
Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the game was featuring several sets
of game mechanics. When the player had to fight enemies,
for example, the camera system was changing.
In normal conditions — like simple exploration — the
camera is interactive and follows the main character. The
player can choose the point of view that suits him the most
by refocusing the camera behind him with the Z-button.
But when the player encounters an enemy, the Z-button will
focus the camera on the enemy. In this way, the player can
focus on the enemy and think of his actions to react
accordingly. As the game's combat system was based on the
observation of enemies' attack patterns, it was an efficient
way to have the player focusing on indexes of the future
attacks of the enemies.
For example, the Stalfos — a kind of skeleton warrior from
the universe of Zelda — had a very interesting attack
pattern. If the player does not choose the right moment to
strike him, he will jump and avoid the attack or use his
shield. The Stalfos can make a lot of quick attacks from
which only the use of the shield can protect Link. But at one
specific moment, the Stalfos will prepare a strong attack,
for this purpose he will lower his guard and raise his arm.
This is the index of a weakness; the player has to interpret
this indication to win the fight. Without a camera targeting
the enemy, it would have been difficult to observe those
This special change in the camera system succeeds in
creating a feel of duel. However, there is still some criticism
that can be made of this system. First of all, it has the player
totally forgetting about the environment. And secondly, this
system does not match group fights. Indeed, it is very
difficult to fight several enemies when the camera forces
you to target one in particular. The game featured a change
target system but it was quite unhandy to use. But despite
a few induced weaknesses, the game managed to articulate
different kinds of ludophrases successfully through a set of
different game mechanics. This game is the living example
of the possible cohabitation of several sets of mechanics.
It confirms that it is possible to convey a meaning through
a gameplay that changes and evolves along the game
Let us clarify this with a made-up example. If we imagine
a game in which there is a shooting mechanics; in this kind
of games, the player's ability to shoot will depend mainly
on one parameter: having his rifle loaded or not. If the
character is no longer able to shoot because his magazine is
empty, the simple click noise of the trigger will be sufficient
as an index of the inability to shoot.
What if this ability to shoot depend on other parameters?
Could it not also depend on ethic parameters? Parameters
that would tell something about the personality of the
So, if for example, the player tries to shoot a woman and
the avatar he controls refuses to shoot.
Even if it could be upsetting for the player, it would
nonetheless enrich the background of his character. It
would give him a personal moral code. This refusal of the
character would become an index of the existence of a
personality of his own. It indicates the differentiation
between this character and the player. It would have a
significance in the game's story. And if therefore women
characters are able to shoot the player’s avatar, it would also
give the game a peculiar strategic significance. It this case,
the controlled character would not have to be the player's
avatar, he would be a character with his own values. And
whether he shares those values or not, the player would
have to deal with it. This process is the opposite of the
identification process used in the Legend of Zelda series
(p.27). It prevents the player from identifying to his avatar.
However, it gives a supplement of humanity to the character.
Even if the player doesn't identify to his avatar, he can have
empathy for him. It is arguably the reason why most
character-centric games feature third-person camera
Recently I had a dream from which bloomed a game-design
idea. In this dream I saw a young girl, wearing a long white
silk dress, and walking in an old French colonial style house.
This house was lost in the middle of a lake. But the
reflection of the house on the surface of the water seemed
different. Inside the house, when the girl was passing in
front of a mirror, her reflection was different. Her dress and
her hair were floating, just as if she was walking underwater.
When I woke up from this dream, I immediately took a pen
to write a game idea. My idea was to adapt the literary genre
of fantastic into a game experience. Fantastic is a literary
genre in which the reader will end up questioning the reality
of the facts presented to him. For instance, in Guy de
Maupassant's (1887) fantastic novel The Horla; the main
character feels like he is attacked every night by an invisible
man who suddenly appeared in his life.
The story is told
from the character's perspective. So while reading the novel,
the reader is invited to wonder: Is the character becoming
crazy? Or is this really happening?
I imagined a game in which the player controls the ghost of
a drowned girl. This character is stuck in this lonely home
and tries to find an exit. She discovers that she can cross
some reflective surfaces as if they were portals; may it be
mirrors or the surface of the water. She would just have to
touch a mirror, and the camera would pass on the other side.
This other side would look like a totally different world
from the moment the character would walk into the blind
spot zone of the mirror. With the notion of boundary
underlying in this idea, I thought it could be interesting to
play with the notions of safety and trust in the ludophrases
I would choose to use. I tried to figure out what would
happen if you present something as a mechanics and then
suddenly change the rules. Imagine this character,
discovering her power to cross the mirrors. When taking the
control of her reflected self, the player would discover that
the topography of the house is totally different in this other
world. He would also understand that he can return to the
real world simply by touching the same mirror again.
For example, our character could be stuck by a closed door
in the real world. In this room, there would be two mirrors.
A normal one, in which she sees her true reflection, and in
which she could notice that there is a key on the floor. A
key which is not here in the real world.
But as this mirror is a plain one — she does not see the
underwater version of herself in the reflection — she cannot
Guy de Maupassant, “The Horla”, trans. Charlotte Mandell, Melville
House Publishing, 1887
But there is a second mirror in this room. On the other side
of the room. This mirror is a portal. Her own reflection is
different in this one. So, when she touches the mirror, the
camera crosses the wall to the other side and the player
takes control of her reflection. This is a first ludophrase that
the player will interpret as a game mechanics. They will
understand that she can only cross mirrors when her
reflection is different.
On the other side, the scale of the room may be very
different. From the entrance, the player might see the key
on the floor of the room. But maybe the other side of the
room could be a hundred meters away. And maybe the way
to reach it could be full of holes in the floor. Behind her, she
can see her true form reflecting in the mirror she crossed.
The player crosses the room to get that key. Once he gets
the key, the player would notice that this version of the
room, features no door. He would then understand he will
have to cross a mirror again to open the door. The mirror
from which he saw the key is for its part still there. But
when the character walks in front of it, the version of the
character in the mirror is the ghostly version of this fake
world. When she touches this mirror, nothing happens. So
she will have to cross the room back to the first mirror.
In this first mirror, her real self is reflecting. When she
touches this one, she will return to the real world. From this
semiosis, the player will deduce the workings of the
mirror's mechanics. Only mirrors reflecting the character of
the other world can be crossed, and these mirrors can be
crossed from both sides. On the other hand, plain mirrors
cannot be crossed, from whichever version of the world.
These mechanics could be confirmed through a few other
analog game sequences.
However, suddenly, the player could experience a new case.
Once the player is used to this game-mechanics, we could
put him in a confusing situation.
For example, he could cross a mirror, to discover that on
the other side it becomes a plain mirror. A mirror from
which he cannot return in the real world. In this room, there
would be no other mirrors to exit. He would find himself
stuck in the other world. But while searching for another
mirror in the other world, he would find a door. A plain
When opening this door, and crossing to the other room, the
player would have the surprise to be back in the real world.
He would be back in a room he visited before and the
character would have her normal appearance again. But by
breaking the game mechanics which seemed to stand as a
rule in this world, we can have the player questioning the
supposed reality of the world he previously considered as
the real one. What was presented to the player as a game
mechanics was simply a ludophrase.
This ludophrase was so recurrent that the player interpreted
it as a rule. A quasi-scientific rule. These mechanics became
a normality in this fantastic world. But isn't it when the rules
of reality are broken that we truly dive into the fantastic
Players are used to magic and fantasy in video-games. And
those elements are often deeply rooted in the mechanics of
the game; in such way that players accept them as a
normality. When we play, we enter a world and we accept
its rules. So with the example of the mirrors, the mirror-
crossing mechanics is easily acceptable by the player as a
rule of the world he entered. This mechanic induced that the
world that seemed closer to our real world, was also the real
one in our virtual semiosis. After all, it is the place where
we start to play, and the character does not look like she is
floating in mid-water in this version of the virtual world.
But at the moment the player gets stuck in the other world
and cannot exit in the right way; as players understood that
the only path between those two worlds are mirrors.
Suddenly, a mere door serves as an exit from the mirror
world. The player will necessarily wonder how he came
back, as he did not respect the rules of this world.
Consequently, he will question the reality of the world in
which his character came back. Did he really came back, or
is he still in the mirror world? Is the mirror world less true
than the real world?
With this short example, just with ludophrases, we
highlighted a potential to approach the depth of fantastic
literature or cinematography in games. And it is likely that
the same thing could be achieved with other genres.
If we start to consider video-games primarily as an
interactive experience, built out of signs and ludophrases;
and if we make the game rules optional in this experience;
maybe we will be able to reach new perspectives in game
making. And slowly, as the semiotic of games will be better
understood, video-games will take their legitimacy as a
Whichever tool or media might they choose, artists will try to
convey emotions and stories through the mastery of a chosen
technique. This short essay is a form of manifesto. It is desirable to
reach a mastery of semiotics to give video games a wider
storytelling potential. This article was aimed at designers, as it is
their vision of our art that can change the way it is perceived as a
cultural object. Video-game is a media that goes far beyond the
standard definition of games. They are mainly an interactive
experience, and the notion of rule is in the end very optional. Despite
its propensity to borrow from other arts, video-game has its own
language. And this language has a strong potential to communicate
meaningful contents. Games are art, undoubtedly.
And it is now the designers' duty to expand the range of topics they
dare to address in video-games.
Shigeru Miyamoto, “Super Mario Bros”, Nintendo,
Nintendo Entertainment System, 1985
Will Wright, “Sim City”, Maxis, Pc version, 1989
Shigeru Miyamoto, “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the
Past”, Nintendo, Super Famicom, 1991
Joseph Bostic, Aaron E. Powell, Brett Sperry, “Dune: The
Battle for Arrakis”, Westwood Studios, Virgin Interactive,
Frédérick Raynal, Didier Chanfray, “Alone in the Dark”,
Infogrames, Pc version, 1992
Ron Millar, Chris Metzen, “Warcraft II: Tides of
Darkness”, Blizzard entertainment, PC version, 1995
Shinji Mikami, “Resident Evil”, Capcom, Playstation
Shigeru Miyamoto, “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of
Time”, Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 1998
Shinji Mikami, “Resident Evil 4”, Capcom, Gamecube
Neil Druckmann, Bruce Straley, “The Last of us”,
Naughty Dog, Sony Computer Entertainment, Playstation
3 version, 2013
Guy de Maupassant, “The Horla”, trans. Charlotte
Mandell, Melville House Publishing, 1887
Charles Sanders Peirce, “Philosophical Writings of
Peirce”, Dover Publications, 1955 (Kindle edition)
Roger Caillois, “Men, Play and Games”, trans. Meyer
Barash, University of Illinois Press, 1961
Gonzalo Frasca, “Simulation versus narrative:
Introduction to Ludology”, The Video Game Theory
Reader, Issue n° 1, September 18, 2003
Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses”,
Taylor and Francis, 2008 (Kindle Edition)
Dylan Holmes, “A mind forever voyaging: a History of
story-telling in video-games”, CreateSpace, 2012
Miguel Sicart, “Defining Game Mechanics” in “The
International Journal of Computer Game Research”,
Volume 8 issue 2, Game Studies,
http://gamestudies.org/0802/articles/sicart , December
2008 (accessed on October 30, 2014)
Miguel Sicart, “Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical
Gameplay”, MIT Press, 2013 (Kindle Edition)