Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Knock At The Door

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 6, 2013

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

This is the shortest complete story I know, written by Fredrick Brown, although he later elaborated upon it in his short story, “Knock,” but his point was that those two sentences formed a complete story. And he was writing for a magazine that paid by the word, so writing two-word stories probably wouldn’t pay the bills.

There’s a quote frequently attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, “There is nothing more frightening than a closed door.” This is almost an axiom in horror writing (too often ignored in modern gore-fest horror movies) that implied horror is more potent than fully revealed horror.  Whenever I think of the quote, I think of an experience I had playing the original Ultima Underworld.  As I approached a locked door, something on the other side evidently heard me and started beating on the door, trying to break it down. I heard the sounds, and electrical-sounding noise and the pounding of the door.

I fled. Really. The urge to flee was stronger than my trained response to SAVE THE GAME NOW BEFORE SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS. I did what minimal preparations I could to meet my fate, but I felt a really real fear about approaching that door. I had to prepare emotionally like I rarely do for a boss fight. There’s some deep programming from ancient ancestors who knew they were not at the top of the food chain, could not allow themselves the luxury of feeling ‘safe,’ and who knew that something that was trying THAT hard to engage you made it the predator and you the prey. It was just a video game, but that instinct was still there.

UU_mongbatI unlocked the door. And found… a mongbat. A stupid mongbat! That was it! I think that was the first one I’d encountered in Ultima Underworld, so at least it was an exciting new encounter. But I’d gotten all worked up over a frickin’ winged monkey. The battle that followed wasn’t trivial – a mongbat was indeed a reasonably challenging foe. But it was hardly worthy of my expectations and fear. But by that point, I don’t think anything could have burst out from that door that could have been anything but a let-down.

I had no idea what to expect – the closed door was the horror.  And the knock at the door – or in this case, the pounding at the door of an unknown creature – was the story. The story I told myself in my mind, subconsciously, was more powerful than anything that could be on the screen.

I’ve recently been considering this element when it comes to narrative in games. I came across a quote I can’t find right now about rock music, where one critic noted that the song lyrics were most evocative and powerful when their meaning was incomprehensible. The poetic, stream-of-consciousness organization of the lyrics (often drug-induced, I’m sure) captures a mood and feeling that invites the listener to insert themselves into the song, to invest themselves and their own life situation to provide the meaning. Naturally, then, the songs were powerful because they were magically tailored to the listener, speaking to their situation.

In Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics,” he addresses this principle with comic artwork – the more abstract art allows the reader to “fill in the blanks” with his or her imagination, to hold the comic as a mirror to their own lives. This isn’t just a power of abstract artwork. I was rather surprised last year when I went to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay in Paris at the power of the art and sculpture there. I’m not much of an art critic or afficianado – I’ve got enough training and experience to recognize (sometimes) when it “works” for me or not, or actually go into some technical details with artists. But I’m not often moved by artwork. I was kinda bombarded with it that day. I usually didn’t know much about many of the people, events, or stories being depicted.  But they were worth more than several thousand words to me. My own imagination and experience provided the rest.

I’ve written many times about the inherent conflict between narrative and gameplay.  We have to sacrifice the principles of (linear) narrative for the sake of good gameplay, or sacrifice gameplay (often locking out interaction completely to tell stories in cutscenes) for the sake of providing solid narrative. The two don’t work well together, and in an interactive medium – like real-life experiences – good narrative often comes from reorganizing and editing of events after the fact.

But that’s linear storytelling. As Chris Crawford once pointed out in a talk I attended many years ago, it’s quite possible to assemble a story from a series of vignettes or one-sentence events that combine to modify the context. In other words, complex stories can be formed of simple atoms (his example was the sentence, “He kissed her.”) that can be endlessly reused. At the time, Crawford’s efforts were focused more on having the computer tell the story interactively with the player.

But might we find ourselves able to construct more powerful narratives if we let the designer and the player take care of the creative heavy lifting? Let the designer imply connections, let the player form and breathe life to those connections, and let the computer just do it’s thing to provide the tools and mechanics to facilitate this?

Don’t worry – I’m not getting all artsy-fartsy and experimental for the next installment of Frayed Knights. I’m just kinda circling around a handful of concepts for how to think about non-linear storytelling. On a budget. After all, if a closed door is more frightening than anything else in the world, isn’t it a waste of time and money for indies to create what might lurk behind it? Well, yes, but for the fact that this focus makes opening the door the single most important thing a player wants to do when that unexpected knock (or pounding) is heard. We just need better ideas of letting the player’s imagination fill in what might be lacking on the screen or in the dialog.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    Yes. A hundred times yes. I even wrote about it, coming from the art side, not too long ago:


    Audience imagination is a hugely powerful force multiplier in creative industry. We really should learn to use it instead of chasing the mantra of “better graphics, explicit story, etc.”

  • OttoMoBiehl said,

    Ah, abstraction. I’m a big fan of it. It lets me use those imagination muscles that I did my best to develop as a child.

    Also, I’ve always maintained that a video game should be a series of plot points and that the story is created when the player visits each plot point. I guess not being so linear helps in this endeavor…alot!

    I love the Ultima Underworld story too! I love that game and there were many examples of stories like that popping up throughout that game.

  • Xenovore said,

    Yes! 100% agreed.

  • Corwin said,

    A quick update on your initial story; it was later shortened by changing the word ‘knock’ to ‘lock’. In some ways that could be even more powerful. Later still, someone came up with an even shorter ‘story’. Its title was ‘Cosmic Report Card: Earth’. Its text? One letter- ‘F’!!

  • Matthew P. Barnson said,

    One word:


  • Michael A. said,


    I discussed the phenomena in relation to strategy games and reached much the same conclusion here:

    Setting a context and then letting the player fill it out is an incredibly powerful technique. It won’t work for everyone (but then nothing can), but with the right players and the right mechanisms, one can create some very powerful narratives.

    StoryNexus/Echo Bazar/Fallen London are another example of narrative abstraction (their IF system consists of small “storylets”, that relies on the player tying them together to create a complete narrative). They had a super-interesting series of blog posts on this, but can’t find it right now.

  • Felix said,

    One more word: Myst. And there are probably other games out there in which the story is told the same way: in little pieces that you have to pick up and put together, at your own pace and in your own way. It’s well known to work.

    Come to think of it, why are we still struggling with interactive storytelling, after decades of tabletop RPGs, play-by-post, interactive fiction etc.? Might it be because we can’t accept the idea of relinquishing control of our preciousss stories?

  • Kadeton said,

    There was a thing I read ages back about a bunch of famous authors writing 6-word “short stories”. My favourite entry was:

    machine! Help, I invented a time

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Kadeton: I love it!

  • Modran said,

    Whoah, deja vu oO ! Didn’t you write such an anecdote before? I can’t find it anymore, but as I read it, I knew everything 2 paragraphs in advance. Maybe in a comment. Can’t find it…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I wrote about the Ultima Underworld experience a long time ago, yeah. *REALLY* long-time readers might recognize it. 🙂

    I’ve also written about Scott McCloud’s book many times. While it wasn’t completely new information, you could say I had something of an epiphany while reading it.

  • Michael A. said,

    I’m working with an IF/gamebook writer for a future project, and one of the interesting experiences in that work has been seeing him realize the difference between writing a story for the player, and writing a framework within players can create their own unique stories. It is a big paradigm shift, and I doubt that everyone would be capable of it.

  • Viridian said,

    In the original System Shock, it wasn’t just going through doors. I mean, that was bad. But the real terror was going up a level in the elevator. You had NO idea what was waiting for you up there, and just about every time it opened something horrible happened.

  • This Week in Video Game Criticism: From Fatherhood to Art Gore » Gaming News Alerts said,

    […] Jay Barnson muses a bit on using the unknown to co-create with the player: […]