The beauty of layers (and correct ingredients)

Last year I was finishing up reading A song of Ice and Fire series (the published books, I mean) and went on to read The Witcher books. And something about that experience felt… off. Something that made me think about how I “consume” art/entertainment, what I look for in it. And it struck me then – The Witcher book series didn’t have simple stories, or simple characters, but something about how different layers of stories and events connected was too… simple. I started looking at other books I like, movies, games, music, food even and it often led down to this simple word – layers. And how well they connect, of course.

So, let me give you an example of how the story usually develops in A Song of Ice and Fire. You know a thing, you know it through one character’s viewpoint. Then you get another viewpoint that might give you a new thing, or an insight on a thing you already know. And you may learn that you didn’t *know* a thing, you just knew part of a thing. And from there, the story will grow not just in a linear fashion of learning new things, but in all directions like a tightly spun web. And each simple thing that you knew from before will get new additional layers. But, as in a good detective story, those layers compliment each other and give you that satisfying “aha!” feeling each time you learn something and things click together. This approach to storytelling feels very immersive and involved from the reader’s side.

In videogames, however, this can manifest in many other different ways. For example, a rather recent example of quite literally layered storytelling could be found in What Remains of Edith Finch, in one particular level that layered several types of storytelling to tell a story interactively in a really creative way. Super Bunnyhop made a good video on it (it spoils the moment, of course). Another famous example can be in the original Deus Ex, where a more in the face story tells a more simplistic cyberpunk story, while all the supplemental material you find gives you a meta-narrative that comments on the real world issues that are valid even today, making you think and experience the game in several different ways at once. Or even how about a weird Japanese example of layered storytelling, told through both just story and mechanics in recent NieR: Automata, which does it in a more disjointed way of having layers eaten separately, but then mixed inside, but does it in a truly inspiring way.

Here’s a thing though, as rich interactive medium, games have more than just stories to have layers in. My usual favorite Resident Evil 1 is a good example here. Yes, that one that has hilarious voice acting and incredibly primitive story. Just so the layering could happen in level design and scenario planning. There are so many different ways a player can experience same rooms and same events that the game allows not just for the player created stories and events to happen, but also makes its scripted simple story events happen in different order to be the tasty syrup between the layers of levels and mechanics. And it would be silly of me to mention that Souls games follow the exact same logic, except they approach the story parts differently, keeping them intentionally minimalist to tell the story through series of simple interactions, level design and item descriptions.

But the smart multilayering can happen with games that have overall simpler structure as well. Fans of 4X games value titles that can make smart use of all the different approaches to tackling the problem, being it diplomacy or warmongering or technological races. Action titles from the likes of PlatinumGames tend to have incredibly simple global design, yet every encounter is a complex dance, involving different enemies requiring different strategies and items/weapons to use, something that people loved in classic FPS tittles as well.

And the music… You get the point, I think. And also probably understand that of course nothing requires this approach. If you can have a choice between a game that gets things simply right and is fun to play, and a game that either mixes a lot of elements together (all of which are boring), or because a confusing mess because things just refuse together, you will probably choose a simpler game. Because, maybe you just don’t want a pizza out of all the stuff that was in the fridge. Don’t want to listen to some complex prog rock or floaty shoegaze track and want some simple fun beats. Especially if the former are not particularly good.