Literature in Gaming: Foreshadowing
Written By: Michael James
Edited By: Shania Kuo
Foreshadowing is an interesting concept. Merriam-Webster describes it as, “an indication of things to come,” and, technically, they’re right. Foreshadowing in stories is meant to warn the reader about the events to happen. While not an outright spoiler sincein that a foreshadowing event does not tell the reader what is about to happen, it does clue in the reader as to what could happen. This use of dramatic irony builds suspense, puts things at stake, and, ultimately, clues in the reader of things to come.
This “tactical spoiling,” is a useful and often utilized literary technique. In murder-mysteries, authors tend to foreshadow as a means to clue the reader in to the identity of the murderer. Here, the literary device is often subtle, and mixed in with red herrings--false leads in order to mislead the reader. For other genres of literature, a foreshadowing event builds suspense. The author might dedicate a paragraph or two to something that seems minor, and the reader wouldn’t get the significance until several chapters later.
Believe it or not, but video games use the same techniques. In this week’s Literature in Gaming, we’re going to go over how they do this.
Foreshadowing is a fun mechanic in video games no matter how it is introduced. When introduced bluntly and obviously, it gives the player a sense of tension or, in some cases, dread. Shadow of the Colossus is a good representation of this. Wander, the player character, is warned his journey might cost him more than he thinks, hinting toward something terrible happening to him should he continue his quest. The player starts to have doubts, but they have no choice but to play through the game. As time goes on, Wander appears sicker and sicker, with the thought of a terrible fate lingering in the player’s mind.
Subtle foreshadowing works just as well too, though. Again, murder-mysteries employ this strategy the best, dropping hints and vital information in droves in order to get the player thinking. In games like Danganronpa, where the player is constantly looking for information, such foreshadowing appears as plot points. A pen dropped out of a seemingly innocuous character’s pocket can be the clue towards that character’s involvement in the plot later on. Likewise, Junko’s immediate disappearance, a death without a game penalty, was unusual, and played into the character’s eventual reveal as the ultimate antagonist.
For subtle foreshadowing, the eventual discovery of their significance leads one to a sort of “aha!” situation, where the reader and player finally puts everything together. The player might go back a few pages in order to find that one paragraph they had overlooked the first time. In a video game, the player might watch some Youtube videos of the event, or replay it all to see the subtle hints for themselves.
Foreshadowing in either situation calls for a rather enjoyable experience, so flexibility is its capability to add to a story. But what about something that employs both?
Ladies and gentlemen? I present to you Until Dawn.
Until Dawn is a murder/mystery/horror game starring several young men and women returning to the rather large lodge belonging to one of them. Shenanigans happen, and the poor group is set upon by supernatural forces. As it is a murder-mystery, the player explores the environment, pieceing together the various clues they find therein to choose the best possible paths and cause the least amount of deaths. Played expertly, the player can use this information to make almost every character survive the night. Played less than perfectly, however, and at least one character could be lost.
These clues are both subtle and obtuse, and it is for that reason Until Dawn is the champion for my foreshadowing example.
The subtle version of these foreshadowing clues comes in the form of the various items hidden around the game’s setting. If a player is calm and thorough enough they could find things like old journals, secret passageways, and coroner reports providing insight into the game’s story. These insights don’t tell you anything on their own, but should the player remember encountering them, they could make better decisions that would help motivate the characters to a less timely demise. For instance, finding the old journal of a scientist from a nearby facility helps the player to find out that getting bitten by a Wendigo (the game’s supernatural antagonist) does not force them to turn into one. Having this knowledge prevents a character from pointing a gun at another character, which prevents them from losing trust in one another and ultimately dying.
Until Dawn uses this subtle foreshadowing to clue the player in on what is to come. The game dissuades you from harming animals early, and keeping this ideal towards the end of the game could save a character’s life. Finding a journal about the creation of Wendigos also managed to save a life. These ‘hints’ are not outright, but they lead towards a suspenseful time. The player, by a certain point, already starts to question every piece of information that they receive. The tension of any given useful hint is enough to put them on edge.
Examples of overt foreshadowing in this game are just as prevalent, however. Supermassive Games employs the use of totems. When a character finds one of these items hidden around the story, they depict a vision of something that could happen in the future. These short, blurry scenes range from between five to ten seconds long, and they could portray anything from where to find a useful item, to how a character dies.
For obvious reasons, these clues instill a sort of tension. “So [character] dies to falling? Well, I better keep them away from heights!” It keeps the character thinking and constantly tense, which I hear is what horror-genre players enjoy.
So what does this mean? Well, put simply, the basis of a good story is whether or not it gets you to the end. Readers, and gamers, need to want to know what happens next. Like a drug, every ending of a chapter needs to make the reader want more, and video games need to do the same. Foreshadowing does an excellent job of this. By sprinkling in a little of what the audience wants, but not giving them important information like “how,” “when,” or “why,” the creator successfully manages to hook their consumers.
A good usage of this literary trope isn’t just a hook, but a hook with some mystery bait on it. You don’t know what the bait is or how it got there, but you gotta know what it is.
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