Last time, I wrote about depiction and representation in videogames. The basic summary was:

Really simplistically: something represents when you have to know how to interpret it; something depicts when you can just tell what it is intuitively.

I suggested that videogames can depict some things that other media can’t. Here, I want to apply the concepts from that post in some brief critiques. In particular, I’m trying to get at the different artistic impact of depiction and representation, with a couple of examples of when one is chosen over the other to good artistic effect.

The examples are depiction of handholding in Ico, and representation of invisibility in Splinter Cell.


Ico depicting handholding

Box art from Ico (2001)

Box art from Ico (2001)

Ico (2001, PS2) is a third-person 3D adventure-platformer, structured around a sequence of locked-room puzzles. It is about a boy (the player-character) who is shut away in a large, decrepit castle. He meets a mysterious girl and they go about trying to escape together. Thanks to the depiction of these characters’ physical interaction, the game adds up to far more than just a giant Zelda dungeon.


How it works

To lead the girl, Yorda, around the castle, the player-character, Ico, needs to hold her hand so that she can run along with him. Yorda’s dialogue is presented in an untranslated fictional language so that this handholding is the only tangible basis of their companionship.

Firstly, to hold hands, you hold a single button. The continued action of holding the button neatly depicts the continued handholding in the game. Secondly, there is an ingenious use of the controller’s vibration — a hardware feature that rarely goes beyond obvious gun-shakes or unneeded gimmicks.

As Ico and Yorda run together, holding hands, they run at slightly different speeds and with their steps out of sync. Their two arms, connected at the hands, are animated like a little loose tether between their bodies, so as they make their unmatched pace around the castle, that tether pulls taut and falls slack. The rhythm of that tug on the hands is irregular, emerging from the different run animations, which themselves might vary with the player-controlled speed or with the terrain of the game world. The result is a fluid, lively, and natural sequence of little tugs of their hands, which is delightful to watch.

Losing their grip as Yorda stumbles

Losing their grip as Yorda stumbles

Along with this charming animation, the controller vibrates — with just a brief, faint twitch — each time the arms pull taut, depicting the tug on Ico’s hand. This is utterly and immediately delightful. However, the impact is felt most after several hours of play, when it has sunk into the background and become familiar, and is taken for granted. Yorda’s presence and absence are sensed physically and unconsciously, which sets up a heartbreaking separation — and a climactic scene involving a desperate catch by the hand is thrilling to see.

Far from being a gimmick, in Ico, controller vibration is used so effectively that I would strongly advise against playing it without a vibrating controller. The depiction of physical interaction is the absolute essence of the portrayal of the companionship that is at the heart of the game. (And the second-play-through easter egg adding subtitles for Yorda is a travesty for that reason.)


Splinter Cell representing hiding

Although games have unique capacities for depiction, the artistic decision about when to depict and when to represent is crucial, just as it is in other media. In the Splinter Cell series — a long-running (since 2002) third-person 3D stealth-em-up — the player-character, Sam Fisher, is an elite spy-commando-guy, with a special ability to hide in the shadows so that his enemies can’t detect him. Moving through light and shadow is the defining mechanic in the games, and so is a vital part of the level design throughout.

Since hiding is the essence of the gameplay, the player needs to be able to judge when Fisher is concealed in shadow and when he is not. This, you would imagine, is well within the reach of the depictional capacities of a game. It’s a third-person game: you can simply show, visually, Fisher’s position in the light or the dark.

Tom Clancey’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004). When the gauge at the bottom-right is all the way to the left, Fisher is invisible. (Image source)

Tom Clancey’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004). When the gauge at the bottom-right is all the way to the left, Fisher is invisible. (Image source)

Ignoring for the moment the AI challenges (would enemies share your opinion of when Fisher is visible and when he is not?), it is simply not a suitable occasion for depiction. This is supposed to be a special ability of Fisher’s: the appeal of it, the feeling of power it gives, comes about because it is beyond the ability of a normal person. So, instead of calling on our natural capacity to judge when something is visible, Splinter Cell represents whether Fisher is visible with an on-screen gauge — a gauge of supernatural precision and reliability. Compared to judging just by looking, the infallibility of this gauge is what gives the player the confidence and control they need to be a sort of superhuman lethal assassin, which the game’s plot absolutely depends on.

Fisher’s evaluation of his visibility to enemies is specifically not depicted, and this is precisely how the player can be taken beyond something he or she could directly experience.

(On reflection, I think the early games might actually give the Fisher character a gauge on his HUD just like the player has, but the point still stands. Certainly by the time of Splinter Cell: Conviction (2010), Fisher’s suit is gone and Fisher’s being hidden is still represented by an on-screen prompt.)

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2006). All that matters for Fisher’s visibility is the gauge on the screen. The three bright lights on his head are neither here nor there.

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2006). All that matters for Fisher’s visibility is the gauge on the screen. The three bright lights on his head are neither here nor there.

A general point

Apart from these specific critiques, there is a general point about depiction and representation to take in conclusion. Although depicted experiences are very immediately compelling, representation can take us beyond what is immediate, and exercise our imaginations. Splinter Cell and Ico demonstrate that the decision how to convey what is happening can have a powerful impact on a game, and contribute a coherent and thoroughgoing realisation of an artistic aim.