A Geek’s Guide to Analyzing Video Games: 16 Literary Devices to Know

Inspired (unfortunately) by a Buzzfeed article which discussed the function of various literary/storytelling devices found throughout Disney movies, I decided to adopt the idea for the benefit of video games. Whether it’s a game of incredible narrative depth or superficial gimmicks, chances are high you’ve played some games exhibiting these traits. Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll learn a new concept, or place a word to something you already recognized but had no name for, such as in the case of “anagnorisis” or “denouement.” At any rate, I hope you enjoy.
Definitions provided by quizlet.com.


Definition: A common thread or repeated idea that is incorporated throughout a literary work.
KHExample: Kingdom Hearts is so rampant with theming that it’s sometimes a butt of jokes among the fanbase. From beginning to end, spanning all sequels and spin-offs, Kingdom Hearts exhibits the classic battle of Light versus Darkness within people’s hearts. Some people overcome darkness to find their light, or fail to do so and become corrupted. Regardless, the words “light,” “darkness,” and “heart” are almost hilariously abundant within this series, as everything ties back to those three words. They influence every character arc, every narrative arc, most of the enemy designs, and a lot of environments as well.


Definition: An object, character, figure, or color that is used to represent an abstract idea or concept.
Example: The Portal games are symbolic of humanity’s ongoing ascendancy into a four dimensional space-time existence. The games themselves condition the player to think beyond the constraints of three dimensional space-time, which is explicitly stated in the slogan “Now you’re thinking with portals.” Chell’s training is symbolic of the real training that the player is simultaneously undergoing. This is a rather brilliant move on Valve’s part, for not only do they express an advanced level of symbolism, but they even manage to infiltrate the boundaries of our own world. This is not to be confused with Breaking the Fourth Wall. That will come later.


Definition: Irony that occurs when the meaning of the situation is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the work.
670px-Join-the-Dark-Brotherhood-in-Skyrim-Step-6Bullet1Example: One of Skyrim’s most notorious guilds is the Dark Brotherhood. To begin this quest-line, the game provides a mission from a boy who manages to escape from an orphanage. He hires you to kill the headmistress, who is exceptionally cruel to the orphans. After you do so, the orphans cheer that the headmistress has been killed. After you visit the boy who escaped and collect your payment, a passing soldier might tell you about the murder (that you performed) and comment “The children must be devastated.”



Definition: A constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, mythology, or other form of storytelling.
Example: Okay. “Archetype” is a bit of a vague word, as it encompasses literally hundreds of sub-concepts. However, a very prominent figure in video games to represent this idea is Link from The Legend of Zelda. Link is the quintessential “commoner who finds out they have a destiny to save the world” archetype, which is rediscovered with every single installment of the franchise. This works particularly well for Link, as he is the constantly reincarnating Hero of Time and thus appears to fulfill his destiny with each new body, always starting from humble roots and climbing his way into glory.


Cloud_VS_SephirothDefinition: A character who illuminates the qualities of another character by means of contrast.
Example: Cloud and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII are opposites in just about every way. Even their appearances were apparently designed to give them contrast. Whereas Sephiroth was an elite of SOLDIER even as a teenager, Cloud never made it to their ranks at all. Both became publicly distraught at some point that they were the result of the terrible Jenova experiments. Sephiroth at first seemed to find out that his victimization wasn’t so bad (after all) and that he was merely built to be the last of the Ancients. le In contrast, Cloud believed he was nothing but a soulless clone, when in actuality, his situation was much less severe. Through the course of the game, we find out how Sephiroth progressively stops caring about humanity, the Ancients, and the planet, while Cloud evolves from selfish agendas to caring about AVALANCHE, the planet’s plight, and everyone else through the course of the story. For each, the time when they find out the whole truth is when Cloud and Sephiroth fully became the hero and villain they are, respectively.


Definition: A brief reference in a literary work to a person, place, thing, or passage in another literary work, usually for the purpose of associating the tone or theme of the one work with the other.
Example: The Binding of Isaac is wrought with dozens of references to religious material. Even the title is drawn from the biblical narrative of Abraham and his sonc Isaac, whom he was commanded to kill by God. That same narrative is what propels the events in BoI, since a similar thing happens between the protagonist and his mother. However, there are references to other religions as well, though none of which are quite as prominent as Christianity and related material.


Definition: A warning or indication of a future event.
Example: I suppose not enough time has passed for me to freely give spoilers on Bioshock: Infinite, so I’ll keep things mild. The lead heroine, Elizabeth, is found by Booker DeWitt in her prison tower, where she must be freed. Here, the character is introduced to a machination known as Songbird, as well as Elizabeth’s power to move through dimensions. As the story unravels, the player learns more about Songbird’s true nature, Booker DeWitt’s relationship with the primary antagonist, and how Elizabeth’s power is connected to them both. In terms of storytelling, it’s a game that can only be fully understood by playing it twice, as the developers placed so many scenes and ideas in the early parts of the game that wouldn’t gain significance until far later, and when they did become important, it was with force, answering questions you didn’t even know you wanted to ask.


Definition: The atmosphere that pervades a literary work with the intention of evoking a certain emotion or feeling from the audience.
maxresdefault (1)Example: Life is Strange is a relatively new game, and it is one of the most shining examples of how to use different tools to set mood. You can read about it in depth with my review at here.
For the sake of this article, you need only understand that mood was, without argument, one of the developing team’s primary interests with this game. Between the indie camera-angle indulgence, the acoustic, hipster soundtrack, and the brilliant use of lighting throughout the various environments, everything is made to help the player either feel serene, angsty, or nostalgic in accordance with the designers’ wishes.


Definition: Speaking directly to or acknowledging the audience. The “fourth wall” refers to the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theater.
Example: Video games love to break the fourth wall, probably because it’s more natural with this medium than most others and we the players often have a hand in guiding the story and characters. It would be an understatement to say that Sunset Overdrive is absolutely saturated with breaks in the fourth wall. This is likely because the game was designed to be garishly self-aware, so the characters are constantly making idle conversation with the player controlling them. There is also a section of the game where the developers programmed a television station to talk directly to anybody who might be critically reviewing the game, deviously playing coy about their product and trying to swing the opinion of the game into their favor.


MetroidDefinition: The portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience—for example, information about the setting, events occurring before the main plot, characters’ backstories, etc.
Example: To find an example in older works, Super Metroid has one of the most memorable opening expositions in gaming. Samus Aran recounts her recent explorations of the galaxy, the trouble she’s found, and her subsequent pursuit of a powerful space pirate named Ridley. This sets the backdrop for the beginning of the game, granting the player an immediate understanding of their goal, the magnitude of the threat at hand, and the sort of temperament they should expect from the protagonist moving forward. All of this is accomplished in about thirty seconds.


Definition: An inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces.
wd-lee-n-clemExample: Well, conflict is pretty much everywhere in everything. It is the backbone of a good story. Nothing happens without conflict. Any fight that occurs, physical, metaphysical, psychological, spiritual, all of it can be traced back to the fundamental need for conflict in a story. But for my example, I’d like to point out a specific scene from one of the early episodes in Telltale’s The Walking Dead. If you have not played it yet, don’t worry, this is not a spoiler. At least, not one worth caring about.
The protagonist, Lee, has been given the objective of distributing food to their wayward band of survivors. However, there are only three items of food available, and over ten hungry mouths. You must chose which three people to feed, with the understanding that everybody is watching you and judging your actions. Do you feed the children? The sick? The old? Those who need the nourishment so they can protect the rest? Yourself? Regardless, somebody is getting shafted, so it’s a matter of weighing your priorities in a game of morality and who you believe is most important, understanding that it’s impossible to please everybody.


Definition: The turning point in the action (also known as the “crisis”) and/or the highest point of interest or excitement.
Example: Hey, in video games, we have another common name for the climax. Usually we call it “the final boss.” This is what everything has been leading towards. All of our efforts, struggles, and growth have been cultivating us for this defining moment of our lives where we must lay it all on the line and either save the world, or leave it to feed the powers of darkness.
It’s not always that extreme, but you get it. Not every game has “bosses,” but when they don’t, there’s still usually a character or antagonistic force which comes to a head in terms of narrative conflict against the player.


Definition: The recognition or discovery by the protagonist of the identity of some character or the nature of his own predicament, which leads to the resolution of the plot.
Example: Tales of Symphonia has an exceptional example of this concept. In the earlier parts of the game, the party is tasked with having The Chosen One, Colette, unseal various shrines to obtain the power of an angel. In so doing, they learn that her “destiny” is a ploy, and that they’re basically turning her into a sacrifice for Yggdrasil, a god-like figure who has been responsible in slaughtering thousands of “Chosen Ones” over the millennia to try and resurrect his sister. Knowing the true intentions of their deity, the game concludes the first arc of the story and begins the second, where the party, now armed with the truth, have the new goal of taking down a god. (See also: Final Fantasy X)


gwT0R7RLaDow.878x0.Z-Z96KYqDefinition: A device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often by an ironic twist of fate intimately related to the character’s own conduct.
Example: Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 reveals the fate of the Purple Guy. Mild spoilers! To this point, we knew that in order to hide the bodies of his victims, the missing children, the Purple Guy was stuffing their corpses into animatronic suits. Eventually, the spirits of these children corner the Purple Guy, who tries to hide in the notoriously faulty suit for an animatronic named Springtrap. Once inside, the suit skewers the Purple Guy, killing him. This fate is poetic justice in that he’d been hiding his victims in the suits, only to try and live by hiding in one himself, and having that suit be the vehicle of his demise.


Definition: An unexpected power or event saving a hopeless situation, especially as a plot device in a play or novel, from the Latin “a god from a machine.”
Example: There are tons of Deus Ex Machina’s in video games. However, the one that strikes me most imminently is taken out of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Every character is converging on Tabuu, the final opponent, when he unleashes a wave of power to turn everyone into Trophies. Then out of freaking nowhere, Sonic shoots onto the fray, attacks Tabuu, and turns everyone back into their normal forms. This is easily explained outside of the game as the developer’s needing to include Sonic at the last second because he was added to the roster late into development due to fan demand. However, in the game, this makes no sense, as he did not exist in the narrative prior to that moment, unlike the other characters.


bioshock2__yellow_littlesister_by_lullabynyu-d3ku3ivDefinition: The final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved.
Example: Bioshock has one of my favorite denouements in gaming. Throughout the entire narrative, the player is given a few different options on how to treat the notoriously cute-creepy Little Sisters. Depending on if you chose to save or harvest them, the ending cinematic will change, as well as your method of defeating the final opponent. This, combined with everything you’ve learned about the history of Rapture and the hurdles you’ve overcome, make for a fulfilling denouement after the climax, where all of the narrative strings show you not only the immediate results of the story, but even how things turn out years down the road.

Cooper D Barham

Aspiring author, marriage and family therapist, and active behavioral health technician, Cooper fills his world with God, music, videogames, anime/manga, drawing, reading, writing, and some physical stuff in between. If you ever want to talk about the big or little things of life, fire him a message. Helping others through tough times is both his passion and way of living. 'Got it memorized?'

1 Comment

  1. Kris M. Agard on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Good job

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