Anodyne - How To Not Tell A Story And Still Tell A Story

Join me as I explore this bizarre interpretation of Nintendo's lauded adventure game formula. Haunting surrealism, storytelling through ambiguity. Anodyne answers the question, "what if David Lynch made Zelda?"

By Tony Walter | Feb 14, 2013

There are two types of stories that are told in video games. 

There is the conceived story, the story that the developer has written, plotted, and implemented in their game with cinematics, dialogue, text, and other direct communication. When you feel sad during a conceived story, it was planned. When you're excited during a conceived story, it's because that series of explosions was programmed to go off at just the right moment. Conceived stories are the meticulously calculated moments throughout a game that deliver the narrative that spawned out of the conscious thoughts of the writers. 

Then, there is the perceived story, the story that the player is being told by their own actions. This isn't a story that was necessarily planned months in advance, and this isn't something that is triggered by scripted moments in an action sequence. The perceived story is the culmination of feelings that spawn from the collective moments you experienced during the game. The perceived story is ambiguous. There is not necessarily a lesson to take away from a perceived story, simply what you have felt, what you have experienced. A perceived story triggers thought and emotion not based on a script, but on the experiences that the audience has had.

Some games feature both of these story types, some games feature just one. Sometimes games only hint at the conceived story, allowing players to perceive whatever details that the experience has provided for them. The ambiguity is frustrating to some, it seems like the creators are ignoring part of their project, when in reality they're placing great faith in the audience to piece together what gaps were left, using the player's past personal experiences, thus resulting in a new personal experience.

I've spent a few hours with Anodyne over the past week. It has become somewhat of a nightly routine, before bed I am sure to spend a little time within the universe - aptly so, considering the polysomnographic subject material. The artistic, surrealist quality in Anodyne is only met by its ability to have you question the character's reality. At no moment has it been entirely clear where the game takes place, or what exactly is happening. Simultaneously, the game creates a sensation of lost, but not abandonment. In this, you are in a mysterious world, unfamiliar and bizarre, yet the eerily nostalgic design instills the necessary knowledge to proceed in your adventure.

Perhaps part in accident, the Zelda-inspired infrastructure of the game comes off as a stroke of genius. Had the fiction of Anodyne not been set so far apart from that of the traditional adventure game, one might begin to make claims of this being a simple knock-off. However, instead, the familiar design lends itself as a road map in an otherwise totally unfamiliar and unsafe world. Had the game had a more unique design in this aspect, and no explicit instructions, it would be easy to be turned away in frustration. The game is better off without need of providing explicit instructions on what to do next, and instead relying on the nigh-innate knowledge that has been instilled in players through the decades.

Anodyne's most important component is also its biggest asset, that being its world. The large, open environments could be the results of running capture gear on the mind of a video game fan during their dreams. So often we see indie games using the pixel-art style, and so often it feels like a cheap way out of creating something unique. This is one of the exceptions where the art style is very much a part of the game's identity. The ambient sounds of the rain pitter-pattering and dulcet, mulling tones of the expertly assembled score go hand-in-hand with the uniquely crafted environments in a transitive experience apparent to the dreams they're drawn from.

This is not to undersell what else there is that Anodyne has to offer. Say what you will about the perhaps overused Zelda format, it is certainly a proven design for a reason. The structurally sound game also boasts a demented, yet oddly charming, sense of humor. Games writing is progressing to the point where laughter isn't as rare as it used to be - this game is an example of how to do it right. The characters, following the themes of the game, are likable yet mysterious.

Anodyne has my curiosity piqued. It's that rare game that doesn't come right out and tell me what it wants me to think or feel, but keeps me interested to see more nonetheless. For me, Anodyne isn't about a story that has already been conceived, it's about an experience I will have over the coming weeks. Each night before bed, I'll enjoy some time transporting myself into a world similar to the one I may dream. The hope is that my experiences, by the time my adventure is done, will culminate in something more than any conceived story could hope to do. Emotions evoked through the series of events provided, something earned through my own actions and experiences. A story that I am not told, but a story that is mine.


  1. I really like your review - especially the part about conceived vs. perceived stories. People who talk about games need to start talking about these deeper structural issues. Good job!

    1. Thank you very much, Etan. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. You're right, it would be nice to see more of this industry try to analyze games on deeper merits other than how 'fun' it is - which is already sort of a nebulous term to define. That said, there is certainly value in a surface review of a game. Most people want to know whether or not they should buy something, and all they need to know is if it's functional. I guess I'm speaking to those who've already made their purchase and are interested in discourse on the meaning and deeper value of the game.

  2. Very interesting analysis. I never thought about conceived vs perceived stories, but you're right that this is exactly what the authors set out to do. Apparently it does backfire for those who didn't have relatable experiences in their life, though. Still, it is quite an achievement for this duo's first effort. Just compare it to the first few prototypes that Sean Hogan made, it's amazing how far he has come in just a year or 2.

    1. I haven't had a chance to look at their earlier work, I'll have to do that. And yeah, this is a very impressive game for a first attempt. It's even getting plenty of attention now from the larger games media. I saw GameSpot did a feature on it recently. I expect big stuff for these guys in the future, and I can't wait to see what else they can do.