The Iceberg Theory of Games

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything — Voltaire

The iceberg theory, coined by Hemingway, is a powerful and influential idea in literature.

A writer should deeply understand the characters and underlying themes of a story, but they shouldn’t spell them out for the reader. Only the tip of the iceberg should make it onto the page; every word should be used sparingly. What is left unsaid, the bulk of the iceberg that remains underwater, lends the story gravitas and strengthens the feelings experienced by the reader. At its heart, the iceberg theory is a philosophy of minimalism. In Hemingway’s words:

The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

The iceberg theory transcends writing — it is a potent idea in other storytelling media such as movies or television.

But how does the theory apply to video games? Quite well, it turns out.

No set of games exemplify minimalist storytelling like those of Team Ico. Fumito Ueda is known to describe his approach as “design by subtraction”. And subtract he does.

Video games are unique in that they can use interactivity to communicate with the player on an empathetic level. Ueda’s games have no known language and little dialogue, and very few characters. Yet they capture your imagination and tell soul-stirring stories that are pondered by gamers to this day.

Consider Shadow of the Colossus. The game’s core narrative can be related in a handful of sentences. The dialogue would not fill more than a couple of pages. But as you roam the deserted ruins of a once-great civilization hunting down colossi, awe, loneliness, guilt and a sense of foreboding become your constant companions. The absence is not without purpose. As Hemingway cautions:

A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Shadow of the Colossus omits with purpose. The expansive, carefully crafted, almost-lifeless world suggests untold depths. Dilapidated structures hint at a once-great civilization. The unintelligible language contributes to the otherness of the experience. Each colossus is a story unto itself.

Minimalism has been a recurring theme in artistic video games. The idea is a compelling one — when it comes to video games, even words can be superfluous. Culling them leaves you with a distillation of evocative interactions.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons tells a touching story of brotherhood in which the bond between the brothers is established by having the player control both of them. There is no intelligible dialogue, and no meaty backstory provided to establish their relationship. By helping them work together to succeed on their journey, you become the bond between the brothers.

While these games rely on relatively complex puzzle solving and gameplay to engage the player, some games have managed to go one step further in shrinking the tip of the iceberg.

Journey is a game with two mechanics. You can sing with one button, and jump with the other. These aren’t used to solve any challenges or puzzles. They simply aid you on your journey by enabling interaction with the environment. The ‘singing’ is a chirp that is louder if you hold the button longer. It allow you to communicate with other travelers you might encounter, again minimally. This is a game with no words, negligible challenge, and the barest sketch of a story told through murals. And yet, the game helps you intimately experience what is perhaps the essence of storytelling — the hero’s journey. The sense of companionship with fellow travelers is all the deeper for your inability to identify them or speak to them conventionally.

Even among more conventional games, characters that aren’t completely drawn out tend to stick — Joel from The Last of Us is a good example; much information is lacking on how he spent the two decades between losing his daughter and meeting Ellie. What likely transpired in those years adds nuance to his character without taking away the mystery. This lesson is forgotten in The Last of Us 2, which painstakingly fleshes out character backstories, leaving little to the player’s imagination.

The enigmatic NPCs and bosses of Soulsborne games demonstrate how terse storytelling and worldbuilding can provoke curiosity and wonder, where voluminous details might fall flat on the player. It makes one wonder how much more compelling Horizon Zero Dawn’s history might have been, had the designers been more frugal about sharing it. As it was, by the end of the game my sense of wonder was diminished because I knew too much. The iceberg was substantial, but I could see most of it, and that deprived it of its majesty.

The Iceberg theory is highly relevant to video games. Most big budget titles inundate players with mini-games, side quests, collectibles, without considering whether they can add to the experience by subtracting from it. They fear doing too little, and end up doing too much. They fear being misunderstood, and end up telling everything.

A reluctance to cut away the superfluous in a game can turn a tightly defined, thought-provoking experience into a mundane one. The greatest artistic video games remind us that less is more.