I am hoping that you didn’t read diegetic and go “Hang on, I don’t know what that is, SKIP.” Instead, if you are here, let’s talk about diegetic elements in video games.
Video games take a lot of cues and methods from movies and other forms of media, and in movies you have diegetic and non-diegetic elements. Okay, these can be seen as far back as poetry in Ancient Greece, but let’s stick with easy examples. A soundtrack that plays during a movie is generally non-diegetic. But if we hear music and then someone turns off their car and the music stops, then it is diegetic. It is in and part of the scene, rather than something being played just for our benefit. I got to thinking about it after playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which had two good examples of diegetic elements. So I will start the list there and move on.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
As the game starts, the camera is flying over a massive scrapyard. Rebuplic cruisers and the like are being cut apart so that their parts can be repurposed or melted down for new massive ships. The camera follows a droid and some alien rock band is playing. Someone taps Cal Kestis on the shoulder and we see Cal has headphones on. He takes them off and the music goes soft and distant because it is what was playing in the headphones. Another example, which is used through most of the game, is the light on the back of BD-1’s head, which is actually the colour of your health bar. A nice bright green means things are fine, but it will slowly head towards red and flashing red means you are close to death. Pay attention and ask BD for a stim, now!
Similar to BD-1’s healthbar light, the spacesuits of Dead Space allowed the game to make the entire interface diegetic. Your health, power and oxygen are shown on your back, while a holographic system on your suit projects the map, the inventory interface and even reading codex entries. Instead of a targeting reticule, the guns you use have bright laser sights that show where you will hit, making the game become all about you and your suit and survival. There is no layer between you to remind you this is a game, and it works fantastically.
God of War III
God of War III had a music puzzle that was completely diegetic and it feels very tongue in cheek. The fact that it was part of the critical path and not an Easter egg still baffles me a little bit, but here we are. After using massive cranks to tune guitar strings, Kratos needs to play a little Guitar Hero. The face buttons of the PlayStation controller are right there in the game, and Kratos must hit the correct button as the notes fly in from the left of the screen. The piece of music? Kratos’ theme.
Control is probably the whole reason for writing this list and honestly, there is a scene in the game that I have been dying to talk about. If you haven’t played Control and are worried about spoilers, STOP READING NOW. I’m going to try to be spoiler-free but I know sometimes people don’t want any hints of what is coming.
Towards the end of Control, there is an amazing sequence called the Ashtray Maze. It is created by an Object of Power and was used by the previous director as a final protective measure for one of the Bureau’s biggest secrets. The Ashtray Maze is quite the perfect way of hiding something. Unless you control the Object of Power and have been granted access, the maze will keep adding changes to itself, making it impossible to get through. There is one way though. Ahti has a gift from the Old Gods of Asgard that was meant to be given to you. This gift will guide you through the maze, safe from its influence. As you reach the maze, you put the walkman on and one of the best parts of the game starts. Rocking out to Take Control, you head through this space that opens, closes, folds inwards and outwards and in directions we cannot comprehend fighting while Hiss and looking for the way out. At times it feels like the maze even helps you, blocking off enemies in impossible spaces. Then you reach the end of the maze as the song ends and take off your headphones. It is over, but the memory remains. Bonus points for the lyrics and the work that went into them!
Have any other examples of diegetic elements that made you sit up and pay attention? Let’s talk about them.