More than the set piece battle or the final showdown between hero and villain, it’s the quieter, smaller moments in video games that get me. In some games, those tiny moments can be a sudden expression on a character’s face or a short piece of dialogue from an inconsequential scene. But more often than not, my favorite moments in video games come from flavor text.
I play games primarily for story. If I discover flavor text in a game, it’ll usually lead to me spending hours combing through my inventory or collection reading every little bit of text, absorbing the information like a dry sponge tossed into a lake. I’ll spend so much time reading that I can end a game session without casting a single spell or fighting a single enemy. It’s like going to an endless buffet and leaving after having gorged only on hors d’oeuvres.
Magic: The Gathering is my biggest catnip when it comes to flavor text. Either through Arena or the Gatherer website, I have thousands of cards at my fingertips, ready for me to read without drafting a single deck. Magic lore can feel like it requires a PhD in Magic: The Gathering studies to sort through, but it tells micro-stories through a card’s art and flavor text. The 2010 Core Set version of Regenerate is my favorite Magic card, not for anything the card does, but for the tender story it tells with Rebecca Guay’s evocative art combined with the text: “This wound shall be like the chills of winter: swiftly forgotten when spring shoots rise.”
I’ll never know who the elves in the art are, nor how this woman was wounded. They are not important enough to warrant their own book or comic. But, at a glance, I can see the wounded elf is strong though not invincible, and deeply loved. Seeing that love illustrated through art and text, I get a short, one-two punch of feelings that sticks with me long after the card has gone into my graveyard.
The Pokémon franchise is notorious for flavor text that often peels back the veneer of sublime wonder to reveal a world far darker and fucked up than the bright and colorful cartoons and video games imply. Look at Cubone. I distinctly remember horror welling within me reading the Pokédex entry for Cubone way back in 1999 when I borrowed a friend’s copy of Pokémon Yellow.
“Wears the skull of its deceased mother. Its cries echo inside the skull and come out as a sad melody.”
Bruh. This particular bit of horror was before growing up and realizing the fucked up implications of a world where kids can catch wild animals and force them to fight. And the notion Pokémon is actually a horror game has only gotten worse—see Hatterene, Polteageist, and Mimikyu. I don’t play much Pokémon anymore, but I like reading the descriptions of Pokemon with each new expansion just to see how dark this allegedly child-friendly franchise can get.
After Nier: Automata broke up with me a couple of months ago, I’m still reeling from one of the weapon stories. Rather than just being presented in an item’s tool tip,each weapons upgrade tier comes with its own piece of story. The higher you upgrade your weapon—often at great expense and effort—the more story you reveal. During my playthrough, I didn’t upgrade my weapons that much, but one I did complete was the short-sword Faith. Upgrading Faith was a hollow victory because it required unlocking Pascal as a vendor (which in turn required something I really wish I hadn’t done.) I thought I could take at least a little solace in the fact that I upgraded one weapon to completion and would finally be able to see its full story. But then, the last bit of story killed the little bit of joy I had left (Automata is good for that.) Faith’s story is one of a poet who, unable to earn a living through his art, settles down and has a family. Or so I thought. When I upgraded Faith to its final tier I was rewarded with a brutal twist ending that revealed the peaceful story of a man finding meaning in his family was all lies.
“Or so the poet wrote before he put down his pen, swallowed the paper whole, and prayed that the next life might turn out so well. He then took Faith-already stained with the blood of another-and plunged it deep into his chest.”
Fuck you Nier: Automata. You beautiful, twisted, soul killing game.
Final Fantasy XIV is responsible for my most recent “flavor text” moment. There’s a character, Minfilia, who I am going to essentially call my boss, since she’s the one ordering me hither and yon picking up dry cleaning after literally saving the realm. Minfilia, who I’m starting to think is actually bad at her job, talked a lot about her dead father and how he was a spy for a country’s resistance movement against a facist occupation. The way she spoke about her dad led me to believe that he was some noble figure who died tragically in the course of his spy duties.
Here’s how he really died.
I’ve already gone into detail about my damn near traumatizing experience playing A Realm Reborn, but flavor text doesn’t always have to be about stuffing a maximum amount of feels in a minimal amount of space. I thought this guy died nobly sacrificing himself for his comrades. Nah, it was just a mundane (kinda) parade accident. Here, the flavor text didn’t reveal a hidden tragedy, or inflict massive emotional damage. Sometimes the meaning we invest in objects and the people those objects represent is more than what they merit. Instead of adding depth to the world, this journal’s flavor text took some away, reminding me of life’s occasional averageness. Not every item is magical, and not every hero’s death is heroic. Sometimes a pebble is just a pebble: Quite thrilling.
I think flavor text resonates so much with me because it is small gestures, and my own love language is also small gestures. Flavor text is not meant to be a substitute for big, meaningful moments in games. Rather, it’s little things that speak to the devotion game makers put into their art. It shows that every bit of the game, down to the tiniest block of text most people won’t even see, was invested with just as much care and detail as the bigger, splashier moments.