dungeons and dragons osr tabletop rpg theory

What does diegesis have to do with games?

Quick Reading Guide:

  1. What is diegesis?
  2. The difference between diegesis and abstraction
  3. How diegesis exists in games
  4. Game mechanics that seem non-diegetic are often just abstract
  5. …But a lot of game mechanics are non-diegetic

There has been some chatter about the concept of diegesis in the OSR recently, partially instigated by myself. The concept as it applies specifically to tabletop RPG design has been thrown around for a while, but it started to gain a bit more traction when Emmy Allen made this post on her blog about how diegesis can be a useful thing to consider in game design. Her definition as she applies it in the first part of the post is correct and she’s also correct that it is a useful way to think about game mechanics. This post is about a specific part of Emmy’s post where I think her application goes astray — that diegesis as a concept exists in opposition to abstraction, which is why she incorrectly categorizes “abstractions being used to quantify a more complex fictional thing for the purposes of game-play” as non-diegetic.

I need to clarify that this is not a takedown of Emmy’s post. Emmy is an extremely intelligent designer who is always pushing her community forward in the theory of tabletop RPG design. Her post is good and all I’m going to do here in contradiction of that post is clarify a very specific nuance of diegesis and why non-diegesis should not be confused with abstraction.

Here’s my thesis: abstraction is about representing reality by portraying it in a less-real or concrete way. Diegesis describes whether a thing exists at all within the virtual reality being presented to an audience. An element of storytelling can (and often is) be both abstract and diegetic. It can also be very concrete and not diegetic. And as some have correctly pointed out, a high level of abstraction in storytelling can cause the line between diegesis and non-diegesis to get fuzzy.

Note that at no point in this article will I argue that diegesis is inherently desirable as a trait of a storytelling element or a game mechanic. I think there are benefits to turning a non-diegetic element of a story into a diegetic one, but the reverse can also be true depending on your goals. And while I think that a heavy reliance on diegetic elements in tabletop RPGs can often lead to greater immersion in the game world, I don’t intend to prove that here.

Before we move on, I should note that if you Google “diegesis” you will find an alternative use of the term: the Greek word was originally used as an opposing concept to “mimesis.” Diegesis originally referred to the telling of a story by a narrator, while mimesis referred to a dramatic reenactment of a story through something like theater. This dichotomy is not particularly relevant to the film theory use of diegesis that we’re going to discuss, but I think it’s important to mention that you will encounter this alternative use if you do your own research (which I encourage). If you’re curious about that use of it, this is a good place to start.

In case you’re wondering, the film theory use of the word diegesis is a translation of the French word for the concept, diégèse, which probably comes from but is not the same as the French translation of the Greek term (diégésis). In other words, when the term came to English it unfortunately ended up using the exact same word that we use to describe the Greek concept. I don’t know why the original French term uses that Greek root, but I suspect it is because discussions of film diegesis center around what is part of a story being told and what exists only as part of the “telling”, so to speak.

What is diegesis?

Diegesis as it is currently used in the tabletop RPG community follows its use in film theory: things that exist in an imagined world set forth for the audience, as opposed to things that may be shown to the audience but which do not exist in that world. The time-tested and simplest example is the soundtrack for a film. If music in a scene is diegetic, it might be coming from a radio or being sung by one of the characters. The characters in the scene are probably aware of this music. If music in a scene is non-diegetic, it’s being played for the audience watching the movie but can not be perceived by the characters within the world.

While both forms of music can affect the emotional or thematic effect of a film, the audience usually understands that diegetic music has different implications in the world. A character who puts on a song on their car stereo is — whether they intend this or not — saying something about themselves, their musical taste, etc. But if a character has a non-diegetic theme song, the audience is expected to understand that this is not the character saying something about themselves, but rather the storyteller telling the audience how they should feel about that character. This distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound can be used to great effect. Check out this scene from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword which is very much not a movie, but should help illustrate why this is useful:

In this scene, Groose thinks he’s hot shit. If you asked him to play music that describes himself, he would never pick the song playing in the background (“Groose’s Theme”, literally his theme song). And yet this non-diegetic piece of music helps the people telling this story impress on us that this guy’s kind of dopey. There is a severe mismatch between his self image and how the authors view him and that joke is on him.

It is extremely important to note for the purpose of how this all applies to games that diegesis can be fluid. A song could be played over a wide shot of a car driving through a city and then in an interior shot of the car can be revealed to also be playing on the car’s radio. You could use such a technique to illustrate a match between the storyteller’s commentary and what’s being depicted. Here’s a comedic use of this technique in the television show Boy Meets World that does a lot of interesting things at once:

In this scene, we start with a character expressing a desire that the proceeding about to start be casual and not “a big courtroom drama.” It moves into a gag where the character Eric enters the room to the soundtrack of People’s Court, signifying to the audience that no, this character is in fact going to treat it as a big courtroom drama. We see this not just from the music but also from his dramatic entrance and body language. In other words, at first the music is simply assisting Eric’s actor in conveying his character’s motivations (to take this “trial” seriously).

The second part of this gag happens when Eric reaches his seat at the table and opens his briefcase to reveal that the non-diegetic sound was actually diegetic all along: in other words, Eric was so interested in the characters in the world perceiving him as an attorney that he played his own theme music. Here the shift from non-diegetic to diegetic is used to show both a match and a mismatch of the storyteller’s thoughts on a character with the character’s conception of their own role in what is happening. The storyteller wants us to think that Eric is taking the proceeding comically seriously and so is using an actual court-themed song to convey this. Eric is taking it seriously, it’s just that his character’s weird world logic leads to him doing the same thing himself in earnest. Both the character and the storyteller use the same piece of music to define the character’s role in the scene, but one is playing it straight and one is doing it with irony.

I bring this up because treating diegesis as fluid is an important tool, and one that’s going to aid us in dissecting how diegesis applies to games.

The difference between diegesis and abstraction

Before we talk about diegesis in tabletop RPGs specifically, we need to acknowledge the difference between diegesis and abstraction. They are not antonyms, nor are they a dichotomy. They are words used to describe entirely different facets of a storytelling element: diegesis is about what exists in the imagined reality, whereas abstraction is about depecting a thing in the imagined reality in some way other than in its most literal, real form. A thing can be highly abstract but still diegetic. Since diegesis is a term that originates in film theory, I’ll use an element of film to illustrate this: dialogue. Dialogue in a movie is usually diegetic, but it is also usually abstract.

While I will do the fun thing in a second and show you a highly abstract piece of diegetic filmed dialogue, the elephant in the room here that any writer reading this post will bring up is that narrative dialogue itself is an abstraction. Good dialogue in a film, a novel, etc. isn’t exactly the same as real dialogue. Good dialogue tends to accomplish a lot of things at once (characterization, exposition, and plot advancement are the usual goals), which is not exactly the case with real-world speech. If you’re writing a comedy, a certain amount of your dialogue needs to be in service to a joke. Characters in a comedy are often going to say the funniest, most incisive, or most unconventionally insightful things they can in a moment, things you might not be used to seeing people produce on the spot in real life. The writer of as comedy is probably going to aim for some level of naturalism in their dialogue, but only as much as they need to such that the characters saying these things feel like people you can relate to or at least suspend your disbelief about. So while dialogue in a movie will often use naturalism to get you to care about or believe what’s happening, it does this while still intentionally abstracting real life speech.

Let’s jump to a slightly more obviously abstracted (but still diegetic) form of dialogue. Check out the funny way the character talks in this clip:

I am not a historian, but I would guess that 15th century Danes didn’t usually monologue to themselves in iambic blank verse, even ones as moody and dramatic as Hamlet. All of these are abstract elements of this scene, and while they are signals of the heightened reality at play in the world of Hamlet, none of them make the dialogue non-diegetic. Hamlet is very much talking to himself within the fiction of this scene, and he’s doing so in blank verse versus prose, which we can see in the rest of the play does not actually apply to every character, nor is always a thing Hamlet himself does. It is abstract speech that is happening within the story, just more abstract than you might see in your average movie.

There is one element of this speech that could be interpreted as non-diegetic: as far as I know, Hamlet probably wouldn’t be talking to himself in English. In a situation where dialogue is dubbed, I think it is a fair to say that the audience is hearing their native language but the characters are speaking a language more logical for their world, which means that a specific element of that speech could be said to be non-diegetic. This isn’t always the case (a dub could diegetically insist all of the characters are speaking the dubbed language), and I think in the context of film most would just call the speech in the clip above entirely diegetic and not bother with any further categorization, but I bring this up because meshing diegetic and non diegetic elements together is a thing we’ll discuss in games.

So now let’s look at a piece of dialogue that is extremely abstracted (jump to 20 seconds in):

Here, the storyteller first depicts naturalistic speech, letting the audience know what the psychiatrist sounds like to someone who isn’t Homer Simpson. But when we move to a close up of Homer’s face, the dialogue of the psychiatrist moves to a higher level of abstraction: a Charlie Brown-esque “blah blah blah.” This dialogue is still diegetic but we’re now experiencing it through a filter: what Homer hears as he struggles to listen to a lecture full of technical jargon with his limited attention span. For those few seconds, the storyteller is has no interest in depicting anything remotely naturalistic about the psychiatrist’s speech. Instead, his dialogue is abstracted all the way out of the realm of an objective depiction of how they sound into the purely conceptual: it’s boring. However, this highly abstracted dialogue is still diegetic because it depicts a thing the characters in the scene are hearing.

So we’ve seen how diegesis and abstraction describe two entirely different qualities of an element of story. But how do these elements combine and interact in the context of games? Let’s finally get to that:

How diegesis exists in games

The short answer is that diegesis is a difficult topic to adapt to games, both video and tabletop, because games necessarily need to feature diegetic and non-diegetic elements working in tandem to facilitate the loop of information and interaction flowing between the player and the game. Some have pointed out that diegesis is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole; that we could instead be creating new paradigms of thought based on players changing a virtual world in real time. I think there’s a lot of wisdom to that perspective, and welcome any frameworks on how to think about this. For now, I’m going to try and apply the concept here because I think it could be useful in informing how we think about game design.

I’m going to lead with a video game example because pictures of those are more fun. Take a look at the screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past below. What parts of the screen do you think are diegetic?

Let’s get to the easy stuff first: Link and that monster are both diegetic. So is the platform they’re standing on, the big pit and the rails off to the side. While everything is depicted in an abstract way (chibi-style sprites, colors that fit into the SNES’s palette), they obviously exist within the game world. We play the game to move Link around and interact with those things, creating a story as we do. Thus anything Link is interacting with in some form can safely be called diegetic.

So what’s non-diegetic? Let’s get the obvious answers out of the way. The pixels on the screen are non-diegetic; they are part of how the game assembles itself for consumption by your eyes similar to how the form of letters on a page are usually not part of the world of a written story. Similarly, most would probably agree that the user interface elements on the screen are not diegetic because we don’t assume that Link will see them if he looks up into the sky. But beyond that, things get weird!

What about the way the UI looks? While Link may not see that picture of the Bug-Catching Net floating above him, that is how the net is depicted in the game. Similarly, the pictures of rupees, bombs and arrows depict real things that exist in the game. In other words, in some cases the UI will rely on diegetic depictions of a thing to communicate more effectively to the player, even if the UI as a whole is decidedly a non-diegetic element. So let’s say the UI is definitely not diegetic, but it uses depictions of things as they exist diegetically rather than icons for the sake of more effective communication.

Sometimes games play with diegesis in this space. In Dead Space, you don’t have those floating icons. Instead you have this:

Not pictured: when you raise your gun to shoot you’ll see an ammo counter on a mounted display.

While Link may not look up at the sky and see his hearts, the protagonist of Dead Space does in fact open up their own menu and look at what they’re carrying via a diegetic user interface. While I have no data to say by what increment this makes a player more invested in the game world or the story, it does seem pretty reasonable to say that finding ways to take what would be non-diegetic elements of a game and making them diegetic seems to be desirable to some people.

But let’s return to the Link to the Past screenshot above and ask a harder question: what about what the UI is telling you? In other words, game information. While the UI depicts the number of arrows and bombs Link is carrying, or how close he is to running out of magic power or health, Link would know these things. He just knows them through a different method because having the player open up a bomb bag and manually count their bombs would likely not be fun. I would say that the majority of information that this UI is giving the player is diegetic. This is information that is observable or calculable within the game world.

Magic power and health are a tougher one because Link probably doesn’t know exactly how many hits he can survive before he dies. But he probably has a general sense of how fighting-fit he feels at any given moment, so we’ll say that information is a mix of diegetic and not diegetic. You can see how the conversation surrounding diegesis in games can be confusing: we’ve taken a quick glance at a screenshot from a video game and we’ve already reached an element that can’t definitively be defined as diegetic or non-diegetic.

And here’s the question that really leads to the crux of this article: is the act of making Link swing his sword to hit that monster diegetic? After all, the press of the B button, the calculations being made by the game console, the hit boxes on the sprites displayed on screen, etc. are all imaginary things. None of those things exist within the game world. And yet, making Link hit the monster is diegetic. It is part of the fiction of Link to the Past that Link will swing his sword, that Link will take a certain amount of sword swinging to kill any given enemy, and that it is approximately this or that difficult for the sword to connect with an enemy (the Moldorm depicted above being a particularly notorious example of that). What all of these imaginary bits do is make the combat in Link to the Past abstract. It doesn’t really matter how much this has to do with real sword fighting. Instead, it matters that the player see the thing happening on screen and then understand in their head that sword fighting is happening in the story. It just so happens that sword fighting in Link to the Past is represented by these unrealistic elements. As you might guess, this makes a lot of strange things that happen in video games diegetic. Turn-based combat in Final Fantasy? Diegetic. The shmup and rhythm minigames in Undertale? Diegetic. Swinging your weapon dozens of times at enemies in Morrowind but failing to connect? Diegetic! These weird systems are like the opposite of that picture of the bug catching net in the UI that we discussed earlier: they use concepts and images that do not literally exist in the game world to present an abstract model of a diegetic concept. In other words, abstractions in a game will sometimes use non-diegetic language to present a diegetic thing.

Game mechanics that seem non-diegetic are often just abstract

Let’s take a look at the game elements present on this character sheet from the 1981 Moldvay Basic Set of Dungeons and Dragons:

Let’s talk about the diegesis of mechanics discussed on this sheet point by point:

  • Character’s Name: Diegetic of course. The character’s name exists in the world.
  • Player’s Name and Date Created: Not diegetic. Neither the player nor the character sheet exist within the world.
  • Class: This is the first hard one. While being a Fighter or Cleric has diegetic effects on the game world, the actual name of those bundles of abilities is commonly held to be not necessarily tied to the game world (e.g. the Dungeon Master may require that a Cleric actually be a member of the clergy in the fiction, but the book does not require this). Further, Basic D&D often refers to these terms as bundles of abilities rather than statements of what is true in the game world (a monster might be described as saving “as a fighter”, using the term as a purely out-of-world signifier).

    The real wrench is the fact that in Basic Dungeons and Dragons, your character’s “race” can sometimes be a class. So while a Fighter is not assumed to be a diegetic concept in Basic D&D, an Elf is. The way I square this circle is by calling back to that bug catching net from Link to the Past again: the “Elf” class uses a diegetic concept to convey information to the player (i.e. that characters who have this class are all going to be elves), but “Elf” as it describes a specific bundle of abilities is not. Note that class could be a diegetic element of the game, and characters in the game world could be referred to by NPCs as Fighters or Magic Users. This just does not appear to be the case in this particular tabletop RPG. So class is not diegetic but it does have requirements that are diegetic (i.e. if your character is an Elf, you must be the Elf class).

    This is one of those cases where I think game mechanics aren’t always easily put into one of those buckets. I personally lean toward “class” as a concept in D&D being a non-diegetic aid for the player or the GM rather than an abstraction of an in-world concept. I don’t personally interpret the D&D world as having a bunch of people getting stronger or learning abilities on set schedules, but rather that the mechanic exists to preserve a balance of play and regularly eke out rewards to players for succeeding in the game.
  • Level: This is where we have to start differentiating between game mechanics and the terms used to label game mechanics. The term level is not diegetic. No one in the game world appears to observe that you are a first or third level character, though they may observe differences in ability that relate to level.

    As for level as a mechanic: If you pick one of the non-human races to play as, you have a maximum level. Theoretically this represents that humans have boundless potential in the world of the game, and can reach higher levels than the other “races” with enough work. This implies that level is an abstraction of the level of skill any given character can hope to attain, and thus describes a diegetic but intangible thing. Thus level as a mechanic is diegetic in the same way that “a relationship” or “courage” are diegetic things. They are intangible and abstract concepts, but people acknowledge them in the game world. The level mechanic represents a real thing in the game world, which is a character’s potential.
  • Alignment: Unlike later editions of D&D, Alignment as both a label and as a mechanic is 100% an in-world concept acknowledged by characters that even carries an associated language. In Basic D&D, it’s diegetic.
  • Experience: Let’s get the easy part out of the way: the label for the Experience mechanic is diegetic. It refers to having done a thing enough to have meaningfully gotten better at it. Here that thing specifically refers to experience in adventuring and combat.

    As a mechanic, some level of interpretation is necessary. You receive experience for obtaining gold pieces on an adventure (at a 1:1 rate) and for defeating monsters (at a substantially smaller rate). I believe this is an abstraction for the fact that when your character returns their treasure to civilization, they reflect on what they did to achieve their successes, however minor or major. When they do, they learn from it. And when they learn a certain amount, they get better at adventuring overall. This is why you don’t get experience for simply selling your shoes for 5 GP: it has to come from an adventure. To me this is a diegetic and heavily abstracted representation of getting better at doing a thing over time, which a real in-world idea. And while there are other experience mechanics that more directly correlate with things you do (e.g. getting 5% better at a thing after failing to do it during a session in Unknown Armies), those too are ultimately still very abstract!

    Some would counter that experience isn’t really abstracting your character getting better over time but rather a purely game-oriented mechanic that exists as a “score” for the player, with rewards based on the score they achieve. This makes it non-diegetic. I think this is a reasonable interpretation, though I think I personally would be more convinced if the activity that results in obtaining experience didn’t require becoming more “experienced” in adventuring in normal parlance. If experience were, say, directly correlated with how much money your character carries on their person regardless of source, that would be a situation where I would more readily call it non-diegetic.
  • Armor Class: The term is a label for the player’s benefit, but the number and mechanic itself are an abstraction for a real thing in the game world: how difficult it is to hurt a person or at least wear them down through combat. While characters probably can’t calculate their exact chance to hit someone, they can observe that people in the game world are more or less difficult to hit. It’s kind of like how the average real-life person can’t on-the-fly calculate their exact odds of landing a bullseye with a dart, but they know it’s harder to hit than the outer rings.

    Note: Having “16 AC” is not overall less diegetic than having “AC as plate.” It’s once again like that bug catching net UI example from Link to the Past: “16 AC” is like having an icon of a net that never appears elsewhere in the game, whereas “AC as plate” would be akin to using what would normally be a diegetic depiction of a bug catching net as the label. Using diegetic things to label a mechanic can be more effective communication, but it doesn’t make the thing overall diegetic or not diegetic.
  • Hit Points: As discussed above with Link’s hearts in Link to the Past, this is a mechanic that represents a mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic things. Characters in Basic D&D know when they’re at half hit points because it triggers a morale roll (in other words, they know they’re in danger because they’re at half HP). Similarly, everyone knows what 0 hit points means because that person will always die. So hit points definitely represent something real and observable in the game world, making it a diegetic mechanic. But a character can eventually level up to obtain a number of hit points that is difficult to describe diegetically. AD&D refers to this part of your hit points as stamina, grit, luck, etc. (things are that are diegetic) but to my knowledge no such explanation exists in Moldvay Basic.
  • Ability Scores: These are abstract numbers that mean nothing to the characters in the game world, but they describe real things. A character’s Intelligence affects their ability to learn magic within the world, their charisma affects how many retainers they will be able to hire and so on. So while the numbers themselves are non-diegetic in the same way that the size of the sword’s hitbox in Link to the Past is, the effect on the game world is diegetic. So this is a diegetic mechanic representing an abstract concept that is remembered by the player using non-diegetic labels. No one in the game world knows a character has 16 strength, but they can probably observe that she is incredibly strong and can push open doors more easily.
  • To-Hit: This is how likely a character is to hurt someone if they’re in combat. While no one in the game world boasts about their “To-hit”, making the label non-diegetic, the mechanic is an abstraction of a diegetic concept in the same way that Armor Class is. Increases to a character’s To-Hit are similarly diegetic, so long as the source is too. So a character who gradually gets better at hitting things through experience is diegetically increasing their to-hit. A character who gets it simply because the DM wants the player to have a more powerful character is not doing so diegetically.
  • Saves: You probably know what I’ll say here by now. A non-diegetic label for a diegetic concept (how good a person is at avoiding death by X obstacle).
  • Damage of weapon in hand: An abstraction of how likely what you’re holding is to kill someone. It’s diegetic.

…But a lot of game mechanics are non-diegetic

While I think that there is a tendency to confuse abstract game mechanics for non-diegetic ones, I think it would be helpful for me to point out things that I think are non-diegetic. Generally speaking, these are mechanics that interact purely with the player or the table, or which model story structures rather than concrete in-game things (though genre emulation isn’t always non-diegetic; a gear list is diegetic but serves genre emulation). Again, non-diegetic mechanics aren’t worse; they just do different things for your game. Here are some examples:

  • D&D abilities or moves in Powered by the Apocalypse games where you ask the GM a question and they must answer truthfully. These can be diegetic if grounded in an in-world concept (e.g. your character asks a god for advice and the GM providing is an abstraction of that happening) but that isn’t always the case.

  • Framing timers or ability cooldowns around things like “the session” or a “scene.” These are necessarily non-diegetic mechanics because while they impact a thing in the world of the game, the way you interact with them and the meaning they carry is entirely concerned with the pacing of the game at the table. This is a good example of where non-diegetic mechanics could easily be made diegetic, but are purposely not made so for the sake of effective communication. For example, some Kevin Crawford RPGs will mention the “scene” as a unit of time for how often you can use an ability. He could have easily said “every 10 minutes” but he chose not to because he decided to be more direct about how often such an ability should come into play during a given session.

  • Metacurrency. Things like “Hero points” in Spectaculars or a “Hunch” in Unknown Armies. These are things a player usually receives for respecting the genre of the game they play or for making the game more interesting for everyone else at the table through their actions. These tend to be used to enforce non-diegetic concepts like genre, good play, or dramatic structure rather than to represent, even on an extremely abstract level, anything in the world. They are thus non-diegetic.

    I should acknowledge that something like metacurrency could be turned into a diegetic concept. If your characters in the game are explicitly doing things for an audience, either human ones or Greek Fates or gods, you could turn things that exist to enforce genre or reward interesting character choices into diegetic mechanics. Again, I don’t necessarily think this makes them better or worse. Just worth mentioning.

  • The “rare characters” from Whitehack. These are basically consolation prizes given to a player who lost a character. They don’t model any element of reality of the game world (a character’s death doesn’t make these characters more likely to become adventurers in the fiction), so they’re non-diegetic.

And there you have it! What I hope is a helpful summary of diegesis vs abstraction. I will add any counterpoints or questions to the end of this article with some discussion if anyone wants me to. Or you could add them yourself in comments!

1 comment on “What does diegesis have to do with games?

  1. Gonna start just requiring anybody (esp in the OSR) talking to me about “diegesis” to read this first.

    Like

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