Leveraging Tooltips for Narrative Value

Posted On: 2020-10-19

By Mark

Most games contain some combination of button prompts and/or tooltips. Both are important tools for conveying information to players: button prompts tell the player what a particular input action performs*, whereas tooltips succinctly describe detailed information about game mechanics that a player might otherwise not know**. In many games, these are the primary tools for informing players about the game's systems - often the systems that the player will be making strategic choices using.

Emotional Prompts

As written content, both button prompts and tooltips provide narrative opportunities for creators. The word choice for a particular interaction can have significant emotional or tonal weight. I've seen several games that play around with this, evoking a wide range of emotions, from power-fantasy-embracing prompts like "Dominate"* to uncomfortable ones that make the player question their role in the world, like "Pillage"**.

While the use of emotionally resonant prompts do seem to be increasingly common, there are still plenty of games that instead use prompts exclusively to convey mechanical information to the player. Such games will often use well-established genre-appropriate verbs* to maximize player familiarity.

This mix is, I think, quite a good thing. Familiar prompts allow the designers to simplify learning the game, thereby allowing the emotional focus to be elsewhere. Conversely, unfamiliar prompts are (I think) common enough now that players are likely to have been exposed to them previously. As players become familiar with reading prompts, not just as information dumps but as cues for their emotional engagement with the work, new opportunities open up for designers to do more subtle things with the prompts*.

Dispassionate Tooltips

Tooltips, unlike prompts, tend to need to convey a lot of precise information. It is common for players to see the exact numbers in tooltips, and, due to the amount and precision of the information, narrative flourishes in tooltips are rare. From what I've seen, tooltips tend to follow the conventions of narrative use found in physical games*: the object or interaction being described displays its name, which is typically where the bulk of any narrative content in a tooltip resides. Additionally, some tooltips may also have flavor text at the bottom, which conveys additional narrative value for players that read to the end. The actual mechanical description, however, is purely descriptive: not a hint of narrative value to be found there.

There are certain benefits to this approach, to be sure. Names benefit from being more memorable than precise, making them excellent candidates for having clever or interesting narrative flourishes. Descriptions, by contrast, tend to be detailed, precise, and strategically relevant. A player reading a description is often planning or otherwise making a considered decision - and, as such, is too preoccupied to care about the narrative impact of the object/interaction in question. Finally, due to the information density on many tooltips, it is often necessary to abbreviate or truncate information*. Lastly, players often need to revisit past tooltips, such as when comparing the mechanical attributes of a new piece of equipment versus an old one.

Before diving into why I think this limited approach is a problem, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how things can go very wrong by adding narrative fluff here. As mentioned before, brief, clear descriptions are key, and thus, every additional word comes with a cost. When choosing between a more flavorful description (such as "Impale the foe for 50 damage") vs a concise description (such as "deal 50 damage"), players will generally benefit more from the concise description, as it makes comparisons and re-reading much easier. So far, the only time I've seen narrative flourishes in tooltips, it's been overly wordy, and generally detrimental for players*.

Speaking through Tooltips

Tooltips, for all their mechanical value, also have an amazing amount of as-yet unexplored narrative potential. As a quick example of this, I have only ever seen games that use an omniscient voice for tooltips. Players are never prompted to wonder, "who is telling me this?", yet, as we've seen from the use of narrator voice in written works, there is amazing potential waiting to be tapped here. The most obvious example, of course, is the unreliable narrator, but many of our modern literary staples (such as third-person limited perspective) require that readership understand that narration belongs to someone - and is not simply some omniscient voice in a vacuum. If players similarly understood that tooltips were couched in a character voice (whether an in-game character or a distinct narrator character), I expect that would open up all kinds of new narrative opportunities.

Voice isn't the only place where tooltips can be augmented with narrative value. When working in a repeating pattern, or when working with a very concise format, the deliberate addition of even a single word can draw a reader's attention. In the context of game tooltips, designers/writers can deliberately subvert informational patterns within tooltips to convey information about the game's narrative to the player. Doing so is actually not as far out there as it might immediately seem: designers already leverage pattern deviations to communicate incomparable mechanical elements*. They could just as easily use that approach to express something about the core game's theme to the player**.


In summary, button prompts are being used in some games to enrich the narrative and emotive experience of players. In so doing, they are opening the door to even more interesting things that can be done with them. Tooltips, on the other hand, are currently limited in how they enhance narrative. Beyond clever names and flavor text, there are plenty more opportunities to use tooltips in interesting ways. I am hopeful that more games do so, as there are even more ambitious and interesting opportunities available, but only if players are already accustomed to searching tooltips for narrative cues.