Friday, September 28, 2012

Two Great Tastes – Narrative and Gameplay

Written by Dave Bowen

Since the dawn of time, mankind has shared stories. No matter the medium - music, plays, movies, photos, paintings or video games - stories have always been shared. Video games are an interactive art form that allows the viewer to take part in the unfolding story.

Although video games possess a unique way in which stories are relayed, some critics continue to complain the narrative should be placed on the back-burners while the focus should be placed more on the gameplay. During the 1980s and a part of the 1990s, the story was often placed in the background mainly as fill-in to give purpose to what was happening in the foreground. Some games such as Street Fighter II didn’t have a story while rarities like Ninja Gaiden had a full narrative. Times have changed. Strong narratives have taken a larger role in enticing the gamer and now a good game has to balance perfectly the story and the gameplay. But there are critics who see the narrative taking a larger role and complain that gameplay is the ultimate purpose. These critics fail to realize the simple fact that games attract a variety of gamers. 

In the gaming world, there are many types of gamers. Two of which I’ll mention here. There are gamers who play only for the sake of the gameplay. They enjoy mulitplayer games which enable them to play against tougher gamers on many levels. Another set of gamers are those whose only interest is high scores. These high-score gamers attempt to increase their online score by hunting for achievements. Some of them will rent a game for a few days just to unlock all of the achievements and then return the game soon after. To most of these players a heavy written story is an afterthought because they only want to, quite simply, play. 

Another draw of criticism towards story-driven games are cutscenes. Either they are too long and slow or simply not exciting enough. Originally, cutscenes were bridged between levels to advance the story while at the same time giving the gamer a break. David Jaffe (creator of God of War and Twisted Metal) is one of those critics against cutscenes. During the DICE Summit, Jaffe expressed that ‘storytelling is going too far for the game industry and it’s giving a negative effect. Studios tend to redistribute resources, time and money from the game design to other aspects such as cutscenes. They are two great tastes (storytelling and gaming) that don’t go together.’ Some fans of Metal Gear Solid praise storytelling no matter the length of the cutscene because they are pulled into the story. 

But not every game needs only a cutscene to tell the story. Some loading screens play motion-comic recaps or dialogue between characters to keep the story moving during the gameplay. Kane and Lynch always expressed their frustration for each other or their situation throughout the stages of the game. Gearbox Software stated that Borderlands 2 will have approximately three cutscenes in the beginning, middle and the end. The plot is still there but it unfolds naturally throughout the environment so gamers will continue to stay in the gameplay. Gearbox is doing this because they want the gameplay to be in the forefront. 

If David Jaffe is against a strong narrative in video games, David Cage (the writer/director behind Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain) is on the opposite side of that argument. As a matter of fact, Cage stated ‘the industry needs a military shooter which shows the complexity of war and the ugliness of war. The only way to express a war shooter on the caliber of Apocalypse Now or Platoon is through narrative.’ 

Sins of a Solar Empire contrasts the story-driven debate successfully. It is entirely focused on an arcade style of gameplay. It does have a back-story explaining the three different alien classes but the buck stops there. There is no story mode to choose. It just contains custom scenarios.

A happy medium of gameplay and story is what most studios try to accomplish. The industry recognizes the writers of games that push for a strong narrative - from Amy Henning who directed and wrote the Uncharted franchise and co-wrote the Legacy of Kain series to Hideo Kojima the father of the Metal Gear series. Narrative should be taken seriously and great gameplay will engage players. 


Great article. I loved the connection to early human history and story telling