Back in the 1980s, video games were all about gameplay. Sure, you were almost always out to save the princess, the world or some other idealized entity, but that was never at the core. As video games have evolved, some developers are trying to make a drastic switch by reversing the model. Story first is the mantra for titles like Heavy Rain, where we might as well be looking forward to an interactive movie. Which camp has the right idea here? Or, perhaps more importantly, what is the best ratio between gameplay and story in the video game industry today?
The gameplay above all else approach is beginning to feel passe right about now. Sure, we care about the challenge required by exceptional game design, but we have seen it all before. Innovation seems to be almost impossible. Instead, quality is judged based on the execution of conventions that have already been done. That is not enough to garner the attention of serious gamers. The action will be fun for a while, but there won’t be enough novelty to keep us involved for an extended period of time.
Narrative driven approaches give us a completely different set of problems. We are constantly rewarded for our play by character and plot developments, but can often get so bogged down in exposition that we lose the sense of fun that we want whenever we play a game. Immersion is a wonderful thing as long as we are enjoying ourselves while being immersed. It can be altogether too easy to get lost, in a bad way, in a plot driven title. Furthermore, there is a certain lack of replay value in a game that is heavily reliant on story. After all, once you have witnessed the plot, what is the point of going through it again?
When it’s just about storyline, what’s the fun in playing a game like Heavy Rain twice?
The obvious solution is balance. A successful game will balance story and gameplay in an even ratio that keeps users constantly on their toes while regularly rewarding them with clever movement in the narrative. Sounds easy, right? Stepping back a bit, it becomes clear that balance is not a simple cure-all. It leaves us with the same pitfalls that are faced by each avenue. This occurs because the gameplay and story are still completely separate, and thus inclined to show their individual weaknesses. No, balance is not the solution. Integration is.
A perfect game to view the potential results of integration is the Madden NFL series. The title used to feature gameplay exclusive design. In recent years, however, we have seen the implementation of Franchise and Be a Pro modes that have attempted to add story elements to the fray. The flaws appear when you get into the actual games and none of the story elements really overflow in a meaningful way. Likewise, there have been countless flaws in having the on-field action meaningfully change your story. Sure, you can compile statistics, but what really dictates your player’s personality? What determines the relationship between your team and the city it represents? All of these factors cannot be communicated when the game splits gameplay and story elements up. They need to be integrated.
Madden as the potential pinnacle of integration? Why not?
How much would our experience with Madden, or any other sports title for that matter, change if the athletes we played as acted as characters? What if a quarterback in a huddle had dialogue options to interact with his teammates? What if your GM could make statements in a press conference to explain a controversial trade to a rabid fanbase? Suddenly that front office mood has implications beyond the numbers. Players will have personality again. Teams and seasons will develop personalities making each game unique. We would have all of the thrills that really make us care about spectator sports. Meaningful integration of story and gameplay elements would hide the various weaknesses that each aspect of game development faces.
This issue of integration sounds good, but how can it really be executed in a game? We have seen many attempts over the years to make gameplay more cinematic, but they have all come with their own set of flaws. One model, which can be seen clearly in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, asks users to respond to button prompts as they appear on the screen during a pre-rendered animation. On the surface, this would make sense. In application, it falls short. You end up focusing so much on the button mashing that you miss the story/cinema going on during the fight. As such, there really is not any integration. This model has worked better in the past, but you have to switch genres to find a more successful model. In Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, users are placed into scenes that turn on one pivotal button press. There is not any mashing, and the pacing allows you to focus on the story instead of the button you will have to press next. But this model errs in the opposite direction, making the gameplay feel tacked on and trivial. Balancing the ratio in circumstances like this could work, as the integration is already present.
Gameplay and storyline having an effect on one another, and this scantily clad wolf lady.
The best of integration comes from Bioware. In a nutshell, the developer has taken the storytelling of Japanese RPGs and molded it with the action of Western RPGs. That leaves us with titles where gameplay has a genuine affect on story. A character with good strength statistics is not only capable of bashing in heads, but intimidation. This suddenly changes dialogue options, the responses of party members and subsequently alters the way the plot unfolds. This natural progression leads to a feeling that everything you do in the game matters. That feeling comes out with great strength in Bioware’s most recent title, Dragon Age: Origins. While trying to fend off the Darkspawn threat, countless decisions must be made. In the end, the various consequences add up to affect the game’s end sequence. Bioware could have just balanced out gameplay with story progression through cutscenes and dungeon crawls, but that would have lowered the value of each separate part. By integrating the two, everything seems to matter more.
The right relationship between story and gameplay in contemporary video games can be found through integration. That may be bad news for developers, as true integration between narrative and actual play time is tricky business. Video games that go too far into story risk losing fun factor and replay value, while gameplay-centric titles lose the ability to grab and reward users in a genuinely meaningful way. The key to proper integration of game and story is to mold the two key elements into one, thus masking the weaknesses that each holds when it stands alone.