Alright, I know I’m going to catch a lot of heat for this, but I encourage you to stick with me. To set the stage, I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s during an era when video games did have stories, but they weren’t usually placed in the forefront. Because of this, I grew accustomed to being focused on a games’ mechanics and gameplay instead of its narrative. I would often find myself getting frustrated when I’d play something with unskippable cutscenes. 12-year-old me could not care less about a game’s story. I just wanted to play! To me, it doesn’t matter why a character does what he/she does; the main goal was to simply have fun.
During this piece, I will use the terms ‘plot’, ‘story’, and ‘narrative’ interchangeably. They may have subtle differences in meaning, but for the purposes of this piece, they will all refer to the events that unfold outside of the gameplay; the driving force and motivations of the characters.
That being said, I do enjoy a good story. Some of my favorite movies are ones that are notorious for their captivating stories and writing like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, or Django. Films like Dark Knight or Memento also stand out to me because of the unorthodox cinematography and superb pacing. The reason I bring this up is because I want to squash any theories that I wouldn’t know a good story if it jumped out and bit me on the face.
Video games are different, though, because YOU are in control of the pacing and the cinematography. Even if the core plot is objectively “good”, the telling of that narrative can be ruined by a series of awkwardly arranged gameplay sections. There are almost endless possible outcomes that would result in an otherwise solid story being ruined because of the design or player input.
And we can’t necessarily blame the player for this. If someone isn’t experienced with a game’s mechanics or just isn’t grasping what to do, the developers can’t get mad at this person. But, nonetheless, the story may suffer because of how the game is being played.
Unfortunately, unless the developers limit the control of the player, it’s extremely difficult to avoid this. At that point, you may run into an issue of the game having a good story, but not being fun to play. In that case, even if the story is solid, players may not even see it through the end because it’s not enjoyable to play.
That’s kind of how I feel about Gone Home, Fullbright’s debut game. If you aren’t aware, Gone Home is one of the most impactful games in the industry, due to the themes explored throughout its hour and a half journey. Despite the impact of its narrative, I found the mechanics to be boring and somewhat of a chore to get through, because narrative was the main focus here. Even on my second playthrough to get all the trophies (Y U NO HAVE PLATINUM???), I still felt like it was a chore getting through this, despite knowing where to go.
Now, this isn’t always the case. But my point is that the dichotomy of having mechanically sound gameplay and an engaging, thoughtful story is difficult to create. Let me preface that by saying that the delivery of a story is just as important as the story itself.
Let’s take something like Batman: Arkham Knight, a game with a somewhat mixed reception. Fans loved the detail of the world, voice acting, and combat, all of which I agree with. All Batmobile combat aside, my biggest gripe is that by the time I reached the ending, I hardly cared about the mystery of who the Arkham Knight was because I had meticulously scoured the map for side quests and collectibles. In fact, those side stories were much more impactful because they could be finished in one small chunk, leaving the story to resonate with me more. Should I be punished because I didn’t exclusively plow through the mainline story? Luckily, I have trained myself to not let the pacing of a story ruin an otherwise fun experience for me. And for the record, I love Arkham Knight, despite that switcharoo at the end being a letdown.
But maybe that’s a weird example; what about one of the most beloved video game stories of all time, The Last of Us? This one is tough, because the narrative had me captivated enough to actually care about the characters. The writing is believable, Ellie is relatable and funny, and it has a genuinely captivating plot that I found alluring. Even more thought-provoking is the fact that, despite how engaged I was with the story, the gameplay still took precedent for me.
Going around stealthily avoiding Clickers or scrounging around for resources while trying to preserve ammo are the moments that stand out to me. I’m willing to say that The Last of Us has one of my favorite video game stories of all time, and yet, I can barely remember the plot compared to the gameplay. If memory serves, I think you spend around 65-70% of the game actually playing, while the rest is watching cutscenes. I think that’s a powerful realization; the fact that even best case scenario, my favorite video game story still doesn’t hold a candle to the gameplay.
Is that a testament to how top-notch the mechanics are, or a nock against the story? Well, perhaps it’s a combination of both. Maybe video game stories will never be as captivating as ones told in movies, because of the way they need to be produced. To a filmmaker, it’s easy to be in control of the whole experience, as opposed to video games, in which the audience has a lot of control. Additionally, the integration between gameplay and narrative is often disjointed.
It seems like in many cases, there is a formula: A gameplay section and then a cutscene, and then another gameplay section, and then another cutscene, and so on. Because of the abrupt change of pace from gameplay to cinematic, I’m always made aware that I’m playing a video game. As someone who primarily values mechanics, this isn’t much of an issue for me, but to those who genuinely care about the narrative, this must be jarring.
There are some video game experiences that more closely knit together narrative with gameplay; Games like South Park: The Fractured, But Whole certainly do a better job of this by extrapolating on the idea of turn-based combat. In most turn-based RPGs, it’s sort of arbitrary to let your opponent take their turn and cause damage, even if it makes for fun gameplay. But because the boys of South Park are playing superheroes, it makes sense that their imaginations are running wild and that they’d take turns hitting one another. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy turn-based RPGs, but it definitely makes me aware that I’m playing a game when there isn’t a story-beat explaining why they’re taking turns. In fact, one could argue that most games feature little arbitrary elements that make us aware we’re playing a game. And that’s exactly my point; because I’m almost always aware I’m playing a game, it’s hard for me to feel immersed enough to get invested into the story, especially if there are no reasons for the game mechanics to be certain ways.
Similarly, in reference to the upcoming From Software game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, director Hidetaka Miyazaki gave us an interesting piece of information about the death mechanics. He revealed that resurrection would be a common occurrence and that there would a narrative reason for it. While, I wholeheartedly believe that Sekiro will be just as systems-based as its predecessors, at least in some capacity, it’s nice to know that the upcoming title will be more narrative-focused.
If a developer wants me to care about the plot, they’re tasked with the massive undertaking of linking gameplay and story in a meaningful way; Otherwise, I will always prioritize the gameplay. After thinking about this topic for quite some time, I wonder if we will ever see a time when video game stories will be on par with film. I think because of the nature of the medium, it’s just hard to do, from a developmental standpoint.
But this is just the opinion of one man on the internet and I am open to counterpoints. I don’t want this to turn into a story of me being accused of saying Gone Home sucks, or that South Park has a better story than The Last of Us. This is meant to initiate thoughtful discussion about what developers could do to tell tales as good as film does, while still keeping the gameplay fun. Don’t @ me. Unless you’re kind.