Gameplay versus Narrative
If you haven't been living under a rock on the dark side of the moon for the last couple of weeks you're probably aware of the balance between gameplay and narrative being a pretty popular topic to discuss recently. I'm referring, of course, to BizarroZoraK's "Games are not 'games' anymore", Darkseid2's response to said article and the most recent "Video Game Storytelling" by The Guardian Collective. I'm not going to discuss where I agree with them and where I don't. They make some good points and you should check them out if you haven't already. While what they've said and written has a decent amount of thought behind it, it's what they didn't seem to think of that made me sit down and translate my notes on the subject into an intelligible format.
Try to find the mistake in the following line:
Gameplay versus Narrative
If you guessed "versus", good job; if you didn't, try again.
My fellow g1s pit gameplay and narrative against one another, going on about how one is sacrificed for the other. I don't want to call them "bloody mental", which is the only reason I'm not going to (it's a joke, no offense). Gameplay and narrative are not mutually exclusive. In fact, gameplay is the best narrative there is. If to you that sounds like saying "the best kind of dogs are cats", allow me to clarify.
Darkseid2 already talked about how being able to make decisions is an aspect in which videogames are special compared to other media, and did a decent job at it, so I won't be going on about the basics. Decisions in most games aren't all that well executed, though. The most popular lame decision series is Mass Effect (The Walking Dead is similar in that regard, but for the most part does it way better). If you break the dialogue system right down to it, you'll notice that they don't actually require all that much input by the player. Most of the time you just say the same thing in a different way. Even in life or death situations, you rarely actually DO anything yourself; you're basically selecting a chapter in a DVD menu rather than playing a game.
I'm about to risk my credibility here, but bear with me:
Shadow the Hedgehog, a game I generally like for this reason (and also because I don't suck at it, unlike the haters), does decisions better than most other games. What I enjoy about it is that it's not just a case of pick-a-cutscene; your decision isn't just a branch in a dialogue tree. You decide through action, not words. In Shadow the Hedgehog, most missions, be they Hero, Dark, or neutral, can be completed regardless of whether you're attacking G.U.N.(the human military), Black Arms (the aliens), both, or neither. It offers different objectives and outcomes, but it doesn't force you to play by the rules, which is exactly the kind of freedom a game about choice should give you. Sure, you get a lower score when going for a good guy kills everybody run, but gameplay and story-wise that's not actual punishment.
The same goes for games like Fallout 3 and New Vegas, as well as the The Elder Scrolls series and most old school RPGs. I could have picked any of them, but they would have been too obvious. I'm going to keep using Mass Effect as the not-so-fun-decisions example, even though I absolutely loved 2 and 3. If you tell someone in ME that you won't fight them, that's it, conflict resolved. If you tell someone the same thing in Fallout you can stuff a primed mine down their pants the moment they turn around WITHOUT it being a character-specific scripted (i.e. not player created) press-RT-to-douchebag QTE. This is REAL decision making.
Of course, most games can't allow you to kill any random character just because, nor can they let you join the bad guys. In fact, most games can't allow you to make any changes to the course of the plot. Does that mean the principle of mixing gameplay with narrative only applies to a fraction of storytelling games? I wouldn't have phrased it this way if it did. While a story told through gameplay only is a rare sight (there's Limbo, but that's the only one I can think of), there's already plenty of games that managed to translate narrative into gameplay, requiring only little help from more traditional storytelling tools like dialogue and cinematics.
Let's take a look at one of my most recent favorites: Hotline Miami by Dennaton Games. If you for some reason still haven't played Hotline Miami, watch the video below to get an idea of what it's like.
The unnamed protagonist is repeatedly being instructed to assault the Russian mob. Now picture one cocaine-fueled crazy person going up against multiple armed criminals at a time. How is someone gone berserk going to proceed? He's going to burst through the front door and won't stop killing until there's no one left to kill, which is exactly the way the game plays.
What's going on in his head? It can best be described as 'nothing and everything'. He's fully aware of everything around him at all times, but nothing beyond that (he doesn't even know why he's killing these people). This is nicely reflected by the top-down perspective and the lack of visuals outside of the walls.
Once the mission is completed, you have to go back to your car instead of being teleported to the results screen right away. This is another great component of the game's narrative: The killing has stopped, the pumping music has changed to a mind numbing hum (it actually can cause headaches when listening to the whole thing). You have no reason to stay, you're done, and there's no one with enough limbs attached to them left to stop you from just leaving. But if you take a moment to look around, you're in for a shock: While going through the level you're only ever aware of the next guy you want dead, you barely even notice him die as you kick the next victim's face against the wall because you really need that shotgun. Only on your way out, when nothing is distracting you, you'll really become aware of what you did.
Dozens of bodies, blood everywhere, guts, splattered brains and it was you who killed them all; and for what? Revenge? Money? Fun? Do you even care? Now you're being confronted with every life you took.
This isn't just a pile of prerendered corpses some guy on the screen is whining about during a cutscene, it's an organically created (through gameplay mechanics), player specific guilt trip. Which is exactly what the protagonist feels after every assault, and yet he keeps doing it, and so do you. Everything beyond that would be a spoiler for what is both an excellent game and a fantastic experience, so play it for yourself to enjoy the full narrative.
There's plenty of other examples where setting, character (and the development of the same) and other subtle, yet vital storytelling elements are expressed through gameplay, here's just a few:
The reason you're trying to be as discrete as possible when carrying out a mission in the Hitman series is because you get paid more that way; which is exactly what hitmen are in it for. Narrative can be this simple while still engaging.
Aside from the loneliness theme that connects the Metroid games, there's one of Samus's less obvious characteristics reflected in the series's gameplay. There aren't all that many instant deaths (there are in Hunters and Other M, but they're exceptions to the rule), especially in the Prime trilogy. Instead of being spectacularly one-shot blown into pieces, Samus is slowly being worn down, with the eponymous life-leeching Metroids being probably the most iconic slow killers in gaming. Having enemies and the environment continuously chip away at Samus's energy nicely shows the contrast between her seemingly unstoppable power and her limits as a human being; Rocksteady tried to do the same in the (amazing) Batman Arkham series, but Nintendo knew how to do it without cutscenes.
You won't beat Pikmin if you panic because of your time-limited life support. Just like Olimar, you have to keep a clear head and use the time you have as efficiently as possible to make it out of there alive. (For anyone who was wondering why I love Pikmin 1 and hate Pikmin 2, that's why)
The list of games that nail video game narrative by reflecting theme in gameplay goes on and on. I actually edited out a section on Spec Ops: The Line completely, simply because one could easily write an entire essay on it. One or two paragraphs couldn't do it justice. It's really good at what it was meant to do, so if you haven't played it, don't let its generic appearance fool you.
If you want some price efficient gameplay+narrative greatness, I recommend Tomorrow Corporation's Little Inferno. It's one of the most games-are-art-games I have ever played, so it may not be for everyone. Still, do not read about this game and do not watch a LP; you will ruin an amazing, thought provoking, maybe even life-changing experience. Another game for you to try is Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell. You'll find a brilliant mix of character development (very important to narrative) and gameplay mechanics that you'll never forget.
Neither gameplay nor narrative has to be sacrificed for the other. However, this doesn't stop many developers from doing so. While the occasional exposition may have to be presented in a more traditional format, video game narrative does not stop when you pick up the controller, nor does silence mean the story isn't progressing. A well made game continues to tell the story through every shot you fire, every hit you take and every room you enter, long after the last cutscene has played. It finds subtle ways of making everything feel in place.
I'm sure that, if you now think about some of your favorite games, you'll be able to find that they have been telling you all kinds of stories -about the characters, about their struggles, about their goals and ambitions- through gameplay.
Now go out there and listen.
Great blog man! This was what I was trying to do in my whole art video game thing, but I argued it horribly. This was really good! Keep up the good work!
Yeah it is odd that so many people recently have been criticizing how story and gameplay contradict each other, but rarely in how they complement each other. Its uncommon that these things they talk about really get in the way of the enjoyment or experience of agame, at least for me.
And you got guts for bringing up Shadow the Hedgehog in a positive light, which I too like even if tis a very flawed game.
Talking doesn't fall under the category of gameplay, but yes, fighting styles usually match the personality and backstory of a character. Or maybe it's the other way around, I don't know how fighting games are made.
I know, but if you don't get in that plane you'll regret it.
I honestly never had any problems with it. So, skill, I guess.
Shadow the Hedgehog is still a rather broken and sloppy game. You can work around a broken system, but is that really skill, or simple devotion? And no, they're not the same thing.
Excellent article. I especially love your analysis of Hotline Miami and how you described its narrative as "organically created" through its gameplay. I purchased the game during the Steam summer sale, after I posted my own blog, and I'm addicted to it for reasons I never expected to be. Being a primarily gameplay-focused gamer, I more often find myself focusing on how to approach each level in different ways and how to rack up high scores/grades in each level. However, I've also started paying a greater deal of attention to its story and character elements on subsequent playthroughs. I agree that this game does a wonderful job of investing the player in its world without having to use traditional storytelling techniques, as evidenced by the wide variety of interpretations of the game's often vague atmosphere and narrative that have been expressed by many players.
My problem, though, is that such a well-executed cohesion between gameplay and narrative seems to be too rare of an achievement. Games like Hotline Miami and Little Inferno that actually play to the medium's strengths don't come along very often, and such examples almost never appear in the big-budget AAA realm.
I will admit that gameplay doesn't have to be sacrificed to accommodate the story, but I still think some developers put so much care into the narrative without giving proper consideration into the game aspect, often leading to lackluster game design. Maybe I'm being too demanding, and maybe I should branch out more with my game selection, but if developers/publishers are going to charge upwards of $60 for a game, they had better deliver an actual game.
Again, great read!
You hit it right on the head. Great read. Yes, Story and Gameplay go hand and hand. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that. The game has to be interesting very step of the way, make it meaningful.
Mass Effect (the first one anyway, I can't remember if that was the case with the others ) does sometimes allow you to say one thing and do something else. On the mission with the Rachnia, you can say you're going to help the woman who was a spy but then turn around an betray her. And on the mission with the colony being turned into zombies, you can say that you will save the colonists with the antidote grenade but decide to shoot them all. Could've done it more though. And though I like both narrative and gameplay, I think too much freedom doesn't offer much. My point, Skyrim. Has a lot of freedom of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, but when I completed the missions I really didn't care. And this is when I was in character, when I made a backstory, personality, etc. And there were times when people would not oppose you based on the decisions you did. Like with the thieves guild when you had to help that one important woman out (I think the one that controlled the town) you couldn't tell her to go screw herself nor could you kill her after talking with her. I tried, and she got right back up. Or when you decide to not give the skeleton key back and after you steal if from the guy who took it. And you can run around and use it and no one will come after you. The quest just remains incomplete until you return it. Even games like that have scripted moments. That's why a balance of linearity and agency is needed rather than one or the other or too much of one and not enough of the other.
You just got a subscriber. Wonderful article.
The reason narrative vs gameplay is even a thing is because game narratives are often written as linear stories, having a beginning and an end. Even in games with multiple endings, those are often decided upon by arbitrary choice moments or completely abstract morality point systems. The endings themselves are pre recorded. Whatever piece of gameplay control I had in between is lost in the big picture because variations in behavior isn't acknowledged in what the game makes clear to be the official story.
The narratives games can tell really well are those that rely on agency, that rely on the player being able to look at things from different angles precicely because of their involvement.
You should try The Pandora Directive, the most beloved game in the Tex Murphy franchise. It has 3 moral paths that can lead to 7 different endings. While the dialogue choices are the heaviest influence on which path you end up on, there are other opportunities to score good and evil points. When you find your jerk landlord's wallet, you can return it to him and get a hollow "thanks" cut scene, or hang onto it until you progress far enough into the game that it just suddenly disappears from your inventory and merges with your cash. What's really great is how stark a contrast the cut scenes are if you're on the evil path.
Extremely well written! Well done :)
Shadow the Hedgehog is an inconsistency-fest, but my point still stands. As I said, I could have picked games that executed organic decision making much better(mostly Bethesda ones); I just felt like throwing a shocker out there.
Hotline Miami is, like any piece of art, open to interpretation. I actually do agree with most of what you wrote. I agree because it's exactly what I'm talking about: The initial lack of reason behind the assaults, the unsatisfying resolution(which I didn't want to spoil), all those things(and a couple more) are exactly what the game is about(i.e. what it wants to tell us, which, when latinized, equals narrative). Basically what I'm saying is, you can't write "I don't use words" without using words.
I very much enjoy seeing people think about what I wrote, especially when they put a lot of thought into disagreeing with me. We should get one or two more people and disagree more often, could make for a fun high-brow game analysis series. I'd be up for it.
I love you
Shadow the Hedgehog reaaaaaaly hurts your argument. I do actually like that game, but the multiple path system in it is poorly thought out. Just going straight neutral really shows this, with the cutscenes connecting the levels don't properly flow, like Shadow suddenly working with Black Doom when he wasn't before.
Also, Hotline Miami is also the worst example you could pick because the game outright dismisses narrative as justification for gameplay. It gets highlighted when you become Helmet, who represents the player who wants narrative context for the gameplay and his actions, because he actually cares about who he's killing and wants to know why everything that's happening is happening.
The end of Hotline Miami is basically the developers saying that nothing really mattered besides you having fun with the mechanics, while the secret ending that promised narrative justification was just a generic "we want to take over the world" plot and Helmet, representing a player that wishes for narrative, pretty much says that they "wasted his time."
There's not really a narrative to Hotline Miami, or at least one that cares about itself. It's designed to be purely mechanics while denouncing any idea of a game having a narrative to justify those mechanics, which is a faulty argument (see Spec Ops: The Line and various meaning heavy indie games). It's a better example of choice in gameplay, not narrative. It sits squarely on the gameplay side of the "Gameplay Versus Narrative" argument.
That... that was beautiful, man. I'm dead serious right now. This is one of the most well thought out article I have read on the site, so far. Another prime example of game-play and narrative working together, is the BlazBlue series. You can feel what kind of person each character in the cast is like through their fighting style, the way they talk, character development in the story mode of each entry, relations or struggles each character is going through, the grudges all of them have (i.e Ragna wanting revenge against Hazama for what he did to him, Jin and Saya when they were young.) and even the theme songs know what kind of personality and perspective each character has. It's things like these are what make a series very enjoyable, memorable, and all around fun to experience.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. On the second Raxus Prime level, you have to go through to most annoying boss battle in the game, if you don't know what you're doing. But by the end, you've pulled a Star Destroyer out of the sky and sent it on a collision course with a giant cannon. It's almost like Starkiller, and by extension you, has perfected his mastery of the Force.
Or how with King of Fighters you can just feel the kind of person they are by the way they talk and fight?