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Gameplay versus Narrative

7/30/13 9:00am

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.

Spoilt for choice.

 

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.

Speaking of his head: The masks the protagonist wears during his killing sprees are vital to both gameplay and story.

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.

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