Hey everybody! A few weeks ago, I wrote about a bunch of different types of players, who all enjoy games for different reasons. There are so many enjoyable aspects about games that it is possible for two players to enjoy the exact same game for very different reasons. Today, I am going to look a little closer at just one of those distinctions – the conflict between narrative and gameplay in games.
When discussing games with other people, this is one conversation that always seems to get brought up. Some players look down on companies like Nintendo because their games tend to lack storytelling elements such as characters and plot. Other players can find heavily narrative-driven games to be boring and stale unless they have a strong gameplay component.
Today, I am going to look at this argument and try to answer the following questions- why does there seem to be such a conflict between gameplay and storytelling in games? And why is it so rare to find a game that excels at both? Do these two aspects have to be at odds with eachother, or is there a way to make them work together?
Top Down or Bottom Up
Every game begins with an idea. Before the coding, concept art, level design or character development, every game started out as a concept in some designers head. That concept will inevitable grow and evolve as the game is further developed, and the final project may end up being so different from the original concept that it is completely unrecognizable. However, it always has to begin somewhere.
For games, there are two main places that a concept can come from. The game can be build “bottom up”, which means that it is based off of some idea for a game mechanic, or it can start as a “top down” game, which means that it starts with some story idea. Both of these methods are perfectly valid, and both can result in great games. However, they do tend to result in very different kinds of games.
When a game is designed bottom up, the mechanics become the center of the game. While creative aspects such as characters and stories can be added later, the driving force for the game is the underlying mechanics – that is to say, the gameplay itself. Nintendo is the perfect example of a bottom-up game developer – each of their games has a very specific core mechanic at it’s heart, and everything else grows out of this center.
Legend of Zelda, for example, grew out of Shigeru Miyamoto wanting to recreate the experience of exploring the caves and lakes outside of his childhood home. This idea of exploration became the mechanical heart of the game – the player would be able to go anywhere and complete the game in any order, with little to no guidance. The game began with this single mechanical idea, and everything else – the Triforce, Ganon, sleeping Princess Zelda – was added later.
Another example is the Pokemon series. The idea for this game came from Satoshi Tajiri’s bug collecting hobby, which he wanted to recreate as a game. This later got expanded to involve collecting all different sorts of creatures, as well as making them battle, and eventually expanded into the multi-billion dollar juggernaut franchise that it is today.
Nintendo is definitely not the only company that makes bottom-up games, however. Many puzzle type games, such as Portal, are also clearly based around a single mechanical element. And like Portal, some of these games can have strong narrative elements layered on top of these mechanical ideas. Other games, like Tetris or Minecraft, are almost purely mechanical, with little to no narrative elements.
For the purposes of this article, when I refer to “toys” I am referring to these types of games. I call them toys not because I consider them to be childish or immature, but because the emphasis is on the gameplay itself. Mario has never been known for its engaging narratives or its rich, fleshed out characters. In fact, the narrative for each game is all pretty much the same – princess gets captured by giant turtle, Mario must jump a lot to get her back.
However, despite this extremely limited story, the Mario franchise has become probably the most well known gaming franchise in the world. Why? Because those games are fun as heck. What they lack in narrative they make up for in stellar gameplay that engages the player from beginning to end.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have games that begin with a storytelling concept. These are games where the core of the game is the storytelling experience that is being shared with the player, not the gameplay itself. These games can begin with a character idea, a setting, a plot idea, or even simply a narrative theme that they want to explore. This core element is then further fleshed out over time, and the gameplay elements get layered on top.
When I refer to “movies”, these are the types of games that I am referring to. To varying degrees, these games are just that – interactive film experiences that the player passively experiences. That is not to say that they are not still games – they are, and the player still has some level of control over the experience, but these games tend to be somewhat more tailored and less free than the “toys”. While a toy presents the player with a series of mechanics and allows them to do whatever they want with them, a movie is all about getting the player to experience the story that was created for them.
Some companies have built their entire reputations on making movies, such as Naughty Dog and Telltale Games. Games like Uncharted allow players to feel like they are inside an Indiana Jones film, while The Walking Dead is all about giving players the experience of being a part of the original Walking Dead comics. And you can bet that when Ubisoft makes a new Assassin’s Creed game, the first question they ask is “what historical period are we going to let players explore this time?”
Telltale – creating the illusion of choice since 2005
Although I am calling these games movies, that doesn’t mean that I think that they could easily be turned into movies without changing things. Video games have a number of features that make them a very unique storytelling tool, that simply cannot be recreated in by a film.
For one thing, even in games that have very little player interaction, playing a game is not a passive experience. When playing a game, players become connected to the characters in a different way than when the watch a film. When something happens to a character in a film, the audience can empathize with the characters. They can laugh, cry or get scared based on what is happening to the characters.
However, that isn’t the same as the feeling you get when something happens to your character in a game. In a game, you aren’t just watching the character – you ARE the character. Everything that happens to it is happening to you. A great narrative game has the power to draw you in and make you feel more connected to the characters and world of the game than any movie can.
Games also tend to take much longer to complete than a movie, or even several movies. Some games take as long as several seasons of television, which means that they type of story that can be told is very different than in a film. It is also different than a television series in the sense that the narrative is told as one cohesive unit, whereas television tends to be written piece-by-piece.
The final benefit that games have in terms of storytelling is that they can tell the story through the environment, which is not really something that can be recreated in other forms of media. Games like The Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls do a great job of filling their worlds with small, optional details that help fill out the larger story of the world in little ways. These games force the player to explore the world and discover its history and lore for themselves piece by piece. This makes the games feel more real and alive in a way that no other narrative medium can come close to.
Fun Fact: The details in this frame have more history than most small cities
Why not Both?
Both movies and toys can make great games, but it is extremely rare to find a game where both the narrative and the gameplay are really good. Those games that are able to achieve this feat, such as Bioshock, Final Fantasy VII, and Shadow of the Colossus, stand the test of time as some of the best in the medium. But is there a reason why these types of games are so uncommon?
Pictured: What happens when you mix chocolate and peanut butter
I believe that there is. While it is clearly not impossible to make a game where both the gameplay and the story can shine through, I do think there is some tension inherent tension between the two. A focus on gameplay mechanics inherently encourage the player to explore, test the limits, and try new things within the game. On the other hand, narrative focused games inherently come with certain constraints – the player cannot do whatever they want, because that could disrupt the story.
Would adding stronger narrative elements make Mario a better game? Personally, I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I think that one of the most wonderful things about this franchise is that it absolutely does not have to make sense. Why does grabbing a feather give Mario a cape that lets him fly? Why does holding a shell in Yoshi’s mouth give him special powers? Why does throwing your hat on a frog let you take over it’s mind? Who knows?! And frankly, who cares? These games are completely unencumbered by the constraints of having to construct a logical narrative, and I think they are better off for it.
At the same time, players are willing to accept certain restrictions for the sake of a good plot. Narratives by necessity must be told in a particular order, and there is nothing wrong with a game forcing players to walk a very narrow path through the game. Some games do it better than others – it seems like a very common trope to simply add mediocre first-person shooting elements to these types of games to pad out gameplay – but as long as the actual game is fun, I don’t mind moving linearly through the story if I have to.
All in all, I don’t think that having great gameplay necessarily precludes having a strong story, or verse-vica. However, I do think that there is some tension between the two, and achieving both can be a very impressive feat. Luckily, I don’t think that both are necessary for a game to be enjoyable or successful. Different types of players prefer different types of games, and both toys and movies have their place.
Until Next Week!
That’s all I have for this week! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about the article in the comments below or on social media. Do you agree that there is some tension between gameplay and story, or do you think developers should try harder to combine the two? And which do you prefer – narrative games, or gameplay focused? If you liked the article and want to see more in the future, be sure to subscribe to the blog on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post something new. And join me next week, where I will be taking on Mark Rosewater’s challenge and finding my own definition of games!