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The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay
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The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay

January 26, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[Developer Ara Shirinian (NightSky, The Red Star) picks apart the gameplay/narrative question by examining how games handle cinematic interactivity, how movies handle fight sequences, and how XEODesign's Nicole Lazzaro's list of gameplay emotions apply to one medium and not the other.]

Video games are incredibly powerful and sophisticated. Despite all of its history and baggage (all those WWII rifles and Pokémon are no insignificant burden) the video game is arguably the singular unique medium that can be considered a container for all other media that came before it.

Consider that back in the '70s, video games were generally conveyances for electronic gameplay and little else. When you bought a game for your Atari 2600, it went without saying that what you got was a system of rules, a goal that challenged you (with rare exceptions), and an interface to play within.

Video games in 2009 still largely feature those same essential ingredients, but technological developments over the past four decades have allowed our games to contain myriad other methods of expression that most of us take for granted.

The changes have not been quantitative -- they are qualitative, and they have exploded the sense of what a video game can be so much that the original point of the "video game" may not even be applicable in many cases.

The games of the '70s could not adequately convey the expansiveness of the landscape unfolding before you in a DiRT 2 rally, the mystery of first setting foot in BioShock's ruined utopia, or the sheer Tolkein-esque volume of lore told through Oblivion's in-game books.

They couldn't express the aural subtleties of Batman: Arkham Asylum, the passive-aggressive manipulations of your host in Portal, or the seething tension between Snake and Ocelot in the Metal Gear Solid series.

In a quiet and unassuming way, for better or worse, the video game of today has evolved beyond just abstract gameplay and into a generalized entertainment medium that can contain imagery, audio, and text of almost any kind. Indeed, we have already surpassed the point where the quality and category of exposition is more limited by how we choose to allocate our resources and our ingenuity than it is by any hard technological constraint.

Strictly speaking, two forms of media that video games are best (and uniquely) suited to express are visual narratives (like film), and gameplay (which specifically is a subset of human-computer interaction). Now most people agree that film is better-suited to expressing straight narrative than a game is. But gameplay is a unique quality of video games, and video games are also quite well-suited to expressing narrative, technically speaking -- they have most all the capabilities that film does.

So video games are the only game in town if you want gameplay, and they are pretty darn good at expressing anything we have done in the medium of film. So it's not surprising that many of the brightest game developers have been trying their darnedest to combine them in elegant ways -- to unify the two media, if you will.

A few years ago there was an outburst of media exposure around the prospect of inducing players to cry. From Neil Young, then EA Los Angeles' General Manager, "One of the things that's really important for us is answering the question that our company was founded on: 'Can a computer game make you cry?' ... That's an answer, he said, [Steven] Spielberg can help EA answer."

Soon after, designer David Jaffe revealed that he was in fact working on the very same problem with one of his game concepts. "One of them is to be the most emotional video game ever made. The end goal is that players at the end of the game are actually choked up -- if not crying -- because we've done our job so well."

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Hideo Kojima, who has concentrated strongly on narrative with his Metal Gear Solid games, has also expressed a desire to integrate those elements into gameplay more effectively than what he and others have been able to accomplish:

"Halo, BioShock -- I see their approach and I think they are brilliant in some ways, but I still feel they still lack a kind of a deeper storyline, or the expression of the feelings of the characters. I do have plans of how I should approach this and get around it."

"In MGS4, yes, I put everything in the cut sequences, which I kind of regret to some extent, because maybe there is a new approach which I should think about. I'm always thinking about it -- making it interactive but at the same time telling the story part and the drama even more emotionally. I would like to take that approach, which I am still working on. "

On the face of it, it's a logical progression and combination. You just watch film. But you play games, and anything expressed in film can also be contained within a game, so the narrative that you actually get to play must be the next holy grail of gaming, right?

But why haven't we achieved that perfect synthesis of gameplay and narrative yet? Why have there always been compromises and stilted combinations of the two? Are we too naive, or just not smart enough as game developers to figure it out? Or is it something else?

To find out, first we have to evaluate what we have already accomplished in this arena, and then we have to look closely at each medium by itself, to see if there is anything that makes the combination a thornier concern than just whipping together peanut butter and chocolate.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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