Story versus Gameplay
A good story is one of the biggest marketing point of almost every video game, second only to pretty graphics. Consider how the majority of video game commercials advertise graphics and story while avoiding showing actual gameplay. There’s even a trend among First-Person-Shooters such as Halo and Call of Duty to use live-action trailers. Gameplay is by far the most important aspect of any game, yet it was seldom shown in the massive marketing campaigns of Mass Effect 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV. There’s a number of video games in which the story and the gameplay are at odds with each other. I previously argued that the trend of video games becoming linear and cinematic undermined the interactivity of the medium; this is still true however the disconnect between story and gameplay occurs across several genres, even open-world games.
The disconnect between story and gameplay was never an issue during the 1990s or even the early 2000s. The hardware restraints forced developers to keep the story minimal. A few console generations ago, a games strongest selling point was the gameplay. As hardware power increased, it became possible to make games that could be marketed on graphics and story. Pre-rendered cut scenes became more common and eventually some developers focused more on story than on gameplay, hence the disconnect between the two.
The ideal relationship between story and gameplay is one of cooperation. Story should inform gameplay and vice versa. Storytelling in video games should be as interactive as possible. For a great example of this, look no further than Portal 2 (or any of the Half-Life games). Consider how as the player progresses through the game each test chamber becomes less and less ravaged by plant life or how in the end-game the damaged chambers indicate things are falling apart. Look at Batman: Arkham Asylum (or it’s sequel Arkham City). Batman’s suit becomes more and more damaged the further the player progresses through the story.
A good balance of gameplay and story not only maintains the interactivity of the game, but it also builds an atmosphere. Alpha Protocol, while having horrible gameplay has a near perfect balance of story and gameplay. Depending on how the player plays the game will influence how characters react to the player. This includes the game’s antagonist who will actually offer the player to join him depending on the player’s decisions. This kind of interactivity and feedback creates a narrative that evolves and more importantly enhances both story and gameplay.
There are plenty of games however where the story and gameplay are at odds with each other. Grand Theft Auto IV for example has Niko Bellic recounting his dark past and how he regrets being a soldier in his home country. He expresses a desire to move away from that kind of life. It deepens Niko’s struggle and adds to his character but this conflicts with the open world style of gameplay in which the player has the ability to go on rampage and murder civilians. Niko isn’t written as a sadistic person, yet he can become one in the hands of any player yet the game acts as if it never happened.
Fable 3 however, is the worst offender by far. The first half of the game is dedicated to overthrowing the King (who is also the player character’s brother). The King at some point would obviously be aware of the player’s actions yet does not do anything to stop the player (he doesn’t even send guards). This allows the game to maintain an open-world style but it makes no sense in context of the story. What’s even worse is that the morality system which has defined the Fable franchise is ignored by the story. Much like GTA IV, the player character is written a certain way, despite that the actual actions of the player may differ. For a game that markets itself on choice, the narrative is quick to ignore the input of the player.
The relationship between story and gameplay isn’t required to be symbiotic but the more these elements work in tandem, the better the result. Video games are a unique medium because they allow interactivity. The story should ideally react to the player, rather than the other way around. Interactivity is what allows the narrative to evolve, it’s something that no other medium is capable of doing. Story and gameplay do not need to come at the expense of the other, they are equally important and should be designed with this in mind.