Gameplay and Storytelling

Great video games aren’t random mishmashes and hodgepodges of disparate visuals, mechanics, and stories. With games that stand the test of time, those elements need to come together to create a cohesive whole and each one should feel necessary or at least like it is contributing something valuable. Given that video games are an interactive medium, arguably their most important component is how they allow players to interact with them. The Stanley Parable, Shadow of the Colossus, and Beyond: Two Souls, perfectly capture this concept, albeit in different ways.

 

You might recall that over the last few articles, I’ve made it a point of mentioning a game called The Stanley Parable. Talking about The Stanley Parable is difficult without spoiling many of the elements that make it enjoyable and thought provoking. However, I don’t think it is giving away too much to say that the core of the experience is built around player choice and how that relates to game design. Developer Galactic Cafe stripped down the gameplay to the bare minimum required to convey this message to players. The Stanley Parable uses similar mechanics to games like Dear Esther and Gone Home, giving players only the ability to move and interact with certain objects. One of the criticisms leveled against both Gone Home and Dear Esther was that the level of engagement afforded by the limited scope of the gameplay wasn’t interesting or necessarily fun. Where those games fell short, The Stanley Parable excels by using its mechanics to help demonstrate and complement its story through intelligent game design. Essentially, players are presented with a series of branching paths and options, with an amusing narration responding to whatever the player happens to be doing. The narration urges players down a predetermined path, while other opportunities are constantly presented for players to derail the experience. This allows The Stanley Parable to not only directly talk about the struggles of developing video games but also demonstrate those difficulties through the player’s experiences.

Interactivity and storytelling are difficult to reconcile with one another, as interactivity is necessarily freeing and storytelling is by nature restrictive. Shadow of the Colossus marries the two in an interesting way. Colossus’ story revolves around a young man who brings his deceased love to a forbidden land and makes a pact with a demon or deity to bring her back from the dead. At the end of their interaction, the supernatural entity nebulously states that the price might be higher than the young man could imagine. As players progress through Shadow of the Colossus, killing the sixteen colossi, players begin to notice subtle changes, both in the visuals and in the gameplay. With each defeated colossus comes a flood of dark tendrils that infuse the young man’s body and transport him back to the starting area. Each time that happens, the young man receives increased health and stamina and begins to look more haggard, eventually sprouting small 

horns, transforming into something inhuman. This is done with little to no dialogue, but as players, we experience the transformation ourselves and recognize that something sinister is taking place and the cost alluded to at the beginning. It is an achievement in subtlety that few games ever manage.

 

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have games like Beyond: Two Souls, which treat gameplay mechanics almost as a hindrance rather than a strength. Playing Beyond: Two Souls feels like watching a bad movie that grudgingly pauses every so often for players to do quick-time events and contextual button presses. The game rarely communicates when players are making important choices that are arbitrarily more important later on in the plot and plot related decisions are essentially the only meaningful gameplay in which players can partake. Yes, it has branching storylines. Yes, it integrates player choice. Yes, it looks great. But its story doesn’t serve its gameplay and that is one of the fundamental problems that plagues the experience, barring any other issues players might have had with Quantic Dream’s latest project.

 

Game developers, gameplay should be used to help tell a story rather than having a story draped around unrelated mechanics. Because when the two don’t sync up right, we get games that might as well be movies or books. If we wanted that, we would go to a library (those are still a thing, right?) or a movie theater.

Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 01/02/14

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