Story vs. Gameplay

I was recently asked two related questions by a writer:

1. How important is narrative to a video game?
2. Has there ever been a truly interactive narrative?

Short replies

1. Not very.
2. No.

Long replies

1. How important is narrative to a video game?

It depends entirely on the kind of experience you’re attempting to craft for a player.

In many cases, a story should do nothing more than support the gameplay, and it can do so with very light application – merely setting the context of the game, providing bookends to sections of gameplay, and providing some kind of satisfying epilogue.

We’ve managed to earn critical acclaim for our first two titles with the bare minimum of story, eliminating the (un)skippable cutscene entirely. In the case of Coconut Dodge, the story is a couple of paragraphs not even included in the game. People have obviously commented on a lack of story in our games, but it hasn’t stopped them from being very enjoyable.

We’ve done this because the enjoyment of a game can be severely hampered if story takes priority. It’s a rare game that manages to interlace gameplay and story gracefully, and even rarer for a game to create a compelling interactive narrative. More often than not, one side suffers as a result of trying to do both.

Even the successful AAA titles from Quantic Dream and Naughty Dog – where narrative plays a major role in the experience – include sections of gameplay that are dull and laborious, because they are included only to serve the narrative.

Ultimately gameplay and story are very different forms of art, and despite them often appearing to cross over, their relationship is actually more akin to that of music and sculpture; fundamentally different.

As a studio we choose to focus on gameplay.

2. Has there ever been a truly interactive narrative?

No. Games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect give the impression of interactive narrative, but it’s only an illusion.

In my opinion a great deal of time and money has been wasted in the last few years in pursuit of creating games with user choice as the USP and creative goal.

I look at it this way:

A truly great story causes a reader or viewer to get satisfaction from relinquishing any kind of control, completely absorbing themselves in the narrative, characters and direction of the story. A successful story sucks in a reader or viewer and compels them to follow along.

As soon as you give a reader/viewer the ability to change the story, or interact with it, you break that satisfying state. You also weaken the author’s power to tell a great story. The more interactive you make the narrative, the weaker the author becomes.

In contrast, a successful game pulls a player into the flow state, where a fine balance between challenge and control is achieved. The flow state requires constant input from a player, which is totally at odds with the relinquished control state of following a narrative. Breaking the flow state is disruptive and annoying, and is exactly what happens when an unwanted cut scene or tutorial interrupts a game.

It is possible to get the rhythm perfectly pitched to give a player segments of flow state immersion which reach a well timed gameplay climax, followed by episodes of narrative with its own rhythm and climax – but that is not an interactive narrative – it’s the two art forms supporting each other in a mixed-media experience.

I believe that the two arts are impossible to integrate fully, and a bit of a waste of time and money to pursue because attempting to unite them compromises their respective strengths.

In my opinion, the goal should be to find perfect rhythmical balances between gameplay and story, so that the resulting experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts, not weaker.

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  • Griffon
    Posted August 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm 0Likes

    Totally disagree… I’m a gamer that wants a heavy narrative. In fact, it was narrative oriented games that turned me from a casual gamer into a diehard fanatic. Still remember Mega Man X’s narrative actually making me want to play the same old gameplay and then replay it dozens of times since. Dragon Age and Final Fantasy X both captivate on a level that isn’t because of their gameplay mechanics, but because of the entrancing characters and emotional stories.

    There is a play for gameplay certainly… and even narratively light games… I’ve gladly tucked 15 minutes here and there on such games. But they do not have that pull that an intense story based game manages to achieve. I am emotionally tied to the game because of the story.

    • James @ FuturLab
      Posted August 12, 2012 at 11:26 pm 0Likes


      It’s great that you’re passionate about narrative in games, but I’m not sure what you are disagreeing with.

      I’m not suggesting one is better than the other, only that they cannot ever be truly integrated without sacrificing their respective strengths.

      Does that make sense? 🙂

      • Griffon
        Posted August 13, 2012 at 1:20 am 0Likes

        Well, I personally think a game like Heavy Rain integrated them fairly seamlessly myself. Not only was the story drawing me in to continue playing, but the gameplay added a level of immersion that many games cannot manage. It wasn’t just dropping the gameplay for a cutscene, you had to actively participate. Or Mass Effect 2 with the interrupt system and branching options (any Bioware title for that last part though) also adds back into the story and the story in turn gives reason and intensity to the simple mechanics. I don’t personally view either as taking away from each other in either scenario there.

        But I don’t mind the gameplay/story balance of a good JRPG. A nice little jog around fighting or racing or any number of sidequests interspersed with massive story moments… some of the greatest games use this formula. I don’t feel cheated of gameplay and I don’t feel cheated of story. I still have both and I enjoy the reward of an emotional cutscene.

        So, I’d argue that the strengths of both haven’t really been sacrificed in the truly great games. Some styles vary on how they accomplish it, but the varying levels of integration all can work. It just depends on polish and execution. Granted, it doesn’t always work though… Half Life is a series that proves that some styles work in the detriment to narrative and sacrifice its strengths to try and keep the player “engaged” mechanically. In the end it only lead to a shallow experience all around… granted unpopular opinion on that one.

        In the end, I’m just saying it depends on the type of gamer you are. Those more into games for the sheer gameplay will find the balance of an RPG horrid while a gamer who games for the story would find the balance of an Angry Birds game to be shallow.

        Or in short, where you see sacrifice and limitations to each in a game like Heavy Rain or Dragon Age, I see a wonderfully balanced game that uses the strengths of both narrative and gameplay to their full potential in different ways. Just a matter of perspective. Hope that makes more sense.

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