Gameplay vs. Story: Choose One | GameSided Roundtable

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Mytheos Holt (Twitter)

Stephen Spielberg once quipped, “I think the real indicator that games have become a storytelling art form, will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.”

Perhaps as a concession to Spielberg’s implied critique, games have increasingly focused on imitating film in their recent push to gain artistic respect. Hence, we have seen a glut of games which place a premium on story and characterization, even in franchises with little to no aspiration to the status of high art. One need look no further than Kevin Spacey’s recent turn as a scenery-chewing villain masterminding a nefarious political scheme in “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” to see evidence of this trend.

While the artistic mainstreaming of video games is desirable, this particular approach to it is misplaced. To be sure, video games can tell great stories, but to reduce them to films with controllers is ultimately to define away what separates games from films — namely, the fact that games have players and films have viewers, and only one of those two groups has agency over their decisions. Games are interactive, active experiences, whereas films require only passive attention.

Furthermore, when the story is the defining feature of any piece of art, as it is in films or novels, it is necessary for the reader or viewer to be compelled to follow that story in some way. In practice, this means that story-driven games must necessarily deprive players of the choice to ignore their story by, for instance, emphasizing linearity at the expense of immersion. Perhaps the most egregious example is Final Fantasy XIII’s much-maligned and suffocatingly linear design, mockingly nicknamed “The Hallway” by critic and entertainer Noah Antwiler.

The sad part is that there is no reason why games had to focus on story in order to be artistically viable. Music is not always used in service of a narrative, and even when it is (as in the case of opera), the narrative frequently plays second fiddle (no pun intended) to the music itself. It seems unnecessary to point out that, for instance, few people know the names of the librettists for Mozart’s operas, or the people who wrote the books for Sondheim musicals. Mozart and Sondheim’s names alone are relevant in these pieces, because their music is so overpowering as to elevate even mediocre plots.

Similarly, poor or even silly plots in a game can be forgiven if the game’s world is sufficiently well-realized, its controls appropriately elegant, and its mechanics appropriately original. No one would mistake the story of a plumber leaping through 32 different locations in search of a princess who has been kidnapped by a massive fire-breathing turtle for a tale that engenders pathos, yet it is also undeniable that the original Mario Bros is great art.

Nor is the Mario example unique, for the linear approach required by story-driven games flies in the face of many of gaming’s most historically great titles. Indeed, even games that one might ordinarily think of as the most straightforwardly linear, such as early platformers or first person shooters, had more of a sandbox quality than today’s AAA. The Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES, for instance, featured levels crammed full of well-hidden bonuses and items, some of which even led to entirely secret levels, thus requiring non-linear exploration.

Early shooters “Doom” and “Duke Nukem 3D” were more about navigating intricate mazes filled with secret paths and dead ends than they were about shooting monsters, which was merely an additional challenge required in navigating the game’s obstacle courses. In fact, speaking of Doom, the satirical Youtube series “If Doom was done today” does a fine job of mocking the manner in which ostensibly more “advanced” games actually backslide in terms of gameplay and immersion.

Even Roleplaying Games, seemingly the genre of gaming you’d expect to profit most from a story-driven focus, have arguably been better when story hasn’t been the first priority. The Might and Magic series often featured titles with stories so obscure that players literally had to stumble on them. The Ultima series threw players into massive, open worlds, even though their essential conflicts sometimes boiled down to something as simple as killing a single evil wizard. None of the games in the Diablo series could be accused of being valued primarily for their story.

One might find good stories in The Elder Scrolls series, but the truly impressive achievement of, say, Daggerfall, is the fact that its world is geographically literally the size of Great Britain, not the story it tells. The Goetterdammerung-by-way-of-H.P.-Lovecraft story behind Dark Souls is barely explained at all, and instead requires players to sift through item descriptions in order to piece it together. And, of course, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are simply too vast and have far too many players to try and foist a single story on those players.

That’s not to say a good story is unimportant in games, or even that a great game can’t be one that tells a great story. Bioware especially has made hay from creating games with gripping stories and delightful characters, and games like Final Fantasy VII are rightly famous for the emotional engagement which their stories can inspire. Linear games designed to function like interactive cutscenes may even have a place emerging with the naturally immersive character of devices like the Oculus Rift, or the linear puzzle solving of horror games like P.T.. But if you asked any gamer to list their favorite titles, chances are you would find yourself confronted with a list of games whose stories are, at best, coincidental with vividly realized worlds, addictive gameplay and compulsive replay value.

It is only fair then, to say that those components are the true prerequisites for great games. After all, when a derivative or threadbare story combined with these elements will give you Mario Bros, Doom, Dark Souls, Final Fantasy I and Titanfall, and the converse will give you Depression Quest and Ride to Hell: Retribution, there seems little doubt which games will make the art form prosper.

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