Knowing what a game is about is a deeper, more multi-layered intellectual experience than it may initially seem. If you were asked to describe a game like Bioshock to me, it would probably be your pleasure. “You play as a guy who gets stranded on an island and enters a lighthouse, etc.” Big Daddies, Little Sisters, “Would You Kindly?”, done and done. You’d be an expert, because even as the plot gets more complex, the story is overall pretty easy to understand, and the strong narrative elements help sell the game to someone who is looking for a good reason to play it.
It’s a little harder to describe games without much story to speak of. Enter my attempt to explain Super Mario Bros. 3 to my nine-year-old cousin, a young boy whose initial video game experiences include Gears of War and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
“Well, you run and jump mostly, but if you get a special item, you can shoot fireballs and fly.”
“So there’s flamethrowers?”
“No, its Mushroom Kingdom. Why would there be flamethrowers?”
“What about grenades?”
“No. But some levels have bullets.”
“For what gun?”
“There are no guns.”
“I don’t get this game.”
“Neither do I.”
Some of these older more gameplay focused games become hard to really explain to people older than 20 take for granted that we were raised on Mario. Mario was video games for a great deal of us. For those of us who have never had to play games where the only thing you do is run to the right, it’s hard to appreciate that sort of strictly motor skill-driven relationship with games. A need for stories, expositions, alien threats, love interests, that’s a fairly modern necessity, perpetuated by people who either never played older games, or are jaded by them. A necessity that may be more harmful than not.
Let’s get the “Jarrett hates stories in games” arguments out of the way now. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I absolutely love story-focused games. Titles like The Wolf Among Us resonated greatly with me because of everything but the gameplay, which was the weakest aspect to me. Pretty much everyone with a pulse feels the same way about The Last of Us and its great balance of pitch-perfect stealth action and dour storytelling. I like story driven games so much, I’ll even try games that people normally would pass up simply because I heard the game might help me find some emotions that I didn’t know I had.
The issues start when the story becomes such a big facet of the game, that playing it is just an annoying distraction, which defeats the purpose of making games. I’m not singling out any genre in particular, either. It happens everywhere, on every system. The way I see it is this: if the game made a crappy movie, than it probably needed to be played, not watched.
There is a certain amount that a player is willing to forgive as far as games are concerned story wise. No one really worries about the fact that Nathan Drake has more bodies on his guns than Rambo, or that Kratos’ reasons for killing every god in the Greek pantheon is entirely his fault. When you’re shooting AKs and swinging swords for the sake of the next level, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s fun to do, and provides the requisite amount of stimulation and challenge we crave. This is the essence of video gaming. When forgetting to make the running, jumping, shooting, and swording (?) fun, we fail to fulfill this core competency.
A game with an interesting story, told in a very interesting way, about a city that’s trapped in a sinister rainstorm, and a boy trying to save a girl from it all. The gimmicks, camera angles, color palettes, sound tracks, etc. are all great. The gameplay, however, is so stiff and uninventive that it’s hard to stay engaged. Which is a shame, considering how inspired the rest of the title is. Had real time been spent making the puzzle elements more challenging, I’d have to assume the game would have been more fun to play. A lot of games lower the bar when it comes to difficulty, because the widely accepted myth is that challenge can be an isolating factor when it comes to selling games. “People who want good stories are people who don’t want to try hard when playing games!” I can hear this ill-advised game director shouting in a pitch meeting in my worst nightmares.
But Valve found a way to make an accessible game challenging with Portal in 2007. Then they found a way to improve upon that award-winning gameplay as well as add smattering of great story elements in 2011’s Portal 2. Anyone who played the sequel can attest to the fact that there were no concessions made about keeping the frustration strong in some of the games best puzzles, simply because of the more developed narrative. In fact, the difficulty of the puzzles only serves to enhance the degree of GLaDoS’s villainy, therefore informing the story itself.
So what is good gameplay then? It isn’t just active gameplay that puts me in direct control of the character(s) that are engaged in the battle. It’s sound implementation of the lens in which I interact with this game, be it running and gunning or clicking dialogue boxes. You know, more of that player agency mumbo-jumbo that I spout on about every once in awhile.
Exhibit B: Warframe
If there’s a better modern example of an action game that shoots itself in the foot because of the gameplay, then I just haven’t played it yet. Warframe should be awesome; all of today’s best third person shooting mechanics blended together with high impact melee combat and platforming. We should all feel like free-to-play space Dantes, but alas the mechanics are so horribly flawed that it makes this really cool idea really hard to sit around for. There is no precision in the swordplay, no control in the acrobatics, the A.I. has no “I”. I couldn’t feel any less like the cosmic special ops ninja I’m supposed to feel like.
Telltale’s last few adventure games have been great examples of games that play as well as the story they tell, primarily The Wolf Among Us, which stands as my current favorite of their releases. The action is in sudden, concentrated bursts, and is more or less an on rails, guided, quicktime experience every time. It was the weakest aspect of the game to me, as mentioned earlier, but there’s no disconnect between the character I am when I’m not punching faces, and the brutal ass beater I become when the fights on. I’m not combo-frame-juggle-cancelling minions, but I feel perfectly active and engaged in the suspense of a well-paced chase or fight, because the design keeps its overall vision in mind at all times. It doesn’t make me a sword wielding badass that can’t seem to hit a creature in front of him with a sword, for example.
I know what you’re thinking: “Jarrett wants a game with a good story and great gameplay? Welcome to everyone on the planet.” I don’t need groundbreaking gameplay in a primarily story driven game. I do need something a little more compelling than Rain, that works better than Warframe, and there are great examples of this all over the industry. Bioshock: Infinite is a game lauded for its story, but its weakest element is heavily considered its First Person Shooting. Now, the shooting isn’t broken by any means, but it’s not the fine tuned gunning machines you’ll find in yearly iterations at bigger publishers. The Last of Us is a stealth game that me and many others believe is the best game that came out last year, but its stealth mechanics aren’t anything to brag about. But they function as they should, everytime I want them to, and they allow me to stay engaged in the playing of this great game. I dont think thats too much to ask at all.
Games are unique in the way that you can be directly involved in how a story is being told, and can be directly responsible for the narrative consequences. It is sovereign in that way, as movies and books only let you fit into their worlds via your adventurous imagination. As our medium grows and begins to borrow more and more from movies and books, we are beginning to lose that interactive identity, and gaming will never mature as a medium if we only do it one piece at a time.