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Missing the Plot: Story vs. Gameplay


It's a great time for video games. Open world titles and expansive RPGs in particular present imaginative game worlds and almost endless possibilities to gamers through sprawling stories and sheer selection of stuff to do. We've gotten used to and sometimes demand 40+ hour game experiences from some titles, but I often find that the need for a great story and tons of missions can take away from the overall narrative and the possible impact it can have.

I don't consider myself particularly forgetful or incapable of remember details. And yet, invariably when I play a big game with tons of side missions, at some point I lose the main story thread and forget exactly what I'm really supposed to be doing. My usual play through of a game – and I imagine it's similar for you too – is that I alternate between story and side missions. Oftentimes this results in hours or days doing nothing but running around doing relatively inconsequential things in the game world while the main story of saving the universe or the world is on hold.

Well, wouldn't you know it, but when I decide to get back to the story, I often forgot what it was I was doing to propel the story forward. At the very least, the drama and urgency has totally be sucked out of the story. How many times in a video game have you been told that time is of the essence and yet you know you can spend hours upon end simply roaming around doing side missions before you pick up the plot again? The tension, plot movement, and subtleties of a good story can be abused and obliterated by a 40+ gameplay marathon that lets you do whatever you want.

I'm not blaming developers on this. I know why the divide between story and non-critical side missions and exploration is the way it is: It's simply the easiest and least confusing way to let gamers experience as much of the game as possible. And I'm not suggesting that there constantly be obnoxious objective reminders or floating arrows in the environment so I don't lose my way. It just seems like letting players explore freely and having a tight story are fundamentally at odds with each other. Certainly, many games get around this with a more linear structure that excludes side missions, but for many games like the Mass Effect series, this isn't possible.

What's the solution? I don't think there is one for most games. Gameplay usually trumps story, and most of the time that's the way it should be. In the meantime, if I want a great story, I'll have to read a book.

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