Gameplay Over Narrative: Placing Story On The Back Burner

by Mike Mahardy on Nov 30, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Video games have become host to some of the most in-depth universes created in recent years, sporting fully fleshed out histories, detailed lore, and famous characters to boot. Major franchises use these elements in an attempt to create cohesive stories, tying separate installments together. Undoubtedly, the medium has its own unique advantages for telling stories. But is a strong narrative always necessary?

Story As An Afterthought

I’m no stranger to becoming obsessed with video game lore. Half of my enjoyment from playing extensive franchises is seeing how the story evolves from one entry to the next; I read books in Elder Scrolls games, research character relationships in the Resident Evil series, and I fully embrace the split timeline theory of the Zelda titles.

In the end though, my love for most of Link’s adventures boils down to the gameplay, not the transparent story that tries to make sense of the games. Don’t get me wrong; I labored day and night to connect each title in a chronological timeline (only to find that my attempts were inaccurate and unnecessary), but my love for each entry was born from the gameplay. 

I’m always excited to meet new reincarnations of Zelda and the accompanying characters of new installments, but I get far more excited imagining the potential dungeons and scenarios that will pervade Link’s next quest. Sure, the story provides a reason for why you’re attempting to wake up the Wind Fish or fetch soup for a yeti, but it doesn’t do much past these immediate explanations.

Games based around exploration and looting, such as Borderlands 2 or Diablo III, also have their fair share of problems implementing a unifying story. As with Zelda, the experience of both games has never been much about the background information thrown at you, rather the exploration and gameplay therein. The story becomes even more superfluous in new-game-plus playthroughs, which could easily be the reason why Borderland 2’s cutscenes are incredibly short or Diablo III’s are entirely optional. 

Both of these loot fests have an overarching story, and it definitely helps glue things together, but there aren’t astounding story elements that you’ll remember long after playthroughs; the narrative feels tacked on to supplement already-stellar gameplay.

Even Zelda director and producer Eiji Aonuma, in Game Informer’s October 2011 cover story, said that focusing more on storyline and gaps in games is a backwards way of thinking. “When we create a new game, we don’t start with a preset notion of what the story is going to be,” he said. “We start by focusing in on what the core gameplay element is going to be and then develop from that.”

Although the narratives of the aforementioned games resonate with hardcore fans, most water cooler conversations I’ve ever been a part of regarding them have involved cool new weapons or heart piece locations. That is to say, if gameplay and exploration are the cake of those games, the narratives are just the icing on top.

In an interview with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, The Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto echoed Aonuma’s sentiments, saying that he would rather spend his energy making game elements than story.

“It would make things a lot easier if players said, ‘Oh, [story] doesn’t really matter,’” Miyamoto said. “Even though the setting was different each time, the characters you knew and loved would come out and perform. It would be much easier if we could use any setting in The Legend of Zelda while preserving the essential relationship between Zelda, Link, and Ganon.”

While avid fans of those respective series will inevitably stay absorbed in the lore and narrative, the back story used to explain the gameplay has undoubtedly taken a backseat to pitch perfect level design and tight mechanics – instances where story isn’t front and center. 

Avoiding Story Altogether

To hearken back to the days of arcade cabinets, where dying meant returning to the very beginning of the game despite your score, story barely existed in any form. Beyond a cursory explanation of why you were eating ghosts or climbing toward a hulking ape, gameplay was king.

To make games more accessible, developers have allowed infinite respawns to guide players through their imposed narratives. This shift has given birth to numerous well-written stories, but some games still  shrug off any notion of a strong narrative.

Recent strategy title XCOM: Enemy Unknown uses permadeath to create an engaging experience where deceased characters don’t return. Unlike other titles like Mass Effect or The Walking Dead, there is no centralized character that respawns once they die. When my Brazilian sniper went down in a hail of plasma fire, the game continued, indifferent to my regret over what had happened. 

Jake Solomon, lead designer of Enemy Unknown, believes the lack of a strong narrative is central to that intense experience. In an interview with Wired.com, he said that narrative could be a “clue to the player that the game’s hero will never be in mortal danger.”

Placing a hero character at the center of a story implies that they’re there to stay, until the end at least. “Unfortunately, the player knows that too,” Solomon said. “So the environment you’ve created is not authentic…They know they’re not going to die.”

To use Diablo III again, the minimal – and almost absent – story would only hinder the effects of a hardcore playthrough, in which players can permanently die at any minute. Including too much of a plot line wouldn’t allow the death of the main character. Blizzard allowed the gameplay to take center stage, permitting a focus on loot and minute-to-minute survival.

Much like Zelda and the previously mentioned loot fests, Enemy Unknown focuses much less on story than it does gameplay and the experience resulting from it. Similar to the other games, Enemy Unknown even avoids a strong story. This allows a more intense gameplay experience until the very end, absent of disengaging checkpoints and restarts, letting gameplay take the wheel. Placing all control over the situation in the player’s hands removed the sense that they were safely being guided by the developer.

Video games will undoubtedly continue to develop new ways of storytelling. With a strongly written narrative and engaging universe, a series can make its mark on forums and message boards as gamers discuss the connection between separate installments and story elements alike. However, it’s still worth noting that gameplay can be just as effective an experience as storytelling, and it is exciting to see how that will evolve as well.