Narrative and Gameplay Need Not Be Enemies

Videogames are yet to be respected in the same way as literature, theatre and film. With mainstays of the medium being shooting Nazis in the face, garrotting henchmen, raiding tombs, stabbing dragons, shooting genetically-modified Nazis in the face, pimping up sports cars, jumping, stripping the corpses of guards and leaving them in sexual positions, and escaping collapsing buildings, it’s no wonder this is the case. But as the industry evolves and looks to equal the status of these other mediums, rescuing princesses and saving the world from demons is no longer good enough. In order to reach a larger audience and achieve widespread acceptance as an art form, videogames need to tackle more complex subjects, and this is where narrative-driven games have come to the fore.

Studios such as The Chinese Room and Fullbright have made it their duty to deliver sophisticated narrative experiences to a gaming audience, and have been lauded for their efforts thus far. Dear Esther’s poetic narration, its overall obliqueness, its independence from typical videogame conventions, is a step in a new direction; Gone Home’s handling of contemporary issues is a promising start. But whether these games are truly examples of progressive videogame narrative or just another attempt at shoehorning authoritarian stories into an inappropriate format has caused much debate among game fans, and it’s curious to note why this is.

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Half of the people engaged in the ‘what is a game?’ discourse are of the opinion that videogames are synonymous with film, TV, literature, theatre, and should aspire towards these accomplished narrative forms (let’s call this group story fanatics). The other half consider videogames as the digital transformation of traditional games like chess; they are essentially competitive or present some sort of challenge, demanding a certain level of invention or skill from the player to be overcome (let’s call these gameplay fanatics).

To gameplay fanatics, games that tell or show the player rather than allowing them to play are removing what it means to play a game. They insist that without any rules or goals, without any victory or fail state, a mere interactive experience isn’t enough. They see narrative as an unnecessary but supplementary feature of modern videogames, and one that should never be prioritised over the act of playing. Story fanatics believe that a game without a dramatic plot is too frivolous to be of worth. They want their games to be thought-provoking, to be pathetic, and the gameplay can be anything so long as there is some interactivity involved.

Both sides, in a sense, are incorrect. Videogames are an amalgamation of story and play. If a game has all of one and none of the other, it fails to do a complete job. From my own experience with narrative-driven games, I feel they never take advantage of the medium they belong to. The writing, visuals, voice acting, music (all the components that can be enjoyed outside of videogames) are executed to a high standard, yet the gameplay (gaming’s exclusive characteristic) is tedious, rudimentary – a way of carrying the player to the story rather than a means of expressing it. While commendable for attempting something more profound than playful flippancy, narrative-driven games consistently demonstrate a disconnection between the two principles they ought to be weaving as one.

For games to offer a unique narrative experience, the story has to be kneaded into the gameplay. A disharmony between the two indicates a fundamental problem with the design, like a poem with no connection between content and form. If a game is intended to be a comment on survival and dealing with isolation, there should be a gameplay mechanic in place to induce that sensation, otherwise it needn’t be a game. If the story is told solely through cut scenes, dialogue, or on-screen text, this is not a true game narrative experience; It’s merely an authoritarian narrative experience, such as one you’d expect from a TV show or film, interspersed with periods of interactivity.

An example of what I mean by a true game narrative experience can be found In The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The backdrop of Majora’s Mask is implicit within the game’s mechanics. The story (on the surface, at least) is about stopping the moon from destroying the world within three days, and in order to get across the urgency and the ominousness of that scenario the developers created a three-day cycle gameplay mechanic that the player had to continuously rewind and race against while trying to beat the game. It was an effective method for allowing the player to experience the desperation of that situation first-hand, and the results were particularly powerful.

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The three-day cycle mechanic in Majora’s Mask was so influential over me I would never let things progress to the final hours of the third day, even if I still had things to do. The sight of that timer running down, the empty streets, the suspension of the cheery music (which, as a side note, got faster and more ominous for each day nearer to doom you strayed), was too much for me to bear, and that mixture of relief and futility I felt once I stepped back into day one and the NPCs (whose problems I’d already solved) began their troubles all over again, still resonates today. It was a sensation no piece of text or dramatic cut scene could’ve produced and always serves to remind me why I play videogames.

Games allow you to experience stories more closely than any other medium. They are the next stage in narrative evolution, not the inheritors of old narrative trends. The sooner we realise this, the sooner videogames can break away from film and TV and become a powerful storytelling device of their own.

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