There’s a great deal of articles floating around which deal with the gap between story and gameplay and the efforts made to bridge it. Having assimilated quite a few of them, I’d like to see if I can't synthesise a common denominator to build on.
The main point of contention which returns pretty much everywhere is the diametrical opposition of what story and gameplay want to do. The authors of this article mention that “a game writer looks for brief moments -- cutscene or otherwise -- when she can take control of the game so that she can create throughlines, pacing, conflicts, character development, plot twists and thematic meaning, while a game designer looks for ways to give control -- not to the writer, but to the player”. Henry Jenkins confirms that opposition in this publication, which opens with a selection of quotes illustrating the different approaches to games: “Ludologists want to see the focus shift onto the mechanics of game play, while the Narratologists are interested in studying games alongside other storytelling media”.
Let’s first attest that not all games require a story. Tetris would not benefit from a compelling narrative that lends its simple yet effective gameplay mechanics a social commentary on fitting in. With casual gaming now rapidly becoming a defining force in the industry, the proliferation of games that all but forgo any story will only increase. While this relates more to demographics and target groups, it nevertheless affects the entire playing field. Proof thereof lies in this year's E3 conference, which was dominated largely by motion control and handheld gaming. However, those are still subsets, no matter how prolific. Not all games may require a story, but it plays a large role in those that benefit from it. In this post, I'm limiting myself to games where story is, if anything, a factor.
One of the key points is something that has cropped up under a wide variety of names, the most prominent of which is "interactivity". In and of itself, it has been repeatedly touted as the singular aspect of games that separates them from and elevates them above other media (worded more effectively here). One of its firmer proponents is Clint Hocking, former creative director at Ubisoft. In his essays (most recently this one), he goes one step further and claims that players should be given free reign within a game world, to the point where the developers should practically efface themselves (fitting Hocking's denouncement of auteurship in game development). If a player performs a certain act in a game and thinks himself clever for figuring it out rather than thinking the developers clever for covering the eventuality of performing that act, then according to Hocking, the developers have succeeded. He calls this "agency", the player's ability to effect his decisions inside the game world.
As I see it, the aspect of agency as articulated by Hocking is more a result of emergent behaviour in gameplay and has little bearing on (shaping) the story. Every player will experiment with the game mechanics he's presented with, if only to see what would happen. There are many instances of players trying things that the developers hadn't foreseen. One of the more well-known examples is "mine climbing" in Deus Ex, which Harvey Smith uses to illustrate the success of implementing a degree of player freedom (as mentioned here). More often than not, such things break the flow of the game and are not meaningful when seen in the context of an overarching narrative, which doesn't react accordingly.
But there is a subset of games that actively encourages such experimentation. Sandbox games present the player with an expansive world and a set of tools and then set him free. However, sandbox games often suffer from poor stories that exist only to justify the gameplay. While not entirely unnecessary, such stories fail to engage the player because they really don't need to. Just Cause 2 is a game that fully understood this. But sometimes, stories designed for sandbox games try to be more than they need to be, which often leads to a disconnect specifically between what the player does and what the character embodied by the player does. I already touched upon this in this post, using Uncharted's Nathan Drake as an example. While a highly linear game, the same disconnect can be applied more broadly to sandbox games which specifically attempt to depict their protagonist as a moral individual.
Take Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic. In cutscenes, he is shown to be a sympathetic person who cares deeply for those who matter to him. But this characterisation does not dovetail with how the player is allowed to behave. Wantonly running over pedestrians while evading the police only so Niko can be on time for a date (thank you again, Penny Arcade) is a perfect manifestation of this narrative dissonance. Prototype is an even worse offender. Alex Mercer brutally kills scores of people in ever more imaginative and over-the-top ways, yet in cutscenes he's made out to be compassionate and remorseful (get out of my head, Penny Arcade). In this regard, Just Cause 2 simply isn't kidding itself.
Nevertheless, the relative freedom on offer in sandbox games still has to take a backseat if the main storyline is to be played out. In all the cases mentioned above, a player can screw around all he wants, but if he wishes to see the story unfold, he'll have to reel himself in and do as he's told. While the how of it is then up to the player, the what is definitely not. However, there are games where the story is largely, if not fully reactive to a great deal of the player's inputs. The Civilization series allows for stories to naturally emerge from a gameplay model that has no predetermined definition for victory or failure. Also, indie games like Sleep Is Death or Dwarf Fortress permit the player to generate a story of his own making (in a sense, stories told as games and not in them).
Pictured: Dwarf Fortress. I think.
But games like Dwarf Fortress are too overwhelming to provide general accessibility. A fully dynamic story is something that's impossible to attain in a more mainstream game. Heavy Rain comes to mind as a valiant effort, but it's still less about what the player wants to do and more what the developers allow him to do. Those two can be the same if the developers did their job with a modicum of foresight, but it remains a compromise at best. So where does this leave us?
On one end, we have highly linear games which (can) tell profound stories but fail to offer the player meaningful gameplay choices. On the other end, we have sandbox games which give the player a profound level of freedom but fail to marry that to a meaningful story. Games like Deus Ex, BioShock and Mass Effect represent the middle ground on that spectrum, albeit with variations of their own. For instance, BioShock provides more gameplay options than Mass Effect, but has a much less reactive story (although Mass Effect seems to be more reactive to what the player decides to do first rather than what he decides to do). But does it all come down to a precarious balance between story and gameplay?
Not quite. While story is a factor that merits more of the attention it's currently getting, it cannot overshadow gameplay. Because in most cases, gameplay is the story. A story shouldn't dictate the type of game it needs. A story can be a good one on its own, but once inserted into a game, it can either shine or suffer, depending on how it is implemented into the gameplay it contextualises. So in the end, gameplay comes first and foremost. And not to beat a deadhorse, but that is exactly the reason why story needs to be a consideration from the get-go.
A quick final thought: while this article is geared entirely towards single-player games, the above assertion that gameplay is the story may find more support in multiplayer games, as evidenced by this example.
Welcome to Playthroughline, a design team composed of writer Joannes Truyens and web developer Matei Stanca. We are currently working on Neurocracy, an interactive narrative experience that allows you to dive into a Wikipedia rabbit hole in the year 2049.