On The Fence Between Game and Story

(This entire post is in response to a fellow blogger of Crystal Prison Zone. I would suggest reading his entry first before reading my own not only because mine is simply a comment that had gotten too big for the comment box, but also because he’s a pretty dang good writer and makes his points rather well.)

Monkey and Trip from Enslaved's Art Book

There’s a gameplay mechanic in Ninja Theory’s Enslaved, a game which plays as a somewhat clumsy hack ‘n slasher with some auto-platforming a la Uncharted, that works much, if not completely like an escort would in most games. Due to a helmet placed on Monkey’s, the player, head, the player must protect a girl named Trip and escort her back to her home, and if the player fails to ward enemies off of Trip, she and the player will die. Thankfully, Trip can pull her own weight by providing the player with an upgrade system that ups basically all of the player’s abilities, decoys that will distract enemies, and tech-saviness that gets the duo through many a door and obstacle, all of which are unavailable to a player if Trip is not around. Better than most escorts, but still typical? Perhaps, if not for the fact that this mechanic links up with the story in a fascinating way. In a chapter about halfway through the game, a grief-stricken Trip leaves the player and runs through an enemy-infested area. With the threat of Trip and subsequently the player’s death looming overhead, the player must charge through the enemies and work their way back to Trip before the worst can happen to her. This is just one of many examples in video gaming in which narrative and gameplay are intertwined, and it’s an example that I use quite often in defending a game that tells a story that is not part of point ‘n clickie or unInteractive Fiction.

And just sayin', Binary Domain comes out on 2/28/12, has a few trailers and a demo out, and has been getting some pretty positive reviews. Seems legitamate, y'know?

In defense of the Mass Effect series, a series of which I’m not too fond of, it’s clear that the intent of this “tedious, button push” gameplay is to not only excite a player but to also bring that player closer to their companions and the story by placing them in massively life-threatening situations. Sadly, the gameplay does come off as a bit repetitious and the dialogue lends itself to a more “Good-Neutral-Bad” way of responding, but the attempt to bring these components together is important to the industry as a whole. Games such as Alpha Protocol and Binary Domain come into existence because the success of Mass Effect shows there’s a demand for games that can bring players into the shoes of someone on-screen. Alpha Protocol, a fairly faulty Third-Person Shooter, takes Mass Effect’s formula up a notch by not only limiting the amount of time a player has to respond in most conversation, but by also having different characters react drastically different to the different “Tones” that the player uses which has an extraordinary impact on how the story will unfold and on what the player will be able to do in the future. The upcoming Binary Domain takes player to character even further than that by allowing players with headset to banter using various phrases with their companions at most times, even times that are not exclusively conversation, like during a shoot-out or the like; this talking, whether in or out of straight-up conversation, has an effect on the relationship between the player and his companions, so much so that characters can being to ignore orders given in-combat should they be that hateful of the player. (It should be noted that in Alpha Protocol and likely Binary Domain that negative is not the only way in which characters are influenced; if a character becomes very fond of a player, there’s not only the obvious possibility of romance, but also the possibility of the character acting out of character and making mistakes that they would not make if they weren’t so fond of their leader). All three games exhibit faultiness and clumsiness, but all three also exhibit the wondrous trend games progressing into larger, more ambitious projects.

Now, there is a lot of merit in what Jaffe and Joe are saying, if a developer tries to get away with throwing out gameplay and story all willy-nilly without considering the quality of the two as well as how they work together, there is some serious reworking needed. However, the thought that Game and Story cannot coexist without one being just awful is not only short-sighted but all fairly harmful to a developing media.

Also, this man, David Jaffe? A fantastic developer, one of my Idols in the industry, so never let it be said that I think that he's anything less than amazing.

The Age of Video Game Stories Being Restricted to a Manual and the Mind is over. As of the last decade and so, video game developers have been invited into the world of on-screen fiction, and they have tried to blend story and action in order to immerse players in events in which they are a key component rather than having to simply watch as events go by. Clumsy, faulty, and not done as well as they should’ve been? Yes, these games that have tried at combining gameplay and story certainly have been, but that’s to be expected of a media so young as video games. No idea, be it of movie or book or farming or government, has ever reached their final step, their full realization, without stumbling up their first steps.

It's happening, you guys, slowly but surely it is happening.

Credit where credit is due:
– Enslaved Art Work From The Official Art Book, image from HeavenlyNariko’s Blog
– Binary Domain Picture Used For Many Promotions from Goozernation
– Picture of David Jaffe Courtesy of Playstation Lifestyle
– Book/NES Controller hastily put together by me, Book Clipart from Clker.com‘s Mohamed Ibrahimand NES Controller from Wikipedia.net

Thanks for reading! Until next time, happy gaming!


4 Comments on “On The Fence Between Game and Story”

  1. Lame Fool says:

    If you watch his video, I think he states that a game should tell its story though game play.

    Dialogue choices can be game play of course, so making a decision about what to say in fallout 2, for example, would not be an example of game play-story dichotomy.

    • smnfly says:

      Jaffe’s video? I’ve yet to watch that yet, actually, I only included Jaffe in my writing because it seemed like his comment was what sparked the Crystal Prison Zone article.

      And true enough, though one could argue against that because conversation and most dialogue choices usually take place in a cutscene-esque deal. I wouldn’t argue that to that extent, but I do think there’s enough of a line between that and the primary gameplay of most games that I wouldn’t have the umbrella term “gameplay” include dialogue choice, unless the game was a Bioware game or a Visual Novel since dialogue is a pretty hefty portion (100% of a VN) of those games.

      Oh, and thanks for the new ten-cent word, “dichotomy”! I’m gonna feel like such a fancy boss the one time that I whip that out in casual conversation.

  2. BobDD says:

    Was enslaved a commercial success?

    • smnfly says:

      Sadly, Enslaved was not a commercial success even though it was a critical success. However, the blame should be more on Marketing than on the Market. Case in point, look up Enslaved commercials on the youtubes.

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