Telling stories: Balancing gameplay v. narrative

Jason Dobson
J. Dobson|12.22.08

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Telling stories: Balancing gameplay v. narrative

As games have evolved, so too has the role of storytelling in the titles we play. As we turn the corner on 2008, we asked multiple industry personalities across all walks of game development on titles such as Dragon Age: Origins, Bionic Commando and Guild Wars for their thoughts.

How important are stories? How about endings? Over the next week this diverse group of personalities sounds off on these and other story-driven topics, starting today as we open up by asking whether or not narrative shares an equal burden as gameplay in carrying the video game experience.

David Gaider, lead writer on Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins and author of the first Dragon Age novel, The Stolen Throne

I don't think they have to, but they certainly can. There is definitely room for the type of game where you are drawing the player into an engrossing story. I think a distinction needs to be made between the narrative of the story and the personal narrative of the player. The player's experiences in the game – where they go, what they fight, the choices they make – inform their own personal ongoing story that is often going to deviate from the story that the developers are trying to tell, and you need to give them the room to create that story.

Take that away from them and you destroy their agency, which is going to make them feel removed from (if not outright controlled by) the events of the plot. It's not an easy balance to create. Player agency is often an illusion, after all, but if you go too much the other way and rely on gameplay to provide the player their narrative, then you run the risk of making them feel unmotivated or purposeless.

Jeff Ross, Resistance Retribution game designer at Sony Bend

Since game mechanics can only reproduce the abstraction an experience, it is left to story/theme/narrative to help complete player immersion. Consider Frequency and Amplitude, two fun and very abstract music games that most people have never heard of. Simply changing the theme and adding a guitar-shaped controller transformed the experience completely. People were no longer pressing random buttons in sequence to music, they were rock stars. This is narrative at work.

Ulf Andersson, GRIN co-founder and Bionic Commando game director

Narrative is really important, although I think gameplay always wins. If gameplay is already locked in place and working properly, narrative can help the player understand and get into the mood of the game, making it a richer experience. Narrative can also help the player understand what to do, so he/she can focus on the challenge instead.

I hate it when it's hard to find the lever and once you've found it its "press X to open door". I want to see that lever clearly, but there should be a rabid-mutant-laser-tiger fight to get to it.

Joe Morrissey, senior game designer at MMO publisher NCsoft NorCal

As games evolve the distinction between gameplay and story crumbles ... this is a good thing. Nearly every example of good gameplay I can think of makes sense in regards of the story the game is trying to tell. The evolution of story-telling in games stems from us (the developers) learning how to allow players to do the story rather than show or even worse tell the story.

Oftentimes, story is seen as simply words on the screen, rather than the experience we're trying to convey to the player. The better games out there have shed this misconception and brought a much more compelling, engrossing experience to the player.

Jeff Grubb, designer and writer for Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2

The best narrative supports gameplay, giving it a grounding and creating a believable world.

Brad Wardell, CEO of Galactic Civilizations developer, Stardock

Actually, to me, gameplay trumps everything. I think good story telling can accentuate good gameplay. But the best story in the world is meaningless in a game if the game itself isn't fun.

Dan Tovar and Mark Brown, co-producers on Splatterhouse for Namco Bandai

I'm not sure I would say they are equal, as it most certainly is dependent on what type of game you are talking about. Simple games that are fun and addictive based on a few simple mechanics do not require much, if any story. But more complex games and certainly games that want to create an emotional attachment with the player need to explore narrative more deeply.

If you want to get past simple high score counts, then the player needs to feel they are part of something, that they are involved on a more significant level than just point and shot type scenarios can provide. The game stills needs to be fun and satisfying first and foremost but yes, then it must be engaging and entertaining to see what unfolds to a particular character.

Jools Watsham, owner and game director of Moon developer, Renegade Kid

Yes, I think narrative is extremely important in adventure games. The context of your situation in a game is a very important aspect of your enjoyment. We approached the development of Moon for the Nintendo DS with this in mind; putting a lot of focus on the setting, story and characters, and how they worked with the gameplay to produce an interesting experience.

Tom Gaubatz, producer for publisher Mastiff

It depends completely on the genre and the title. That said, a huge part of our concept of games is still inherited from early arcade games: stimulate the player just enough to make him put in another quarter. Games are still, in most cases, very much about short-term rewards. Regardless of the quality of the story, if the gameplay doesn't deliver regular challenges and psychological rewards, people won't play it.

This sounds cynical, but it's just part of the medium and its heritage. Gameplay is imperative even for the most narrative-driven, non-twitch games. For instance: if there weren't crazy monsters chasing you around Silent Hill, or at least a real threat of them, it wouldn't be a very interesting game. That's gameplay in service of narrative, but the gameplay is still central.

My priority as a producer is to find the right balance between narrative and gameplay for a particular genre and a particular game. Why is the story there? Is the game there to serve the story or the other way around? Does the story need to provide long-term motivation, instruction for specific tasks, or just a sense of pacing and aesthetic depth?

With Moon, an extremely intense first-person shooter, we knew we wanted to tell a story, but the story couldn't get in the way of the action. To do this, we took a traditional approach of making a distinction in the flow of each level between "safe" areas where the story unfolds and "action" areas where the player can focus on gameplay. This kind of approach has been criticized as artificial, which it certainly is, but artifice isn't necessarily a bad thing. The structure worked very well for Moon because it gave us an organic way of regulating the pacing.

We actually experimented with integrating story and action a little more in some earlier versions, but it hurt the level of intensity so we switched to a more traditional design. As it is, the story drives the game forward and provides context but never interferes with the action. It was the right approach for a hardcore shooter.
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