19 October 2017

The Difficulty of Matching Story to Gameplay

    Whilst incredible when done correctly, a lot of games run into trouble when asked to tell a story in their experience, often taking control away from the player during these moments and separating the two with a very clear divide. In this article, I wish to explore a couple games that fall prey to this, and some recent examples of games hitting the nail on the head.

   I could draw examples from the entire Final Fantasy franchise, however I wish to focus on Final Fantasy 7 for its fame. Final Fantasy 7 has an amazing story, with beautifully written characters, and fantastic twist's and turns in the narrative. However you could cut the RPG out of the game, throw some actors at it and turn it into a film, and you would by all accounts have the same experience. Combat is constantly separated from the rest of the game, exploring the world is primarily about loot acquisition. There is some story and development tied into the vignette's, stage setup and triggered event's, but a flaw with the game is the severe lack of interactive story telling for a video game.

   I would compare this to another RPG, one with a significantly weaker story, in Pokémon. Story in Pokémon games traditionally is near nonexistent. There are 2 story lines in every game intertwined, one where the evil organisation (Team Rocket, Team Magma, Team Skull, etc.) Is chasing after a powerful Pokémon with evil intent. And the other story is the protagonist becoming a Pokémon master. No tragedy bi real character development. (though this has improved with more recent games,) yet the story matches the mechanics near perfectly. Becoming a Pokémon master is about overcoming obstacles, filling the Pokédex, and your Pokémon growing up, something well represented by the focus on the leveling up mechanics and Pokémon catching mechanics over all else.

    Another comparison that could be made, would be comparing FPS games Spec ops: The Line, to Destiny. Both amazing games, but there is a very real argument to be made that Destiny doesn't represent it's story at all good enough in it's gameplay. They focused on making the game enjoyable first, then slotted a story around it later on down the pipeline. The story is pretty weak, doesn't fit particularly well, just like it's soundtrack. If you were to experience these separately from a game format, it would be amazing, as a novella or a film. However as a game, there's very little reason given why we are doing what we are doing in the game. There is a lot of story in Destiny, but it's all situated outside the game. It happened in the past, it's recorded on some website, rather than represented in large in the full game. And while this isn't inherently a bad thing, see League of Legends for example, it's a tool that doesn't fit every game. And a game that has a clear beginning, middle and end, has plenty of ways of utilising this storytelling technique.

    Spec Ops: The Line as juxtaposition, is a game praised for it's beautiful story, Without any spoiler's, they have taken very heavy theme's about war, dark dangerous storyline s for a dark dangerous job shooting enemy forces. It's a very fitting game for the emotions they wanted to evoke in the player, what better game to explore the minds of war, than a first person shooter? The characters are very real, they have a lot of emotion, a lot of expression. A far cry from other FPS games where you mow down a hundred soldiers without thinking twice, Spec Ops: The Line is a game that straight up wouldn't work as any other genre of game.

   I of course don't mean to suggest that there is only one perfect story to be told by each genre, that each game needs to perfectly encapsulate it's story through gameplay mechanics, I don't mean that at all. Some games can absolutely decide to prioritise making the gameplay good, then introducing story and character at a later date. Recent multiplayer only games Overwatch and League of Legends are perfect examples of this, where there is mountains of story for players to engross themselves in, but that don't get shown at all in the actual game. You could have never played them before, and just by poring over the pages and pages of League of Legends lore and developing content, you can get a grasp for the story behind the world. By watching Overwatch's animated shorts, reading their comics, their short stories, you can absolutely discover the story behind the scene's of the game, story that ultimately has very little impact on the actual multiplayer aspect of them. I also feel like the gameplay itself is vastly improved, because they never have to consider what story might become wrong if they make a big change.

    To conclude, I think there is a lot of important discussion to be had around this topic. Whether we should anchor our idea's to the game genre (or the other way around), whether we do the opposite and ignore it, or where that sweetspot in the middle actually lies. Whether it's best to focus on story or gameplay is certainly a question with no easy answer. Some will prefer it one way, others another, it really comes down to a point of personal preference.


  1. I think my favorite games tend to be games like FF7 where the story is so gripping, that you must continue to play. I feel that games should have a very compelling story first, as that's really the hardest thing to nail down in video games, as developers are trained to focus on gameplay elements. I feel that's why snob elitists think that video games are not art, as the focus of developers is just that, focusing on gameplay.

    I think the gameplay is much easier to stick in, whether FPS, turn-based, action, etc as that is the bread and butter of game developers, they're experts in that field. I think that's why I didn't find FF12 as compelling as FF7, even though arguably, the gameplay is more addictive in 12 than 7.

    I'm of the camp where gameplay (variety of enemies, complex level design, enemy placement, interesting bosses, great melee/ranged combat, etc) is first and foremost, but there are some games where the story is so brilliant that it elevates the game. I actually didn't quite like The Last of Us gameplay, but the story and characters are so incredible that this game is elevated to masterpiece status.

    So the goal is to have both brilliant story, character development AND gameplay, which is rather hard to do, but possible as seen in Horizon: Zero Dawn, in particular, which is why it's my favorite game of 2017 thus far!

  2. By no means am I trying to knock great games like these down, honestly the fact it's still critically acclaimed despite shortcomings just makes them even more amazing. My point though, is that the gameplay behind them did these games a disservice. We should still aim to tell amazing stories like those mentioned, but consider carefully how best to tell them, how best to get a response out of the player. We can still stick to the genre, and it's something that I think Final Fantasy especially has really realised with recent titles, simply by giving the players movement during combat in the more action oriented, Kingdom Hearts, style fighting from Final Fantasy 15 and onwards.

  3. I do like the turn-based mechanics, but I'm in the minority, though this genre may pick up given the success of Persona 5. I like planning the strategy, though at times, it does get a bit rote where you just endlessly press attack. I agree that FF7 could benefit from a combination of turn-based and real-time elements, such as Eternal Sonata and the Lost Odyssey.

    JRPGs are now heading toward more action-oriented as Western developers have gotten more influential and more commercially successful. I do wish they'd go back to the turn-based mentality of deliberate actions, which if done real-time, translates into gameplay such as Dark Souls and Monster Hunter, where you have to be deliberate instead of hacking and slashing.

    Off-topic, I received Undertale since you highly recommended the game, but too addicted to Fortnite to start a new game :)