In my many adventures around the internet, I happened upon a video in which the presenter described video games as being “art in disguise.” It seemed like an unusual thing to say but struck a chord with me nonetheless; and the more thought I put into this, the more it started to make a great deal of sense.
Video Game Narrative – Art in Disguise?
Video games, like the moving image (i.e. film) before it, is the culmination of three fundamental concepts: sound, sight, and story. These are combined from the three typical forms of artistic expression. Traditional art, that is to say paintings or drawing, gives us a picture to work with. Music provides the sounds and aids in emotional informing. Finally, literature developed narrative and started to allow art to explicitly tell a story outside of the implication and metaphor of lyrical or poetic voice. What film did was to combine the elements of more basic art forms and present them in unison. The images of traditional art were made to move and present the narrative, while sound and musical scores informed emotion and gave meaning.
Video games also follow this approach but add two extra levels of depth: interaction and challenge. This is the only form of art that actively challenges players and, in many cases, can – and will – deny a consumer access to itself should a test not be completed. But, like its brethren, a video game must have a purpose. That is the question that is most puzzling: does a game necessarily need to tell a story? Or is gameplay good enough?
Is Narrative Necessary To Have Fun?
To ask whether a story is necessary to enjoy a game seems like it should be easily answered: no. Surely all that matters is whether or not players can have fun doing in the game what they were expected to do: fight in a fighting game, or shoot in a shooting game. After all, that is how players choose the genre of game they wish to play. It makes sense that someone who enjoys the fast-paced, split-second decision-making of these two categories would opt to play them over, say, Super Mario Sunshine.
Is this enough, though? Actions in a game world may be incredibly fun and they may appeal to a gamer’s individual tastes but what do they represent without context. A character’s actions – and therefore a player’s options – require meaning. Meaning that is given to them, and shaped by, the in-game world. This world is driven by narrative and the interconnected stories of the characters within.
Even games not well-known for their stories have context for the action that takes place. Mortal Kombat, for example, is a story of the titular fighting tournament. This allows for the characters’ violence and combat to make complete sense. Further to this, these sorts of games have been seen to expand their narratives with story modes, such as those found in Injustice: Gods Among Us and the Soul Calibur series. The latter having a plot so dense it provides its own flowchart.
While it may be popular to think of games being more about our abilities in the game and toying with the world like a giant toy box, there must be some foundation for this. The game needs to provide a logical framework such that the players (read: audience) will believe the characters will behave in the way they do. Without, the game becomes unbelievable and players will not invest in it emotionally. Narrative design is now used as a method of creating “game cohesion.” Tying all the elements of the game together to make them more comprehensible and more sensical for the player.
Narrative vs. Gameplay
Whether you believe personally that a poignant narrative is important for enjoying a game or the gameplay elements are sufficient on their own to merit the coveted four or five stars, the fact remains that the game industry is in a place where designers are throwing darts at either end of the spectrum.
In actuality, it would pose little challenge for any informed gamer to pull out games that are too much story, more story than game, more game than story, and too much game. But trying to find a game that successfully strikes the delicate balance between the two elements and manage to author a genuinely interesting and gripping story is a different question entirely.
Too Much Game, Not Enough Narrative
At one end of the video game narrative spectrum, there are the games that have an idea of how they should play and elements are deducted from the story in order to facilitate the gameplay elements. The Call of Duty series is particularly guilty of this. The argument I encountered was that CoD is played mostly for the multiplayer options: the online deathmatches and capacity for LAN games. I have no qualms with a game designed entirely for multiplayer – party games such as Wii Party or Mario Party are prime examples of this – but this renders the campaign mode of CoD almost entirely redundant. It is a mode, I’m sure you will agree, that is designed for one person to still enjoy the game when friends or the internet are not available. That’s fine.
The story offered up is weak and little more than a shell for the player to run around and shoot some more Nazis or Communists or Zombies or whatever enemy the latest slew of games presents. Games with a token single player would be better suited to acknowledging the focus on multiplayer and do away with narrative design entirely or have a very loose explanation for why the character needs to shoot people (military boot camp or training, for example) than to include a story with a predictable plot and wracked with clichés.
Too Much Narrative, Not Enough Game
There are games that go too far in the opposite direction as well. Designers become so fascinated with their status as story-tellers or movie directors for a new generation that they completely miss the point of the interactive nature of gaming. Although I think their efforts to present a gripping and emotionally moving tale is worthwhile, to allow the gameplay to suffer in pursuit of this is unfortunate. Quantic Dream is a studio that hits this pitfall often. Their title Heavy Rain won critical acclaim for its story-telling and their use of quick time events in action sequences was enough to keep the game fun and also accessible to inexperienced gamers drawn in by the narrative.
Quantic Dream’s 2013 title Beyond: Two Souls, however, strayed too far away from gameplay in an attempt to present an equally exciting story. It is troubling that, in many ways, Beyond: Two Souls feels like it does not want you controlling the characters. Barely requiring you to push a direction on the joystick, this game would have been better suited to being a movie.
In The End, Does Video Game Narrative Matter?
This is going to be a matter of personal taste. For me, I want to feel like the game is rewarding my ability to play it, not my ability to sit through tedium. The game mechanics underpinning the experience need to fit the game’s style. Otherwise, the player would be as well watching a movie. Having said that, video games are the newest generation of story-telling media. It is important that the game have a point greater than being “something to do.”
Personally, I like to feel that my character is progressing. I need to see that the actions I am completing in the game are getting the character somewhere, affecting the world around him or her, driving some force for change. Essentially, I believe that a narratively-designed game validates the experience of the player by making what he or she is doing count for something.
Without these narratives, video games may still be fun but they lose the ability to resonate within the player. The uproarious applause at an orchestral recitation of the theme of The Legend of Zelda or Sonic the Hedgehog would be lost. There would be no emotional speeches like the death of Metal Gear Solid‘s Sniper Wolf. As much hinges on the quality of a game’s mechanics, it is the story and the world within that gives it its soul.