Story Time: Why can’t gameplay and narrative get along?

The script makes no sense, but blowing sh*t up is appealing so that’s alright. Not to be a Mister Negative Ned, but I was under the impression that game developers and writers had a lump of high-functioning organic matter in the space between their ears. […]
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The script makes no sense, but blowing sh*t up is appealing so that’s alright.

Not to be a Mister Negative Ned, but I was under the impression that game developers and writers had a lump of high-functioning organic matter in the space between their ears. Recent mainstream titles – you know, the stuff weElectronic Theatre Image actually tend to expect a decent story from – have given me cause to doubt this thesis.

The two games that have succeeded in goading my inner critic to the point where I could almost kiss my smiling, professionally unbiased, side goodbye and unleash a tirade of cutting remarks are the rehashed Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite. What’s interesting is that I have found these games gradually dislikeable for their almost polar opposite displays of the same problem: their stories and how they’re told to us.

Just to be clear, there are no spoilers in the proceeding paragraphs, though you may very well resent me for pointing out the flaws in these games – seeing as they are, to be honest, entertaining games to play as long as you don’t think too hard. Another thing to consider is that I’m not ‘picking’ on these games alone, just citing them as two recent examples of a problem that’s become an acute illness of the AAA title.

Understood? Excellent.

The problem in question is more of a continuity issue; how to maintain the feel of the narrative and the impact of the script while the player is running free in the game world, so the gameplay and story don’t clash.

This is something Tomb Raider managed to fail at with rather spectacular flourishes of stupidity. I actually laughed once or twice during the gritty cutscenes, which were pumped full of Ms. Croft’s breathless lines of seriousness and intense melodrama, Electronic Theatre Imagebecause only a few seconds beforehand I’d been gunning down wave after wave of armed thugs. Thugs who were supposed to be survivors, tough men who knew how to adapt and overcome.

They sure as hell couldn’t overcome Lara’s ancient English art of walking slowly towards the enemy while firing. ‘Survivors’, my arse. Hell, I’d blown up entire buildings by shooting red barrels – we all know red barrels explode when you shoot them – and ‘insta-killing’ enemies with dodge moves for bonus experience. Then a cutscene happens and Lara is bricking it while trying to overhear conversations, climb up radio towers, or infiltrate ruined buildings. Come to think of it, didn’t she get stabbed in or around the kidney near the beginning of the game? She must heal fast to be able to ignore such a wound and run around an entire island.

I had a healthy discussion/light argument with a certain editor a few weeks ago about Ms. Croft’s latest adventures, and whilst we agreed the script wasn’t offset too well by the gameplay his opinion on the game itself was that it appealed to the mass market. Electronic Theatre ImageBy appealing to a wider audience – who presumably like cover-shooter mechanics and blowing things up with under-slung grenade launchers – Tomb Raider had reignited its franchise success.

I maintained that the gameplay went in entirely the wrong direction and should have stuck to something that fell more closely in line with the story. I’m an altruistic moron at the best of times.

“Where would you have taken it?” he asked me.

“Survival horror.” I suggested.

“Congratulations, you’ve just lost a majority of your gaming audience! Publishers don’t want things that aren’t appealing to large gaming demographics, and the largest demographic want action. Survival horror is a shrinking market.”

Hard to dispute that. Tomb Raider did very well for itself, both in the eyes of critics and gamers who went out and bought it in the week of its release. Even I enjoyed it for what it had to offer, but how its story and gameplay clashed together (with QTEs being a pet hate of mine) left a bitter taste in my mouth.

BioShock Infinite managed to annoy me in an entirely new way.

Most game narratives suffer from a lack of context. We’re just expected to suspend disbelief a few times to account for the way things look or what happened in the past, or how characters can perform superhuman feats of martial prowess.Electronic Theatre Image BioShock Infinite‘s problem is that it added too much context to aspects of its world and characters, through both the cutscenes and audio diaries scattered around Columbia.

If you’ve finished Irrational Games latest masterpiece – and BioShock Infinite, despite its twisty-turny nodes of causality, is a masterpiece – then you know of what I speak.

For the uninitiated, think of any far-fetched plot idea.  Think of the iconic lightsaber from Star Wars; that’s a perfect example. It’s a melee weapon composed of energy, people who use them can dual other lightsaber wielders, and they crackle with power whenever they move or come into contact with objects. THAT is as much context as you need. If you go on trying to explain how the lightsaber blade restricts itself to a specific size while expelling the same energy levels, how it can even make physical contact with other energy blades when it’s not solid, or even what kinds of power would be required to keep it charged… you’re basically stuffed.

BioShock Infinite does the same thing by introducing the impossible – a city in the sky – and giving it a little context – ballasts and rockets – then adding more and more detail to the basic idea. It does this with every plot twist, over-seasoning every Electronic Theatre Imagedamned aspect of the story and the characters, so that by the time the end hits you’re past caring about what the hell is going on. BioShock Infinite‘s gameplay is where your mind runs for solace. Things make more sense there: you shoot, open magic portals, and enemies die.

Now, surely it’s possible for us to find a happy medium. Somewhere gameplay and narrative can co-exist without going up against or overpowering one another.  Consistency, people. Sweet, sweet consistency.

If developers want to tell gamers a story about hard choices and human struggles to survive, they could do it through both the gameplay and the narrative. If they wanted to immerse us in a fantastic, wondrous world, it is possible to do it without adding copious amounts of detail as to how everything works, in tandem with plot twist after plot twist.

It would be a nice thing to experience, that’s all. A game where I don’t find myself declaring, “What a load of b***ocks”, once the credits start rolling. Is that too much to ask?


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