Story vs. Gameplay

I was recently asked two related questions by a writer:

1. How important is narrative to a video game?
2. Has there ever been a truly interactive narrative?

Short replies

1. Not very.
2. No.

Long replies

1. How important is narrative to a video game?

It depends entirely on the kind of experience you’re attempting to craft for a player.

In many cases, a story should do nothing more than support the gameplay, and it can do so with very light application – merely setting the context of the game, providing bookends to sections of gameplay, and providing some kind of satisfying epilogue.

We’ve managed to earn critical acclaim for our first two titles with the bare minimum of story, eliminating the (un)skippable cutscene entirely. In the case of Coconut Dodge, the story is a couple of paragraphs not even included in the game. People have obviously commented on a lack of story in our games, but it hasn’t stopped them from being very enjoyable.

We’ve done this because the enjoyment of a game can be severely hampered if story takes priority. It’s a rare game that manages to interlace gameplay and story gracefully, and even rarer for a game to create a compelling interactive narrative. More often than not, one side suffers as a result of trying to do both.

Even the successful AAA titles from Quantic Dream and Naughty Dog – where narrative plays a major role in the experience – include sections of gameplay that are dull and laborious, because they are included only to serve the narrative.

Ultimately gameplay and story are very different forms of art, and despite them often appearing to cross over, their relationship is actually more akin to that of music and sculpture; fundamentally different.

As a studio we choose to focus on gameplay.

2. Has there ever been a truly interactive narrative?

No. Games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect give the impression of interactive narrative, but it’s only an illusion.

In my opinion a great deal of time and money has been wasted in the last few years in pursuit of creating games with user choice as the USP and creative goal.

I look at it this way:

A truly great story causes a reader or viewer to get satisfaction from relinquishing any kind of control, completely absorbing themselves in the narrative, characters and direction of the story. A successful story sucks in a reader or viewer and compels them to follow along.

As soon as you give a reader/viewer the ability to change the story, or interact with it, you break that satisfying state. You also weaken the author’s power to tell a great story. The more interactive you make the narrative, the weaker the author becomes.

In contrast, a successful game pulls a player into the flow state, where a fine balance between challenge and control is achieved. The flow state requires constant input from a player, which is totally at odds with the relinquished control state of following a narrative. Breaking the flow state is disruptive and annoying, and is exactly what happens when an unwanted cut scene or tutorial interrupts a game.

It is possible to get the rhythm perfectly pitched to give a player segments of flow state immersion which reach a well timed gameplay climax, followed by episodes of narrative with its own rhythm and climax – but that is not an interactive narrative – it’s the two art forms supporting each other in a mixed-media experience.

I believe that the two arts are impossible to integrate fully, and a bit of a waste of time and money to pursue because attempting to unite them compromises their respective strengths.

In my opinion, the goal should be to find perfect rhythmical balances between gameplay and story, so that the resulting experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts, not weaker.