Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Gameplay vs. Story

I'm in the middle of my second playthrough of Divinity: Original Sin, and I'll probably stop playing there. On my first playthrough I used the Lone Wolf talent on both characters, which meant that they couldn't have henchmen and I played through the whole game controlling just two characters, buffed with additional health and ability points. On the second run I didn't use that talent, so now I control 4 characters, each of them having less health and ability points. That makes a nice change to gameplay, so combat remains interesting. But there is a large other half to Divinity: Original Sin, in the form of story and exploration. There are no random encounters, everything is scripted, and playing through the game a second time means having the same dialogues again, following the same story, and running through the same scripted encounters. Which gets boring fast. As it took me around 100 hours to finish the game once I would still very much recommend Divinity: Original Sin, but compared to let's say a less story heavy game with more random elements like Diablo, Divinity has less replay value.

On the one side you could say that the story is getting into the way of gameplay in this situation. On the other side I don't think I would have enjoyed the game so much if it hadn't had a story. The exploration of the world and the story contributed a lot to the entertainment. I get bored quickly of so-called rogue-like games where all you get is a random dungeon and gameplay with no story. And I tend to play through Diablo games only once (which isn't what that game is designed for).

That isn't to say that games can't be great fun if they have only gameplay and no story. Nobody ever complained about the lack of story in Tetris or Pac-Man. Even many modern casual games get along nicely without much of a story: Farmville, Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans, they all are nearly exclusively about gameplay, not story. But once we get into more cinematic games on the PC or console, newer games get increasingly story-heavy. Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us, Batman Arkham series, Skyrim, Mass Effect, Bioshock, Deus Ex, there are a lot of AAA games out there which are essentially about story. And that can be problematic.

One problem I already mentioned is replayability. Often a game only has ONE possible story, with maybe a few minor variations or alternative endings. Playing a story-heavy game twice ends up feeling like reading a book twice, at the very least you wouldn't want to do it without a lengthy pause between.

The other big problem is that if the game has a story, there is a possibility that you don't like the story, even if you like the gameplay. My wife and me bought The Last of Us together, and tried to play it. But she didn't like the gameplay, and I didn't like the story, so after a short trial we both abandoned the game. There are a lot of zombiecalypse and horror games that I don't play because I don't enjoy horror stories (I might be too rational for them). I am also more likely to enjoy a historical or fantasy game than a science-fiction or superhero game. Everybody has preferences, and if a game is heavy on story, that story might not coincide with your preferences, even if you would like the gameplay.

Related to that is that the more cinematic games become, the more realistic the stories get, the more people might come into a situation where the story of the game clashes with their view of the world. And I'm not just talking feminists here, but for example there were a lot of people who objected to the world view of the Grand Theft Auto games. Russia rated The Sims 4 as 18+ game and "harmful", because characters in that game can be gay. And the Call of Duty airport scene caused a lot of discussion about video game brutality. I've even seen discussions about World War II war games which pondered whether these games should allow the Nazis to win. Dungeons & Dragons was accused of leading teenagers towards satanism.

Of course that is a problem that books and movies have always had. But the combination of story and gameplay is often thought to have a bigger impact on people than just reading a book or watching a movie. You often get into situations where because the game is scripted that way or because it makes it is advantageous from the gameplay side, you as the player commit actions that you would consider unethical or even evil in real life. And that is just in the game, there have been a lot of stories how then unethical or evil behavior swapped over from a multiplayer game into the real world. There is a fine line between considering your opponents avatar as your enemy in a multiplayer game and actually wishing the player behind that avatar harm. Although in the case of multiplayer games you could say that this has less to do with the setting and the story of the game than with the adversarial gameplay.

There is certainly a movement which thinks that games can be art, and as such could be used to tell more difficult stories and more difficult themes. And just like every form of art, that can result in a work of art as an expression from the artist which many people can't understand. I must admit I am somewhat puzzled for example by Mountain. There have been a number of games where there has been a discussion whether that software actually *is* a game, because they very much lacked gameplay.

In the end nearly all games contain some elements of story or setting and some elements of gameplay. Which is one of the reasons why games are so hard to review: Was it the story you liked or didn't like or the gameplay? But the interaction between the two is one of the factors that makes games special compared to other more passive media.

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