Game Structure and Narrative

Recently I played Rise of the Tomb Raider, which was a lot of fun, but it got me thinking about narrative and game design. Namely, the idea that they don’t fit together well. A lot of games, Tomb Raider included, are broken into two parts: gameplay and story. They’re both pretty self-explanatory, but I want to talk a bit about how they interact.

The gameplay is the part where you run around and shoot the baddies, get the points/experience/whatever. Rinse and repeat. This is usually the part where the protagonist gets shot in the head and chomps on a turkey leg to regenerate health. The gameplay is always the meat of the experience. It’s what we spend the most time doing and why we play to begin with.

If the gameplay is the meat, then what’s the story? Usually, it’s the framing (or the skeleton). The story is an excuse to bust in the tower door and decapitate the wizard. It gives us a reason and context for what is going on, why it’s going on, and how we’re going to shoot it in the face. The story is told in three to five minute cutscenes that break up the action (unless it’s MGS). Again, the gameplay is the meat so we don’t spend a lot of time in the cutscenes.*

*I know there are certain games and genres that buck this trend. I joke about Metal Gear Solid, but JRPGs are story heavy as well, though if you consider their 100hr length versus how much of that is actually story it might be a rough equivalent to the format mentioned above.

The story will always be regulated to a second tier, and that is why is loses some of its importance, its ability to unfold and pull the player in. But, on the opposite end, I’d rather play a game with good gameplay and a bleh story than one with an amazing story but bleh gameplay. Bad gameplay is much harder to tolerate than a bad story.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a great game, with phenomenal gameplay and action sequences, but a bleh story. It’s only there to propel us on the adventure, and we never get to dig deep into the subjects presented. The game did its best to set up as much as it could, to try and communicate through subtext of conversation, but there’s only so much you can do in five minute intervals. It favoured the gameplay instead of the story. Even the cutscenes seemed eager to remind you of this. They had a tendency to end with gunfire, an explosion, or a threatening helicopter as if to say, “don’t worry, the gameplay is still here.”

No one takes notice of how messed up Lara’s become. She lights dudes on fire and stabs them in the head.

No one takes notice of how messed up Lara’s become. She lights dudes on fire and stabs them in the head.

Gameplay and story have always been disconnected, and we don’t see it anymore. In gameplay mode the protagonist takes a shotgun blast to the face, ducks behind cover, and puts a band-aid on in. In story mode, a bullet to the gut means they’re dead. And we just accept it, because we all know the game wouldn’t be fun if the player died from one or two bullets. That’s why I dislike this structure. We’re used to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The Last of Us melds the two together well, but still falls into some of the same traps. Joel’s combat sequences are more than just gameplay mechanics, they build his character. Joel isn’t a good guy, he’s a broken, selfish person, and each time he murders an enemy we get the sense that it’s affecting (or reinforcing) his mental state. The gameplay shows us what he is willing to do for self-preservation, and this is then supported by the story in the cutscenes. When it comes to the game’s final decision, we’re more likely to believe that Joel would make the selfish decision over the altruistic one. In this way the gameplay informs the narrative.

Story as a bookend is frustrating. It’s clear that it’s only there to set up some context, to be an excuse for the adventure. I like the adventure, I want to be on the thrill ride too, but I want the story to keep up. To be more than just set up for the next action sequence.

Of course, this isn’t all games and there are some that do both phenomenally (Witcher 3 comes to mind). Do you guys have any examples of games that you think intertwine story and gameplay in effective ways?

This was originally posted on Medium.