The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay


[Developer Ara Shirinian (NightSky, The Red Star) picks apart the gameplay/narrative question by examining how games handle cinematic interactivity, how movies handle fight sequences, and how XEODesign’s Nicole Lazzaro’s list of gameplay emotions apply to one medium and not the other.]

Video games are incredibly powerful and sophisticated.
Despite all of its history and baggage (all those WWII rifles and Pokémon are
no insignificant burden) the video game is arguably the singular unique medium
that can be considered a container for all other media that came before it.

Consider that back in the ’70s, video games were
generally conveyances for electronic gameplay and little else. When you bought
a game for your Atari 2600, it went without saying that what you got was a
system of rules, a goal that challenged you (with rare exceptions), and an
interface to play within.

Video games in 2009 still largely feature those
same essential ingredients, but technological developments over the past four
decades have allowed our games to contain myriad other methods of expression that
most of us take for granted.

The changes have not been quantitative — they are
qualitative, and they have exploded the sense of what a video game can be so
much that the original point of the “video game” may not even be
applicable in many cases.

The games of the ’70s could not adequately convey
the expansiveness of the landscape unfolding before you in a DiRT 2 rally, the mystery of first
setting foot in BioShock‘s ruined
utopia, or the sheer Tolkein-esque volume of lore told through Oblivion‘s in-game books.

They couldn’t
express the aural subtleties of Batman:
Arkham Asylum
, the passive-aggressive manipulations of your host in Portal, or the seething tension between Snake
and Ocelot in the Metal Gear Solid

In a quiet and unassuming way, for better or
worse, the video game of today has evolved beyond just abstract gameplay and into
a generalized entertainment medium that can contain imagery, audio, and text of
almost any kind. Indeed, we have already surpassed the point where the quality and
category of exposition is more limited by how we choose to allocate our
resources and our ingenuity than it is by any hard technological constraint.

Strictly speaking, two forms of media that video
games are best (and uniquely) suited to express are visual narratives (like
film), and gameplay (which specifically is a subset of human-computer
interaction). Now most people agree that film is better-suited to expressing straight
narrative than a game is. But gameplay is a unique quality of video games, and
video games are also quite well-suited to expressing narrative, technically
speaking — they have most all the capabilities that film does.

So video
games are the only game in town if you want gameplay, and they are pretty darn
good at expressing anything we have done in the medium of film. So it’s not surprising
that many of the brightest game developers have been trying their darnedest to
combine them in elegant ways — to unify the two media, if you will.

A few years ago there was an outburst of media
exposure around the prospect of inducing players to cry. From Neil Young, then EA
Los Angeles’ General Manager, One of the things that’s
really important for us is answering the question that our company was founded
on: ‘Can a computer game make you cry?’ … That’s an answer, he said, [Steven]
Spielberg can help EA answer.”

Soon after, designer David Jaffe revealed that he was
in fact working on the very same problem with one of his game concepts. “One
of them is to be the most emotional video game ever made. The end goal is that
players at the end of the game are actually choked up — if not crying –
because we’ve done our job so well.”

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Hideo Kojima, who has concentrated strongly on
narrative with his Metal Gear Solid games, has also expressed a desire
to integrate those elements into gameplay more effectively than what he and
others have been able to accomplish:

Halo, BioShock — I see their approach and I think they are brilliant in
some ways, but I still feel they still lack a kind of a deeper storyline, or
the expression of the feelings of the characters. I do have plans of how I
should approach this and get around it.”

“In MGS4,
yes, I put everything in the cut sequences, which I kind of regret to some
extent, because maybe there is a new approach which I should think about. I’m
always thinking about it — making it interactive but at the same time telling
the story part and the drama even more emotionally. I would like to take that
approach, which I am still working on. ”

On the face of it, it’s a logical progression and
combination. You just watch film. But you play games, and anything expressed in
film can also be contained within a game, so the narrative that you actually get
to play must be the next holy grail of gaming, right?

But why haven’t we achieved that perfect synthesis
of gameplay and narrative yet? Why have there always been compromises and stilted
combinations of the two? Are we too naive, or just not smart enough as game
developers to figure it out? Or is it something else?

To find out, first we have to evaluate what we
have already accomplished in this arena, and then we have to look closely at
each medium by itself, to see if there is anything that makes the combination a
thornier concern than just whipping together peanut butter and chocolate.

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