Virtual Insanities: Story vs Gameplay

When it comes to being told stories, one thing we expect from one chapter to the other is continuity. We expect the pieces of the overall story to flow together naturally, and we want the author to remember what he did with his characters in the past, thus making them act logically when confronted with choices and challenges. While it works most of the times with books, it becomes more of a problem with movies and TV series, where the writers can possibly change with each new episode. However, it becomes downright messy when it comes to wrestling, where each show seems to have a different writer on a weekly basis, and where performers are asked to change characters frequently, sometimes without rhyme or reason.

You will notice that this article is about video games, yet I didn’t include the medium in the above paragraph. That would be because my stance on the subject of storylines in gaming is that they should not be held to the same rigid standards that we have come to expect from other forms of storytelling. I agree that at least some sort of continuity is expected between two games when they come from the same series. What I don’t agree with is when game makers’ imagination becomes crippled because they are being too strict with a scenario. A storyline is important, but should it come at the expense of solid gameplay?

I am not saying that a storyline doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. What I believe is that with video games, it is normal if stories are more often self-contained, even within the same series. Because video games are primarily about effective gameplay and more importantly, having fun, the developers can take liberties that other forms of entertainment are not necessarily allowed. Let’s take the Spiderman movies as an example. Moviegoers feel emotionally involved with each new story because with each new movie, Peter Parker and the other characters are being more and more defined. This makes the job easier for the writers because they don’t have to spend as much time explaining a character’s motives. You know that Harry is pissed off because his father was killed; you saw it in the first movie. If you haven’t, well that’s too bad. A filmmaker has two hours to tell his story, so it’s normal if he doesn’t spend the first hour reminding the viewer of what happened previously. This is a reason why sequels and rehashes are so popular. If the audience is familiar with the characters, it becomes easier to write a story around them, since you don’t have to explain the setting, give some back-story, present the characters, etc.

This is very different in gaming. A game creator has to take into consideration the gameplay and the where he wants to take the gamer with his story. In order to make a great game experience, a developer has to imagine a story that will lead the player to execute the actions he imagined. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that the story will sometimes take unexpected turns. Although the basics of storytelling remain the same as with movies or books, someone who writes for video games has to overcome some challenges that are not present with the other formats. Unlike a movie series, a videogame series might have very different stories and characters, sometimes to the point of completely reinventing what has been done previously. This would be fine with most gamers as long as it ends up making sense and the fun they got from playing that part of the game was worth it. Unfortunately, some gamers will not be satisfied if everything doesn’t fit exactly the way they want it to.

I was reading a thread on a message board the other day, where posters were arguing about the geography of Hyrule. This was all related to the storyline of the Zelda series, which I appreciate a lot. Even though I do believe there is a set order in which the games must be placed in the timeline – series producer Mr. Aonuma even said so himself – I know that what I believe to be a correct timeline might be incorrect. These posters were arguing about how Twilight Princess cannot possibly be in the same timeline as Ocarina of Time because – gasp! – Lake Hylia is not at the same place on the map! This means that there is different Zelda universe! If there isn’t, then the game producers are idiots for not placing stuff correctly! They don’t care about how much fun they had playing the games; they prefer to complain about how the producers really messed up by not making the maps identical in both titles. Sure it’s the same place story-wise, but you have to let the creators do their thing.

That kind of stuff pisses me off. First of all, always playing the same game on the same map would be boring as hell. Let’s admit it: Zelda games are all essentially identical. It’s fun, but it’s always about saving the princess, killing the bad guy and going through dungeon. I’m not complaining, because that’s exactly what I like about the series. What matters is not really what Link has to do; it is how he gets there. This means that if you want to hook the player, you need to somehow make things different each time even though it still happens in Hyrule. Now if they made the game map the exact same thing all the time, there wouldn’t be much challenge and the locations would always be the same. By varying the map a little bit, the designers are making sure that they’re spicing things up a little bit. Yes, Kakariko Village in Twilight Princess doesn’t like at all like it’s Ocarina of Time counterpart, but where would the challenge be if it was the same thing all the time?

So, because the places are not at the same location, some people assume that it is either a) two alternate dimensions or b) bad storytelling. No it isn’t. That’s exactly what I was talking about earlier. Video games need to have more latitude when it comes to stories, or else a series would get boring after two games. In every case, the name of the place is Hyrule and the people are named the same. The makers of the series explain that stuff changes place because some games have hundreds of years between them, so stuff can be rebuilt elsewhere. Sure, it’s an easy way out, but if you want to have a fun game with a good story every time, you have to make abstraction of some less important matters, and as long as it doesn’t completely screw up the meaning or overall story of the series, then let it go. It’s not that important.

Another example would be the Mario series. These games will never get a 10/10 in the “Story” category of Inside Pulse’s patented game rating system. That’s understandable, because it’s arguably the weak point of the series and Mario’s back-story changes with each game. You know, he’s a plumber from Brooklyn who appears magically in Mushroom Kingdom to rescue a princess he doesn’t know and defeat an evil king – oh wait, he always lived there in fact and Luigi is his younger brother – scrap that, they are twins that were brought to their parents by storks – oh yeah, but they were saved by Yoshi – and you know what? He always knew Princess Toadstool after all – excuse me, Princess Peach. Not to mention doppelgangers that appear out of nowhere, and then that evil twin gets a twin of his own all of a sudden. However, the constant with each game is the fact that Nintendo keeps coming up with new gameplay mechanics that makes the games feel fresh, be it attaching a water-shooting device to Mario’s back or sending the guy in space.

There are actually people that hate the Mario series simply because the story takes a backseat. When I was in high school, I was the lonely N64 kid while others were playing with their Playstation. One guy in particular told me how cool Final Fantasy VII was because some guy was basically saving the world from an Armageddon and there were plot twists and characters getting killed. I told him I preferred Super Mario 64. All he told me was “That game sucks. I heard all that happens in the end is that Mario gets a cake”. Then he got back to rambling about plot twists. I know people like him are a minority, but these people forget the most important thing: games are meant to be fun to play and provide entertainment in its purest form. That should be the first goal of any video game: entertainment.

Let’s use two very different games to illustrate my point: Ikaruga and the Sonic series.

Ikaruga does have a story. It’s about some guy finding the power of the Gods, becoming bad because of it and sending your character crashing somewhere, with the locals giving you a ship to go back and kick ass. As you can see, the story is present, but kind of secondary. Still, the gameplay is amazing and it’s one of the most challenging games of its generation. The story mainly serves the original game mechanics thought of by the developers but still is just good enough to provide a solid basis should the series continue.

Sonic took the opposite direction. The series started with great gameplay, using the incredible sense of speed that the original provided to distance itself from the crowd of average platformers that were plaguing the industry at the time. However, over the years, the creators tried to add a better overall story, with betrayals, genetically-engineered hedgehogs, guns, love stories, humans-on-hedgehog kissing and other inane stuff that ended up doing nothing good, and eventually dragged the series down to the point where a good Sonic game is considered a surprise. By concentrating too much on the story and trying to give a meaning to everything, the games got further away from what made them fun at first: the fun, original gameplay.

Video games, as an industry, rely on sequels just as much as Hollywood. To keep things interesting, new gameplay is often required, and sometimes, it doesn’t go hand in hand with the storyline. This is why I think that while a good story is important, fans should take a step back and give more freedom to the developers. The story doesn’t have to be a perfect fit with previous instalments in a series, as long as it makes some sense in the end. Games can sometimes take over 40 hours to complete. With all that time, developers have the ability to start brand new stories with each new game, to make things different with each new chapter in an ongoing series. Why should they stay inside the strict rules established by previous instalments? In my opinion, the story should serve the gameplay, not the opposite.

Shigeru Miyamoto once said that when designing a game, he thought of a fun gameplay mechanic, and then once everything was in place, he would find the characters or story that would fit such a game. We can’t say he has ever really missed the mark by using this method.

In Closing

In the end, even though I prefer enthralling gameplay over continuity at any price, there will always be gamers that prefer the story. I am not the kind of person that can sit in front of an RPG, fighting thousands of randomly-generated battle with the hopes of reaching the boss and defeating him so I can see the riveting 30 minutes cut scene at the end. While I don’t really have the patience to do that, it’s still fine with me. There’s a market for that kind of games, and some of them are masterpieces of storytelling. I guess that there are some rare games that are the perfect combination of engrossing storytelling and addictive gameplay. I tried as hard as I could to find one as an example, and the closest thing I could come up with was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and even then, I know that some people hate the story because it’s basically the same as the rest of the series.

I don’t mind. As long as the game is fun to play.