July 3, 2022

Story vs. Gameplay

And time for a bit of a rant. Well, this isn’t going to go well at all, is it?


It’s true that video games are much better at telling ‘stories’ than they were years ago.

This isn’t a shock to someone like me who began gaming back in the early 80’s where the brunt of the actual “story” of a video game was told not through in-game dialogue or even environmental cues, but in the games manual. We needed those textual cue-cards in the manual to fashion an imaginary world from what was basic pixels on often pretty solid-coloured backdrops. As technology has improved, so too has the mediums capacity to weave a tale throughout its campaign; the advent of voice-acting in the mid-90’s and the explosion of it nowadays in pretty much every major game you can think of has also greatly increased the ability of video games to tell a story – and do it without dramatically inconveniencing the player in the process with reams and reams of text they have to spam the B/X button to get through because WE KNOW THIS ALREADY THANKS! Ahem.

But thing is, story is a problem in and of itself.

Now, I like TellTale’s The Walking Dead, and I gotta admit Until Dawn is kind of neat. But calling them “video games” is being generously charitable; they’re interactive stories, glorified choose-your-own-adventure style narratives which mostly play themselves until you get to make some decision or call, in which case the narrative arc swings dependent on your choice. And that’s fine too – I was a massive fan of the Lone Wolf titles back in my youth, and Joe Dever was essentially (and still is by and large) a freaking god in my eyes. This isn’t the kind of “interactive” thing that annoys me though – because they are what they are. They’re an advancement on what we’ve already had – an improvement on a formula that was tried and tested for a fair few decades, which has now transitioned largely to a digital form because this is where the market lies. Sure, they’re not “video games”, per se, but they’re not offensively different. The term “interactive novel” gets wheeled out, but is that really so terrible? I’m not averse to an interactive novel. And anyone who thinks they are is being rather snobbish about the whole thing.

Plus they’re built solely around the story anyway – the gameplay aspect is a bit of an afterthought, because it’s not important for that genre. No, the kind of nonsense I’m talking about are vdeo games which are so eager to tell you a story, or conclude a story, that it becomes a bigger deal for the game than the actual core gameplay function.

Enter, Stage Right… Resident Evil.

Resident Evil 6 was a game which tried way too much – it watered down its gameplay to a thin gruel whilst running around showing off its throbbing narrative ding-dong, fully erect, screaming for us to notice it. That is a comedic way of putting it, but I dare you to find a more apt analogy for it. I didn’t hate Resident Evil 6 for it, like many others – though I can’t say I’d argue the overall consensus on that front being wrong – but the story was TOO MUCH. The game was far too focused on its narrative, and as any Resident Evil fan like myself can tell you – that was a dumb, stupid, moronic thing for Capcom to do. Hell, do you think we’d have stuck around this long Capcom for the series story as a whole? No, no and HELL TO THE NO. Resident Evil, the PlayStation original, had a story and dialogue that was so B-Movie that we couldn’t help but double over in laughter, with classic likes like “You, The Master Of Unlocking…”, “Jill Sandwich” and “It’s… a snake… and… it’s poisonous…”.

What kept people like me hooked on Resident Evil, as a series, was it’s gameplay – and say what you will, it’s clear with the favourable remasterings of the Resident Evil Remake and Resident Evil Zero, it’s gameplay which has aged much better than that of Resident Evil 4 through 6. Not to say that Resident Evil 4 is bad; but the third-person over-the-shoulder angle has only served to highlight the wonky aiming that seems in-built, because heaven forbid someone who has more than a decade of military training or special ops training could ever hold a handgun steady, right? Whereas the rigidity of the classic Resident Evil holds up; it’s more than just aiming at a zombie in the room just out of sight, the auto lock-on aspect points out the general direction of said zombie, adding a tactical element to the proceedings. And we don’t think too much – shotgun aimed up takes a zombies head off. Easy. We don’t need a shaky laser-pointer for that. Zombie gets close, aim up with a shotgun, unload for said zombies head to splinter into mush.

Resident Evil 4 could be forgiven for being early – and frankly, the PC/Nintendo Wii versions are what you should be playing anyway with actual proper cursor aiming, like old-school light-gun games. Resident Evil 5 and 6? They got way too eager to move the series into a narrative arc as frustratingly convoluted as it was mechanically frustrating to play. Hell, I’ll even dig at Resident Evil 4 here since I went back to it not too long ago – the whole theme since Leon went to rescue Ashley has been set piece after laborious set piece, weaving in quick-time events and on-rails sections to really hammer home that these games… are trying to tell you something. And not in the subtle clever way, rather by wresting the controls from you and shouting loudly in your face, “HERE! TAKE A MOMENT TO THINK ABOUT WHAT WE JUST TOLD YOU! THINK! THIIIIIIIINK!”

I mean, Resident Evil 3 was narratively ludicrous too – I’ve covered how ludicrous before – but again, the gameplay WORKED. Not only that, but Resident Evil 3 came with an added gameplay tweak called Nemesis, the hideous eight-foot mutant killing machine with an unerring attraction for Jill Valentine (well, she WILL walk out into a zombie apocalypse wearing that outfit, and yes, I AM SHAMING HER DRESS SENSE THERE! She’s been in the line of zombies before! You’d think she might have something a little more “It’s a bit chilly out and zombies will have to bite through the denim…” and a little less “Walking A La Carte Menu”!). With some of the tightest action in the series, Resident Evil 3 still holds up better than most of the series contemporaries, and I include the Revelations games in that too.

The story is nonsense, of course, but heavens – do you need a bigger story in a Resident Evil game above “Look, it’s a zombie apocalypse!”? Many games since have kept it simple – Left4Dead the more notable. Heck, Left4Dead actually constructs narrative through gameplay mechanics – lock someone out? Too bad for that person, they’re lost and dead now. You killed them. You monster. Ahem. Sorry, went a bit GLADoS there for a second. And on that note – Portal. A game which tells a story with barely mentioning any actual story at all!

Gameplay matters; a game which isn’t interesting is a game which gets tossed aside, no matter how much it cost to make or buy. I’d mention The Order: 1886 here, but that’d be a cheap shot. Oh wait, I mentioned it. Damn. Games which are fun to play – which have strong, inventive gameplay underpinning them – are usually capable of holding up a weak plot. Or, as better developers have shown us over the years, can actually tell a unique story of its own – Dark Souls being a case in point, where each Chosen Undead has their own tale of hardship and the people they meet, and their overall fates.

But that’s the thing; gameplay is, at its core, a narrative device. What many critics forget is an overarching story carries additional weight; and weight requires a solid construction to carry it. For video games, gameplay is that skeletal structure that underpins everything. If the gameplay is too weak, the story will crush it to pieces – and then you’ve got nothing but a messy train-wreck. Let’s not mention The Order: 1886 again. DAMN!

Do not confuse “narration” with “narrative”; this is stupid. Telling a story is fine; telling a story over strong gameplay mechanics is fine. But then you get games like Sunset, or Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture – games which tell you a story, but neglect to add anything underneath it. They’re so desperate to tell you a STORY, that there’s nothing left. The story IS the game; there’s nothing more or less to it than that. And they don’t have the common decency to be like Until Dawn or anything by TellTale of late, and be good Interactive Stories. No, these games want to be GAMES. Story as gameplay. And that’s being derided right now too as “Walking Simulators”.

We’ve reached a point though where we have more voice actors and more pressure to have “narrative” than ever before; and I think that has come at the expense of core gameplay. The industry is besotted with telling a story – forgetting we grew up with twenty years where the industry could tell a story with nary a peep of a voice, and in most cases could tell a story without a word of dialogue. A six-hour game with almost two hours of motion-captured video? AWESOME! Except… that cuts down the six hour game I bought to FOUR HOURS. And that’s being generous in some instances. It’s nonsense – it’s almost like the games industry is so desperate to be Hollywood, it’s forgotten how and indeed why it became more culturally impactful than Hollywood in the last ten to fifteen years. It wants to be taken seriously – but this means telling stories that matter.

Stories that matter? Uh-huh. Right. Okay. And this generally means – we’re shoving this down your throat, hope you know how to suppress your gag reflex… because this might be pretty rank…

What you have is an industry that has forgotten the fundamentals – the basics of video games. Gamers should be having fun; no ifs, no buts – good, solid enjoyment. And that doesn’t preclude having any actual flavour either; Lufia 2 had a sad ending, one of the best sad endings, in fact. On the Super Nintendo. Final Fantasy 7 had plenty of themes of life, death and depression (and cross-dressing…). Link’s Awakening… sheesh, do we have enough time and space for this? No? Shame. Might have to do a think for Zelda’s 30th Anniversary on the subject of Link’s Awakening. You can do so much – but it’s nothing, NOTHING without solid gameplay holding the thing together. I like cinnamon – but I wouldn’t eat a spoonful on its own! Jeez, what’s wrong with some people… flavour something with it!

And Resident Evil is the best example of this I can think of. It went from a really strong game with a silly story to a listless game with a very silly story. Capcom simply forgot the fundamentals – strong, cohesive gameplay that holds the game together. You shouldn’t be fighting controls, or the environment, or gravity, or the camera, or a sticky controller button or worried we might be a pixel or two across a line which instigates a horrible insta-death scene forcing us to replay the last five or ten minutes of the game – you should be fighting ZOMBIES! That’s all we’ve ever really wanted from Resident Evil. And it’s why the classic games are getting such positive praise – their gameplay still holds up. It’s still mechanically and structurally sound. It’s also a better story; a journey from beginning to end built on well-constructed foundations.

But critics often hate this, because it suggests the industry is going nowhere – or indeed, going backwards. Well, in terms of telling tales, may I humbly suggest that going back may be the best manner in which to proceed forward – you want us to circle an industry that spends something like $100 million on a four-hour story with a third of that being quick-time events and cutscenes? Oh god, The Order: 1886 is being hammered in this piece, I’m sorry (no, I’m not). Seriously, this is what we, as gamers, HATE! We hate it. It annoys us. Yet whilst big-budget fare like that gets hammered, people like me are singing praises over games like Darkest Dungeon, SteamWorld Dig, Rogue Legacy and Shovel Knight. Mechanically sound indie fare which takes the lessons of the past, and brings them into a modern age – telling stronger, more dynamic and interesting stories than anything EA, ActiVision et al have told in almost a decade.

Story does matter – but if the games industry at large thinks it’s improved the actual quality of its storytelling of late, then it’s frankly deluding itself… and that’s not a positive sign.


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