Game Design Problems: Editing out the Subtext

I've covered storytelling in games before, noting that games can utilize unique interactive elements to help convey narrative. Today, I'm going to critique techniques which do the exact opposite: gameplay working at the cost of narrative.

Now, you may be wondering: gameplay is king, why does it matter if story is sacrificed on the altar of gameplay? In most situations, it doesn't. Compelling interaction trumps the need to craft narrative in 90% of cases. However, in the cases that put story in the forefront, there's an impression to make compromising decisions in order to meet their gameplay quota. I spoke previously about a similar effect: of games not "committing" to their style or technique (compelling gameplay or compelling storytelling) in the name of balance but at the cost of both. Now, I'm not saying they cannot co-exist, because they absolutely can. But, here I want to focus on games that primarily try to tell a story, with gameplay as a secondary aspect. I want to talk about story-driven games.

Your archetypal story-driven games is the role-playing game.  In classic role-playing games, a balance is struck between narrative and gameplay elements. The way an RPG generally balances these out is to make them both completely distinct: "game mode" and "story mode". Where "playing" the player is managing their party progression, fighting enemies, and solving puzzles. When in "story" mode, the player is absorbing the narrative. The most distinct and obvious examples of these is the dungeon and the cutscene. However, RPGs do typically contain a mode of play that merges the two "modes". When players explore new towns and interact with the environment the gameplay helps to tell the story. The two modes co-exist at the same time. So you see, you could quantify RPGs as a blended genre, focusing in almost equal measure on both modes of play.

Let's take another example: action-adventure games. As of late action-adventure games have become more and more story-centric, focusing on the cinematic elements to tell a compelling story while allowing the player to experience the narrative through the gameplay. The player gets put in control of the thrilling moments of the cinematic experience. Nowhere is this highlighted more thoroughly than the Uncharted series. Crafted to offer a narrative experience that gives control to the player during exciting adventure moments, these games feel like the player is playing the lead in an action-adventure film. And rightly so: the player is taken on a narrative ride and gets to experience the action first-hand through the gameplay. In this genre, the game still has distinct modes of play: storytelling and gameplay. However instead of the distinction between telling the story and playing the game these games split focus between telling the story and experiencing the story. The gameplay serves the larger narrative purpose. The gameplay heightens the emotional stakes and makes the player that much more invested in the beats of the story.

This is all well and good. However, there remains a major problem existing between these two play modes, and that problem is engagement. The number one rule of game design, as far as I'm concerned, is to strive for a game to always be engaging. Whether it be through an engaging mechanic or an engaging story beat, the player should be invested in whatever is happening on screen. Now you may be asking yourself, "where do these games lack engagement?" And the answer, you'll find, is between the cracks.

As mentioned before, action-adventure games of today follow the two gameplay modes: storytelling mode and story experiencing mode. In the storytelling mode, the exposition is provided through cutscene or dialogue. Non-interactive means of telling the story. In the other mode, the story is being experience through the gameplay. The player battling a group of enemies or finding their way through a complex and dangerous environment. Instead of a cutscene showing the player this is happening, the player is playing an active role in telling the story.

However, another mode that seems to exist for the sole purpose of existing. This mode is what I'd call the filler mode. Now, don't take offense to that, it's just a name for ease of reference. The filler mode is any gameplay inserted into the game that is, while technically part of the story, not serving any greater narrative purpose that could not be achieved with a cutscene or a clever edit.

Let me give an example. After an exciting, cinematic battle, the player is thrown back into the environment to explore. Engaging enough, surely. However, the player comes upon a path they must move through to reach their final destination. This path is not particularly interesting, but for story reasons, it must be crossed. A film, in this situation, would make a series of quick shots and edit them together to convey the idea that the protagonist is making their way through the path. It would then cut to the final destination, where something interesting invariably happens. Games, however, don't know what to do with this negative space. They exist in any narrative, implicitly, but films and books have learned to convey them without treading over them explicitly. They don't need to be explained, just hinted at they are there. They are the subtext of cinema or the invisible lines in between paragraphs of writing. Film conveys this negative space through editing. The character must climb a mountain? Pan into the mountain with the character walking out of frame. Cut to near the top. The climb is never shown, but is implicit. Games don't fully understand how to do this. With the negative space designers throw the player into the default mode for any game: gameplay. But, frequently, this is not any more interesting than watching a cutscene of a slow movement across an uninteresting subject. The player isn't compelled in any way to experience this segment, but the narrative necessitates that this segment happens.

So why not just take a cue from film and use edits? I believe it's a habit of old. Narrative games are in a new place where they don't exactly know where they are. or how to best function Do they emulate film or games? Do they err towards the side of more gameplay at the expense of narrative, or the other way around? There is no rulebook for these questions, and it seems like games do not know the answer and so they default to the traditional answer: when in doubt, make gameplay. The problem is, in this situation, the gameplay is just not compelling. Players would generally rather skip tedium to the next story beat than be required to play through uninteresting segments of the experience. In this case, editing gameplay can serve a greater purpose. Knowing when gameplay is engaging and when it is not, and putting the player in the situations where it is.