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.

The First Few Hours

We've all heard it before, these common complaints: Games are terrible at storytelling. Modern games take way too long to get going. Why am I forced to sit through this cutscene again?

Many narrative-driven games are having an identity crisis. Are they a game first or a story first? That's a topic that can be discussed ad nauseum. But I'd like to talk about a facet I think is really central to this identity crisis: a game's first few hours.

The importance of a game's first few hours cannot be understated. For many games, their first twenty minutes make or break a player's interest. A game must prove many things in a very short period of time: what it's about, why it's fun, what the player does, all the while simultaneously teaching the player how to play it. That's a tall order. It makes sense some games only take one of these things and drive it home, hoping it's enough to keep players engaged.

There are two distinct techniques for introducing a game: a gameplay-first approach and story-first approach. In the gameplay-first approach, games throw the player directly into the action, explaining the story (if any) later. They bank on capturing the player's attention with mechanics to keep them engaged. Games with strong gameplay take this approach frequently, and for good reason. The alternate to this is a story-first approach. The goal here is to sweep the player up in the game's story and make entice them to discover more.

Both of these are completely valid, and when executed well, work. Super Mario 64 is a fantastic example of gameplay-first. The player can move almost immediately, and has free access to their entire moveset from the onset of the game. From the first minute, a player can start experimenting with platforming mechanics and get excited for the opportunity to use them. On the other hand, a great example of story-first is Metal Gear Solid 2. It starts with a swift opening cinematic beginning in media res, quickly setting up the story, characters and goals with just enough information for the player to go on while leaving enough out for the player to seek more. And then it quickly jumps into gameplay. It's important to note MGS2 sets up the characters and their motivations immediately.

Both of these work so well because they commit to their techniques, execute flawlessly, and then get right into the game. Notice in both of these examples, the game is introduced and doesn't really start until the introduction is over. In Mario, you are free to experiment with gameplay, but you don't really do anything until you reach your first actual level. With MGS2, you are watching an intro cutscene to get things going. The game officially starts after that cutscene ends.

And I think that's the key here: commit to the introduction, really sell what the game is about, and then get right into the game. Players want to feel agency as soon as possible. They also want to get excited for the story as soon as possible.

So where do games frequently fail? The biggest, most egregious way is opening cutscene exposition dumps. We've all seen these. You start up the game, a 10-minute cutscene plays explaining the world and circumstances around it. There's frequently no plot here, just lore, or backstory. Some games can get away with this on charm alone (Zelda is a clear candidate, but even that uses fairy tales and folklore tropes to tell the backstory), but most fall flat. After the exposition dump, we're treated to gameplay. However, if the story is big enough, or integral enough, we frequently are bombarded with even more exposition dump. But what purpose does this serve? It sets up the story so that there can be purpose for the main characters actions and also primes the plot to create the central conflict. RPGs are fond of this technique, because it's an easy way to set up the context of the story while still retaining some semblance of gameplay.

If film can teach us anything it's that we can interest players with even the most small taste of a larger plot. We don't have to divulge all aspects of the plot or the world or the existing conflicts, we can introduce those more naturally and at a pace the player can keep up with. A major lesson we can learn from film is that the audiences doesn't care about story nearly as much as they care about the characters. Introducing characters and their relationships with each other and the world around them is much, much more compelling than introducing a grand backstory for the world. After all, why should I, the player, care about a world where I don't know or care about any of the people living in it?

It seems that frequently, in order to strike a balance between storytelling and gameplay, many games sacrifice them both for one another. They quickly dump exposition to set things up, jump to some gameplay, then jump back to exposition. For a gamer who has little patience, this is a jarring move, leaving them required to have faith that the game will pick up: that the story will suddenly get interesting, or that the gameplay will suddenly become more engaging. This, after all, is because sacrifices were made to both in order to have the two exist. I think the better strategy is commit to their strategy for capturing the player's attention and knock it out of the park.

Storytelling Through Gameplay: Metal Gear!?

A popular topic amongst gamers, developers and critics is one of game storytelling and where it fits within gameplay proper. The debate often veers off into whether or not to consider interactive storytelling "games". That semantic debate I'll save for another topic. This series is going to explore storytelling through traditional gameplay means, their effectiveness, and the inclination for developers to segment their storytelling and gameplay into disparate pieces they shuffle together to produce a "story-based" game. For this first post, I'll analyze an individual sequence in one of my favorite games and explain why it's so powerful.

If you know anything about what I consider my favorite games (I count Metal Gear Solid 3, Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Trigger among my favorite games of all time.), you'd think that storytelling is my primary draw to gaming. You'd be wrong. Storytelling is a great thing in many games, but to me, it's something that's complementary to the fun I have in playing. In a lot of ways, storytelling in my favorite games are thoroughly intertwined with gameplay.

Take for example my favorite gameplay-as-story moment in Metal Gear Solid 3 (spoilers follow). In the opening act, our protagonist Snake is betrayed by his mentor and confidant, The Boss. She reveals she's defecting to the Soviet Union and leaving America, her mission, and Snake behind. She fights and defeats Snake in hand-to-hand combat which ends in her throwing him off a bridge into a ravine below. An emotional and physical blow is dealt to our hero, one we literally just started getting to know an hour earlier.

We're then called up on our radio to let us know we are in grave condition and we'll need to patch ourselves up. This opens up a gameplay sequence (and tutorial!) on how the injury system works in the game. Opening up the health screen, Snake is shown with broken bones and bruises from the fight. You as a player are required to heal him up using bandage, splints, and the like. It's a simple sequence, but it completely reinforces what just happened to your character. There were immediate gameplay repercussions and you had to deal with them. And just like that, you're emotionally invested in this character. You know that you (as the player) can hurt Snake and your enemies can, too. You realize you're responsible for Snake and his survival. Snake is you. You are Snake. It hurts to survive, but it's necessary to complete the mission. What would take a film an hour in character development to get invested in the character takes this game all of five minutes.

This is theme of survival is reinforced everywhere in the game in the survival system. You must hunt for food, track your mental and physical stamina, and tend your injuries. You must rest when you are tired, take medicine when you are ill, and eat when you are hungry. You have to care about Snake. It's an excellent way of getting the player invested in the story and the main character.

And that's one of the reasons the video game medium is so special. You can do things that in film would take you an hour in half the time by putting power  in the hands of the player. One button press and they're emotionally invested. You've established a link almost immediately.

Now, you may be laughing ironically, because Metal Gear Solid is notorious for it's removal of player control during it's cutscenes. This is altogether true. But most games with a story to tell have similar problems. We're still working on that, as a medium. But we've got to give credit to Metal Gear Solid for something few other games did: experimented with storytelling in games and succeeding in making it emotionally powerful. We owe it a lot for that.