Friday, February 27, 2015

Story and Gameplay are not a "versus" thing ("Sleeping Dogs" and better storytelling experiences in gaming)

A few weeks back I was playing a game called Sleeping Dogs. It's a 2012 sandbox title that recently got a "Definitive Edition" on Steam and other distribution platforms, an upgrade which includes optimizations, fixes and all available DLC. I already owned the old version so I was stuck with it.

Sleeping Dogs is the spiritual successor to the PS2/XBOX True Crime series and, much like the two games that preceded it, it's an open-world/sandbox action game featuring a cop going undercover to cripple some gang-- in Sleeping Dogs' case, the Chinese Triads.

It's a good game; its virtual Hong Kong is a nice change of scenery from the usual American cities of such titles (especially for us PC users not blessed with the likes of SEGA's Yakuza), though a bit bare and lifeless and its hand-to-hand combat system is very entertaining and a great alternative to the usual heavy-arsenal shoot-out of Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row.

What isn't good is the story. It's straight-forward, action-kung-fu gang-war movie, not quite of the Jackie Chan flavour, but close-enough to some Jet Li. It's greatly helped by a strong, Hollywood-cast (a staple for the True Crime series), but it makes the fatal mistake of taking itself too seriously. The main character, Wei Shen, is likeable but ultimately forgettable and irrelevant to the experience. He has the necessary back-story to work within the framework of the narrative, but all of his relationships are superficial; his girlfriends in the game come and go and most of the strong bonds he forms to friends, allies and even enemies are revealed via exposition, rather than events.

Wei Shen lacks agency, which is the primary characteristic for any good character, more so than gender, skin-colour or even moral inclination or motivation. There are no active choices he makes, he's passive throughout the entire story. The narrative lets us know early on that he gets close to the Triads he's trying to bring down and that should present some interesting directions to take the character in, but he remains stationary throughout the campaign. Missions that lead up to events don't set conflict and though by the end both the Triads and the police have some very unsavoury characters that could potentially call Wei's loyalties into question, everything plays out the way it was supposed to from the start. Wei never changes in the story ;his choices are non-existent and at no point does he experience conflict or, by the end, change. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I had intended to review the game, until I realized I just don't have much to say about it; it's a technically proficient game with a few interesting ideas. Then I thought I'd write a few things about the story; I even wrote a fairly lengthy piece analyzing why it's terrible.

However, as I was writing I realized I was veering off my original thesis that the writers (Tim Carter, Jaco Krarup, Adam Foshko and Tyler Burton Smith) are just bad. Upon closer inspection, the aforementioned gentlemen do know how to write; they know story, they know pacing, they know dialogue (though sometimes stilted and disconnected), they even know characters. It occurred to me that a lot of my complaints, particularly with the characters and especially Wei, are somewhat unfounded. Wei doesn't seem to change, but there is that one moment in the end where I think we're supposed to see him reflect morosely on his adventure. The writers aren't bad; they know story.

No, what the writers don't know is games. If this was any other medium (especially film, as the title clearly takes its cues from Hollywood in the story department) it would work. The descriptive prose of a novel or the facial expressions of an actor would allow the audience to reflect on Wei's change and the conflict he does experience whenever he wakes up haunted by the consequences of his own actions or the actions of those he befriends.

But in gaming, the protagonist of a story shares a special bond with the audience. They're both separate and they're the same. All the events, situations, adventures and emotions one experiences, the other has to experience as well. Not to do so creates a disconnect between protagonist and player that will inevitably cripple the game. It doesn't matter if the protagonist is a silent first-person character like Gordon Freeman or a third-person chatty-Cathy like Solid Snake; the special relationship between character and player needs to exist if the player is to be allowed to immerse him or herself into the interactive experience that is a video-game. Not building this bond means that players won't relate to the character, the story won't translate well to the medium and even the visuals, the sound and the world built as the playground offered to the audience will be dense and will exist within a distant bubble that players won't be able to penetrate.

After Sleeping Dogs, I started playing Deus Ex; it's a true classic, a fantastic game that (mostly) holds up and many of the innovations of which led to gameplay mechanics we've seen repeated time and again in modern gaming. I intended to do a series retrospective (and still may, if Invisible War ever works and stops crashing behind loading screens), but the thing that stood out the most about the game was in relation to the importance of gameplay and story working together with the player.

Deus Ex is often lauded for its smart story, its conspiratorial approach that weaves many different threads and has twists coming one after another. A player likes to be kept on edge, to not know what comes next and to always look forward to story events that motivate him/her to keep on playing. Sure enough, Deus Ex provides all of that.

What stands out is that it doesn't really need all that and, most importantly, without the complex and refined gameplay mechanics it features, it wouldn't have been met with any kind of success.

Simply put, the story of Deus Ex is bad. The fascinating thing is that it's bad in a different way than Sleeping Dogs, entirely antithetical in fact: the story of Sleeping Dogs is bad because it's told in a video game, whereas the story of Deus Ex would be bad if it were told in any other medium.

That's not to say Deus Ex isn't clever or doesn't have depth; there are a number of underlying philosophical themes and all characters invoke emotions (good or bad) from the player, even if both are taking a back-seat to the story's conspiratorial approach.

When I say it's bad, I mean "bad" by the standards of traditional, regular, linear narrative as we've known it for thousands of years from literature and theatre (and later cinema). This is easy to see: take the story, as it is and try to translate it to any other medium without cutting out a bunch of things and editing the text heavily.

The many twists and turns in Deus Ex, without player input, make the narrative confusing and convoluted. The dialogue is unpolished. The story provides some basic information about the framework (i.e. the world in which it takes place, the augmentations, the biomechs, the various organizations), but most vital information to fully comprehend its depth comes from non-essential pick-ups, like newspaper clippings, book excerpts and e-mails locked behind easy-to-crack computer passwords.

What about the characters? Deus Ex is very obvious about the good and the bad guys from the start. There is some grey area regarding characters like Morgan Everrett and Tracer Tong, but in the end their intentions are left to the player to interpret and choose the ending they wish.

This is another important thing; the story has multiple endings tied not only to player choice, but also gameplay mechanics. For an action-RPG that offers different character builds, like Deus Ex, one ending is designed for combat, another is designed for stealth, another is designed for proficiency in electronics and hacking. How would that translate to traditional narrative?

Lastly, how about that JC Denton? JC, like many other game protagonists, is a blank slate of sorts. He's not a silent protagonist, but his personality is intentionally flat. The voice isn't the player's, but the words are. His back-story is practically non-existent; clone made to be a super-weapon that was trained away from the rest of the world. He has a brother at the start of the story, but they don't seem to have a traditional sibling relationship; even the term "brother" refers more to their genetic connection as part of the same project than anything else.

It's nigh-impossible to sell a protagonist like JC in traditional narrative. The story would have to come up with a detailed history and then spend valuable time exposing it. Moreover, much like Sleeping Dogs' Wei Shen, change would be vital for JC to be a good character and JC doesn't change as a character. His choices lead him to different paths, but he never seems even in the slightest bothered or shocked by the string of betrayals that tangles him along all over the world. He never so much as protests. This is exactly because JC is only an avatar for the player. The story's twists and turns do impact on the player and the characters do invoke emotions. The player grows fond of JC and by the end of the campaign, the player has changed and proves as much by making his or her choice regarding the three possible endings of the story. This is impossible to translate to, say, film; JC would have to carry the burden of change and emotional response, as well as the agency of the player and he can't do any of that in a non-interactive medium.

Wei Shen stands on the opposite side. He actively rejects the player's agency and completely disconnects himself, as a character, from the actions of the player during gameplay. Wei has an impenetrable wall around him; there are story beats, where Wei experiences conflict and grows, but they're so disconnected from the actual gameplay that they can't resonate with the player.

Of course, Sleeping Dogs takes a different approach to story than Deus Ex and the two games aren't directly comparable in their delivery. Deus Ex relies on gameplay to tell its story, whereas Sleeping Dogs doesn't by default. In gaming, no matter the style and the delivery, story and gameplay need to be connected in some way and work together at least in part.

Sleeping Dogs would better be compared to its main competitors: Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. Saints Row is easy to analyse, because despite its modern presentation, its basic design principles are fairly retro. The protagonist, who is identified as the "Boss" is a self-admitted psychopath. At least from the second instalment and up (I haven't played the first game), he or she isn't a deep and complicated character, with a rich back-story and heavy-handed conflict. The Boss doesn't display complex emotions, but he/she does exhibit simple, everyday emotions and reactions. The Boss likes some things and dislikes other things. The Boss cares for people around him/her and he/she becomes angry and frustrated with others. The Boss is motivated and powerful, but not invincible or infallible. All of the above are things a player relates to.

The player connects with the Boss, because the Boss expresses his/her psychopathy and insanity through the player. Sure, he/she shows their true colours via dialogue and some actions in the game cutscenes, but the bulk of the gleeful horribleness that defines the character is reliant on the player (and would be aptly described as "blow shit up"). The Boss gladly shares his/her agency as a character with the player and, in fact, the games are reliant on that sharing.

Stillwater and Steelport aren't great cities. They're kind of bare and boring and typical and, honestly, very forgettable. They make nice and hospitable environments, though, because they are handed to the players to do with them as they wish. The option to completely screw the city up in countless ways (particularly through the side-missions/mini-games) forms the feeling to the players that they belong in that environment, that it is indeed theirs to do with as they wish. This is done exactly because Boss and player share a bond.

Similarly, for a series that is now defined by a light-hearted take on murder and mayhem, the relationships Boss forms with friends and allies ring far more genuine and lasting than Wei Shen's. Johnny Gat is, in my opinion, one of the best "best friend" characters in video games. He's overflowing with personality and style and Daniel Dae Kim's great performance definitely helps, but the primary reason he's so likeable is because he acts like a best friend to the player just as well as he does to the Boss. He's not just a henchman or someone who is watching from the side-lines; he actively joins in the fun, the murder, the arson, the robbery, the jumping-off-a-helicopter-guns-blazing, he's by the player's side, he's helping strengthen the bond between player and protagonist by being a friend to both.

Grand Theft Auto, lately, takes a different direction. When it was released, GTAIV got a lot of heat for its slower, more "realistic" approach and heavy-handed drama and, to a degree, rightfully so. However, it stands as one of the most interesting approaches in merging gameplay and story that I've personally experienced in videogames.

Niko Bellic is also a psychopath, but he's more esoteric. Conflict is built into his back-story and his killer's instinct is only the justification for the terrible crimes he commits in-game. People have criticised GTAIV for ludonarrative dissonance, meaning Niko's personal drama as a former killer rings untrue in light of the absolute destruction the player can inflict via gameplay mechanics, but I'd argue the game is actively discouraging such actions even via its own, slower and harder to manipulate Euphoria Engine. GTAIV's slower gameplay exists to keep a leash on the players and at least pretend to pull them back whenever they go off-script.

Niko forms a different relationship with the players, because one of the primary strengths of GTAIV is that it offers the most fleshed-out, "alive" city in any open-world game I've played.

For one thing, Liberty City is New York, which instantly connects with the audience as a real place, with iconic landmarks and locations, despite and in fact thanks to their occasionally satyric spin (e.g. the Statue of Happiness). Then there are the random encounters on the street, which serve as a means for the player to get to know some representative examples of the population of Liberty City and feel like part of their environment. The TV, but specifically the radio stations help greatly in that as well; more than any other series in the genre, GTA has always been great at fleshing out its world via the various news pundits and radio hosts that satirically reference real-world events.

The most important feature in weaving gameplay and narrative in GTAIV, however, is the most maligned mechanic of them all: the dates and friend-dates. Their merit as a gameplay mechanic is arguable, but the fact remains that they're a great way to both get to know Liberty City and its locations and to help Niko (and, by extension, the player) forge real relationships with the supporting characters in the story. Say what you want about Roman's pestering calls, but after the first five times he gets shit-faced and pukes all over your shoes, you grow to like the guy and you experience just enough of Liberty's night-life to give it the illusion of a breathing city, instead of an empty map with giant boxes stacked all over.

Sleeping Dogs doesn't approach its world as either GTAIV or Saints Row. Most of Hong Kong is very much a field with boxes placed randomly and zombies dragging their feet on the side-walk. It's beautiful, but it lacks character. Wei's friends don't stand out. He never hangs out with them, either to have a drink or to blow up a city block for giggles. As such, Wei is sympathetic as a character, but cuts the player off. He is his own character, existing in a different world that the player isn't invited in. This is why Sleeping Dogs fails as a story.

There are other examples that can make this problem all the more noticeable. It'd be a bit unfair to compare the game to, say, Silent Hill 2; that series, in general and specifically SH2 rely on symbolism and most of their story is told via gameplay. They're closer to Deus Ex in that regard. James Sunderland, for example, turns out to be a sexually frustrated, borderline misogynistic lunatic, but the player grows sympathetic of his constant inner conflict and his underlying need for redemption. This wouldn't be possible without the disturbing symbolic images that reveal James for the broken person that he really is. Of course, Silent Hill relies on visuals and sound to tell its story, more than it does gameplay mechanics, but without the interactivity that's native and necessary to the medium of videogames, these stories would still be hard -if not impossible- to tell. The scares and the symbolism in the good Silent Hill games wouldn't resonate nearly as much with the audience, if the audience didn't have a reciprocal relationship of input and feedback with the game.

Case in point is the Silent Hill movie-- a film that I believe is quite smarter than most people give it credit for and which has plenty of essence to be enjoyed, but which can't really translate the staple of the games.

Another good for-instance is game-to-film adaptations in general and particularly the fact that the better ones are those that are fairly disconnected from the source material and function as proper (though not necessarily good) movies that bear a passing resemblance to the games they were inspired from (e.g. Prince of Persia).

A good series to dissect regarding stories in video-games is Metal Gear Solid, which chooses to tell its story heavily via cutscenes and codec-calls, with little-to-no direct player input. I have to admit a bias toward MGS, because I love the series, but it's not arguable that Hideo Kojima's brilliant madness doesn't always work.

Regardless of one's opinion on the series, what makes Snake or Big Boss or even Raiden more relatable than Wei Shen? When the presentation of the two games is so similar and focuses in keeping narrative and gameplay apart, why do these characters share a connection with the player, when Wei Shen has none?

It greatly depends on the game, actually, but generally Kojima takes steps to not completely detach narrative from gameplay. For example, when the original Metal Gear Solid used the in-game engine for the game's many cutscenes, it helped maintain cohesion between story exposition and gameplay. It's a given these days, but back then games never used the in-game engine for long, fully-directed cutscenes; either they would animate them separately and add them as video files, or they would use the engine, but scenes would be short, quiet bits that had the characters mostly just stand around and say a couple of lines, before cutting back into the game.

The action-packed (by the standards of the time) sequences helped grow fond of Snake, as he was more than just a walking stick with guns. The fantastic voice acting helped too, with entire hours-worth of dialogue delivered properly, which was also rare in 1998 and especially on a console-- the PC had its own flavour, thanks to the many RPGs that offered not only whole books of story in-game, but allowed for big parties, the members of which the player got to care for separately (seen in its best form recently in Dragon Age: Origins).

Most games feature all of the above nowadays, of course, but there are other, smaller things in the MGS series that help player and character bond over the story. It can be something very small, for example: at some point in MGS, Snake shoots down Liquid's Hind-D with just a portable rocket launcher. It's a great boss fight that's exciting to the player and offers a sense of achievement when it's done. But soon after, Snake's nerdy friend, Otacon, references that fight in awe of Snake-- by extension, Otacon references that fight in awe of the player. The bond has been achieved (or, rather, strengthened by that late point in the game), the sense of accomplishment has returned to the player and David Hayter's banter with Chris Randolph may as well be that of the player's with his BFF (and likely slash-fiction partner).

Something small like this can easily make the trick. MGS2 and MGS3 worked, because their respective protagonists were empty vessels for the players to inhabit (the Doom Marine or Gordon Freeman principle). They had back-story, but lacked a personality-- which was done on purpose because of the story of each game and their themes (MGS2+ Meme, MGS3+ Scene). They weren't really protagonists, the story was developing around them without them, bypassing them and reaching the player straight.

Even so, MGS2 was met with a lot of criticism. Funnily, it was what Deus Ex would be, if it were a movie. MGS2 is my favourite game of all time, because the subtext is very clever, relevant to this day (nowadays more so than it was during the time of its release) and because the stealth mechanics were refined to near-perfection for the time.

But the game still did suffer from a convoluted plot that's delivered in a fairly non-interactive way and which only works because it shifts focus on the philosophical musings of a madman (Hideo Kojima), rather than the many conspiratorial plot points and unexpected twists.

MGS is a good series to compare to, because Kojima (and a lot of Japanese gaming, in general) does keep gameplay and narrative apart. Kojima likes to experiment with the tech and the mechanics, but the story is created separately and just super-imposed over the rest of the product. A lot of the process seems to start from directing the game, then adjusting the story to the needs of the gameplay and essentially stretching and expanding a basic plot to an adventure, because of said needs.

In simpler words, even up to MGS2, gameplay objectives were very refined, very unique and led into via the narrative. The frustrating swimming sections in MGS2, for example, weren't simply of the "find key to open door" variety, because a character's very real fear was tied to that entire section of gameplay and referenced to several times.

It has been less particular since MGS3 and shot to bits with the dispersion of the game to Acts in MGS4 and the portable games, but Kojima's approach to his games as long adventures with highly varied objectives helps tie gameplay with the narrative. It's clear why Kojima makes Snake backtrack half the game for that PSG-1 sniper rifle in MGS, but it works because the player really wants to take down Sniper Wolf and save Meryl, one of the series' most endearing characters that the player had spent some time with by that point in the game.

It's bound to stop working; one of the reasons I really don't like Peace Walker, for example, is that Big Boss has been promoted to fully-fledged protagonist (and a pretty bad one, at that) and the story exists in a vacuum, kept in its own different box, away from the messy gameplay. I don't know what we can expect from MGSV outside of great gameplay (if opinion on Ground Zeroes is any indication, anyway), but even Kojima-san may need to reconsider his approach to narrative in his games if he wishes to keep producing valuable input to gaming as a medium.

In Sleeping Dogs' case, the fix would be actually quite simple and would rely on an existing mechanic that was a staple in the previous two True Crime games. Both those games involved a "good/bad cop" mechanic, that scored the player's conduct during missions and open-play. If the player was too aggressive, or used unwarranted deadly force or ran over civilians and trashed half the city, they would lose points. If they acted according to protocol, they got points as proper officers.

This system survived in Sleeping Dogs, but it is limited to a point-collection system to unlock upgrades. There isn't even a binary distinction, as the player can consistently get both cop and triad points to unlock almost all upgrades in both trees. It's actually kind of odd they missed this opportunity, because a game like Sleeping Dogs, by default, lends itself to a binary 'right or wrong' choice system. Wei Shen is an undercover cop; he has a duty to bring down the Triads but he grows fond of people within the various gangs. The story itself makes that much clear, but does so separately from gameplay and as such comes off forced and ultimately inconsequential. All missions in the game are simple tasks, at first to gain trust, then just doing the Triads' dirty work or helping out a couple of police cases on the side. Even the random encounters, ripped straight from GTAIV, are some form of gang member or random dude on the street asking for something incredibly criminal and Wei blindly obeying-- even though he's a cop and these encounters have nothing to do with his undercover mission.

Simply put, the game is begging for a choice system. All the conflict that's exposed via disconnected dialogue, flashbacks and cutscenes should have been inserted into the game's mechanics. GTAIV also had a few such choices (the best one being Niko's run-in with a former brother-in-arms-turned-traitor), but in Sleeping Dogs it should have been a core mechanic. Wei is forced into a lot of morally questionable actions, but the game has the nasty habit of sanitizing a great deal of them. All the enemies the player is asked to kill are undoubtedly bad people; for one thing, this is a ridiculous notion, because I find it hard to believe criminal gangs would never harm or have motivation or be asked to harm someone who is relatively innocent (the first Mafia game not only got this right, but based the outcome of its story on that). The worst Wei gets to do is extort protection money from local market owners. This is the game playing it safe and avoiding vital conflict for the character and the player.

Secondly, so what if the enemies are bad? By default, they are rival gangs, much like the one Wei is in. What makes Wei's gang more worthy of not killing than the enemy gangs? Obviously nothing in particular, so Wei engages in those actions, both as part of his mission and because he grows fond of the people in his own gang. How is that not a morally ambiguous choice? How is that not basis for conflict? Why does the game never address any of it, but instead sanitizes the conflict by simply portraying rival gangs as significantly more evil than the Water Street Gang that Wei's in?

Mind you, the game; not the narrative. That's the point here, after all; it shouldn't be up to the narrative to explore these themes, it should be up to the gameplay, with a choice mechanic and freedom of action. In fact, Sleeping Dogs is surprisingly linear for a sandbox title. The binary "good/bad" choice system would eventually lead up to the final mission, which would rack up all of Wei Shen's actions (whether initiated by the player or by the story-teller) and invite the player to write the ending to the story, based on how they believe Wei and themselves have changed throughout this adventure.

By the end of the story, both the Triads and the Police are in danger of being undermined by some very bad people. The Sun On Yee, the Triads that Wei has been inducted in, are at war with each other, because Big Smile Lee wants to usurp the position of Dragon's Head, i.e. the ultimate leader of the Triads and he's trying to eliminate the competition. Big Smile Lee is a horrible killer with no redeeming qualities. On the other side, Wei's boss in the assignment and possibly former SAS veteran, Superintendent Pendrew, is an "ends justify the means", "big picture" psychopath, who doesn't value life, is too focused on the mission and his own personal gratification and success and who, eventually, turns against Wei himself and leaves him behind to die during a fire-fight.

It is perfect; the perfect set-up to resolve the game's narrative issue, the perfect set-up to add some much-needed conflict. Though straight-forward in delivery, the story of Sleeping Dogs is supposed to be steeped in shades of grey, with no clear lines between good and evil; that's the very strength of the undercover cop becoming family with the members of the gang he's trying to decimate. Given the situation at the end, the player should have been given a choice: complete Wei's mission as a police officer or go rogue and stay with the Sun On Yee.

The whole story is leading up to this. Raymond, Wei's handler, has been warning both player and other characters of Wei's past and the risk of him going rogue. Wei himself has admitted to becoming Sun On Yee at heart and is consistently haunted by the terrible actions he had to take to protect his cover.

So, this is the choice: stand firm against Pendrew's delusions of grandeur and accept that the police is corrupt; doing so would mean betraying Broken Nose Jiang, who had been supporting Wei until then and as such side with Big Smile Lee; a competitor as the successor to Uncle Po in the seat at the head of the Sun On Yee, a horrible murderer, a psychopath who knows no boundaries or ideals, or the thing the Triads value the most, honour and who feels no kinship to his "family" and will kill anyone to get his way.

Alternatively, the player could complete his mission. Wei would bust Big Smile Lee and cripple the Sun On Yee, but establish Broken Nose Jiang as the new, more sane head of the Triads. In doing so, however, he would have to side with Pendrew and become his pawn indefinitely, unable to speak out on the corruption the Superintendent is involved in and the dangers of his personal "holy war" and who may or may not have Broken Nose Jiang in his pocket, effectively having manipulated Wei into establishing a figure-head at the top of the Triads that's more comfortable for the police and profiting off of Wei's bloodshed and pain and the death of his friends, like his tortured and literally gutted best friend, Jackie.

So the choice would be heart-breaking and incredibly hard to make, which would instantly rope the player into the narrative and make him/her truly sympathize with Wei and struggle with him over this decision.

For whatever reason, the developers never took that route. Perhaps it was too costly or perhaps the writers were set on telling their story without diluting it with player input. Whichever the case, it ultimately hurt the overall experience; Sleeping Dogs is a game I don't regret playing and will likely play again in the future, but given the option, I will always choose any one of its competitors first.

The point of all this is that there seems to be a revitalized debate on the merits of story and gameplay, each existing in isolation. It's an odd debate to me, because this discussion had been going on for decades. I had been on the side of story back in the day, but gaming was different back then; we championed the merits of good story-telling, when gaming was offering practically none. We argued that the likes of Half-Life or Call of Duty (up until the first Modern Warfare, before it turned to crap) or even Halo were the way forward for first-person-shooters, simply by virtue of having any story at all, contrary to the FPS staple of shooting things for no reason that was passed down from Doom and Unreal and the online tournament shooters. As technology evolved, we argued developers should be putting more effort into writing better stories, especially since they sure as hell didn't seem like they cared crafting unique gameplay.

The more elitist ones argue that to this day, we will never understand why Bioshock was such a big deal, when it had been preceded by Deus Ex and System Shock 2 and Thief.

But things have changed. A lot of the press likes to pretend that their opposition (which for any other, normal crowd would be their readers, who they should probably be paying attention to) are conservative in their tastes and don't want gaming to change. But gaming has been changing and will always be changing; it's in the nature of the medium, because it's a medium tied to technological progress more than any other form of entertainment before it (barring the vibrator).

Including a half-way decent story in a game in 2015 is not a rarity. What's mediocre nowadays would've been high-quality a decade ago; we should always keep pushing for the evolution of the medium. However, stubbornly focusing on one aspect won't make games art; it will kill them.

A game needs to have all its parts working in perfect harmony, if it hopes to be good-- if it hopes to be "art". A story-driven game needs to express itself via its gameplay and a gameplay-driven game needs to engage players with its story. There are obvious exceptions (strategy games, for example, can but don't need to have a story), but you can't have one without the other. A game that focuses too much on story rejects the player. If its gameplay is lacking and the mechanics exist as if by contractual obligation, then playing the game becomes a chore and absolutely no story, no matter how good or interesting, is going to entice a player to sit through hours or even minutes of dull button-mashing to experience something they could've consumed easier and more comfortably via film or TV or a book.

Similarly, if a game goes through the trouble of establishing a setting, a narrative and characters and then disregards them completely, no matter how solid the gameplay may be, it will be a short-term success. Unless the gameplay mechanics are unique or revolutionary (and in an industry this size, this is a significant rarity even statistically), the game will be enjoyed and then forgotten. Sleeping Dogs is a resounding example of that.

People that look back fondly at gaming classics never remember just one thing about them; they remember the whole experience. Nobody thinks of Tomb Raider without feeling affection toward Lara Croft and nobody recalls Metal Gear Solid without saluting Snake. Gordon Freeman never once speaks, but he's one of the most iconic video-game characters. Nobody thinks of Heather Mason without recalling the horrors of Silent Hill (and potentially free-bleeding) and nobody quotes Parthunax or the Grey Beards from Skyrim, without recalling that one time they snuck behind a giant and tried to give him a wedgy, before being launched off to another solar system.

Yes, I just said Skyrim has strong gameplay. I will probably kill myself right afterwards. Go play Morrowind so I don't have to do this again.

The notion that there is a new audience to tap into, one that cares about carefully-crafted stories and not gameplay is not the way forward. Any approach that will shamelessly disregard the unique nature of the medium is bound to fail and, depending on the extend of the damage, take down the industry with it. It's a very competitive industry, it's a very unfair industry, a great deal of it stifles creativity and free expression and, most importantly, it's a bloated mess. Keep adding irrelevant fluff into it, whether indie or AAA and it will eventually explode.

There is a lot of experimenting to be done. Games like Deus Ex and Silent Hill aren't the apotheosis of ludorranative, they're only first attempts. With the progress of technology, with the new minds and talents that have the option to enter the industry every day, there is a lot more to be done; some of it will fail, some of it will work.

Story and gameplay are not a "versus" thing. There is no discussion to be had there. Story and gameplay are one thing, the same thing in the best of games. They're not two different components, they are one, carefully-crafted experience. How the creative talent working in the industry can deliver that experience is the discussion we ought to be having instead.

And Square Enix? I would like to play Sleeping Dogs II, but please add some moral conflict in the mechanics, okay?

No comments:

Post a Comment