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Storytelling vs. Gameplay

Brion

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Nobody ever said that being a part of the most exciting medium of storytelling was going to be easy. Allowing the audience to play a role in your art brings its own challenges as well as opportunities. Video games must have mechanically sound gameplay. Fail that, and a great story might be overlooked.

There is no parallel to draw from another medium; novels, movies, plays and television shows have no comparable mechanic they must master. Video games live or die by whether or not the gameplay and the story are in sync.

There is no simple or set answer for how a developer can marry gameplay mechanics to their story. In an attempt to help illustrate the conflict, I have come up with five rules for avoiding gameplay and story segregation. Each rule will come with an example of a game that is let down by not successfully marrying gameplay to story. Each rule will also come with an exception, and in every single case that exception will be Silent Hill 2 (there is a reason this game is a masterpiece).

Rule 1: Gameplay Must Be ‘Fun’

The hint is in the name. Video games are a kind of entertainment, and thus games should be fun. If they are a chore to play, then a player will likely not bother. Provided they are provoking some sort of emotional response in the player (beyond boredom or frustration), a game can be described as ‘fun’ in my book.

Six Days a Sacrifice, the final installment in the Chzo Mythos saga by famed game critic Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, tells one of the most intricate, inventive, and incredible stories I have ever had the good fortune of experiencing. Unfortunately, it is also an old-school style adventure game. It is plagued with inventory puzzles and an awkward point-and-click interface. It is a chore to play, particularly in its first half as the story builds slowly and quietly. The eventual denouncement is excellent, but the lack of fun in its gameplay means I will likely never play it to completion ever again.

Fun, therefore, is an essential part of gaming. Yet ‘fun’ is a relative concept that does not always line up with the dictionary definition of fun. Horror games employ tension and dread to create an emotional high for the player. This still counts as ‘fun’, and thus does not fail the rule. The premier example of this exception is Silent Hill 2.

Protagonist James Sunderland must also solve illogical inventory puzzles, but the ‘fun’ is not undermined thanks to the constant tension the game employs. Dreading what is beneath a hatch when you finally manage to open it can go a long way to distract you from the insane way in which the game expects you to open said hatch. (The solution involves a horseshoe, a lighter and a wax figurine. I dare you to try figuring it out).

Those three items combined to make a handle. Yes, really.

Rule 2: Avoid Deliberate Frustration

Do not, under any circumstances, think you can get away with deliberately frustrating a player. This goes hand in hand with the ‘fun’ problem just discussed. If a player is not enjoying themselves on some level, then you have failed as a game designer. Do not be fooled into thinking this frustration will be forgiven if you do it for story reasons.

The infamous bottle puzzle in Life is Strange is widely derided for good reason; it is boring, poorly implemented, and utterly destructive to the pacing. However, it is clear what the developers intended. The idea was to have the characters indulge in pointless recklessness while distracting the player from the building tragedy. That way, when the tragedy struck, the player would feel responsible.

This is good storytelling, but it is also horrific game design. It does not matter how strong the eventual emotional gut punch succeeds in being (and yes, it is absolutely heart-breaking, but that is beside the point), it will never make up for the half hour I spent wandering aimlessly around an obtusely designed junkyard as I slowly lost my goddamn mind. The fact that the frustration was intentional is not a saving grace, it just makes the design even more galling.

Silent Hill 2 gets away with having frustrating combat mechanics because of its genre. Feeling powerful is the antithesis of horror. It is fine that James is difficult to control in a fight because that increases a player’s sense of vulnerability. Every enemy, from recurring grunts to boss monsters, can kill you if you are careless. In this case the frustrating gameplay leads the player to fear every threat, thus ensuring that they are still ‘enjoying’ the experience on some visceral level.

Rule 3: Dissonance, Ludonarrative or Otherwise, is Dangerous

When making a game, be very careful about not creating dissonance between your story and gameplay. If the player starts to find themselves at odds with the ‘heroic’ protagonist then any emotional investment is compromised. The developer must carefully consider every action of the player character before shipping a game for sale.

Nathan Drake, wisecracking hero of the Uncharted series, is an unrepentant mass murderer. His body count is in the thousands. The story tells me he is a charming rogue. I want to believe he is a charming rogue. Yet it is hard to overcome his utter (and unintentional by design) disregard for human life.

His lovable persona in cutscenes simply does not square with his sociopathic slaughtering of his fellow man in gameplay. This is an all too common flaw of action games caused by developers failing to consider the reality of the violence being employed by the player character. The challenge is in creating a player character whose role in the story is not dissonant with their actions.

Silent Hill 2 subverts this challenge by making the dissonance deliberate. We start on James’ side as he faces horrors in the search for his wife. The more we get to know him, however, the more we start to feel unease. The dissonance between the player and the player character works because James is not being painted as a hero. Questioning his motivations is the point, not an unintentional side-effect of wanting exciting violence in your game.

Choking someone from behind is not exactly the most heroic moment in video gaming.

Rule 4: A Player Must Retain Control

If a game promises the player is in control, then they must remain so. The cheapest thing a game can do is to steal control away from the player so that its story can continue as intended. Either a game is strictly linear or the player can dictate the story. Trying to do both will invariably damage your game’s quality.

Witcher 3 is ordinarily excellent at allowing the player choices that dictate the fates of characters and countries. Its expansion Blood and Wine is less so. At one crucial juncture in the story Geralt (the player character) is given a handful of days to track down Dettlaff (the central antagonist). Dettlaff has promised to attack the city if he is not presented with his former lover who betrayed him.

Clearly there are two paths Geralt can now take, yet the player does not get to make the decision. The story abruptly jumps forward a few days with Geralt having failed to find Dettlaff. The city is attacked because of Geralt’s failure. This demonstrates a complete breakdown of established gameplay mechanics because the writers needed the city to be attacked for the sake of the story.

Silent Hill 2 gets around the problem of choice by having the plot be 95% linear. The player can only impact the very end of the game through their choices. As the ultimate resolution is usually what people care most about, this allows the writers to dictate their preferred pacing without making the player feel as though they have no control.

A whole host of subtle things you do inform the state of mind of James Sunderland. Examine his wife’s photo frequently and James will end the story devoted. Examine a knife frequently and James will end the game suicidal. This level of subtlety is in stark contrast to the blatant ‘cut to a few days later’ that Blood and Wine pulled.

Rule 5: Justify Your Interactivity

This is the big one. If there is a clear conflict between a game’s story and its gameplay, a player might ask why this story is being told in an interactive format at all. The best way to avoid players asking this question is to ask this question of yourself before you sit down to make the game.

This is a question I really wish David Cage would ask himself. His games (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls) are all styled like movies with minimal interactivity present. There is no good reason for these awkward hybrids to be video games aside from the fact that Cage probably cannot get backing from a movie studio for his grandiose yet also somehow boring ideas. (Incidentally, even as movies these games would still be terrible, as Cage cannot write a cohesive narrative to save his life. But I digress…)

Silent Hill 2 tells an excellent story. Would this story work in another medium? Could it be successfully adapted into a movie, a television series or a novel? Yes it could, the story would still work and the final product would still be worthwhile.

Yet in no medium could it ever hope to be as effective as it is already as a video game. This is the best possible medium for horror because of interactivity. The player immediately relates to the protagonist because, in a sense, they are the protagonist. It is thus far easier to make them fear what they protagonist fears.

Creating empathy is immensely difficult when telling a story. Sympathy is easy, as all it requires is a halfway likable character to befall some sort of misfortune. Having someone actually experiencing the same emotions as the character is hard to pull off, but Silent Hill 2 uses the unique conventions of its medium to do so effortlessly. It unequivocally justifies its interactivity.

There is no other artistic medium in the world that could make moments like this work.

Bonus Rule: Pure Gameplay Is Also Fine

Tetris has no story. Tetris is one of the best games ever made. These two statements do not contradict each other.

A game does not always need to tell a story. It is a unique medium in that it can survive without any narrative whatsoever. Tetris is pure gameplay and no less rich for it. If the gameplay is strong enough (and that is a big if) the game can survive without a single story beat or contextualizing detail.

However, as fun as these things can be, I still see the future of gaming as being a narrative one. Compare Tetris to Portal. Both are pitch-perfect puzzle games, but one also tells a rich and entertaining story. The path from one game to the other was a three decade long process of trial and error. The medium is richer for being able to produce art like Portal when once Tetris was the absolute pinnacle of what could be achieved in video gaming.

And just in case you were wondering, yes, the opposite of the bonus rule is also true. Pure storytelling is also fine. The thing to bear in mind, though, is in that case it stops being a game at all and literally becomes a movie. Gameplay cannot be divorced from the medium, even if storytelling can.

Conclusion

Is it arrogant of me to come up with all these rules of game design when I have never designed a game? Is it not my business to come up with rules to guide people doing a job I could never do myself? The answer to the first question is probably yes, but I would dispute the second question’s validity. Any and all artistic mediums need a thriving environment of critique to sustain themselves. If there were no one around to point out flaws then we could never learn from them and progress.

As I said at the top of this piece, no one ever claimed that making good video games was easy. It requires an enormous amount of technical knowhow and storytelling proficiency. It is perhaps the most challenging medium in which to create something truly worthwhile.

Yet with great challenge comes great potential rewards. Get the right balance of gameplay and storytelling and some random Irish guy will praise your achievements all day long. I am sure this sort of adulation is exactly what Team Silent were after when they sat down to make Silent Hill 2.

In all seriousness, balancing gameplay with storytelling is a maddeningly difficult enterprise. Games like Witcher 3, Life is Strange and Uncharted 2 are all great despite not nailing the landing. It may be that perfectly balancing the two is impossible. That said, even if perfection is beyond us we should still strive to reach it. That way when we inevitably miss there is a decent chance we will have created something great regardless.

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Styx Masters The Shadows In 2017

Michał

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The year of 2017 is coming to an end, so nerdy writers like us are inevitably going to talk about things they’ve seen, read and played during it. And I’m no exception – I’d like to tell you all about a game you  may not have heard about. It’s Styx: Shards of Darkness.

Now, this game is a third one in the series… in a manner of speaking. So I need to provide a bit of background, first. While I will avoid spoilers for Shards of Darkness (henceforth SoD), I will talk a bit about the other games’ plots.

A Little History

The main character, Styx, first appears in an unusual action-RPG hybrid Of Orcs and Men. Arkail, an orc warrior with a temper problem (if one can call uncontrollable berserker rage that) joins a mission to kill the human emperor. The orcs see it as their last chance to prevent human expansion into their territory and enslavement of their people. Each member of the elite Bloodjaw warband is to cross the great wall and infiltrate human lands with a hired guide. For Arkail, this turns out to be a wise-cracking goblin assassin, Styx.

Arkail is less than convinced… because Styx is the only goblin to ever speak or display more intelligence than a rabid dog. All the other goblins are marauding monsters that had appeared out of nowhere, a hundred years before the game’s start. If Styx knows anything about that, he refuses to tell anything, simply saying that he’s “different” and “a survivor”.

Grumbling aside, the two companions go on with the mission, their dynamic being central to the gameplay. Arkail is a large warrior who has to manage his burning rage, while Styx is a canny assassin who eliminates targets with a pair of daggers and a set of throwing knives.

Eventually, while the unlikely duo is going on a mental journey into a mage’s mind in order to save her, the truth comes out. Styx has to confront a deep part of himself that reveals he used to be an orc mage who experimented with a substance called “Amber” and turned himself into a grotesque version of an orc. Then he spawned the rest of goblinkind. Whether he embraces the truth or keeps repressing it is up to the player, but it doesn’t affect much.

Styx: Master of Shadows is a prequel that goes all the way back to Styx’s origins. Styx is trying to reach the heart of a World-Tree that excretes Amber… the very same thing that turned him into what he is. Although he can create clones now (and use abilities he certainly does not have in Of Orcs and Men), they disappear after a while and there are no goblins yet.

Master of Shadows ends with the World-Tree destroyed and a horde of goblins swarming out of the wreckage. Styx himself has forgotten most of what happened and moves on.

Shards of Darkness picks up some time after that. Styx has established himself as an elusive mercenary, while his sorry progeny has caused major devastation. I’m not sure how a horde of small, runty and dumb green people managed to destroy an entire town, but I’ll take their word for it.

The Essence of the Game

After a routine job, Styx encounters Helledryn, the head of the CARNAGE squad… which hunts goblins. The woman has a job for him, and plenty of Amber (which Styx is addicted to and which is the source of his powers) to give him in exchange. To the surprise of no one, he ends up getting in way over his head, just like he would do again 50 years later or so.

Much like Master of Shadows, Shards of Darkness is a stealth game. The core of the gameplay remains the same. Styx has to sneak through large maps in pursuit of primary and secondary objectives. The levels, much like in the previous game, are as much vertical as they are horizontal. Styx will jump and climb frequently. He’s got some jumping power in those stumpy legs. There’s always more than one path to your objective, and good spatial awareness will benefit you.

Map design remains pretty stellar, although once again, maps are also reused. You return to areas you’ve already explored eventually. Then again, you do so for good in-story reasons, so perhaps it makes more sense than always finding yourself somewhere new.

The Styx franchise is somewhat different from many other stealth games in that directly engaging enemies isn’t much of an option. When an enemy catches up to you, you’ll have to parry their attacks until you can go in for the kill. When two enemies attack you, or someone has a ranged weapon, they’re free to turn you into a goblin shish-kebab.

Thus it’s easy to dispatch a single enemy if things go wrong, but the game still encourages you to sneak around. If they spot you, there’s always the option to run and hide. Particularly as some enemies you can’t fight at all. Heavily-armored enemies such as knights, dark elf elite guards and dwarves will simply kill you. They’re also entirely immune to Styx’s dagger and crossbow bolts (it’s a tiny, wrist-mounted crossbow), so if you want to get rid of them, you’ll have to be clever. Poison their food, drop something heavy on them or use an acid mine. The last part also gets rid of the body, as Styx can’t carry someone so heavy.

Although it’s possible to run and hide from enemies, in both games I gave myself a challenge of never being spotted at all. Which isn’t easy, but possible and rewarding. You get extra experience for it, as well, which you spend on Styx’s skills. You also get it for being quick (something I could never get more than a bronze medal in), finding all small tokens in a given level (I never bothered to do it) or not killing any enemies.

In Master of Shadows, playing mercifully was difficult. You couldn’t kill anyone at all to get that medal for a particular level, and it could be very hard to avoid detection otherwise. So it you wanted to do it, you would have to forgo the medal for non-detection… or at least, I can’t imagine doing both.

On the other hand, in Shards of Darkness, I found it much easier to go through levels without killing. Perhaps it’s by design, or perhaps I was better at the game? It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a design decision to make such a playstyle a more attainable challenge. In addition, all medals are gradual. Killing no one gets you gold, but killing five or less gets you silver.

One Crafty Goblin

Shards of Darkness also introduces crafting. This is normally something that fills me with dread, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. In the original game, you pick up potions, throwing knives and other items and you have a limit of how many you can carry. The second one adds an extra decision point – you find raw materials and you must decide what to make from them. Will you use the iron ore on crossbow bolts, lockpicks or acid mines?

Of course, because crafting will always be crafting, some materials are scarce and some you’ll carry around in abundance. This depends on what items you learn to craft, but still. You’ll always be short on iron ore and raw Amber, because you use them to craft items you use all the time. Others only go into more situational and later-game items… for which you’ll also need iron or Amber, in many cases.

Although the games play the same, I couldn’t help but feel like the second one is… easier? Perhaps it was the increased ease of a non-violent approach. And the game did grow more challenging later, particularly as we encounter dwarves. Who are entirely typical fantasy dwarves… except for their keen noses. They can pick up a greenskin’s smell easily, which means Styx can’t rely on the shadows to hide him.

They’re easily the most difficult enemy to get past, and the real purpose of acid mines. Those are normally impractical, as by the time you maneuver an enemy into it, you can just bypass or kill them. But they’re a way to kill a dwarf without being spotted.

In other ways, Shards of Darkness expands on the first game’s options. There are more skills and Styx can actually change his equipment. Each dagger or outfit comes with benefits and drawbacks… although a dagger that muffles any kill but makes parrying impossible is a straight-up benefit for a no-detection run. A dagger that instantly dissolves a killed enemy but can’t make quiet kills (which take longer but make less sound) is tricky… unless you take skills that let you muffle the sounds of assassination. An outfit you can unlock through skills lets you craft anywhere, but makes running and jumping noisier. And so on.

All of it doesn’t kick in until later, when you get all sorts of gear and skills to combine into clever strategies. I was able to, for instance, attack an enemy from several meters, then kill them quickly, noiselessly and almost invisibly. And with the dagger I mentioned above, I left no body behind. This tempts me to play the game on NG+, something I’m normally not fond of doing.

Going Too Far

Where I did notice a problem with the game was the writing. Specifically, the main protagonist. Styx captured the hearts of the audience by packing enough snark, experience and swearwords to equip a biker gang into a four-feet-tall body. He retains that personality in the other games… but by Shards of Darkness, it feels like it goes too far.

It’s not an uncommon thing, I think. Many characters find their traits exaggerated over time. And I think that’s what happened with Styx. The writers had a protagonist who was notably snarky, cynical, disrespectful and had a dark sense of humor. So Shards of Darkness has him constantly joke, swear, insult people… it grates sometimes. It’s hard to empathize with a protagonist who never seems to take anything seriously, until he gets angry.

The absolute worst case is Styx insulting the player through the fourth wall when he dies. I really don’t know who thought it was a good idea and I turned it off more or less immediately. This is a good example of that, I think. “Hey, Styx is a rude jackass, why don’t we have him be one to the player?” He also breaks, or just leans on, the fourth wall in other places. It’s not as direct, but does sound forced. Which is generally how it goes; sometimes it feels like the writers try too hard to make sure we know he’s a crude, irreverent and selfish little guy.

This is particularly uncomfortable when it comes to Helledryn, whom I mentioned early on. She’s a goblin-hunter who works with Styx out of necessity. She’s a large woman… though, frankly, not nearly as much as you’d think when hearing people mention it. Styx, who isn’t happy about working with her, never passes up an opportunity to rib her about it. He delights in calling her a “cow”, particularly. Again, he’s a bastard who insults everyone. But when the most frequent and consistent target is a woman, and most of it concerns her size… it’s not a very good impression.

The rest of the writing is serviceable. The world-building is very clearly ad hoc, the writers making it up as they go. The world and story already don’t mesh well with Of Orcs and Men, particularly as Styx has no powers in that game. The game ends with a clear sequel hook, though, so I expect Styx to lose them and his Amber addiction. It’s not really a bad thing – the world, threadbare as it is, is still more appealing than the generic setting in Of Orcs and Men.

Worth Recommending

Despite my misgivings about a protagonist I had initially loved (I very much like goblins in fantasy), Styx: Shards of Darkness is a refinement of the first game’s already solid formula, that delivers the same experience with extra features. Of Orcs and Men is an entirely different game, and very rough around the edges. But it’s still worth investigating if you want something you may not have otherwise seen. And both Styx games are ideal if you want tough, channeling stealth games where you have to think on your feet and consider every angle.

 

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Game Awards 2017 News Roundup

Dan

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The Game Awards are, or are at least an attempt to be, an “Oscars” for video games. The successor to Spike TV’s VGA’s, this is their fourth year awarding excellence in all parts of gaming. But the awards are only half the fun. The Game Awards also serve as a place for devs to drop trailers and news about their upcoming properties. Here’s a roundup of the biggest news coming out of the Game Awards!

The Game Awards 2017

Nintendo Dominates

With the release of the Switch, Nintendo has brought their A game when it comes to releases this year. That shows how successful they were at this year’s show. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild got the big accolades with wins for Game of the Year, Best Game Direction, and Best Action/Adventure Game. Super Mario Odyssey landed Best Family Game while Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle won, of all awards, Best Strategy Game. Finally, Metroid: Samus Returns took home Best Handheld Game.

Cuphead Gets Well Deserved Love

Cuphead has been an indie monster this year. The game combines old school, hard-as-nails gameplay, with almost-slavish devotion to the beautiful animation of yesteryear. That pairing earned them a Best Art Direction Award, as well as Best Independent Game and Best Debut Indie Game. You can view Cuphead’s launch trailer below:

 

Female Video Game Pioneer Recognized

One of the first female game developers ever, Carol Shaw, was recognized for her contributions to gaming. Working in the 70’s, when there were barely any game developers period, let alone women, Shaw helped design games like Super Breakout(1978) for Atari. Her biggest success was the creation of River Raid (1982) for Activision. After leaving Activision in 1984, she worked for Tandem Computers until an early retirement in 1990. She now mostly does volunteer work. You can see her award speech below:

News From The Show

Bayonetta 3 Teased

Everyone’s favorite overly sexualized witch is (barely) suiting up for another game on Nintendo’s new console. It’s been three years since the digital embodiment of the Male Gaze has had her own game, but she did make a strong showing in 2015’s edition of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. While we have no word on release date, Bayonetta 3 is being developed purely for the Switch. Nintendo also announced that Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 would be coming to the Switch in February. Watch the trailer below:

Nintendo Lets Breath of the Wild Get Silly

Even though the Legend of Zelda series is ostensibly one of Nintendo’s more serious franchises, it’s still made by Nintendo. As such, there’s always a bit of lighthearted fun, and humor sprinkled around each game. But in Breath of the Wild’s new DLC, The Champions’ Ballad, Nintendo seems to be ramping up the fun. In addition to giving Link access to cosplays of Zelda characters like Rovio (Link Between World), Zant (Twilight Princess), and Ganon, Nintendo also saw fit to give the Hero of Time a MOTORCYCLE! See all this, and a peek at the new dungeon below:

People Still Have No Idea What Hideo Kojima Is Doing

Norman Reedus is pregnant? And vomiting oil? But the oil grabs people? And maybe it made him pregnant? How does Mads Mikkelsen play into this?

Veteran Fighting Series Gets New Entry

It’s been five years since Namco last released a new entry in their popular Soul Caliber series.  The series is well known for both its weapon-based combat system as its unique taste in women’s wear. The new trailer doesn’t reveal much, except for the return of classic characters Sophitia Alexandra and Mitsurugi. Soul Caliber VI is set to drop for PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2018. Watch the trailer below:

 

World War Z Shows Up Late To Zombie Game Craze With Starbucks

Even though it’s been four years since the world gave the film adaptation of World War Z a collective “meh,” it appears someone still thinks there’s gas in the franchise. Taking the sort of “same world, different characters” approach as The Walking Dead, the video game adaptation will be a four-player co-op shooter taking place in various infested locales around the world. The game will be developed by Saber Interactive (Halo Online, R.I.P.D The Game). Catch the trailer below.


Image courtesy of The Game Awards

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Nintendo Is Making A Live Action Detective Pikachu Film…Starring Ryan Reynolds

Dan

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After all of the calls, tweets, and letters…after over 50,000 people signed a petition…after the actor himself stated he doesn’t even know what Pokemon is…Danny Devito will not be playing the title roll in Nintendo’s upcoming live action Detective Pikachu film. Instead, the Electric Mouse Pokemon will have a decidedly smoother voice. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds.

Detective Pikachu has only been around for a little over a year, making his debut in 2016 in Great Detective Pikachu. The “cinematic adventure game”  stood out immediately thanks to its star: a deep voiced, flirty, coffee chugging Pikachu in a deer stalker hat. While not as powerful as others of his species, Detective Pikachu makes up for it with his intelligence and knack for crime solving. With his ambiguously young friend/driver Tim Goodman, the Detective solves Pokemon related crime around the city.

Alongside Reynolds, Justice Smith (The Get Down) and Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird, Big Little Lies) will star in the main human roles. Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) will be taking the director’s chair. Writing chores are being handled by Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls) and Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel). The film will be produced by Legendary Pictures (Jurassic World, Straight Outta Compton), and distributed by Toho and Universal. Detective Pikachu will be the first live action adaptation of a Nintendo Property since 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Not doubt Nintendo is hoping that this film turns out a little better.


Image Courtesy of Nintendo

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