Storytelling and Gameplay in Video Games

It's a controversial topic in gaming: should the focus be on improving the "gameplay" aspects of the game or making a story worth telling? You'll hear a different answer from everyone, whether they realize their answer is different or not. I exist as part of the minority of gamers that plays games solely for the story.

This article has already taken a turn for the controversial with just that one sentence for some. I'm sure that some people would be quick to point out that games like Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty aren't known for their stories and I won't refute that I enjoy a bit of fun on them occasionally, but if it weren't for the immense storytelling potential of video games, I wouldn't identify as a gamer.

Storytelling and Gameplay in Video Games

My life has been fraught with the desire to experience the greatest story ever told. I've been on an unspoken mission to experience everything the world has to offer from folklore to books to video games and to this day I maintain that the medium with the potential to tell the greatest story ever is a video game.

Video games are more capable than any other medium of immersing the audience. We make decisions, those decisions affect the outcome, and we literally become our player character. In addition, game engines are capable of realizing fantastical worlds small cost compared to a live-action movie. We can build worlds that could never exist in reality, interact with them, and become a part of them in a way that other mediums could wish to surpass.


Gameplay and Story:

It's important to understand how I define story and gameplay in this article. "Story" is the abstract notion of a narrative within a video game, either written by the player or by the developer. Essentially there exists a sequence of told events which eventually culminates in an outcome. This definition is extremely versatile and applies to basically every game in history. Even Pong fits. Why? Because it's a sequence of told events which eventually results in one player winning or losing. Sure, Pong's story sucks, but there is one that's written by you: the player.

The second definition is of gameplay. Gameplay is the blanket term for any system within a video game that is capable of altering the course of the story (which we just defined). In Pong, you can move your piece and deflect the ball, which thereby alters the course of the story. That's its gameplay.

It's a simple distinction that I actually find quite elegant. Based on these definitions, I will forever consider things like Heavy Rain and visual novels as video games. More on that later.

Gameplay-Story Dissonance:

EDIT: There is apparently an accepted term for "Gameplay-Story Dissonance" that I was unaware of. It is "Ludonarrative dissonance". I'll leave the article as-is, but this edit is a writer's correction.

A big problem that plagues video games is "Gameplay-Story Dissonance". I define this term as the invariable result of a video game's gameplay taking precedence over the story.

This takes root in a number of ways. Many of us remember the penultimate level of Halo 3, where we fought through hordes of Flood to reach of new Halo installation's control room to beat the game. We fight through tons of an unstoppable enemy (particularly on Legendary) and sentinels on our way to the door and then defend the door against the same enemies. We kicked ass and we were unstoppable.

Storytelling and Gameplay in Video Games

Then, when we entered the control room, Guilty Spark immediately kicks our ass (let's not mention how co-op buddies mysteriously go missing in cutscenes, another form of gameplay-story dissonance). When the cutscene is over and the gameplay is back, we proceed to wipe him out in no time flat.

The story and the gameplay are disagreeing with each other. The story is trying to tell us that Guilty Spark is more powerful than the endless hordes of Flood that just tried to kill us, while the gameplay easily suggests that Guilty Spark is a complete pushover.

Storytelling and Gameplay in Video Games

This dissonance takes root everywhere in video games when you look closely. From games like Call of Duty to Valkyria Chronicles, it's an evasive problem with video games in general. It happens to varying degrees of course, but it's nearly always present in some fashion.

Overcoming this problem is key for making video game stories powerful. You'll never be able to erase the problem entirely, but you can do enough to get players to overlook it as an acceptable break from reality. Every gamer's acceptable break from reality threshold is different, so developers have a fine line to walk.

Besides this one drawback, there is no other medium I know of that is capable of telling a story like video games. Its immersive capacity knows no bounds at all and I'm always enthralled when a video game story sucks me in. Even Call of Duty campaigns have their moments for me.

The Search Continues:

Storytelling and Gameplay in Video Games

Up until just under two months ago, my favorite video game was Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War. It's part of a series that is rarely known for its gameplay and rarely known for its mainstream appeal. It's a video game about fighter pilots and taking down enemies in dogfights, but it's also one of the games that was a part of the golden age of Ace Combat: The Playstation 2 era. Alongside Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies and Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, the game is packed to the brim with thematic depth and storytelling. It was never about the gameplay, it was about the story. A damn good story at that. Because the story and gameplay were kept relatively segregated, the game didn't experience much dissonance to boot.

But, as I said, that was almost two months ago. After fellow TAYvian Rockmandash12 started reviewing visual novels on TAY, I decided to take on visual novels once again. Visual novels are unique among video games because the gameplay is very limited (helping stave off gameplay-story dissonance considerably). In its most basic form, visual novels are more akin to choose-your-own-adventure games, but I consider them clearly members of the video games category.

Almost two months ago I found myself enthralled in the story of Muv-Luv, an eroge series out of Japan that was absolutely incredible. After about half of Muv-Luv Alternative, it shot straight past Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War and secured the spot for greatest video game I'd ever played without a doubt. More impressively, I decided to crown it the greatest story I ever experienced. It set a bar extremely high indeed, to the point where I will forever judge stories in relation to Muv-Luv.

Despite having just options that came up on the screen every once in a while, it became the greatest story I ever played, and it came from the video game medium. It seamlessly tied together the story and the gameplay on an order of which I didn't think was possible. Everything was explained and everything made sense. It was, quite literally, something I thought to be impossible.

Eventually, I finished Muv-Luv and continued my journey to find something that may yet trump it in storytelling. After a false-start on Grisaia no Kajitsu, another visual novel, I eventually came upon G-senjou no Maou.

It wasn't better than Muv-Luv, but it did further prove to me that video games and visual novels are capable of telling some incredible stories.

More conventional video games have rarely had an impact on me in the same way as visual novels as of yet. Games like Persona, Ace Combat and Mass Effect have gotten close in many ways, but they do suffer a bit from gameplay-story dissonance and under-performing stories.

It really comes down to the fact that visual novels necessarily put their story ahead of gameplay. Instead of being subservient to the gameplay, the story is allowed to flourish with the benefit of gameplay. This is a difficult balance to strike in a conventional video game because mainstream gamers look for action and certain gameplay rules need to be followed.

There's Still More To Come:

Storytelling and Gameplay in Video Games

As time goes on, there's an even greater chance that I'll run across a game that usurps the title for greatest video game. There's a ton of potential for video games to become the source of the greatest stories we'll ever hear. They're immersive, intricate, and capable of building worlds we'd never see elsewhere. While visual novels have already managed to tell some of the greatest stories I've ever heard, there's potential for even more on the horizon if we manage to obtain it.

If we can overcome this dissonance between the gameplay and story and finally strike the mythical balance between them, I think we'll be capable of doing so much more.

Until then, I'll be content to focus much of my time on RPGs and Visual Novels: two of my favorite genres for storytelling. While everyone is different, I would highly recommend trying out the latter if you're a story-seeker like me. Visual novels are capable of extraordinary storytelling if you give them a chance.

You can read all my articles on Dex's Corner and join us on TAY for more fun. If you're interested, Ani-TAY has you covered for all things Japan.