Note: This article will contain spoilers for games discussed.
As games have become more graphically and technologically advanced, the desire to tell compelling stories that fully utilize these rich and beautiful virtual worlds has become stronger. More now than any other period of game history, games are creating larger narratives than ever thought possible, creating enough lore and backstory that full textbooks could be written analyzing them.
Yet even today, some games focus more so on their gameplay and well-oiled mechanics, with the story being the instigator for motivating the player in the early stages, but gradually fading away as players develop their own prerogatives. On the other hand of this is when a game becomes an "interactive drama," where the story itself is the game, and outside of player movement and interspersed choices, there is little to no gameplay. This article will look at three examples that broadly cover the gamut of how a narrative becomes intertwined into a game, and how important the story is to the overall experience.
Credits to DLCompare.com
The Pokémon game series has never been renowned for their artful storytelling, with each game rehashing almost the exact same plot structure each time: get your starter Pokémon, beat the Gym Leaders, defeat the regional villain team, capture the game-specific legendary Pokémon, and become the new regional Champion. While each game has their own spin on the story and depth of narrative, with the arguably most creative adaptation being the plot of Pokémon Black and Pokémon White alongside their sequels, fans of the series have come to expect the usual story beats.
This is no different for Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, the first games to use 3-D modeling for characters and Pokémon. The story of the game seems to take on after Sinnoh's annihilation story with a bit of a twist, wherein the corrupt Team Flare and Lysandre trying to wipe out the human population so that the world can become more beautiful without their toxic influence. By and large, the story, and characters especially, are sadly not very memorable, despite the game's best efforts to dramatize the narrative.
However, the lackluster narrative of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y is made up for by the gameplay. With the new Mega Evolution mechanic, players can dramatically increase one of their Pokémon's strength, being a key turning point of a battle. Alongside dozens of new Pokémon, a brand-new Pokémon type, and much more, these games reinvigorated Pokémon fans with a breath of fresh air. Like most any other Pokémon title, it is not the story that fuels the experience, it is the journey of collecting Pokémon, battling friends and foes, and trading with people across the world.
This is not to say that the gameplay was perfectly polished, as many fans nowadays tend to dismiss this generation of Pokémon games for being plain, yet at the time, these battles were action-packed and thrilling. The story may have fallen short of expectations, but it is not what these games are remembered for or what the main focus was, and thus these two games were able to deliver a new, fun experience while having narrative take the backseat.
Credits to IMDb
There has been many a great game that has been able to, more or less, balance a well-executed narrative alongside interesting gameplay, and this is readily apparent in Grim Fandango Remastered, a re-release of the original Lucasarts property from the late 1990's. Playing as white-collar Grim Reaper Manuel "Manny" Calavera, players engage in a four-act drama that explores institutional rebellion, corporate greed, representations of the afterlife, and more all in a Day of the Dead-inspired art style. The story is riveting, surprising players left and right with new twists and turns akin to an intense telenovela. Characters are well developed over the four years the story covers, faceting personalities to make NPC's feel alive in the literal dead atmosphere, such as the sweet-turned-rebellious Mercedes. Grim Fandango Remastered tells an incredibly compelling story that does an excellent job crafting characters and establishing drama.
One may fear that the gameplay of a narrative-heavy game like Grim Fandango Remastered might be unintuitive, but the game delivers on this side as well. Gameplay typically revolves around puzzle solving and exploration, combining items in the inventory screen to see what they can be used on in the current scene of the narrative. Many of the puzzles can prove quite a surprising challenge, but none are excessively difficult, providing a nice challenge to players of any skill level. While Grim Fandango Remastered may bore players with a preference for more high-octane, action-based combat like in a shooter game, this game still offers a well-designed, creative puzzle experience that blends well with current plot developments. As a whole, Grim Fandango Remastered gives players a memorable story that coincides intuitive puzzle design, providing an engaging experience that appeals to both narrative- and gameplay-oriented players.
Credits to Steam
A game can have a relatively minute story, or place action alongside narrative, but what happens when a story is the ultimate focal point of a game, with gameplay limited to just moving along the plot? Enter Man of Medan, the first entry in the Dark Pictures anthology being produced by Supermassive Games, the same studio behind the hit horror game Until Dawn. The story it tells is based on the tale of the Ourang Medan, a ghost ship whose crew all mysteriously died one night, wherein the game's protagonists are being held as prisoners by a group of pirates investigating the wreck for valuables.
The narrative is intriguing enough for horror fans, although it leaves more to be desired as many characters' motives and actions either feel out of place or unprovoked, such as people randomly lashing out at other characters when the atmosphere was fine moments before. Pacing is another issue, with events in the story either feeling drawn out for too long or jumping from one action point to the next without time to reflect. This may not be major problems in other games, but because Man of Medan focuses so intensely on creating an interactive drama, these narrative errors glare out more.
Gameplay for Man of Medan involves few mechanics outside of moving around the gamespace, primarily selecting dialogue choices in limited time, completing quick-time events, and finding paintings throughout the game world that act as "premonitions" for potential future dangers. It's the type of gameplay one would expect from an interactive drama like Telltale's The Walking Dead and others, not so much gameplay as they are catalysts for the plot. These mechanics are hampered down in this game by how sudden or drastic some of the quick-time events are, where in some cases missing even one event in a series of seven to ten QTE's can result in a character dying permanently.
Other interactive dramas will typically make a character's death something more dramatic or cinematic, something that will only occur if the player makes unwise decisions, but Man of Medan punishes players simply for not having quick reaction times or being on-guard at every moment. In essence, while some interactive drama games are able to create an intricate story that is motivated by gameplay that still feels engaging, like The Walking Dead: Season One or Life is Strange, Man of Medan tries to take it a step further and make what is essentially an interactive movie, which is an ambitious and interesting goal that turns out sullied by plot holes becoming more prominent alongside dull gameplay.
Credits to Nintendo
The debate over narrative versus gameplay in games has gone on for decades, with "ludologists" arguing that overabundant stories take away from the experience of play, while "narratologists" advocate for more engaging narratives that give gameplay a purpose. Some games may only utilize a story as a catalyst for action and gameplay, which has become common in game series where fans keep coming back for the mechanics instead of the story, like Pokémon.
The majority of games find a nice middle ground between having a good plot structure that blends with gameplay, entertaining story-driven players and adventure seekers alike with games like Grim Fandango Remastered. Some games even take it a step further to create an "interactive drama," games that center on their thrilling stories as their selling point, but pushing boundaries even farther like Man of Medan requires a highly refined narrative underscored by balanced mechanics.
Ultimately, the relevance of story in a game truly comes down to the developers' goals. Do they want their well-oiled gameplay to shine through? Do they want to engage players beyond rhythmic combat? How important are dialogue choices and NPC interaction? Is there fractal storytelling, a linear plot structure, or something else entirely, and how does that impact gameplay? In the end, any story can help bolster a game's overall experience, but the level of story integration can vary drastically, and depending on how it is executed, the story can make or break a game.