Gameplay vs. Story. Is it more important to have a game that plays great, or is it more important to have a great plot? This debate will likely never end, but I wanted to at least add my own personal opinion to the debate by examining the purpose of both a game and a story.
A story is made to convey a message to people for a specific purpose, be it entertainment or informative. There are many different methods to tell a story, be it written, oral or through pictures. Among these different mediums are various techniques an author can employ to create a good story, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, all stories rely on the same thing to create their appeal:
Whether a story is a high flying action adventure or a tender romance, the key method to getting a viewer to enjoy the authorís story is to appeal to the emotions that the viewer wants to feel. Every medium appeals to emotion by creating a mood that fosters the emotions the author is trying to evoke. For example, an adventurous film like Indiana Jones needs to focus on action scenes with fighting, danger and suspense to create the emotion of excitement. A horror movie like Scream needs to take place primarily at night to maintain the emotion of fear.
Because creating the proper mood is the best way to appeal to the viewerís emotions, creating and maintaining a mood is the most important factor for a story. A proper mood can help the viewer get into the story so much that they ignore all logical flaws, plot holes, contradictions and other elements indicative of a poorly written or shallow plot. To prove this point, check out CinemaSins on Youtube and find some of your favorite films. Watch the video on it, and ask yourself how many of these flaws you completely missed because you were so in to the movie that you didnít notice or didnít care. For an even simpler example, letís examine Superman and Sailor Moon. Both characters have identities that are clearly visible and by all logic people should be able to figure out. Everyone who enjoys those series know this, but they donít care. The mood is good enough to allow the viewer to suspend disbelief and enjoy Superman and Sailor Moon for what it is.
Unlike stories, games do not need to focus on appeals to emotion in order to be enjoyable. A gameís most important role is to create a set of rules and establish a goal for the player to accomplish that is entertaining. The games that stand the test of time for the longest have always had game mechanics as their primary strength. Chess and Poker are the two best examples of this due to how long humans have continued to play these games throughout our history. Chess and Poker also have zero emotional appeal. Both Chess and Poker are not played for characters, setting and narrative. They represent a game in the purest and simplest form. Despite calling them video games, video games are still a game (Hell, they even have game in the word). The design principles and philosophy behind what makes Chess and Poker good games applies to video games as well. Itís a great error to think that video games must be treated as something completely separate from all other non-digital games. Stripped of all art, audio and writing, a video game is the same as Chess or Poker. Please keep the distinction of me talking about a video game and a game in mind. This is important to understanding the point, and I donít intend for them to represent each other interchangeably when I bring either term up.
Knowing now that gameplay creates a good game and mood creates a good story, the answer to the gameplay vs. story dilemma can start to unfold. Remember, a video game is a game. If we were to strip a video game of all story, a game would still exist. However, a video game stripped of gameplay is technically no longer a game. Without gameplay, a video game becomes a digital museum tour, and the original purpose of creating a video game is lost. A story that is stripped of a mood fails to evoke emotions and becomes a random photo gallery or a jumble of words. A game with bad gameplay is still a game and a story with bad mood is still a story, but both are less effective overall at what the intended purpose of being a game or story is.
A video game that has a bad story, but good gameplay can still succeed at being a good game. It fails at being a good story, but being a good story is not important for creating a good game and is ultimately not needed to make a good game. A video game that is well written, but has bad gameplay fails at being a good game. Now, even though the video game failed to be a good game, can it still succeed at being a good story? By the definition of being a good story, no, a video game with bad gameplay also fails to be a good story. How is this the case?
Remember, a good story is all about creating the right mood to appeal to emotions. The problem with bad gameplay in a video game is that the ability to create a mood is highly hindered or outright prevented. If the intended mood of a story is to be tragic and heartfelt, how can this be effectively maintained if the viewer must spend long periods of time being bored? If the intended mood of the story is love, how much love will the player be feeling if theyíre angry from dying for the 30[sup]th[/sup] time on the same part due to poor controls? Any mood and emotions invoked by a 10-20 minute cutscene are quickly snuffed out when the next 2-3 hours of play must be spent in a foul mood due to poor gameplay. It becomes incredibly difficult for the storyís viewer to grow attached to the characters and maintain an intended mood when the protagonist spends the majority of the experience pissing off the viewer.
For those who donít think a characterís experience in gameplay doesnít affect the playerís attachment to the character or the storyís mood, ask yourself this: Why is Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite and Ellie in The Last of Us both invincible and ignored by enemies? Answering this question from a story perspective instead of a gameplay perspective, itís because the writers want the player to like Elizabeth and Ellie. As the player, how much would you have still enjoyed Elizabeth and Ellie if they could both die and were actively targeted by enemies? Would you still like Elizabeth if she was killable during the ghost battle? Would you still like Ellie if the Infected could hear her move and pulled their one hit kill shenanigans on her? How about I just say Ashley Graham and leave it at that
In the worst possible scenario, the story will fail because the player never finishes it. A story that no one ever experiences isnít really a story anymore. For a simple experiment, grab your favorite movie off your shelf and rent, borrow or purchase a video game you hate playing. Turn the movie on and start watching 15 minutes of it. Now pause the movie and start playing the video game you hate for 2 hours. After 2 hours of playing the video game, pause it and return to your favorite movie. Watch another 15 minutes of the movie, then return to playing the video game after that for another 2 hours. Repeat this process until you finally finish the movie. I hope to Yevon your favorite movie isnít Titanic, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia. This experiment is essentially what playing a game with bad gameplay but a good story is like. Now, try the reverse. Take a movie you hate the most, and a video game you love playing and repeat this experiment with the same time frames, 15 minutes of the movie and 2 hours of gameplay. By the way, this second experiment has an extra perk to it. At any point during those 15 minutes of watching the bad movie, you can stop watching at any time and play the game for another 2 hours. In fact, you can just not put the movie in at all and just keep playing. This is to simulate the ability to skip cutscenes. This scenario exemplifies why good gameplay but bad story can work, but bad gameplay with a well written story canít.
The gameplay segments in a video game with bad gameplay can be designed to be skipped or be short, but in that case, why not just make a film or book instead? The purpose of including interactivity to a story is to add an element to the mood that is not possible with only viewing. Viewing only allows a person to SEE what itís like to be a different person in a different setting, but interactivity allows the viewer to BE either themselves or a different person and experience what they or the person theyíre being would do. To ďbeĒ in a story is the ultimate way to create mood, and only an interactive medium like video games can use this powerful tool. If interactivity will only hinder the intended mood of the story, why bother including it?
I donít intend for this to be used as a valid excuse that video games can all be poorly written if itís fun, but rather that having good gameplay is an important cornerstone to having a good story in an interactive medium, and if something MUST be sacrificed, it should be story every time. A well written plot that fails to maintain its mood will fail to invoke emotion and will become a bad story by default. I have other things to say about games that have good gameplay and are well written, but the gameplay contradicts the mood that the story is trying to set, but that will be a topic for another time.