A while back, there was a post saying the next Thi4f was going to be streamlined, including such features as Thief-O-Vision, and everyone lost their mind. Not like when people lost their minds when we saw Snake-O-Vision in a midnight screening of Snakes on a Plane, but still. Because that was an awesome event, and pretty much the only way to experience said film. Rubber snakes were errywhere. But the talking head from the article made a point that really resonated with me, and my paraphrasing is basically that it is necessary to somewhat streamline a game, because players don’t want to play the same section over and over. Now obviously, some games perform this task incredibly well, see Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls, while for other games what he said is 100% true, like Spec Ops and Tomb Raider. So what is the difference?
If you get why that is relevant, part of me loves you (but isn't in love with you)
Hypothesis (that makes it sound science, and you can’t argue science unless you live in Kansas): Games can be measured on two separate scales, one for gameplay, the other for story. While these two scales are not mutually exclusive (terms so stat), when added together, these two values can not exceed a constant c. For purpose of example, assume story and gameplay are ranked from 1 to 10, and the constant is 15, giving us g+s <= 15. In other words, the tightest gameplay you will ever find can only have an average story, and the best story ever told in a videogame can only have passable gameplay. Now if we wanted to show this graphically, and why wouldn’t we, it would look like the below:
And yes, I will speak for us when I say "we". If you don't want to be part of it, just stop reading, Walker
I have taken the liberty of splitting the picture into the distinct sections of games. Before tackling that picture though, I want to explain why I think this is true. It all comes down to this, which I am presenting as an axiom, because it has been about 4 years since I have had the chance to use the term axiom: In order for a good story to develop, the story has to progress at the player’s pace. In order for good gameplay to develop, the game has to go at the designer’s pace.
In order to become truly engrossed in a story, you can’t be restarting sections, you can’t be fumbling with the controls, and you can’t be reminded that you are in a game. This leads to several design choices which actively oppose having good gameplay, like a minimal HUD, reduction of challenge, minimizing twitch based actions. This lets the player experience each part of the story one time, with minimal interruptions to the narrative and to the train of thought. In this way, a player can interpret everything that is being presented and figure out how they are emotionally reacting to it, allowing for them to have a clear view of the story as a whole.
On the other side of that, if you have a good game, you can’t tell a good story. Why didn’t Super Meat Boy have a good plot? Could it? No. You look at games like Tetris, Mario, Portal, Star Fox...these games don’t have an engrossing story because as a player you are too invested in the game. Your focus has to be on mechanics, button combinations, and overcoming a challenge. Because these are at the forefront of the experience, there is no room to put in a story that is too complex. Otherwise you wind up with the same scene playing over and over again, and depending on the checkpointing this could be between annoying to just plain silly. Like watching a pivotal character sacrifice themselves, only for you to be shot in the head again, so you get to rewatch the scene. Twenty times. In addition, if you throw in gameplay challenges, the player has to focus 100% of their mind on what is happening onscreen. It is nearly impossible to be thinking about why M Bison decided to set up a world fighting tournament while he is doing a tap dance on your head. But RPGs on the other hand have built in sections where you can sit back and chill without focusing too deeply on your strategy.
I want to give some prefaces to all of this: I do not consider lore to be part of a story. The story needs to be what character arc that the protagonist goes through. Some games have amazing lore, and terrible story (Dead Space 1 is waving at me in the corner...Hi Dead Space!) Finally, gameplay isn’t just a measure of being functional, it is also a measure of being satisfying. Take, for example, the original Final Fantasy. While technically this has gameplay, no one brags about their mad skills in piloting that beast of a game.
In no particular order, the zones:
Zone 7: The Bottom Tier: Not only unremarkable, but moderately offensive. These are games that no one likes, although some may remember these games for other reasons. Notable examples include 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, and four copies of Eternities Child, duct taped to each other.
The Holy Grail.
A game so engrossing, so amazing, that you have to bow down at it’s sheer beauty. Requiring you to play at 60 frames per second in order to be able to tell when is the correct frame to press the four button combination, easy to learn, difficult to master, and all the while narrating the love child between Harry Potter and War and Peace. The best of the best.
There are no notable examples, as their existence disproves my hypothesis.
This may come off as controversial, but this totally makes sense to me. These games focus so heavily on having the widest appeal that they cannot have the perfect game mechanics, or a plot that is too risky. The plot has to be some kind of sitcom, feel good story, and the gameplay has to be something that everyone is used to by now. These games are by no means exceptional, but are more often that not better than the rest. Sadly, the lack of excellence in a single area is like a freshman in college trying to figure out their major: of no use to the world. It could be worse though. You could major in communications.
Examples: Call of Duty, any Assassins Creed past the first one (that gameplay was not passable, but that story was all like “whaaat”. Name another series that jumped the shark before it was a series. I dare you.), Battlefield.
Zones 3 and 4:
These games excel at one category, but the other factor drags down the review score. This leads to a situation where a game that has a great story is panned by the reviewers because it has middling gameplay, but all of the fans of the game recommend the story to everyone they meet, or vice versa. Speaking of which, you should totally buy Binary Domain. Ugh, how have you not played that? The hallmark of these games is no one talking about them for four months, then disappearing from everyone’s memory.
Notable Examples: Nier, Deadly Premonition, Earth Defense Force, Singularity, and, uh, Binary Domain, obviously.
RPGs generally are story heavy, but have only what legally qualifies as gameplay. Especially when getting into turn based RPGs the game can be completed by a computer being fed rather simple instructions of “cast spell X, level up skill Y, buy item Z”. That doesn’t mean they are bad games overall, not by any stretch of the imagination, as RPGs tend to tell stories that are capable of captivating all but the most cold hearted gamer, encapsulated in game engine that could be replicated by a DM with some pencil and paper.
Notable Examples: Seriously? Final Fantasy 6, Lost Odyssey, Ni No Kuni (so I hear)
Super Sweet Style Action Games
This zone is home of the games that require pixel perfect play, hitting just the right button at just the right frame of the enemy’s attack animation to trigger your instant refill of your mega badass gauge so you begin to change your uber sword into the mega panther sex bomb maneuver, reducing the boss to ash in a matter of seconds. These games require tight controls, sixty frames per second, and god help you if you try to play them with a keyboard and mouse. Despite being at what many may consider to be the pinnacle of gameplay, there is often a story that involves fourteen more characters and forces at work than it needs, usually resulting in something that gets played out for a laugh, or an incomprehensiblemessthathisjustpartoftheexpierience. After all, you have a combo meter to be working on.
Notable Examples: Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden (the first one...wait...the fourth one. Since when did Ninja Gaiden go all Star Wars on our ass?)
Why Would I Bother with Gameplay?
I want to be semi clear; Zome 1 and Zone 6 don’t have the worst gameplay or story. They have basically none. On a scale of 1 to 10, they are a zero. How delicious is their bacon? Blue.
What if I told you that games not only exist in Zone 1, but are also some of the most universally heralded games? Ohhh it burns! This section is reserved specifically for games like The Walking Dead, Pheonix Wright, Heavy Rain, and Ghost Trick. The Walking Dead barely has gameplay. Barely. It is the videogame equivalent of a chose your own adventure book. But sweet zombie Jesus is the game amazing. Winning several game of the year awards, and gaining the respect of one primate with an affection for potatoes, the Walking Dead delivered what was one of the best stories in gaming by removing all elements of gaming. In fact, whenever it turned into a game, it actually became...pretty bad. The scenes where you had to shoot zombies or stab zombies, or run from zombies all felt so token. I could easily write an entire blog about how rock hard I get when thinking about how well that game tells a story, so I will cut myself off here. Suffice to say that this is probably my favorite area or game, because these are the games that have the most impact on me while playing.
Notable Examples: The Walking Dead, Pheonix Wright, Heavy Rain, Dear Eshter, and Ghost Trick
I dont just have plies of Dark Souls screencaps laying around....WHO TOLD YOU?
Of course, this doesn’t just include NES games, but it does give a basic idea. Looking back at Megaman, Castlevania, Mario, Super Meat Boy, and (from the looks of it) Shovel Knight, these games all had rock solid controls, expertly designed stages, and well thought out enemies. These games devoted the entire staff to figuring out which enemy should be placed on which tile to, at first, encourage the player, only to later challenge the player. This is all done at the sacrifice of story, but you never miss it because you are too busy feeling like a champ to care. Unless you played with the Power Glove. It’s so bad. This is also totally where Rhythm games and the Souls series lives. As I said above, Souls games have amazing lore, but overall, the story is pretty meh at the end of the day. It is the rolling backstabs that really bring people into those, right? Right? This also includes all the tournament fighters, except maybe that Persona one. That one is on watch..
Notable Examples: Demons’ Souls, Bionnic Commando, Megaman, VVVVVV, Street Fighter 4
So what do you all think? Is my labelling of quadrants on the money, or way off base? Do you think any game has really, really achieved something in the Golden Realm?