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Integrating Story and Game Mechanics

One of the best aspects of video game storytelling is that the player is allowed to interact with the story. This level of interactivity is what separates video games from the movie and literary genre in the narrative department. Despite video games having this powerful tool in its arsenal to engage a user in their story, itís rarely implemented effectively. This problem stems from the fact that too many video games are trying way too much to tell a story like a big budget Hollywood movie instead of like a game. I have many things I want to say about this topic, but for now Iím going to talk about getting the player invested in a gameís characters.

This is a whole other kind of investment.

Unlike Hollywood films, video games have displayed a unique strength in keeping the player immersed that movies canít do. A video game does not need to be the prettiest thing on the market in order to keep the player engaged. Engrossing gameplay allows the player to overlook many aspects that may be lacking in the graphical department. This huge strength is often ignored by developers in favor of the Hollywood approach. The effect of pretty graphics can be just as easily obtained from game mechanics and for a lot less cash to boot. To illustrate this example, letís look at Heavy Rain vs. Fire Emblem 7 (The one with Eliwood for the GBA.) with a little bit of Final Fantasy VII for example purposes.

Heavy Rain tries to take the Hollywood approach to get you to care about its cast of Madison, Norman, Scott and Ethan. The game looks pretty and ultra-realistic, and the player spends time viewing the life of each character while they control them. Itís all very emotional playing with Ethanís sons and dealing with a rapist with Madison. Unfortunately, the time spent controlling these characters amounts to Quick Time Events (QTE), which are very boring. A unique problem video games have is that it can ruin how invested the player is to a character depending on how much fun the player has controlling said character. Yes, there will be players out there who will look at the plot of Heavy Rain more than the gameplay, but the majority of players expect fun gameplay more than anything else. The fact that the best-selling series in video game history is held by Mario, followed by Pokťmon, shows that game players value good gameplay more than a deep story.

So little plot, yet so many feels.

When the player isnít having fun controlling Ethan or Madison, their investment in the character starts to decrease.† The playerís boredom and frustrations will be projected on to that character so now when that character comes to mind in their head, theyíre associated with negative feelings. Getting the player to associate negative feelings to your character is the kiss of death for your plot, and developers really need to take great care in ensuring this doesnít happen.

I know the Heavy Rain example might be hard to grasp for some, so Iím going to use a more well-known example to illustrate this point. Letís examine Final Fantasy VIIís Yuffie and Cait Sith. Both of these characters receive a lot of hate due to negative association the player develops for them that is unrelated to bad writing. Yuffie steals all of the playerís Materia at one point in the game and forces the player to be locked in a single town fighting enemies with no magic or skills. This segment is frustrating and unenjoyable to the player because they must now suffer from disempowerment despite how much fun they have becoming empowered through leveling. Because Yuffie was the character that forced you to play through a disempowerment segment of the game, the negative feelings you get from it are projected on to her when she returns to the team, and the player learns to hate her without any fault of the writer. Cait Sith is worthless in battle.

Don't confuse him with his older brother. He works hard.

His damage is poor and his Limit Breaks are just a huge gamble with little payoff. Once the player realizes how bad Cait Sith is in combat, they want nothing to do with him. His character then becomes associated with making the player weaker, so once again the character is hurt without any real fault of the writing.

Now on the other end of the spectrum, Fire Emblem 7 takes a very video game way of making the player invested in its characters. Almost all aspects of character investment are achieved through game mechanics. For starters, if a character dies, they do not come back. The player must complete the rest of the game without that character. This mechanic alone establishes the first layer of investment that the player has in the characters. Now every member of the playerís team becomes important because no one can replace them. The player does get characters who have the same class as others, but they will not have the same stats growths. Every character the player has also looks unique. They have a name and face associated with them rather than being a generic looking unit, so if they die, not only does the player lose that valuable asset to the combat, they also lose that character they think looks really cool, pretty or is funny. Even with the minimal plot involvement, characters like Guy, Erk and Lucius become important to the player emotionally. Lucius in particular falls into a unique role that enhances his value to the player.

When you see it...

He is the only Monk in the game (One out of two classes that can use Light magic for a majority of the game) and for a large portion of the game, he will be the only character that can use Light magic. The only other characters who can also do this are Serra (in the mid game after a class upgrade) and Athos (only for the last two battles in the game). Because of his role of being the sole Light magic user for a long time and being the easiest of them to level up, the player experiences a huge loss should he die in combat. He receives a large amount of investment due to this alone.

The second layer of investment comes when the player uses these characters in combat. Every time a character scores the player a lucky critical hit, takes down a tough enemy and helps them win a battle, the player associates positive feelings with that character. Now if they die, that joy the player receives from that character is gone, so they must take care of them. Anyone whoís played Fire Emblem can understand the feeling of starting a battle over because your favorite character died. A movie can never accomplish this kind of investment and no one ever rewinds a film in the middle of watching it just to have the joy of having a character stay alive.

Ethan's sons have nothing on this!

The third layer of investment comes in Supports. Supports serve as a way for the player to bond one character with another and learn more about both characters involved in the Support. Not only does the Support give the player more insight on the plot of the character, it also provides a stat boost in combat. This stat boost can often times be the deciding factor in a battle, so taking the time to do them becomes important to the player. The stat boost gained from a Support also serves to create a dual emotional investment for the player. For example, letís say the player likes Guy a lot but isnít as keen on Matthew. If the player decides to do a Support between Guy and Matthew, they will notice that Guy gives Matthew extra points in Strength that he desperately needs and Matthew gives Guy extra points in Critical Hit Chance, which is his bread and butter. The player is now positively reinforced to keep Matthew around Guy so that a character they like a lot becomes even better, and Matthew benefits from this positive reinforcement as well since now the player will want to keep him alive and in use. Itís no guarantee that the player will like Matthew more due to this, but it certainly helps Matthewís chances.

My scenario is silly, though. No one can hate him.

Despite Heavy Rain spending a fortune to create a beautiful environment with realistic looking characters, Fire Emblem 7 manages to trump it in character investment due to using the strengths of video games to its advantage rather than trying to use a movieís advantage. Keep in mind that the plot of a Fire Emblem game never amounts to more than ďEvil kingdom invades good kingdom! Also, kill a dragon or demon along the way.Ē Even with this weak plot, Fire Emblem has much more success with getting the player attached to its characters. Comparing the number of Fire Emblem fanfictions and fan art to the number of Heavy Rain fanfictions and fan art alone should show just how much Fire Emblemís approach works every time. One 32-bit graphical game with cheesy writing manages to accomplish more than a beautiful looking HD title with a serious script. Funny how that works out.

This is probably a fan fiction somewhere.

For any current developers or would-be developers out there, I would recommend taking this important lesson to heart before you think that you need cutting edge, ultra realistic HD graphics to tell your artistic vision. Save thousands or even millions of dollars by letting the game mechanics do the work for you.
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About Game Gamesone of us since 9:25 PM on 03.11.2013

I write about video games and video game accessories. More specifically, I write about video game mechanics.

Lots of gamers want to start blogs about their opinions on video games and how they would review game X, Y and Z because "Yahtzee, Jim Sterling, IGN, Destructoid, etc. are wrong and my opinion is better, so I must write about it!" No one usually cares and I want to talk about different things.

Game mechanics aren't discussed enough in comparison to reviews and industry practices. Let's try to change that.