Opinion – The Conflict of Game and Story

Your collectibles are killing my chase scene.

Sheppard is on an asteroid hurtling towards a Mass Effect relay in a desperate bid to slow the Reaper invasion.  The indoctrinated Doctor Kenson is attempting to overload the asteroid’s engines and blow it up before Sheppard can ram it into the relay.  Sheppard must stop Dr. Kenson’s plan and get through the relay and time is short.  Well, shortish.  I mean, yeah, Sheppard probably should stop the core meltdown, but there are resources to collect.  After all, who actually likes that planet scanning minigame?  And look!  Tech!  I’ve got to upgrade my armor.  And why won’t these enemies just die?  It feels like I’ve been fighting them forever.

Wait, what was I doing?  Oh yeah, asteroid.

The situation I described occurred in Mass Effect 2, but is fairly common throughout the video game universe.  Developers consistently introduce new and interesting scenarios only to undermine the tension they’ve created with conflicting gameplay elements.  Consider the situation above.  The story is that Commander Shepard has limited time to save the universe.  The base is detonating, Dr. Kenson is shouting about fulfilling her evil plot, and there’s a giant counter ticking down to collision.  This is a world communicating urgency, but the gameplay isn’t on board.  Rather than encourage the player to quickly make his way through the level, the player is incentivized to take their time.  Look for free resources!  Make sure you check every hallway for secrets!  Don’t forget to have a long shoot out with several packs of enemies.  It’s hard for the player to both buy into the story and the gameplay without one or both suffering.

Collectibles aren’t the only culprit.  Games undermine their stories in a number of ways.  Consider difficulty.  In only a few game narratives does the story include death or failure.  When the player does not succeed at his task, the result is a break and restart from the narrative.  On the most basic level, the death of the player is a contradiction of the idea that the protagonist is in danger.  After all, die enough times and it’s hard to say that any given death had greater meaning than any other.  The player will simply revive at an earlier point and try again.  For some of gaming’s most common narratives and settings, that of the unstoppable hero, the act of death is even more poisonous.  Unstoppable heroes are notable for the distinct lack of death.  Constant failure against the very objects said hero is supposed to surmount suggests that the unstoppable hero is anything but.

On some level, this is unavoidable.  Collectibles are fun to find.  Many players need the threat of failure to enjoy the challenge of a game.  Furthermore, individual players will always push the boundaries of the world through their actions.  There is nothing the developer can do to prevent Solid Snake from dry humping every corpse in the level.  Player skill is also an uncontrollable variable.  A brutal, narrative breaking brawl for some players may be a cakewalk for others.  Creating a feeling across the myriad of players and play styles is quite difficult.

That being said, there are things developers can do.  One of the most obvious is the difficulty setting.  Let skilled players dial up the pain while not so skilled players kick it down to enjoy the story.  Establish a pattern of streamlined gameplay in sections that need to focus on the story and tone.  Incorporate as many gameplay elements as possible into the world of the game.  This reduces the barriers of communication and helps the player enjoy the world as the developer intended.

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