Media and Society

Game for a Story

For as long as almost any form of entertainment has existed, one of the most important aspects of any method of entertainment is the story. Stories have the ability to teach, inform, and entertain people making them ponder about ‘what happens next’ until the end. But recently, video games have gone on to change all that. While video games were originally made with simple plots and a heavy emphasis on gameplay, modern video game developers find themselves making a choice between placing their emphasis on the story (as shown in Until Dawn [2015]), or the gameplay (as is the case with Dark Souls [2011]), with very few games being able to achieve a perfect balance between the two.

Carsten Reisinger / Shutterstock.com

Photo Credit – Carsten Reisinger / Shutterstock.com

Modern video games have a habit of emphasising the plot to the point where they become story-based, rather than basing themselves in gameplay. Using Until Dawn as an example, it is easy to see the way in which the story can be the most important aspect of a video game, and how this can mould the game towards its audience. The first aspect that causes players to enjoy narrative-based games is the way in which they will often employ a player choice system. This involves the player being able to make the story happen as they choose. In the case of Until Dawn, this starts by allowing people to choose between less important choices that are based around the characters relationships with each other, but grows into deciding who lives and who dies, often with the player not knowing which they are choosing, and not being able to alter their choices without restarting the game as a whole. The use of a choice system is a common aspect of story-based games, as it gives the audience the desire to play the game again if something undesirable happened so that they can achieve their perfect ending, as well as allowing the game to be playable over and over again.

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Photo Credit – Until Dawn, 2015, Developed by Supermassive Games Published by Sony Computer

Another reason why people seem to enjoy story-based games is through the simplicity. Story-based games often try to present themselves as being interactive films rather than traditional video games. Aside from the emphasis on the story, this is caused by the fact that the games work with very little player interaction, usually having them do no more than press the occasional button, and in some cases, even affording them the chance to leave the game for a minute or so when they are in full control of the characters, due to them not having to worry about enemies appearing randomly and killing them. This can help lead to a more relaxed gameplay experience. The more simplistic gameplay allows more casual audiences to feel more accomplished when they progress the story, especially considering the fact that the story progresses regardless of whether or not they complete the quick-time event properly, and also because the feeling of it being an interactive film means that they are interacting more than they would a film, helping them to feel more involved generally. This is especially prominent in Until Dawn, as the player can sometimes be given multiple chances to complete a quick-time event, and in some cases are even given multiple quick-time paths, one which is safe but slow, and one which is quicker but riskier. The likening of story-based games to films does not just allow for changes to the game itself, but the way games can be played. As watching a film can be seen as a social activity, this opens up the possibility for single-player games to be played as multiplayer games. This is done by alternating who is in control after a certain amount of time, as the filmic quality of story-based games allows them to be enjoyed by people who are not playing themselves. This is a quality that has been extended to online Let’s-Players, YouTube channels that play video games for other peoples’ enjoyment, with a number of Let’s-Players playing Until Dawn around the same time, and all of them citing their play-throughs as one of their most popular ‘series’ on their channels, showing the popularity of playing along through a game with other people.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Dark Souls has garnered critical acclaim throughout the gaming world, but rather than have a strong focus on storyline, chooses to have its selling point be its gameplay, with its punishing difficulty being an attractive aspect that convinces players to at least attempt it. More importantly however, it must be asked how a game series that practically lacks a storyline can be just as successful, if not more so, as a game in which there is such a strong emphasis on story. The first reason for this may not be that the story does not take precedence over the gameplay. The majority of the story is not explained to the audience explicitly, and is instead explained through other means, such as item descriptions, other characters dialogue, and the occasional cut scenes that rarely do more than establish an environment or boss to the player. This allows the audience to create their own meaning for the game, creating a further sense of audience involvement, and also allowing them to debate with other Dark Souls players about the true meaning of the game, creating a communal aspect to the game. Similar to this, Dark Souls also possesses a strong in-game community that helps push people to play the game. This is done through interactions, as players can help each other through teaming up, and leaving messages for each other to warn of danger. This helps people to realise that they are all traversing through the same hellish landscape, and have all most likely dealt with dying in the same fashion, leading them to feel better about their own failures, and continue to push on. This shows the way in which Dark Souls’ gameplay becomes more bearable through its communal aspect, pushing them to play it further, in spite of the lessened emphasis on story. Continuing on with the subject of Dark Souls’ difficulty, the gameplay also attracts its audience through its punishing difficulty, which is used to give the audience the sense of achievement in having beaten a particularly difficult area. Dark Souls is known for its almost unfair difficulty that pushes players to be strategic, careful, and deal with a large amount of trial and error that normally means that, when factoring the inclusion of New Game Plus, which is a repeat of the game on a higher difficulty, players do not ever finish Dark Souls, they instead often find themselves quitting when they reach their breaking point. This means that when they do defeat an area that they have found themselves toiling over endlessly, they feel a strong sense of satisfaction that pushes them to keep going. Furthermore, the difficulty, no matter how unfair, still feels like it can be doable, further pushing people to keep playing the game, no matter how many times they die in the same area.

Stories in video games, as is the case with many forms of media, are difficult to master, especially when trying to balance them with good gameplay. However, the two examples shown here are proof that games can be successful while not focusing on both. This allows a lot of opportunities for game developers, as it means that those who are not good at writing stories can focus on gameplay, while those who are not good at gameplay can focus on story-telling. It also allows a wider variety of choices for the audience, allowing them to pick and choose what type of games they wish to play based upon what they are good at, or not good at, as the case maybe.