Matching Gameplay to a Story

Any game that attempts telling a non-trivial story, e.g. something more in-depth than ‘The Princess is in another castle’, needs to have gameplay that matches the story’s motifs and themes. A close binding of gameplay and story, when done well, has two effects:

  1. It enhances the entire story in complimentary ways.

  2. No one realizes the connection even exists.

No one notices it initially, that is. Today I’ll try to explain what I mean and how that concept impacts the game I’m working on.

Some Examples

Heavy Rain comes to mind immediately. The gameplay consists of nothing but quick time events (QTE), making the gameplay barely more complex than Dragon’s Lair. But the reliance on QTE’s not only suits Heavy Rain, it blends naturally into the story and presentation and makes both of these aspects better than had the game been a free-roaming first-person adventure or whatever. The plot of Heavy Rain revolves around four characters who are all racing against a clock to catch a child murderer before he kills again. As the player you have a limited time for most of the quick time events; sometimes you can pause to think about what to do, but more often than not you are simply trying to react as quickly and correctly as possible. That notion of correctness is important. Quick time events are inherently pass-or-fail, make-it-or-don’t, do-or-die. The core nature of QTE’s reflects the urgency of Heavy Rain’s narrative. The game is full of moments where characters are in panic and can barely afford the time to think about what they need to do next or how they need to do it, e.g. you don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs during a high-speed car chase where people are trying to shoot you. The gameplay at that moment may be nothing more than ‘Press Left to turn this way or Right to turn that way’, but the player must react so quickly and with so little forethought that it translates beautifully to the characters and the overall story.

Shadow of the Colossus (SotC) is another example of gameplay mechanics operating harmoniously with the plot. The main character, Wander, takes on the world single-handedly (somewhat literally) to revive the dead girl Mono—these characters actually had names, like Emon…. The gameplay helps channel the seemingly insurmountable challenge facing the character. The way Wander stumbles across the backs of the colossi as they move, the way he struggles to keep his grip, the way his horse Agro does not move and turn on a dime—these gameplay elements all supplement a key aspect of the entire story: You can’t force the world to behave a certain way just because of something you want.

Our Own Game

We borrow certain elements from the role-playing genre, but by and large the game my friends and I have been making is a shmup. How does that genre compliment our game’s story? How can the genre even work in favor of the plot? Let’s consider common aspects of shmups from a story-telling perspective:

  1. Inhumanity. How often in shmups do you fly around human characters and fight other humans? You are always controlling mechanical or other non-human devices to fight aliens, other mecha, and so on, with one major exception. In other words, a shmup makes it easy to take emphasis off of the human element of a story. To take the idea even farther, the typical construction of a shmup accommodates ways to specifically highlight an absence of humanity by virtue of the genre-standard to fly ships around.

  2. Inevitability. It is uncommon to stop in a shmup, particularly outside of a boss battle. At all other times the genre tends to enforce a constant, irrefutable velocity. The genre will drag you through its stages at its pace with no care for your concerns. It’s a gameplay mechanic that represents a staple element of stories: time waits for no man.

  3. Solidarity. A shmup makes it trivial to focus a story on a sole character at any given moment. When is the last time you played a shmup that allowed more than two players? They’re uncommon at best. Normally in shmups you only control a single character and that plays into the hands of stories that want to examine the thoughts and out-look of a particular character. The inhumanity noted in the first point above also affects this; the combination of the two staples of the genre can easily enhance a story that wants to, at times, stress the isolation of a single character from the rest of the world.

See what I’m getting at? Maybe not, because I am not one-hundred percent sure of what I’m trying to get at. Recently the more I think about it, the more I believe that truly amazing stories in games play heavily into the strengths of their gameplay mechanics, and vice versa. But no one ever seriously attempts this with a shmup. So we’ll see how that turns out.

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