Is story becoming more important than gameplay?
Observations on modern game design, casual players and the future of game development.
I'm no longer hardcore
I have recently been extremely busy and as a result I do not get to spend as much time playing games these days as I would like to and as I did in the past. This means that I am now officially what marketing departments refer to as a casual gamer, although I don’t seem to fall into the usual demographic of family with kids playing tennis on the Wii. The first thing this suggests to me is that there are probably several levels of “casual gamers”.
As more of my generation get older and get busier we can no longer spend the many hours we used to invest into a game, but we have not all become what marketing people usually refer to by the casual gamer label. Sure we don’t have a lot of time to play games, but unlike many causal gamers this does not mean we want to play family orientated titles with a simple control interface. We still want the hardcore story driven immersive experiences we have played in the past, we just want them in more bite size chunks, and this is where I think there is a market that is at risk of being overlooked.
I have played several games in the last year, some which I enjoyed greatly and a few too many that I felt let down by. Because of my limited time I tend to choose very carefully what games I want to invest my time in. I love good stories, and immersive environments with both nice graphics and of course good sound. There have been plenty of titles that seem to fit this bill in the last few years, but as the casual gamer I have also discovered what I see as some serious issues with game design as well as some really wonderful gaming experiences.
The Force Unleashed by Lucas Arts
The Force Unleashed was an excellent game spoilt by what should have been the highlight of the game. As a Force user, the ability to rip a Star Destroyer out of the sky should make any fan scream with joy. Instead a clunky and confusing control interface made this the worst part of the entire game, and the point at which I gave up and shelved the game for good.
Please don’t set me up for a fail
Recently I have played three games that I think have a game-flow issue; Mass Effect, The Force Unleashed and most disappointingly Batman Arkham Asylum. The issue with all of these games was that they were so good, and so enjoyable to play, right up to where I came to a point I could not progress past, and that’s what made them frustrating. In all three there was a certain element of game-play, or a mission or a fight I was unable to overcome. Now there is the obvious response of “Well just toughen the heck up and get it done! Play that game till you conquer it” but this is part of the issue. As someone who is time poor, I choose how I spend my leisure time fairly carefully, and I want my game time to be about good story and an interactive experience, not being punished because I no longer have the reflexes of a twelve year old ninja, and more importantly the free time of that same twelve year old ninja. If I find myself with a spare hour to sit down and plug through a level or two, I don’t want to spend that time repeating the same boss fight or level I got stuck on last time, it’s not much fun and it certainly isn’t relaxing.
Of the above titles, Batman was certainly the best because each time you failed in a task it would reset and offer a hint as to how to progress, and generally it was a far more forgiving game. This I thought was excellent as it allowed me to experience the story which was why I was playing the game in the first place, and this is my main point. I think we have reached a point where modern games with stories need to allow the player to get through the story as this has become the focal point for many players. The excellent stories and enjoyable interactive experiences are why many of us are playing these games.
Rocksteady Studio's Arkham Asylum
Batman Arkham Asylum is so well designed and implemented that it was a real pleasure to play. Its forgiving nature and good control system make you feel like you are controlling a competant character. Although there is a "roadblock" section that I find frustrating and unnessesary, the rest of the game has been so well made that I will persist and spend the time to continue as I think the remainder of the game will be worth the effort. Sadly this is not a statement I can make for all games.
Batman was a surprise to me; I did not particularly want to play a Batman game as I see the character as a heroic figure, not a game avatar that bumps into walls, falls down holes and has to spend his time looking for golden keys. The game however is very little of these things. Batman is indeed heroic, if you as the player fall down a hole there is usually an escape button and his movement is generally fluid and effective; he feels competent. This is where I think games need to go. I WANT to play a hero, I WANT to feel like I am guiding a competent character through a dangerous world, I really don’t want to feel like I am controlling a bumbling fool simply because I did not press the jump button on the exact pixel between two platforms. I am perfectly capable of being clumsy in my real life, I don’t need my game characters to follow suit.
I am certainly not asking or expecting games in overall to be made easier, but considering the focus of many modern games is a story line, I would like to know that I can see this story through to the end. If for whatever reason I find there is a point I cannot proceed past, then the game should allow me to either progress anyway, tell me exactly what to do, or lower its difficulty level so far that I cannot help but get past the obstacle. It is extremely difficult for a developer to predict every possible way in which a player may approach their game, or the potential issues they may have with it, and this is not referring to any bug or design flaw issues, it is just looking at the vast difference between how people think. Because of this it seems to make sense to have an escape key that allows the player to always progress.
Mass Effect by Bioware
For me, Mass Effect is probably the most dissapointing as it was such a good game. To place a boss fight directly after an unskippable cutscene of a few minute long is capital crime number in game design and should NEVER happen. It's bad enough that you might have to fight a certain boss over and over. To place it directly after a cutscene so you can't save, and then make the cutscene unskippable, sorry you deserve to rot in gaming hell with only copies of ET on the Atari 2600 to keep you company.
The better you make them, the pickier your audience will be
I consider Mass Effect to be the perfect example of why this is relevant. I had waited for quite some time before I purchased an Xbox360, when I finally did I was really looking forward to Mass effect. I had always enjoyed Bioware games and this looked very promising. I was really happy to find it lived up to my expectations. The game-play and graphics were excellent, and the general feel of the game was good, but the story and acting was where I really believe the game shined, it was excellent, and made playing the game a real pleasure. That is until I got stuck on an annoying boss fight and couldn’t progress. I was not far into the story either. As a result, Mass Effect 2 which has just been released is not even on my consider list, as I see no point in buying the sequel to a game I couldn’t finish. Now again, whether I should have been able to get through the game or not is not the point, if I had issues with it then it’s almost certain other people did as well.
Five or ten years ago this situation was less relevant. Games with good stories have been around for a while, but in my opinion we are only just reaching the point where games are getting the budget to make really good use of the story elements. “A” list voice actors, well written scripts and story elements and current generation graphics and animation have resulted in a generation of games that are viewable for their own sake. My wife and I often take it in turns to play through the games we purchase. Often I won’t have time to play a game at all, but I still enjoy many current games as a spectator while I do other things and this is primarily because they have good stories.
But when it's right it's oh so good
2K's Bioshock 2
I don't have a paternal bone in my body, so any game that can make me protective of a young child and send me into a rage if she is threatened has really pressed the right buttons as far as story and atmosphere.
Bioshock 2 has so far been one of the most enjoyable games i have played in a long while.
At the time of writing this article I am several hours into Bioshock 2 and it is incredibly enjoyable. The graphics and sound are excellent, but I find it is the story elements that I am enjoying most. The little snippets of people's diaries presented as recorded logs, and the dialogue of the main characters add so much to the game. I am fairly confident I am unlikely to come across a show stopping issue as I played through Bioshock 1 completely and had no issues; in fact many people complained that Bioshock 1 was too easy. Bioshock 2 allows you to switch off the ability to simply respawn from the resurrection chambers and with this one simple adjustment they can cater for both a player who wants a challenge and a player who wishes to be able to complete the game for the sake of story like myself. I think this is an excellent compromise and something that should become standard for all games.
The points I raise are more important for a game with a heavy story element than a more simple action game. If the fun is in action and destruction then I can understand that there is less need to progress to the end of the game, but for story games, please give us all a chance to see the fantastic work you have put into the entire game rather than risk your audience giving up half way through frustration.
Stephan Schütze has been recording sounds for over twenty years. This journal logs his thoughts and experiences