A game’s story is the game’s plot. It is the device that tells us what is going on. It is the events that transpire that give meaning to action. A story is also highly prone to subjectivity. For example, the determining enjoyment factor between 2 differing genres (all other things being equal) is not determinable through an objective lens. For that reason the debate between “which story is better” is an asinine one for there can be no objective instrument that can be used to assess the quality of it. At least in so far as anyone can agree to such a standard.
A game’s narrative is that which surrounds the game world. It is how the story is conveyed. A game’s narrative is unique because it is multifaceted and possesses more dynamic layers then books or movies where there medium is constrained by only 1 or 2 dimensions. No, gaming has 3 distinct narrative devices that can convey the story. A game can tell you directly through either notes or dialogue. “Commander Shepard killed 100 Geth at the battle of blah, blah,” Ergo, Shepard is a bad ass. A game can tell you through its visuals. Commander Shepard went up and kicked Harbinger right in face. (Ergo he is a bad ass) The best, and the most underused (or at least under respected) form of narrative in video games is the use of game play. Commander Shepard used Cryo Ammo on his Particle Gun turning it into a freeze ray then used Charge to smash them to pieces. (Wow, what a bad ass.)
All three of these devices are used to convey some sort of narrative to the player. The reason why “game play narrative” is the most ill-used is because of sloppiness. In a game about shooting and feeling empowered it can be easy to convey power to the player. Most games are typically this type. FPSs are probably the most common type. But, what if for example the game is trying to convey moments of vulnerability instead of empowerment like a horror game? In horror games, at least, the goal is to make the player afraid and there is nothing that breaks dramatic tension more than empowerment in this circumstance.
Let’s take a look at two horror games: “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” and Dead Space. Both games are obviously in the horror genre and both succeed in various ways through the use of narrative to create haunting spaces and tense atmosphere in order to drive the player but where the difference becomes apparent is in the gameplay.
Dead Space is primarily about running into creepy monsters then blowing their limbs off with a gun. While this might seem like a straw man to those who haven’t played it, I am sincere that blowing off limbs is actually a feature the game highlights. Dead Space provides the player with a variety of armaments all to deal with the hoards that the game provides. Conversely, Amnesia gives you some tinderboxes and a lamp. In fact, in Amnesia, there is no way to fight the monsters. Instead, the only way to get rid of them is running and hiding. This is not a heroic thing to do in the least and definitely not empowering in anyway.
My point is thus: In a horror like setting, where the goal of the game is to provide fear and tension, what is the superior model? Most, I assume, would choose Amnesia’s for even if the game is less “fun”, it is without a doubt, the scarier of the two games and would ergo be the superior horror game. The difference maker between them is the type of narrative experience that games play provide.
Now since we have discussed device to measure quality of game I will consider anyone who reads this better equipped in understanding what it is that makes a game good in a more objective sense. When you play your next game you should be thinking to yourself: Does the game’s game play jive with the story they are trying to create? Is there, perhaps, a better way in which the gameplay can be better or more suited for the genre? Asking these questions will help become a more informed gamer and in demanding that developers take these into consideration we will have better games in general.
— Nick “Dagorha” Messinger —