The Single Player Game: Story vs. Gameplay [ I ]

(Edit: Part 2 can be read here. Part 3 can be read here.)

In a recent set of articles I read a certain debate on video games came to mind; the debate of what video games are, as they are still trying to define themselves as a new medium. In simplistic terms the debate is story vs. gameplay. Are they just a new purely interactive medium with the only difference to games is that they have changing colors or are they a new medium of story telling allowing developers to present stories that could not be told in other mediums properly?

Over the years video games have done both. Interactive media falls somewhere between the pure gameplay model of board games and the pure story telling model of movies. Anything that falls between the two is classified as a video game. But where do modern video games fall between these two mediums?

One complaint often heard is that a game has little to no story at all or one so underdeveloped that it doesn’t merit attention and the game is almost solely devoted to the gameplay experience. This is not really much of a problem. Older games and arcade style games fall into this category. The arcade’s simple style and nature of the game don’t require much of a story. And the limitations of older technology meant there wasn’t going to be much complex story telling. However, now with the technology does exist to present in depth stories.

Fighting games also do this, but the expectation of a fighting game is for the gameplay and not the story. Players, most of the time, do not even realize a fighting game has a story other than this guy will end up fighting everyone else for some reason. The reason doesn’t really matter.

On the other side of the scale is that some games are not interactive enough or at all to be called ‘interactive’ storytelling where you spend most of the time reading rather than contributing anything of your own. Interactive movies are the extreme. These games are a string of static choices that lead along a path imitating choose your own adventure books.

The idea is to find a suitable middle ground. Most Japanese RPGs are in the middle ground, but fall into a precarious position in the middle. They keep the story and the gameplay as separate as possible, with sparse exceptions to the rule. High walls are erected between the two and it can be annoying to players who want one and have to deal with long stretches of the other. The only interaction between the two in general is a trigger that opens up new areas after a certain conditions are met. This separation between the two elements seems to be par for the course, not only J-RPGs, but in most action games as well. It is only how high and thick the walls are between the two.

Most single player games are like the aforementioned J-RPGs. They are a composition of set pieces that you play through and are strung together by the story told through cut scenes. This manner of story telling does not make the most of the genre and depending on your point of view one element gets in the way of the enjoyment of the other. This is only basic explanation, but over the years developers have added more detail to the process in an attempt to create a more immersive experience.

Some developers liven it up with the computer only taking partial control over and can only continue with player’s input in the style of Simon says button-mashing sequence. This adds variety and gives the player a sense that their own reaction time is the character’s.

If I may go back in time for a minute. Subtlety was the name of the game back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. With the lack of processing power of the machines cut scenes were limited and pre-rendered cinematics were non-existent. Any story in the game had to be told through a Star Wars style scrolling exposition, subtle hints or other visual cues that the player would have to recognize. In Japanese released especially, though granted much was lost in the translation. Thinking about it, this could be the present problem with video game story telling. Though homes consoles may have been around since the 1980s, it is only recently that we have a full set of tools to tell the story with and were are only now getting the hang of how to use them. Think of it of having to write a book in stone tablets and then a few years later you have access to pen and paper and the language just got around to making symbols for the vowels. Of course visual clues to story telling are still part of gaming.

Half-Life introduced another method for cut scenes to play out in that there are none.  You the player never leave the game and the dialogue is spoken while you are present still in your game avatar. The audio is affected by distance as it would in real life and will alter pitch and volume depending where you are in relation to the speaker. This manner of story telling keeps you immersed in the story, but by itself this really only works for simple ideas and action. The method is direct and can only be useful in delivering information. Half-Life complimented this with more the more subtle idea of background events. Things going on outside of the player’s area of influence, but within sight as to add pieces of information, sense of mystery, or simply to add atmosphere.

Bioshock and long before it Baldur’s Gate had an idea of giving the player access to rich and detailed story, but didn’t make it required reading. The pieces were there if the player wanted to know every little detail, but if the player wasn’t so inclined they could ignore it and stick with the main points. They were delivered by additional set pieces filled with story and world information. Bioshock had audio diaries and Baldur’s Gate had books. Both were optional sources of information.  They added a further sense of atmosphere and provided tidbits, that weren’t critical, but allowed the player to delve as deep as they wanted to into the world.

These are only techniques to give further variety to the world and give the sense of further choice and interaction for the player. The game still runs along a rigid course with separation firmly set between gameplay and story. In the recent generation developers have come up with complete game concepts that meld the two components together even more. I will go over these in part 2.

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Eric Swain

A graduate of Boston University, majoring in English and Creative Writing and has spent significant time studying story structure and theory in the mediums of books, film and video games. His articles offer unique perspective on deep game development and design through his eclectic prose. you can find his critical analysis on

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