The Single Player Game: Story vs. Gameplay Pt[3]

First of all I didn’t think this would last more than one article. It got kind of long so I split the original article into two. You can read part one here and part two here. Then Leipzig happened and certain announcements were made that seem to say exactly everything I had been looking for in the ultimate merging of story and gameplay that I had been talking about. Then I thought of just highlighting them in a different article, but then I though the first article was mainly about past innovations, the second was about where we are now, so this one will look to the future, albeit maybe only a few months to a year. Of course I cannot attest to the eventual quality or success of these games achieving their promises. With that in mind, we’ll hope for the best.

The first game I’m going to focus on it Fable 2, an exclusive coming out for the X-box 360. The promise of the game is many folds. Like the last game, Fable 2 makes the promise of choice that will change how you look and the how the world looks. An early choice released to us, was one of do you let a little girl get scarred for life or do you take one for the team. Though if you do, people, including your children, will recoil in disgust. There will be effects to the choices you make. These choices also affect how people view you and feel about you. You can influence their reactions with your own actions and be able to build relationships with the NPCs, up to and including marriage. There is also a system of law in the game world where you actions can be dealt with. If you kill someone in town and are spotted, you’ll have to deal with the law. Actions in the game will have consequences. If you aren’t seen you get away with it, but it will still affect your character’s soul. As with the last game, your personality also affects your appearance.

The game offers a lot of choice to the player. That has been its moniker since it was introduced. Here Fable 2 promises to live up to the expectations of Fable 1 by allowing that choice to have an effect on your character and play experience.

(Update: Since I started this article, Fable 2 has actually been released. I have not played it, so I do know first hand, but from what I have been told in regard to the subject I am talking about, it falls short. All of the above is in the game. The problem is that mechanically it set to a bunch of sliders that determine your characters personality and is then matched to the sliders of a given NPC. This is all well and good; until it becomes apparent the player can manipulate those sliders until he gets the reaction he wants from them. You can do some of the dastardliest deeds possible, like sacrifice your children in some ritual for power and the slider will turn you evil, but do enough heroic deeds and the slider will go to the other extreme, like you hadn’t done what you’ve done. So morality, instead of being a choice or character building, becomes a momentary inconvenience. There are no lasting consequences. I suppose this takes effort on the part of the player and if you play the character as that, a character, the game will obliged just fine.)

Next is Fallout 3. Like Fable 2, Fallout 3 has a system where your actions have effects in the world. The actions of NPC will depend on your actions and dialogue choices when speaking with them. One noted example is you can miss an entire side quest if you tell a boy who comes up to you to get lost, because he then wont ask for your help in rescuing his father. The effect on the story makes perfect sense in response to your actions. Further more there are real world consequences to your actions that will also change which on the touted 120 different endings you might get. The most extreme example of choice has to do with an unexploded nuclear bomb in a town. Should you detonate it, the town is gone. Anything that might have related to that town is gone. Any further effects on the story that town might have had are gone. We are told there are many choices like this, not all big, but they will all have an impact on your playing experience.

(Update mark 2: Fallout 3 has also been released. I have really been slow on this. And for the most part of what I’ve heard is that the game executes this very well. The world is so expansive that it would take multiple play throughs to see everything anyway that being able to do things differently is practically built into the game. Of course, while action matching up with consequence is great it is only one aspect of the gameplay. Now that we have an example of a game that can do this, we can focus on improving other aspects of the game.)

Another title, this one exclusive for the Playstation 3, which seems to be taking measure to mix the two elements. Infamous starts you at ground zero of a cataclysm that has some how given you electrical powers. Though the game you can either make yourself famous or infamous, hence the title. The story offered is you playing Cole must figure out what happened at that cataclysm. The world is open and you are free to either subdue enemies or kill them that will have an effect on how the world views you and will craft a reputation through your actions. Beyond that, the story is rather open in that the main thread seems to involve a mystery rather than an opposition, from what we know at this time. Some of the abilities you can gain and level up have effects on the game, like the ability to peer into a person’s memories post mortem using an ability called Post Cognition. This give you information. I can only suppose that this avenue of information gathering would not be available without the ability. I do not know for sure.

Prince of Persia comes out much later this year and unlike the past titles is not a linear experience. The world will be open offering choice to the player of what to do and where to go first. And after they finish freeing the land of corruption in that location. They have the choice to go somewhere else. The player wont be forced to go anywhere. That is all well and good, but the actual gameplay mechanics will offer something to the story as well. The little details like Eleka never being in your way when platforming. She will always be behind you, even should you turn around she makes her way to your other side. Plus Prince of Persia has a double jump thanks to Eleka’s magic, which allows her to give you another boost in midair. There are ways mechanics fit the story. Like the fighting system, and how every enemy is fought like a boss battle, making how a fight is fought more realistic. One neat addition, or I should say omission, is the continue screen. You never die in the game. This may sound like a cop out, until you see how it is pulled off. For instance, if you fall to your death, the game goes to a short cinematic of Eleka pulling you back safely to the last checkpoint using a magical ability. If you fall into corruption, she will pull you out. It acts like a continue screen in that it signifies when you mess up, but never pulls you out of the experience. This step forward is unique and powerful step in merging the two elements of video games.

Finally, the game that inspired this look into the future possibilities that games are offering, the PS3 exclusive: Heavy Rain. At the Germen Games Convention the demo showed was prefaced with these comments by stating that Heavy Rain will be an adult/mature emotional thriller with five overriding points involved within the design. First, it will be a story-driven experience that is provided not necessarily through cutscenes but through player action. Second, players’ actions will have serious consequences. Third, the experience will be emotionally driven and will invoke a dramatic response in the player. Fourth, the story and subject matter are very much adult in nature. And finally, the game will be broadly accessible to a wide variety of players. The challenge will play out in the player’s mind, not on the controller.

The demo shown was not part of the game itself, but was instead there to show what the game would be capable of. The game is entirely contextual based. White outlines will appear on objects that can be interacted with, when you walk near them. The outlines correspond to the button on the controller needed to interact with it, triangle, circle, square or X. It plays like an adventure game, but so much more visceral. In the sequence when confronted with a serial killer in his own house you have to run around avoiding him and the button images appearing on screen for only flashes as the player quickly moved through the rooms. Sometimes he pushed them, which caused the character to interact with the object in a way that made sense the context of the scene. One point before when the character came near a mailbox, they were allowed to open it, using the directional cue that appeared on screen for the Sixaxis control. Depending on how fast you moved it, would determine the speed the character would open it. It all looks like a cutscene, but you are in full control.


Further more, of the information I have gathered, is that there is no continue screen for death. The game will continue from beginning to end without pause. Should your character die, you will switch perspective to a new one. There are so many stories to be told using this method. There is a beginning and an end, but the journey in the middle is the true story. I spoke last time of the holy grail of gaming when it came to merging story and gameplay. A short time later, I think I may have found it. Let us hope.

The effort of designers in this aspect of game development has recently been focused on choice. Give the players more choice and freedom to impact the story and make the experience their own. The designers at the moment are doing this from the outside in. The branching pathways are from the big decision in quests or mission, rather than the small action of a player. This is fine. Get the process down first, but it seems they are getting a handle on it. This is what makes Heavy Rain very unique. Smaller decisions in the game supposedly will have an impact on the unfolding of the story. Who knows where this will bring us down the line.

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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 www.thegamecritique.com.

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