Gameplay and story: Health bars vs cutscene bullets
I recently finished Black Mirror 2 – a point & click adventure game with mechanics that harken back to the genre’s early days. In fact, after an awkward existential detour during the mid 2000s, most current point & click adventure games do. That means picking up items and storing them in an inventory, for use on one-another or somewhere in the game world. Even though you could conceivably carry everything around individually, the items almost immediately add up to the point of absurdity.
The impossible logic of your inventory is something the genre has knowingly pointed out and mocked countless times, with some games winking furiously about it so suddenly and out of tone that it’s startling. I’ve never found this element of the games distracting by itself, however. I certainly acknowledge it, but it doesn’t take me out of the experience while I’m playing. A kind of conversion occurs in my head, and you could say that my idea of what is really happening is selective. I concede that I used the bolt cutter on the chain and the tea kettle to steam an envelope open, but perhaps not that I was running around with a tea kettle and bolt cutter inside my jacket pocket for half an hour before.
You also run back and forth a lot in point & click adventure games. You travel to and from locations, spread miles apart, at a whim. Often merely in the process of figuring out what to do next. You visit characters over and over with new scraps of information – sometimes without new information, just to randomly spam the game with interactions to see what shakes out. That kind of repetition is filtered away, leaving the moments of substance to form a kind of “canon” in my mind. I spoke to a character and found this thing out, I went to this place and did X to accomplish Y. Never mind that I pinballed between them for twenty minutes.
In fact, one of my favourite aspects of point & click adventure games is that an intricate, meticulously authored narrative is happening, but since nothing I do will disrupt it, I’m not required to flawlessly play along. My attempts – my trials and errors – enable a stimulating gameplay experience that doesn’t have to beat-for-beat correlate to anything story wise, and the result of my success becomes synonymous with the progress of the story. The things I’m doing, the underlying mechanics that solely benefit the gameplay experience, reside in a kind of buffer. Let’s call it the game space.
To me, the game space signifies the “video game stuff” separate from the perceived narrative. Most video games share this distinction to varying degrees, but in a less clearly defined way. Nathan Drake jumping eighteen times against a wall as you figure out if you can climb there. Throwing weapons on the ground in Halo to cycle through them until you’re happy with your configuration. Everything that happens, ever, in a Nintendo game. Actions that, if you were to describe them literally as things a person did, sound totally stupid. The game space envelopes any aspect of a game with roots purely in playability or gameplay systems, that can’t or shouldn’t be plastered over with realism.
I would posit that a notion more absurd than any excess of items in your inventory is that all aspects of a video game can be expected to fit into a realistic narrative. You could absolutely limit Nathan Drake to jump only where he can climb. You could make everything in the entire game contextual and restricted to a few desired and realistic looking outcomes, but then you’re making decisions at the expense of the player’s agency and sense of exploration. Unless it’s part of the design from the ground up, a 1:1 mapping of the game to its portrayed “reality” may only invite completely arbitrary restrictions and obstacles. It could simply sabotage the game.
That’s not to say there can’t be merit in committing to realism when crafting a game’s mechanics, but combatting absurdity can likewise be a fool’s errand in a medium that more often than not employs a jump button in the first place. Is there merit in limiting the inventory of an adventure game to the items a person could realistically carry? If shooting enemies is fun, what lengths do we go to to justify their numbers in a shooter? Or more importantly perhaps; how much do we limit their numbers to fit the logistics of the narrative?
The modern veneer of video games shouldn’t always be interpreted as narrative intent. Video games didn’t abandon Mega Man‘s shooting enemies, they just got better at dressing Mega Man‘s shooting enemies up to look like Call of Duty-man shooting enemies. Playing Call of Duty isn’t about engaging with a realistic notion of war; it is as much about spamming chunky pixely bullets into robots as ever. Us old fogeys may have our hearts entangled in Mega Man nostalgia, believing the colorful, googly eyed enemies disappearing in a blip is a meaningful difference, but that’s mostly our preconception.
Both are games where shooting enemies is fun, and so they provide plenty of enemies for you to shoot. Having war be the wrapper has been the “legion of robots/ninjas/monsters” ever since console games stopped being marketed exclusively to children. Call of Duty feels zero obligation to relinquish its video gameyness because of it. It is a fast-moving, arcadey shooting gallery, playing war. The only way Call of Duty can be the game it sets out to be, and still fit into the narrative it paints, is if you, on some level, separate the “game stuff” from the context it is placed in. If you recognize its game space for what it is. The other option is to fundamentally change the game beyond recognition.
I could take a plethora of video games as examples, but let’s go a step further: Chess! Chess dresses up its pieces as knights, queens, kings, bishops, but ultimately that only provides the basic scenario for its ruleset. You could painstakingly model the peasants, the horses and the royalty. You could give them motivation and personality traits and establish origin stories for all our favourite game pieces, so that you know WHY the knights want to sidle up to the opposing king and slay him. You could get the movie voiceover guy to go “in a land…” for a trailer you play in theaters in front of the latest blockbusters, but ultimately, when all is said and done and you sit down with it, you are playing Chess. Your convincingly realistic looking units will move in set patterns, and lord knows what real-world rationale would explain why the knights take two steps in a direction and then one to the side.
Nobody is going to argue that the rules of Chess should change to portray the theme better. The rules remain in place because they make for a strategic and balanced game. No matter what they dress up as, this is true of video games as well. There are games that attempt a seamless sense of “reality” across all aspects of their presentation, and thus, maintaining that illusion becomes part of their objective. but most games merely purport a commitment to the confines of their subject matter and narrative. They have little interest in following through on it on a fundamental level.
The mechanics of a game are never, ever, inherently realistic – be it Chess, a turn based RPG, or a cover based shooter – so regarding them as rules should always come more naturally than viewing them as a failing of the narrative. I labeled a lot of the murder in Uncharted 2 “video game stuff” until a line of dialogue from the final boss called attention to it, thus making it “canon”. Prior to that point, if you asked me what happened when Nathan Drake gunned down thirty enemies, I’d say that he was ambushed by a group of soldiers and managed to kill them. I would also gloss over the part when my adventure game character was carrying the contents of a tool shed in his jacket pocket, or the part when the entirety of a Nintendo game happened. This is all video game stuff. Ahem, game space stuff. I should probably try to be consistent with my own made up lingo for the duration of the article at least.
Japanese games were always more up front about separating the two, keeping the narrative in one basket and the gameplay in another. It made them appear silly and out of touch during the mid 2000s, when immersive and cinematic console games were all the rage. Gamey elements in your game were perceived as a defeat in your presumed attempt to evolve past those things. Most illustrative of the difference in design philosophy, perhaps, were Metal Gear Solid 2 and Splinter Cell, both tackling the same basic concepts but with different mindsets. Metal Gear snaps, back and forth, in and out of its “game space”.
Its gameplay is often deliberately ridiculous, but it is so isolated from its narrative that you only expect them to line up in the most basic way. The game had you literally pull enemy legs to have chunky pick-up items pop out, or run around with a cardboard box on your head to hide, and when the story resumed, neither needed to answer to the other. It was a very liberating approach, and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone expected the personality of the game’s protagonist, Solid Snake, to be informed by his in-game actions – nor that any detailed notion of what was happening in the story could be derived from the gameplay. Even so, it was widely regarded as one of the most cinematic games of all time. Fascinatingly, it ate the cake and kept it.
In the original Splinter Cell, developer Ubisoft did an amazing job of crafting a believable, weighty sense of reality. It’s a person simulator of sorts, in that you have fine control over the movement of the game’s protagonist, Sam Fisher. You carefully nudged the analogue stick forward to sneak, timed button presses just right to bend your knees and land silently on the ground – manipulated lock picks individually with the analogue sticks in tandem, and judged by the vibrations of the controller when locks were about to give way. It traded in subtleties and communicated in feedbacky, tactile ways that made the tiniest series of maneuvers feel like a grand victory. There was a direct correlation between the game’s ability to convincingly convey its “reality”, and how it felt to play.
It’s understandable, then, that rather than using intrusive UI elements thought to take you out of the experience, Ubisoft tried to embed indicators in the environment. When the player moved Sam through the game’s pitch black shadows, a green glow from his night vision goggles indicated where he was, and what direction he was facing. A noble idea, to be sure, but in painting such a convincing world it really stuck out. Why would Sam don – admittedly iconic – lights on his head if he’s trying to hide? A realistic third person portrayal of a character hiding in shadows also hides him from the player, and in committing to the downplaying of video game stuff, Splinter Cell ran into a kind of uncanny valley effect where its attempts to surface gameplay information in a subtle way were still perceived as jarring and out of place.
Gears of War and Jazz the Jackrabbit designer Cliff “Cliffy B” Bleszinski tangentially touched on this tug of war-esque conundrum in a blog post ten(!) years ago, in which he described a philosophy he called “clarity of experience”. What a knob! Making up a term! Pffft! *cough game space cough cough cough* Oh boy, I’m catching a cold.
He talked about how the enemies in Halo: Combat Evolved were colour coded to set them apart from the environment and from your allies, clearly communicating who and what you should be shooting at. They’re design decisions that make perfect sense from a gameplay standpoint, and less so as reasonable strategies in a realistic combat scenario. Why would your enemies be bright purple if they’re soldiers trying to blend into the environment? Deja vu, right? It’s Sam Fisher’s goggles all over again.
As games like Assassin’s Creed crowd the player with AI citizens, creating more believable and lifelike city environments, the player character looks like a bull in a china shop. The separating buffer between the game space and the projected “reality” is disappearing, and the clash between our crude video game interaction and the game world itself is becoming increasingly pronounced. Never is the video game in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood so palpable as when you’re riding down the streets of Rome and hilariously bumping into people left and right. There’s no penalty for this, and realistic consequences would feel like disproportionate punishment. The result is that a lot of time in Assassin’s Creed is spent “playing along” for no other reason than to help maintain a convincing illusion of reality.
With no clearly defined “game space” there’s no room to roam, experiment, goof around. In fact you feel an obligation not to, and there’s no built in buffer for silliness – accidental or otherwise. A game that states its rules and boundaries, its scope and possibilities, and lets you pull on people’s legs to have power-ups pop out is certainly more overtly a video game, but pulling legs or horseback-knocking into non-plussed townsfolk is neither more nor less realistic than the other – only our expectations change.
There are games that have devoted themselves so fully to an elegant narrative – where nothing appears out of place and gamey – that their status as “games” is often called into question. With Heavy Rain, David Cage tried to create a completely contextual language of interaction, so that the game adapted to the conditions of the story, rather than the other way around. This enabled a great foundation for traditional, cinematic, linear storytelling, and the result was often uniquely harrowing and intense. In recent examples like Until Dawn or Telltale’s episodic games like The Walking Dead, nearly all of your inputs are contextual and branching.
In those games you can’t jump unless the option is presented – you can’t shoot or punch unless the options are presented. You succeed in beautiful authored ways, and you fail in beautiful authored ways. Pivotal decisions have countdown timers to create tension, but just as much to prevent gamey strategising. They have gone the route of changing beyond recognition from what’s traditionally thought of as a game. Meanwhile, the majority of video games are still systems and rules, wrapped in narrative. You’re not shooting in a shooter because there’s conflict – there’s conflict because you’re playing a shooter.
The game space is constantly cushioning the blow between what you want to perceive as “happening” and what is actually transpiring on screen. For example, there’s compromise between how threatening enemies come across and your actual chances of surviving. AI will be smart, but only smart in a way that it *feels* smart and still leaves a margin to react and take action. Enemies hit you, but only in a way that you can learn from, survive or counter. You die multiple times in most games, and yet ultimately succeed. It’s reasonable that you wouldn’t go down in one hit in every game, but once a cinematic plays after a gameplay segment in which you absorbed a million video game gunshots, it will only take a single bullet to kill someone.
Video games will have continuous trouble reconciling gameplay and story, but the very part that consistently keeps one frustratingly out of reach of the other is usually what makes it a great game in the first place. You can accept that the knight in a pre- or post-game cinematic can move independently of its Chess board rules, or you can change the rules of Chess to fit the realistic behaviour of a guy on a horse. But then – for better or worse – you aren’t making Chess any more.
I recently finished Black Mirror 2. It wasn’t the story of a man with bottomless pockets, townsfolk with endless patience and days with infinite hours. But in a certain light…