Does Your Game Have Story Cake or Story Frosting?

The implementation of story has taken on two distinctly different roles in videogames: the first is to supplement game play like frosting on a cake, and the second is to act as the mechanic of game play itself like an ingredient that helps make the cake what it is. Too often, story is an afterthought in game development and treated as frosting, but story can be a very beneficial pillar in any game if executed as a mechanic of the game play.

As games became more complex, developers utilized story to embellish the game mechanics, to give the players motivation and clear direction. Granted, the cooler the storyline, the more enjoyable the experience of playing the game will be, but the story isn’t a necessary proponent when frosting. A player can beat the whole game without experiencing the story, provided he understands the conditions of winning—which in most games is simply kill the bad guys.

Secondly, two players can play the game differently and still reach the same conclusion. Take Red Dead Redemption, you could be the baddest hombre in New Austin, without any moral implication on the plot of the game—the saint and sinner share the same story.

Problems: There is no innate value in this type of story implementation. In a way it’s like a porno. The story (as poor as it is) is simply funneling the characters into the inevitable position of having raw sex. Similarly, videogame story is constrained because it must inevitable funnel the characters into sequences of extreme action and/or puzzle solving.

When combat is your only condition for beating a game, it leads to underappreciated story content. Players become disinvested in reaching the end of the game, hence the other main components of FPS’s like Halo and action games like Ninja Gaiden are the extra game-modes: multiplayer, game-play difficulties, survival mode, leader boards, etc. Replay value is dependent on these modes.

Now if every developer considered story as a mechanic of the game in its own right, a lot of interesting things will happen. By a story mechanic, I mean a story that the players can interact with or influence, instead of just observe.

Pros: Player’s creativity and attention to detail can actually award them as the story progresses or add a new pillar of challenges by having right and wrong choice conditions. This can be as simple as Resident Evil’s interactive cut scenes with timed button mashing, to dialogue choices that could result in changing the direction of the plot or getting your character shot dead for having a bad attitude.

Secondly, a player invested in the direction of the story will have what-if-syndrome. This encourages him to replay the game for the necessity of seeing his story change. Knights of the Old Republic has this effect. I remember asking myself after my first run-through, “Could I have redeemed Bastila? How would the game have ended had I chosen the dark path?”

Adding story as a playing mechanic doesn’t take anything away. It may mean adding a few cut scenes, new challenge mechanics, and designing a few new levels near the end, but ultimately you get a richer experience, more replay value, and acclaim.

This article was originally a featured post on Gamasutra.

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