Friday, May 25, 2007

Gameplay, not narrative, defines the game

In a recent issue of Game Informer, Mathieu Ferland defends the idea that Splinter Cell: Conviction is not a break from the Splinter Cell franchise by saying "I think there was a natural progression with the narrative."

I'm a fiction writer and a lifelong RPG fan, but I just don't buy that narrative ever defines a game. If a game was designed so that the gameplay is, not just heavily dependent on the narrative, but at its very essence little more than the progression of a story, then I might agree that narrative can define a game. But I have yet to play a game in which my primary interest is the narrative.

Call of Duty: 3 might come closest, and I played it for only 15-20 minutes before giving up on it. The game (the beginning, at least) was so dependent on cinematics that it felt like I was just going through motions to reach the next cinematic...and my impression was that it was a terrible game. If I want to watch a movie or read a book, I'll go do that.

This medium is about interaction. The narrative might be extremely important, but interaction will always be the core of any game. The more one-sided the game's progression (the more pace, plot, setting, and so on are controlled by the developer and not the player), the less it is a game.

The goals that make the most sense to me as a writer for games are:
  • To design and anticipate possible player decisions, and accomodate that free will through gameplay trees, ala Deus Ex.
  • To design a context for player actions: a world which demonstrates interest in player choices, rewarding/punishing those choices according to its own interests and concepts of right and wrong action.
  • To provide elements with which the player may build (consciously or not) his or her own story; to build a world with room for creative, and not just explorative, gameplay.

I certainly believe that there are many admirable ways in which game writers may create a variety of narrative-gameplay combinations. But, ever since I played my first MMORPG (Everquest), the avenue which most attracts me, and which seems glaringly absent from the modern game library, is a central narrative theme...only moderately predetermined...surrounded and fulfilled by the spontaneous and creative narratives of individual players.

Player input, not the narrative that input may reveal, is the game. Dev-written stories extracted by the player will always be somewhat peripheral to core gameplay.

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