Editorial: The Integration of Gameplay and Story

Before this post begins, a word of warning: this post discusses important plot elements of Bioshock, a game that all of our readers should have played by now anyway.

Lusi-friends, I touched briefly on this in my article about immersion, but I have always felt that one of the strongest things about video games is their ability to tell an interactive story. The active nature of gaming, compared to the passive nature of something like reading means that games can tell a story in ways that other media cannot. Playing through Bioshock and Amnesia: the Dark Descent recently reminded me that integrative storytelling is not a dead art, but is indeed alive and well.

No other video game death has had quite the impact on me that Zack's did, and playing through it is the reason why.
I’ll admit it, Zack’s death made me emotional.

So often in games, the storylines are cutscene-driven, or kept separate from the gameplay. One thing that the SNES Final Fantasy games tried to do was incorporate dialogue into its battles, and this is something I always really enjoyed. In many games, especially RPGs, the story and the gameplay are kept in separate bubbles, so seeing Final Fantasy VI at least attempt to combine the two is extremely pleasing. I care significantly more about the events in a game’s story when I am able to play through and experience these events myself.

Galuf’s death in Final Fantasy V was one I found impactful for this reason; playing through his death meant that Galuf’s was the first Final Fantasy character death that stood out in my mind. Sure, Tellah’s death in FFIV was important, but the fact that the battle is carried out without player control made it less memorable for me than Galuf’s death. While the moments immediately after the fall of Galuf almost completely destroy the potential emotional impact of the scene, it is still a moment that I will always remember. Similarly, the ending of Crisis Core, with the player forced to play though Zack’s futile final battle, is one that I will never forget. Despite its inevitability to anyone familiar with FFVII, the end of Crisis Core is one of the saddest moments in any game I have played.

What makes Zack’s death so impactful is not the cutscenes surrounding it, though they are admittedly very well done. Instead, what makes his death powerful is the game’s clever use of its gameplay elements. By forcing the player to play through Zack’s futile struggle against Shinra’s forces as the DMW erodes throughout the fight, Crisis Core does an excellent job of driving home the helplessness of the entire struggle. Zacks death has meaning because it is not only told to the player via cutscenes, but experienced directly by the player playing the game.

Highlighting helplessness by using gameplay elements is a tool Bioshock makes extremely good use of; the famous scene about two-thirds of the way into the game is made far more powerful by its integration-and separation- of gameplay and story. The scene in Andrew Ryan’s office is the only time, besides the ending, where the player loses control of Jack. By taking completely taking control away from the player for this instance and this instance only, Bioshock is able to show just how helpless Jack is against his mental conditioning.

Bioshock is an interesting case because it is not the integration of story and gameplay but instead their separation that makes Andrew Ryan’s death so memorable. For the rest of the game, the storytelling and gameplay are joined at the hip, and indeed control is returned to the player immediately afterwards, but that scene stands out because it shows just how helpless the player is. The fact that Bioshock‘s story is integrated so well with its gameplay makes the “would you kindly” reveal that much more powerful, and were its story told through any medium besides video gaming, Bioshock would likely already have been forgotten.

It's definitely not a perfect game, but it integrates gameplay and story very well.
Amnesia gives the player control of Daniel for pretty much the entirety of the game, minus flashbacks.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is scary specifically because it instills a feeling of helplessness in the player. On their own, the monsters, while somewhat unnerving, are fairly typical horror enemies and are not particularly scary. Were Amnesia a movie rather than a game, it would be a fairly generic horror piece, but by putting the player in Daniel’s position, Amnesia instead manages to be a brilliant piece of survival horror. Much like Bioshock, Amnesia is the kind of story that would only work as a video game.

Gaming can tell stories like no other medium, and I think that ultimately this is one reason why trying to make movie adaptations of games never seems to work. Of course, there are other reasons, like the shoddy writing and terrible special effects these movies tend to have, but even so, there are fundamental differences between gaming and other storytelling media. A book can easily be adapted into a movie, but that same book may not translate well into a game because the reader is not meant to experience the story firsthand. One of gaming’s major appeals to me is its potential for storytelling, and games like Bioshock that cleverly integrate storytelling and gameplay always stand out in my mind. Are there other games, readers, that you can think of that make good use of gameplay as a storytelling medium? Please let me know, would you kindly?

One comment

  1. Flower, actually. There are short cutscenes, but the most powerful thematic moments are played, not watched. The cutscenes are just set-ups and context. Painting the city and destroying the graveyard are moments controlled by the player. This is enhanced by letting the player do it at their pace at as thoroughly as they’d like. A player could just plow through, but if they’re more captivated by the mood like I was, they’re more likely to restore every inch of the city in a series of cathartic swoops. It would not be CLOSE to as satisfying if it were just a cutscene.

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