why are narrative games such a pain in the ass to make?
WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERY CONTENT FOR THE LAST OF US, WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH, AND TO THE MOON.
Powerful narrative games that leave an emotional mark on players are somewhere in the creation wishlist of most designers, but it seems that the challenge of making one which doesn't feel wrong in some way tends to drive most people off. Even when observing many games which claim to be narrative driven, it can be seen that they are either forget that they are first and foremost games, or they forget to respect their stories. Because both story and game design are notorious challenges in their own rights, creating an experience which manages not only to do both but make them work well together is almost impossible within a given time and budget. In most cases, one is usually sacrificed for the other. And generally, story isn't necessary to create a fun and engaging game. The potential power of story to create a much richer world for players, however, is irresistible. It's fun to think about and often how projects get started to begin with, and more often than not, becomes the biggest headache as story needs and game needs pull at one another during development.
I have no solutions to this challenge, and that's not the point of this post. I want to take a closer look at what makes narrative games so powerful, particularly in the realm of video games, which is also a difficult endeavor. There is no magic formula that can make a broken game better. Don't get stuck polishing a turd.
So, what are the elements of a powerful narrative game that engages a player's emotions and interest?
- Emotionally driven story with memorable characters that complements the gameplay
- Engaging and fun gameplay that complements the story
- Making story and gameplay complement one another
I may have beat this point slightly into the ground, but the true stumbling block of many narrative games is making the story and gameplay work well together, rather than the usual piecemeal method of jamming them together. This is where many games that claim to be narrative-driven will see their experiences crack.
The remainder of this post goes into a few specific examples, which may contain light spoilers for the titles mentioned above. Don't say I didn't warn you.
CLEAN MARRIAGE OF GAMEPLAY AND NARRATIVE
A truly stellar game in this regard is The Last of Us, in which the aesthetic, the narrative, and the gameplay all work in harmony to create a believable and emotionally scarring world.
The Last of Us is absolutely filled with examples in which gameplay and narrative serve one another. The narrative particularly is notable because it doesn't feel forced into this post-apocalyptic world. With minimalistic writing that leaves much of the world to be inferred by the player's instincts, the gameplay itself is perfectly in conjunction with the character's primary goal; to survive. And that is the core theme that ties the entire experience together. Focusing every single choice, both in gameplay and narrative, in this game around such a straightforward and simple theme crystallizes the experience. It creates a direction for engaging and challenging gameplay, it gives the characters an emotional arc through the story, and it gives the narrative different depths to explore (The primary question of survival being: Why survive, what's the point?).
Apart from stunning and memorable characters that are written to fit into the world, the narrative takes players on a brutal, emotional journey. And this particular linear narrative structure is completely supported by the gameplay. When the primary goal of the experience is to survive, there is no acceptance for failure states because if a character actually dies in this world, they are dead. A linear narrative fits into this kind of world perfectly, and the gameplay challenges the world presents keeps me coming back to it again and again.
NARRATIVE STRENGTH, LACK OF GAMEPLAY ENGAGEMENT
This incredibly emotional spin on an interactive narrative is gorgeous, and when done well, it is an extremely powerful and memorable experience to live in the first person perspective of a character's last living moments. What Remains delivers on this experience a stunning number of times, each unique and memorable in their own right.
As the experience is mostly narrated from the perspective of a retrospective letter, the nostalgic tang the voice gives to the beautifully detailed world as players explore it creates emotionally heavy moments.
The lack of gameplay, however, is where the experience falls short. I would honestly hesitate to call it a game at all. The core mechanic is, for the most part, following a very exact narrative path. It struck me as an upgraded version of interactive books (educational games) that I would play as a kid, learning to read. The creators sacrificed almost all semblance of gameplay to focus on narrative and creating this world. For what the experience ends up being, this decision is okay, but What Remains isn't a game that I would boot up again to play. I might boot it up again to wander around this world they created to find little details I missed, but that creates much more limited value than finding a way to braid narrative with engaging gameplay.
LACK OF NARRATIVE, LACK OF GAMEPLAY
There aren't quite words for the visceral response I had upon finishing this game. I felt cheated of four hours of my life that I wouldn't ever get back. But I tend to have much stronger responses to things that have such potential to be good and then completely miss the mark, rather than things that are just bad ideas from the start, so I took a closer look.
The moral implications of altering a dying man's memories is a stunningly powerful premise, and it makes the core intentions clear. Adding on a layer of dealing with mental health adds an incredible amount of weight and complexity. There are true moral dilemmas that are put in front of the player. The first third of the game presents these questions beautifully, entertaining writing with engaging characters and an entertaining mechanic of collecting particular memory totems in order to progress to the next level. Here at least, the gameplay and the narrative were cooperating with other, though more in the style of What Remains by treating gameplay as a plot mechanic rather than a standalone fun game in itself.
From a player experience standpoint, it's unacceptable that the game then goes on to bury these themes and characters in favor of increasingly gimmicky game mechanics and narrative that spirals like a train wreck in slow motion. The mechanics and the narrative become increasingly disparate and create a ridiculously dissonant experience in which the world created is being remolded (quite literally, in some cases) to suit the designer's 'fun' mechanics or poorly concealed plot devices. To The Moon is a great example of how you don't do a narrative game: emotionally abuse your players with sheer quantity of tragic events to then wrap up the whole thing with a pseudo-happy ending drowning in moldy cheese with not-so subtle plugs for a sequel.
Narrative games are HARD. Being able to create an experience that can be enjoyed just for the gameplay, or just for the narrative, is hard enough. An experience calling itself a narrative game has to be able to stand as either a strong narrative or a fun game, and those two pieces have to serve each other well.
And as stated before, there isn't a universal silver bullet that can make that kind of experience work. Each experience is unique, with its own set of design struggles and challenges depending on the kind of world being crafted and the core theme being delivered to players. But it is possible to make it work.