Telling Story Through Gameplay

Telling Story Through Gameplay

The best way to form a cohesive narrative

Trey Griffeth

Written by for Dear Devs on

Video games have told countless unforgettable stories and many of them are made even more impactful through their gameplay so let's explore a few examples where gameplay and story have intermingled in interesting ways.

This Is the Police screenshot
Just another day as a member of Freeport's finest

Throughout the summer, I played a game called This Is the Police which focuses on Freeport police chief Jack Boyd as he attempts to raise half a million dollars before he retires. Along the way, he has to manage the day-to-day grind of the job while keeping city hall happy and dealing with mobsters, serial killers, and gangs. At the time of its release, This Is the Police received mixed reviews yet it managed to spawn a sequel and a spin-off in the 4 years since it launched. For me, the experience was quite novel because the story being told through the gameplay was far more interesting than the cutscenes.

The written story of This Is the Police is an overly dramatic cop drama that feels like it would be right at home in a season of The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, or The Shield. You have a cartoonish evil mayor who routinely harasses the protagonist, the mafia enters the picture and you eventually have to take sides in a mob war, you track down an exotic serial killer, and even interact with a local all-powerful millionaire. It's all stuff we've seen in countless cop shows yet it's original enough to keep you interested but not so much as to leave a lasting impact. However, the story being told through the gameplay is on another level.

God of War screenshot
They literally destroyed a mountain in an epic fight

This Is the Police is at its absolute best when the cutscenes merely set up the gameplay stories that you take part in. For example, the conflict between Jack Boyd and the mayor isn't exactly riveting as it turns the mayor into a Saturday morning cartoon villain. However, the way the gameplay implements the relationship is another matter. You send units out to respond to crimes and in order to get more cops and better equipment, you send budget requests to city hall that they'll approve or deny. The only way you can get these requests approved is to bend over the table for city hall and the mayor who routinely demand unreasonable tasks like firing black cops in order to appease racist gangs and crush protests with violence which will obviously cause problems down the road. You could tell the mayor and city hall where to shove it but this will cause more problems such as limit how many cops you're allotted. It's a dance that you constantly juggle which is far more interesting than anything the actual scripted story tries to engage us with.

Every now and then, This Is the Police reminds us that it indeed has a story that the devs wrote and recorded dialogue for. Again, the writing isn't bad but as I played, I keep thinking to myself, "Taking down the mayor would have been a lot more satisfying if you built up a case against him like you did with the gangs..." Ultimately, I enjoyed it enough that I decided to check out the sequel and now, I'm curious to see what the developers create in the future. Overall, the whole experience put me on a train of thought that had me looking back at many games that I played over the years and how gameplay is either incorporated with or ignored by the narrative and how the story being told through gameplay is often superior to predefined narratives told through cutscenes.

Red Dead Redemption 2 screenshot
Look at my horse; it sure is amazing!

What will often happen in cutscene-heavy games is that you'll have bizarre contrasts between the narrative and the gameplay. In Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Nathan Drake initially finds himself restless in married life and longs to go on adventures again after spending time looking at souvenirs from previous adventures. What this also implies is that Nathan misses the violence that he partakes in during his adventures. Likewise, you have something like God of War where an epic fight between Kratos and Baldar literally tears apart the earth thus showing their destructive capabilities but then not even an hour later, you can easily be slain by a generic enemy. Neither of these examples make the games bad but it can lead one to ponder how the cinematic narrative may contradict the gameplay.

Spoiler warning: the following paragraph contains heavy spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 and Shadow of the Colossus.

Next, you have games that incorporate gameplay into the story well and Red Dead Redemption 2 contains one of the best examples of this. You use your horse to get around the vast open world but unlike in the previous game, the horses have some tangible identity as you name, feed, and clean them and they're more effective if you treat them well. The animal is not merely a vehicle that you use to travel from point A to point B; it's very much your horse and an integral part of the story. This ultimately makes the horse's death at the end of Arthurs's tale much more potent because of how much time you spent caring for it. You can compare this to the horse's death in Shadow of the Colossus. In my opinion, it didn't hit as hard because I saw that horse as more of a vehicle than a companion.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor screenshot
Make Mordor great again!

I can't think of a game where the gameplay-driven narrative is better employed than in the Middle-earth games. It must be said that they don't have the best plots and may come off as Lord of the Rings fan fiction at times but the stuff that they insert between missions is some of the most compelling material that you'll ever experience. For example, Shadow of Mordor implements the nemesis system which effectively turns death into a gameplay mechanic where you build up an antagonistic relationship with Orcs and have rivalries with them that could potentially last throughout the campaign. In fact, many who played it for extended periods would likely make the argument that the stories with rival Orcs were far more interesting than Talion's conflict with The Black Hand of Sauron.

Spoiler warning: the following paragraph contains heavy spoilers for Middle-earth: Shadow of War.

This aspect also carried over to Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Sadly, it wasn't necessarily as effective due to the Orc loot box system but these kinds of plots were still scattered throughout and like in the first game, they could be more compelling than the actual story. More interestingly is that it told Talion's story through gameplay more than cutscenes. As the adventure goes on, Talion recruits larger armies of Orcs to battle the forces of Mordor. The more powerful he becomes, the more he goes on about how he and his army are retaking Mordor from the Dark Lord and how great and glorious it all is while he has an army that he brainwashed into serving him with creepy wraith magic. It paints the picture of a man who is becoming more deranged and ruthless in his fight against Mordor before revealing that he's on a path which is making him as bad as Sauron and he eventually turns into a Nazgûl himself.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker screenshot
Is he drafting him into his PMC?

The Metal Gear series contains the most interesting anti-hero in any video game. Big Boss was the antagonist of the original Metal Gear back in 1987 before returning in Metal Gear 2 and he became a heavily referenced character in the Metal Gear Solid sequels. Eventually, he would star in his own games that told the story of a man who went from being the most revered soldier in the world to an 8-bit villain. What makes the arc interesting is that it doesn't actually feel like the origin story of a villain from a cinematic narrative perspective up until you get to Metal Gear Solid V. Even beyond that point, you face off against antagonists who are clearly more psychotic than Big Boss ever was thus making the whole thing less like an origin story of a James Bond style villain and more like the tale of an anti-hero who doesn't want oversight from government officials. That is; until you start taking gameplay into account.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops notably starts the arc of Big Boss into his future role as a villain. In it, you coerce soldiers to serve in your own private army and in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, this premise dramatically expands as you outfit an entire base, research new weapons, and send your troops out to take part in conflicts as mercenaries. This process eventually extends to Paz and Chico who are part of your gameplay spreadsheet and can be used for other functions on the base and are, in fact, children. In order to get the true ending, you have to construct your own Metal Gear with a nuke before Big Boss begins covering up the fact that these things exist from UN inspectors in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It all just goes to show how far down the rabbit hole Big Boss has gone and serves as an interesting example of how gameplay can serve character development far better than traditional cinematic narratives.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain screenshot
Venom Snake and Skull Face's silent ride says more than words ever could

In the end, this is all conceptual as there aren't any rules that say developers need to tell stories in any particular way and many are still experimenting with new ways to go about integrating gameplay and narrative. The medium is constantly changing and the ever-rising costs of making games with high-powered graphics may force developers to rethink their methods of telling their stories. As this article has undoubtedly made clear, I would argue that the best way is to allow players to tell the story themselves.

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