By: Stephen Crane (Photo: Flickr user srqpix)
As games continue to become more cinematic developers are beginning to run into some tough decisions regarding story and player agency. Where do they draw the lines between letting a player experience and/or create a story while telling the one they intended?
Let's take a look at some of the games that have succeeded tremendously in drawing a balance between player agency and coherent narratives. Both of them were released this year, and both are fantastic games: Batman: Arkham City and L.A. Noire. I purposefully chose games where were slightly different from each other and not in the RPG category since RPGs are a little bit too easy for today's topic.
L.A. Noire follows the story of Cole Phelps and in many ways is considered a triumph in cinematic gameplay. The visuals are well done and focus strongly on human emotion and "tells". While allowing the player to explore 1947 Los Angeles, through a fair amount of investigation and exploration, Rockstar Games also tells a very clear, human story of a deeply flawed man. While the game has some impressive cutscenes and visuals, it struck the balance of allowing players to explore and enjoy at their own pace. There was a lot to do or not to do as the player wished. The gameplay itself was very cinematic as well, especially the interrogation scenes, which still gave the player control over Phelps. L.A. Noire's motion capture technology allowed for a higher fidelity that showed so much human emotion and made the cutscenes an actual part of the gameplay instead of something that interrupts it.
Batman: Arkham City struck a similar balance. There was a very clear, strong story and narrative to the game, yet so much room for exploration. The cutscenes were generally short and to the point before letting the player actually complete the task at hand. It was the player, not the animation that took down the villains. At the same time the player was drawn in by the combat. Time slowed for finishing blows, and finishing off the last of a group generally awarded the player with a great view of an impressive finishing move. The player is pretty much rewarded for taking his or her time to explore the world and move the story along at his or her own pace. Players get to feel like they have a choice and an impact on the story while at the same time enjoying the story Rocksteady wanted us to.
Both of these games took the time to invest not only into graphical capabilities and fidelity, but also in turning their cinematography into gameplay features. The graphics and aesthetics were used to move the story along and cutscenes rarely ever felt like they were taking the controller out of the gamers' hands. Unfortunately, many games fall short of this ideal. Two of this year's bigger single player titles came out lacking when it came to story vs. gameplay.
Rage, Bethesda and iD's brainchild was a tremendous achievement in visuals. On a pure technical level, the post-apocalyptic world shined. The game lost its balance of story vs. gameplay by focusing on fairly tight shooting, controls and technical mechanics while ignoring the need to have an interesting story to engage the player. There weren't really any cutscenes to characterize anyone, and it really felt like the player impact on the story and the world was negligible. It was just an excuse to run into the enemies and experience the mechanics. There was little reason to care about why you were doing what you were doing, so long as you fulfilled the mission objectives and moved on. There were no real choices in what you were doing. There was no chance to backstab or persuade or change the objective itself, and that ruined a perfectly good chance for engagement.
Battlefield 3, on the other hand, lost its balance to the other extreme. The game was way too cinematic and took the controls and mechanics out of the player's hand too often. There were obvious, invisible strings and paths the player had to follow, and every few minutes a cutscene or a quick time event would interrupt gameplay. Quick time events are a type of gameplay mechanic that needs to be used sparingly. They are best used as additions to the game to either enhance fidelity or gain something additional instead of pure objectives. As a "do this or do not progress" mechanic, they force the player to unwillingly care about the cutscene, or at least pretend to. Quick time events are not a cinematic gameplay mechanic the way we saw in L.A. Noire. They are events that the player must "unlock" by pressing the correct button combination to progress. Further, Battlefield 3 refused to allow the player to progress at any other speed except for what it dictated.
There won't be any speed runs to discussion of strategy over the single player campaign because it is strongly mapped out even down to what weapon the player is allowed to use. The player had absolutely no control and was instead mostly forced to play observer as beautiful scenes took place around them. The game had a clear narrative, and perhaps it could have made for a fantastic action movie, but in order to get that narrative across DICE removed any freedom to explore or alter the careful narrative they constructed. Even crouching instead of standing when approaching an enemy was punishable by instant death.
Developers and producers must take hard looks at their games and figure out when cutscenes could actually be playable actions, or allow for an open, explorable world that actually encourages exploration. The more time a player spends with the controller down, or the less a player is allowed to impact the story in the game, the less likely it is a player will feel immersed. Story is not the mortal enemy of gameplay. They can not only exist in the same game but affect each other in interesting ways.
Game developers need to be comfortable allowing the player to experience the game at his or her own pace. They need to give the reins over to the players and allow for the player to make mistakes or do things the developer never intended that might just make the game more rewarding. Players also need to be comfortable kicking back and watching the occasional cutscene and enjoying the movie-like parts of a game. Not every game can be a sandbox or an open world, and that's alright. Stories do have an important place in games and it serves no one to completely ignore it or to force the players to become idle observers instead of active participants.