When you play video games, what drives your experience; your enjoyment? Is it the thrill of running and jumping through levels in amazing fashion, achieving a massive kill-streak in the latest online shooter, or is it being moved by an emotional story?
During my end-of-year break I tried to play as many different games as possible (mostly in a vain effort to reduce my increasing backlog). What I came to realise was how different they all were to one another, and you could effectively organise them all into two main categories: gameplay-driven and story-driven.
Such a concept isn’t entirely new, but it got me thinking – what’s most important to the modern day gamer?
Looking over the iGEA’s sales charts for the last few weeks of December, games from blockbuster franchises Call of Duty, Battlefield, FIFA and Need for Speed are common sights; games which can arguably be said to fit comfortably in the “gameplay” category – after all I can’t remember the last time someone said they play COD or Battlefield for their story elements.
Meanwhile, voted sublime PlayStation 3 game The Last of Us as your Game of the Year for 2013, a game which is indeed heavy on the story (and feels). Sure the gameplay was enjoyable, but it was hardly compelling when you compared it to Joel and Ellie’s sweeping tale of survival. We only need to take a look at somewhat “flimsy” stealth-focused elements of the gameplay as a testament to how un-perfect The Last of Us in fact is.
But what do we mean when we say ‘gameplay-driven’ and/or ‘story-driven’; or should the question be, how do we differentiate between the two different types of experiences? Games like Super Mario 3D World, Forza 5 and Call of Duty: Ghosts could be considered gameplay-driven. All titles present the player with what we could arguably define as a narrative that the player progresses through by interacting with gameplay mechanics.
Let’s use Super Mario 3D World as an example to break it down a little. The main way we interact with Mario’s world is by navigating him through it by either walking, running or jumping; altered through the introduction of various gameplay mechanics. Our enjoyment from the game stems from our direct input with the controller since we have total control over the actions of our digital avatar (Mario).
Call of Duty is an entirely different beast in the same category. Effectively a ‘military-simulator’, the franchise draws in millions of players into its online multiplayer modes for months on end; but why? It’s the gameplay mechanics – the attention to detail to the weight, handling of the guns, the ferocious war-tone action – that keeps us coming back for more. It’s also the social dynamic; playing with others that makes every snipe, every successful kill streak all the more rewarding.
On the other side of the spectrum we have heavy story-driven experiences like The Last of Us, Tell Tales’ The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and to some extent, the Mass Effect saga. While each noted example does draw on gameplay (such is the nature of video games, after all), the appeal of each rests in the stories they have to tell.
Recently I (finally) played both The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead; both lean heavily on their respective narratives to draw in, and keep its player engaged. The Walking Dead is of especial mention as it kept me on the edge of my seat during its more tense moments, while every dialogue choice was made with heavy consideration and thought. Looking ahead to the other four episodes of season one, and the recently released opener for season two, it’s Lee and Clem’s story that will draw me back, not the unexciting point-and-click gameplay.
Now Mass Effect is an interesting advocate for story-driven games, since its gameplay has actually been quite well received. But its core foundation, Commander Shepard’s epic tale, which is the real reason for the series’ success. Over the course of three games, and a sizeable portion of downloadable content, we became emotionally invested in the lives, relationships and drama of the Normandy’s crew; many of whom will be fondly remembered by gamers for decades.
To wrap all of this up, let me say we shouldn’t be trying to discern what’s better – gameplay or story driven games – but what you personally enjoy more. There’s no right or wrong answer here; or no answer at all, you may simply enjoy consuming all types of gaming experiences, be it on console, PC or your smartphone.