A Spectrum Of Games For A Spectrum Of Gamers

One of the many eternal battles the gaming community consistently fights among itself is the seemingly irreconcilable "gameplay" vs. "story" debate.

The increasingly heated argument has come back around again in full force over the past week or two, with public figures like Jennifer Hepler and David Jaffe being variously held up or dumped on for representing deeply opposed viewpoints. Hepler became the centre of controversy for her 2006 comments wishing for a "fast forward button" that would let her focus instead on story; Jaffe, meanwhile, sparked arguments when giving a speech at DICE 2012 that called story in games "a waste of resources".

Deep under all of the fear, anger and mud-slinging that polarisation brings, there is a serious and interesting discussion to be had about the very building blocks of our games, and how they can fit together. The reality of games, like most realities, is not an either/or black-and-white discussion. Games, rather, exist in a spectrum of experiences and have for many years.

Some games truly are fundamentally about mastering a given set of mechanics, it's true. A Gran Turismo that skips over all of the driving would lose most of its purpose, as would a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that skipped the shooting. A Super Mario Brothers without any jumping would be similarly pointless.

Games that are driven almost entirely by skill mastery of some kind are a large percentage of the titles on our shelves and in our digital libraries. We speak the language of having enough points, the right guns, the right magic, the right timing, and more learned, earned and purchased traits than I could think to list. But skill mastery never has been the only metric for our play.

I don't remember when the first game I ever played was that had a difficulty option setting in it, but I remember it being on our Commodore-64 compatible Atari computer, and having to go ask my dad what "novice" meant, because I'd never seen the word before. The first game I can remember where I got to choose, though, was 1991's Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge.

I came to console gaming late, in roughly 2007, but nearly every game I have played since has given me options that, if I choose them, can make the combat sections so easy as to be virtually non-existent, or so difficult they take hours and hours to get through. Games like L.A. Noire have provided the player a chance to skip action sequences entirely if they're failed too many times in a row, while a title like Heavy Rain will accept a player's failure and continue the main story without a full game over, instead taking the story down different paths depending on how an action sequence ends.

Gamers are a diverse lot, and the pool of folks who enjoy digital entertainment gets bigger and broader every year. This inclusivity is a good thing. Not every player needs to enjoy every kind of game. Nor does every player need to enjoy every single element of the games they do play. As I rediscovered this week, I enjoy the New Game + mode of Chrono Trigger more than I enjoyed my first playthrough, because the unavoidable not-so-random encounters in every level are rendered trivial, and I don't have to spend hours slogging through them. I can simply blow them out of my way, then get on with meeting party members and saving the world in my time-traveling way.

Similarly, when it comes to a modern blockbuster title like the Mass Effect franchise, different players are going into the game looking for different things. Several of my close friends and family enjoy the games, and we discuss them frequently. I play on a harder difficulty level than many, who are there mainly to see what happens, and on an easier difficulty level than many others, who enjoy actively mastering party skills and tactics (which I don't). All of us have the same game, but each of us has a different level of physical ability and emotional connection to bring to it.

Ultimately, it's the same with every game. Players are all going to approach a title with different needs, abilities and expectations. In a title where the story is absolutely, inextricably linked to the player's performance of a mechanic, there are certain levels of ability that a player must master, or else walk away. (This is why I generally do not play fighting or racing games: I am terrible at them, and given my slow reflexes and general lack of hand-eye coordination, am unlikely ever to improve enough to make them worth my time.)

In plenty of games, though, there's a decoupling between physical ability and game progression. A player who moves through Uncharted 3 on very easy is not playing a fundamentally different game than one who plays on nightmare mode. A shorter game in terms of hours spent, most likely, but with the same characters, cut scenes, and general levels. And for nearly every game that I see on my shelf, or in my Steam library, the same is true.

In the end, then, general plot and physical mechanics in any given title can go hand in hand, or they can be completely divorced. The platonic ideal of a perfect game would certainly marry its form and function together seamlessly — we'd have a perfect "both/and". But in the real world, of games that exist, it's all down to taste. Neither is more right or wrong than the other, and for now at least both ideas will continue to co-exist.

Top photo: Shutterstock

Comments

    On top of all of this, I might remind Mr Jaffe that God of War wouldn't have been nearly as compelling if it didn't have the epic story behind it.

      Yeah, the gameplay was solid & fun but the real joy was in playing a character who had almost no redeeming features (in fact about the only one I can think of was the love he had for his family. HIs family that he murdered).

      In my mind, the story & character were the things that separated God Of War from the later god of war clones that weren't very interesting story wise

    I think that calling them "Games" is limiting our view of the field.

    Maybe "games" are really just a genre or sub-group, not an general term we should be trying to applying to every interactive experience.

    If you feel that an experience was entertaining, uplifting, engaging or in any other way worthwhile then it wasn't a waste of your time.

    In the past I've been quick to write off titles like Heavy Rain and Enslaved as being fairly mediocre games. I still think they are. Regardless of that, they can still be excellent interactive experiences and I'm happy for you to have a blast working your way through them.

      It's pretty confusing you'd lump Enslaved in there. The combat got pretty hectic as you got through the game and the co-operation mechanics were great. If you only played a tiny portion you might think the combat was just button bashing but it didn't take long before you'd get utterly owned every time if you tried to play that way.

        Yeah, I only played the demo. You were practically herded onto the exact line to follow through the level and couldn't do anything (like jump) unless it was safe. I didn't play very far, so it's entirely likely that I came away with the wrong impression.

        That's kind of what I meant by "wrote them off". I played them both briefly and felt like they didn't really respect me and my choices as a player.

        Bigger picture, though, the examples aren't that important. My thinking purely in terms of games being mechanics and play lead me to write off two experiences that others have found quite worthwhile.

    While I can defintely understand why all games don't need to have plot (i.e., Vanquish, Bayonetta, Doom) to make a game fun.

    But the absolute best single-player games that I've experience all had a compelling story and/or great characters (i.e., Dead Space 2, Dante's Inferno, Bioshock, Xenoblade, etc). Just like what the first post stated, it makes all the difference as to how memorable that gaming experience would be. I'd pick story over graphics any day.

      I'm pretty sure Bayonetta has a plot.

      I just can't for the life of me figure out what it is :)

    concept is king always.

    Commodore 64 compatible Atari computer??? WTF??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

      I'm sure she meant Amiga. It's an easy slip.

        What atari machine could play amiga code?????? The ST???? Jack tramiel created the amiga after leaving atari. Im pretty sure the ST couldn't play amiga games.

          Its like saying I used to play SMS games on my NES.

          That's a little off. Jack created the Atari ST computer after leaving Commodore. He had nothing to do with creating Amiga.

    I really hope you're trolling...

      No. im not. Perhaps she meant her colecovision that could atari games. Otherwise a ridiculous statement for this site.

        *sigh*. The Amiga was backwards compatible with the C64 (kind of, I believe there were emulators available). The quote was most likely intended to be:
        "our Commodore-64 compatible Amiga computer"

          Sigh. - I understand now. Could you name this emulator as I have both an amiga 500 (1mb expansion) and a c64. I have not heard of it - also how did u ingest c64 games on 51/4 disk and tape to 31/2 or amiga HDD??? If it exists I would love to obtain a copy.

            or should it be " our hacked amiga with c64 codemaster cd rom cable....." or maybe "my commodore 386sx 25 pc running frodo"

          What about the C128? It was fully compatible with the C64.

            Not fully. Some games didnt work in c64 mode. It was nearly 100% compatible. But AMIGA??? Never heard of anyone playing c64 games on an amiga during the 80s. Maybe a later 90s hack with codemaster CD cable BUT pretty big statement to make in a condescending fashion.

              and the funny thing is - I have a vauge memory that the Atari xe or xl has same chip as 64 - so maybe possible.

              Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I was having a terrible day yesterday and really shouldn't have been posting comments online. It gets a little tiring seeing people jump on the Kotaku writers for every tiny mistake made in a really long post, but I didn't realise I was coming across as such a jerk.

              I had a look on wiki. There was an emulator called A64 that came with an adapter that allowed you to plug your 1541 drive into the Amiga and play C64 games.

              I never had an Amiga myself, a school friend of mine did. This would have been somewhere around the mid 90's. I guess he must have had this adapter to run C64 titles. I had assumed that it was just standard hardware, but it doesn't look like they were all that common.

    10 print " Commodore 64 compatible Atari computer??? WTF?????????????????????????????????????????????"
    20 goto 10

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