Story vs Gameplay: How We Did It

This argument has been going on for a long time in game developers’ inner circles. Which is more important, Story or Gameplay? Which one should be put in the spotlight?

The answer may differ depending on who you ask. In fact, I don’t think there’s a way to correctly answer this question. Instead, my reply would be: ‘‘Should we even have this debate?’’

The Cold, Hard Facts

The truth is that there are games, where story took the backseat, that have succeeded greatly.

The franchise Mortal Kombat is a great example. MK has been around forever, it is a planetary success… everyone knows the ‘‘FINISH HIM’’ sound bite. You want to rip your enemy’s throat or claw his heart out of his chest? No problem. You want a good story? Eh… you might be at the wrong place.

MK, and most fighting games for that matter, are examples where story is not really required within the game itself. The design of the characters, the feeling of the controls and the animation of the attacks are what makes those games enjoyable.

‘‘No time for a story, we’re here to beat each other up for the next hour.’’

This is the case for most e-Sports also. Games like Counter-Strike, League of Legends and Dota 2 are addicting because of the fast gameplay and competitive environment they provide.

On the other hand, you also have games where a beautifully written story has single-handedly brought fame and success to the developers. Games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or The Walking Dead come to mind.

Despite its simple gameplay, The Walking Dead was a huge hit because of its compelling story.

Looking at it objectively, both approach can reap the rewards. But here at Bishop Games, we are of the opinion that you don’t need to put the two notions in opposition. There’s a way to build your game and develop a good balance between the two. After all, this is what makes it an immersive experience for the players.

Balance Between the Two

How exactly do we achieve this balance between Story and Gameplay? In our case, it is an on-going process throughout the development of Light Fall. It requires a lot of iterations to get it right. There’s no easy way to do it.

To create an immersive game, your story and gameplay both have to be interesting for the player. A difficult task at times.

On one hand, you want the gameplay to be exciting and engaging for the player, and on the other, you also want to share an emotional and sometimes complex story. You can’t do both at the same time. Well, you can… but the player will unconsciously prioritize one of the two.

‘‘And why is that?’’, you may ask. Because you’re sending information from two different directions. When the situation is intense, the brain prioritizes what it judges most important and blocks the rest.

Don’t believe me? What about the times you were in a hardcore gaming situation and your mother would yell something from the opposite side of the house? If you’re like me, your brain would not register the information until she would be at your doorstep asking why you’ve been ignoring her for the past two minutes. That’s because the brain was focused on the most challenging task at that moment and filtered out the rest.

And that is exactly why it is hard to maintain a good balance between the two. If you’re in the middle of a very hard boss fight or if you’re being chased by 10 enemies, chances are your brain won’t register what the narrator says at that specific moment.

Try not to shove your story down the player’s throat when he already has his hands full.

On the opposite, if you’re in the middle of a slow part of a level, where not much is happening, that would be a good moment for the story to be shared. After a boss fight, in form of a cinematic, would also work.

Obviously, the player will be much more mindful of your story in a moment like this.

Choose Your Moments Wisely

For us, it all came down to this: the pacing. It’s about choosing the right moments for exciting gameplay and the right ones to deliver the story. Try to pace your game so the story and the gameplay do not undermine each other, but instead are presented alternately to create a natural flow.

Obviously, the approach might change for each game. Put yourself in the players’ shoes and try not to overwhelm them with too much information.

While the process may seem tedious at times, the final result is definitely worthwhile.

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