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Narrative Systems

December 16, 2008

I do not see narrative and gameplay intertwine very often, but when I do, I cannot help but ponder the choice behind implementing such systems. Let us take Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 as an example. Near the beginning of the game your sword, the Soul Reaver, changes from the version you had in Soul Reaver 1. Originally, it would sustain your life if your life was full, but as soon as you were hit, it would disappear until your life was refilled. Makes sense, is beneficial, and encourages the player to make sure they suck up enough souls to keep their health replenished. However, in Soul Reaver 2, it becomes angrier as you attack enemies, steals their souls away from you, and even starts draining your health if it becomes too angry, but you can summon it at will regardless of your level of health. This means that there is very little reason to keep the blade summoned if all it is going to do is kill you.

However, it makes sense in terms of the context of the story, as do all the other strange design choices in the game – like complete invincibility near the end – that many games tend to avoid. This does not include the tedious and strictly linear puzzles; I’ll save those for another post. The interesting part is that in the next game, Defiance, these systems were again changed not to fit more with the narrative but to be more gameplay friendly. When the Soul Reaver got angry in Defiance, instead of draining your health, you were allowed to perform a special attack like freezing enemies or jumping around between them interdimensionally. It felt like a much stronger system in terms of enhancing the gameplay, but did nothing to enhance the narrative, which instead played out entirely through cutscenes, instead of making you feel like the narrative was having some impact on the gameplay.

Do you feel it is important to have narrative define gameplay or do you think that gameplay and narrative should always remain separate?


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  1. I’m a firm believer that they should always be linked.
    And i’m definitely in good company on that call.

  2. Believe me, I am in the same boat. I think narrative and gameplay should go hand in hand as well. But I think there are better design choices to make than making the gameplay completely dependent on the narrative. When you do that, you bottleneck your design and if you have to fix or kill a feature, you have to fix or kill the narrative to do so.

    Soul Reaver 2’s narrative-based gameplay puts the player at a constant disadvantage, especially when enemies become stronger. Even though the blade becomes stronger, it will eventually kill you. The bad outweighs the good, so to speak.

    So you have the narrative defining gameplay ala SR2, games that know what they are so as to manage both story and gameplay well ala GTA4, and then there are also games that have “because it’s cool” mechanics like bullet time in Max Payne. Personally I am a fan of the second. Know what your game is in terms of its story, and have gameplay that reflects that story but is not always dependent on it so as to not limit the game’s design.

    My philosophy is to never sacrifice good design just for good story.

  3. Brett permalink

    It’s important to keep a lot of narrative in the actual gameplay. My friend just got the latest Metal Gear game and he said that after “playing” for 20 minutes, only two minutes of it was actual gameplay.

  4. skynes permalink

    I want Narrative that defines gameplay.

    It doesn’t have to be really intense closeness. Like FF7’s Materia system, it could have been called anything, but because they used a word that was embedded in the world it tied it all together nicely, same thing with Crisis Core.

    FF8’s GFs too. For a lot of the game they were just your system of growth, but toward the end you find they’ve had a big impact on the story.

    Then you hit 9 and 10 where the systems weren’t connected to story at all… disappointing yet still played well.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Moving Forward « Shades of Silver
  2. Letting the Game Tell the Story « Shades of Silver

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