GAMEPLAY. IS. KING.
All of us have read it. Heard it. Know it. And believe it to be true. If a game doesn’t have solid, enjoyable and innovative gameplay it cannot work, be popular or otherwise be a success. But games like Call Of Duty, Uncharted and even Witcher 3 seem shallow when you compare them to the emergent gameplay in Minecraft or Terraria or even Just Cause 3. And yet the former have sold more in the market and are more recognized in the mainstream. So there has to be something more to what makes someone lean towards a game or a franchise apart from gameplay.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Is story and narrative a game mechanic? Technically it isn’t. A game, any game will play exactly the same way if its entire story was stripped out from it. Such games lean heavily on their game mechanics. A lot of game do go that route, Minecraft comes to mind immediately; Players are left to do what they want in an open highly customizable world and create their own narrative.
Just Cause 3 could very well have been on an island, where Rico had landed to rescue her sister, or to kill an alien. The game would have played exactly the same way and still be crazy fun. GTA games have tried to provide excellent stories, but are the majority still playing it for its single player or its sandbox? Saints Row, Terraria, Day Z, the list just goes on and on. And this isn’t limited to just sandbox games, games like CS GO, Team Fortress and Niddhogg work with a strict set of mechanics (and no story) and are readily accepted by the community.
Is story and narrative a game mechanic? Technically it isn’t.
RPGs arguably have the best stories, and yet most of the modern RPGs tend to focus on replayability. Diablo 3 focus on their rifts overshadow their otherwise weak story, and the renewed focus on loots and drops is what is drawing people to the game.
As franchises roll along, its fans get accustomed to its mechanics. The tightness or the lack thereof in-game responsiveness and the general dynamics of the game. Change them too much, you risk an out-rage. Change too little and you can come off as lacking innovation. The story is just an excuse to give players a chance to use those mechanics.
You don’t play through the entire season of The Walking Dead so that you can test how quickly you can read prompts on the screen.
By the time, a game gets to its later iteration/sequels, the story moves to the background and the game mechanics is what survives it. Battlefield 1 arguably has the best Battlefield single player since Bad Company, the same can be said about the campaign in Infinite Warfare, but people are not buying these games for their narratives any longer. The story becomes the secondary experience, the feeling of nostalgia primary.
On the other hand, imagine walking and playing through the entirety of the Witcher 3 continent with no story to drive your actions forward. Just you, your sword, your signs and mutagens against a horde of monsters. The Witcher gameplay is tight but it’s also shallow and limited to keep someone interested for 80+ hours if there was no context to it all.
Imagine Mass Effect, you on a spaceship sent out to explore barren planet upon planets, to fight through lonely establishments on each. With no impending doom to push you forward, and no army to recruit, will Mass Effect still have the scale of grandeur about it?
Long time fans are picking up the game for the Uncharted experience
Look at Portal, excellent game, top-notch mechanics, you don’t need a narrative to go through a few hoops and go from room to room. Nevertheless, a context is provided and in Glados we have one of the most revered video game characters ever.
Then there is the TellTale series, where the narrative is perhaps even more important than the gameplay itself. You don’t play through the entire season of The Walking Dead so that you can test how quickly you can read prompts on the screen, you attach with Clementine, you attach with Lee, and you are vested in their fate, wonky gameplay be damned.
Uncharted on the other hand provides a much better experience than any TellTale game (in my humble opinion) but here again, the narrative plays king. The narrative plays out so well in Uncharted 4, that the basic storyline of Treasure Hunting is secondary to the family turmoil of Nathan Drake. But would Uncharted really be all that great, if the rest of the game played like crap? Naughty Dog put in a lot of effort into the game, making the leaps ‘almost’ superhuman, the movements natural, and the shooting agreeable. There is not a lot to do in Uncharted, but whatever that needs to be done is refined and polished so that you are not throwing away your controller after every few minutes. Longtime fans are picking up the game for the Uncharted experience, a tight script delivered with jaw-dropping set-pieces.
The Last Of Us, another Naughty Dog masterpiece arguably has better and much deeper game mechanics. There is a focus on stealth, resource and tactics. Yet it would not have joined the Gaming pantheon if it didn’t have the Joel-Ellie narrative to string it all together. The game flourished not only because it was a good game, but because you lived the life of Joel and Ellie in that infected world.
By going through the above examples, I am trying to prove a point. My point is, people remember people. They remember the quotes. They remember emotions. Sure you can share that impressive statue in Minecraft (which is vindication in itself, and an achievement worth sharing), but everyone cried when Joel’s daughter died in his lap. Only a handful of people saw that sick kill you scored in the multiplayer, but people still remember “No Russian” vividly. A narrative might not be a game mechanic, and it might not even be needed to make a great game. But for a masterpiece, it is absolutely imperative.