Games, “Narrative,” and Gameplay

I’m not going to link the article that spawned this essay, mostly because the headline, which provoked everyone, was slightly misleading compared to the content of the article. The gist was the article had a title like “Narrative-focused games should drop the hours of combat,” which most gamers understand to be part of the games-journo advocacy of games that don’t have gameplay.

This has been going on for years, and I have been addressing it for years. The odd thing is, the games industry has been addressing this concern, despite the fact that the market already solved this problem and began filling the “games lite” niche twenty years ago. Before we go further, let’s start with a simple thesis:

The art of the game is its gameplay.

Gameplay is what defines a game as a game, just like every medium is defined by what makes it different from other mediums – what it has that other mediums lack. Movies are audio-visual. Comics are visual. Books are prose and dialogue, operas are stories with music, etc. There is some level of interactivity and player operability that is inherent in the very idea of a game. Reducing gameplay would make a game less a game.

“Gamers” already know this instinctively. What makes a game compelling is the fun you have playing it. Yes, you can have great stories in games, but it’s the gameplay which makes the medium enjoyable compared to a movie. Even a cutscene-heavy game like Final Fantasy XIII, with some 12 hours worth of cutscenes (which you can watch on YouTube if you just want a long movie and not a game), still has 60 hours or more of gameplay that isn’t just raw story.

This reality doesn’t seem to stop journos from calling games “ableist” for being too hard.

From Software may stick to their guns and keep their games hard, but plenty of other developers have begun offering “games lite” versions of their games over recent years, usually in the form of a “story mode,” however, the ease of these modes made journos upset:

You’re probably not going to please these types because their job is to complain endlessly about the medium they supposedly love.

Journos, however, are not the market (and indeed, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the games market). There are indeed people who want “games lite” experiences, or experiences that don’t focus intensely on dexterity, timing, strategy, or tactics, and the market has already created products for them. In fact those products are rather old, going back to the ps1 and before on various computer systems.

The Visual Novel, a format very popular in Japan (and especially on my beloved PS Vita) focuses entirely on narrative, with many visual novels discarding traditional gameplay entirety. Popular franchises have been launched as visual novels, including Fate/Stay Night. You could even consider Telltale Games to be a maker of slicker, western Visual novels.

There is some debate as to whether these actually constitute games, since they often lack traditional gameplay, and most of the “game” of the product consists of making decisions, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel with an audio-visual presentation, or as a form of dating simulation. For my 2 cents, I consider them to be games if they have some sort of player interactivity.

However, whether they are a game or not is quite irrelevant. What is relevant is that the market demands them, so they are produced to meet that demand. People get what they want, and whether it fits neatly into the definition of a game doesn’t matter, except to point out that certain people lamenting that Persona games are jrpgs don’t need to look far to find the product they actually want.

What I think happens here in the west is that some people played Mass Effect or similar games, liked the dating sim parts, and thought it would be nice if that was the whole of the game, without the shooty bits. Since Visual Novels are considered “niche” here, and because they were told the Vita was a crappy device (“why have a handheld if I have a phone?”), they are oblivious to a whole game genre that is probably giving them exactly what they want.

For the rest of us, we actually should resist the call to dumb down games. It reduces the power of the medium. Dragon Age is one of the biggest culprits, but not the only one, having gone from great tactical rpg with d20 roots (of variable difficulty!) to FF12 lite meets dating sim (but with ugly characters). Lots of bigger games have a “games journalist mode” – the bigger debate is whether allowing the user to reduce the potency of the medium should be allowed, and to what degree.

Until then, point people to Code Realize or other visual novels if they want to date characters, and let the rest of us spend the hours we enjoy in stressful timing-accurate combat or expansive tactical battles.

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  1. Narratives are often a natural development of any prolonged gaming session. The game does not even need to be “set up” for narrative in order for a narrative to emerge. For instance the rules of baseball don’t dictate heroes and villains and yet we witness entire dramas played out across an inning, a game, a season, even a career. Even the most pseudo intellectual sports journalists wouldn’t dare suggest we remove all the play from baseball to get to the stories. But gaming journos have a unique hatred of both their audience and their medium.

  2. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Roger Zelazny, Marvel Horror, Planetary Anthology –

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