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Separate but Equal: The Narrative and the Gameplay.
Posted on Monday, March 14 2011 @ 10:37:39 PST

The recent release of Dragon Age II has kind of compelled me to write this piece. It is something that has been on my mind for years, something that is starting to become a grim reality that anyone who is a fan of video games is facing. It is also something that, whenever talked about, usually is met with skepticism and scathing remarks, probably because the subject is difficult to discuss.

For me, and many gamers, there is a point to where we begin to yearn for something more, something tangible and fun but at the same time compelling and emotional. Many gamers are mostly right-side brainers when it comes to this question; they want something fun and they will seek out what will sedate their cravings. Be it shoot-em ups, deep RPGs, sport simulations, whatever it may be, gamers will pick their poison and pretty much sink hours upon hours into titles for inherent satisfaction. And while this is a common and wonderful pastime to pursue, the past several years there has been a movement slowly gaining ground that is just as powerful in terms of enjoyment.

Narrative structures in games have come a long way from the exposition found in manuals back in the 8-bit era. Stories in gaming have increasingly become more complex, and even tiered like the movie industry, showcasing AAA blockbusters, B-movie experiences, and enthralling dramas to name a few of the genres that we see. From as early as the SNES we have seen narrative structures begin to evolve into a more cinematic experience. Be it 50 hour RPGS made by Bioware or SquareEnix or the exposition seen in Bioshock and Heavy Rain, many games have crossed a threshold where the focus is now not only on visuals and gameplay mechanics, but also narrative structure and characterization. It is impossible to see a review or write an article without mentioning a storyline in a game. Even sports titles have crossed this threshold now, creating custom made stories such as what was seen in Fight Night: Champions.

But as narratives become more prominent in games, many fear that aspects of gameplay will begin to suffer. Typically the story and the gameplay design were often segregated; considered separate parts of the development cycle and often included in the final product after the gameplay was created. Most games often have a tacked on story which gives way to stilted narratives, while on the flipside we see story heavy games suffer with terrible gameplay design. In a way, a game like Call of Duty would be the former, while Heavy Rain would be the latter for a comparison.

Now narratives in games are more than just stories; they need to be either meaningful or entertaining to the user which would give them satisfactory enjoyment out of the experience. Take Grand Theft Auto IV for example.  That was a game that, no matter how good the narrative was in hindsight, there was great inconsistencies with the structure and tone of the story. The world is an alternative take on modern day America, satirically mocked by a foreigner making a life for himself. But the seriousness of the tone was not matched by the world itself. For example, the radio stations, fake advertisements, sexual innuendos and euphemisms all compounded a mixed message. It became less of a satire and more of a schizophrenic experience.

On the flipside is the game Saints Row 2. The game is the bizzaro of GTA IV because its world is cartoonish in many ways; the missions and sexual innuendos here also satirize typical American culture and the gang lifestyle, and do it better than GTA IV did. Going to the extremes of absurdity created a more light-hearted and entertaining experience. But like GTA IV the tone was inconsistent; this time mired by more serious moments that were meant to tug at heartstrings and make you feel empathy for a character that, by all intents and purposes, murders people wantonly and is dressed like a clown.

It should be noted that both Saints Row 2 and GTA IV also had problems with their gameplay. Saints Row 2 attempted to go for a more cartoonish experience, but the structure of missions and the perks for doing side missions to perfection often lead to the game becoming broken due to cheats like infinite ammo or special weapons designed for max killing. GTA IV attempted to inject realism into the game by adding cell phone conversations that call during missions, use of the internet and photography, and even scheduling events on your phone. All of this was annoying at best and use in game to push the story along at least once each, pretty much adding too many features that creeped into the gameplay. It is an annoyance that occurs for the first half of the entire game, learning new features even after 15 hours are invested into the title.

So the marriage of narrative and gameplay is far from perfect in the examples above. We see a lack of focus in terms of how a story can be told, because the gameplay mechanics and overall design can showcase inconsistency if left unchecked. We also see gameplay mechanics look out of place and less fun if they are not implemented in a way that could actually benefit the player, or at the very least a way that would not annoy the player because it can detract from the overall experience. But the past few years there have been some great examples of achieving an experience that is both entertaining due to narrative and gameplay features.

Which brings me back to Dragon Age II. The game is far from perfect, and everyone agrees with that. The gameplay elements are less polished than they should be and have those same annoyances that begin to creep into the gameplay as GTA IV had. But Dragon Age II is important in another way, and that is the attempt at marrying gameplay elements into an evolving narrative. Note that this is not a new technique, as Bioware has attempted this numerous times before with games like Mass Effect, Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Other games such as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 and Demon Souls have also done this, but to varying degrees of effect.

The gameplay in Dragon Age II is fluid to fit two different styles of play. One is a tactical style that allows the user to pause the game during action to select abilities and actions for each party member, or to set tactics that allow the games A.I to control the movements of your non-controllable companions. Both methods work well and are valid attempts at tackling the numerous enemies that you face in game, and give the player a lot of freedom to experiment with the makeup of the party. The second method is to play it action-style, again using hotkeys for special abilities and hitting buttons for basic attacks and pre-determined combos already in canned animations.

Both methods are valid ways of playing, making party makeup crucial to balance encounters, especially on the harder difficulties. But the gameplay is not just the combat or the micro-managing of items and such, but also in terms of storytelling.

Dragon Age II follows in Mass Effect’s footsteps in telling a narrative story through the eyes of a single protagonist, known as Hawke. How you play as a character affects the world, and as such the gameplay in game. Depending on choices of allegiance with NPCs in game it can lead to different or deviances in the questlines later in the games ten year timeline. We also see the reactions of companions to your choices; they can become angered or inspired based on the choices of dialogue. In many cases, party members would react like any human (or elf ) would, and either vilify or exalt the hero Hawke for his decisions.

It not only affects gameplay due to the types of quests that become available, but also due to the final makeup of your party. Your companions are not just a group that is rallied together and blindly follow you; instead they have motivations, convictions and opinions that allow them to freely choose what they wish to do. Early on in the game you lose one of your siblings in the prologue all because of the class you decided to play as. That changes the makeup of the narrative immediately, and therefore changes the story for the remainder of the game. Later, the surviving sibling can die again, or be removed from the game and join a faction that you have no control over, only making guest appearances throughout the storyline until the climax where they may either rejoin you in battle, or die by your hand.

In fact, several characters in Dragon Age II have their fates all in your hands. Without giving too much away, there are several points in game where companions will leave the party forever, die by your own executions, or even fight you if your points of view disagree. The characters are fluid enough to fit into any role the story can dictate, and again the gameplay changes drastically with the amount of companions you would have left, and how they, and you, would react to the events that occur in game.

And the beauty of all of this is that, for the most part, it is unavoidable. You cannot save your sibling in the prologue, you cannot prevent the events the characters occur, and you cannot dictate how they will react. Towards the end of the game I had the choice of killing a companion for a grave act he preformed, or letting him live and either fight with us, or run away. In the end, no matter how much I agreed with him about the situation in the game, I had to kill him because it was what Hawke, my character invested into the narrative, would do. From a gameplay standpoint I sacrificed one character for two others, and from a narrative standpoint I followed through with my own convictions, however hard it was to do so. That is masterful storytelling, and the outcome was, for a moment at least, a coupling of narrative and gameplay elements.

We have seen narratives and gameplay go hand in hand before. From the audio diaries in Bioshock  to the timed conversations in Alpha Protocol , many games can encompass the gameplay into the narrative, but few can find the perfect harmony for an entire game. Dragon Age II was a step in the right direction for finally ending the segregation of story and gameplay, instead of making it a specific instance where the gameplay and story are combined; it attempts to encompass the entire game as a narrative experience.

Does it succeed? In the end, no. Limitations to the gameplay and the story structure force it to reach a conclusion that, while it makes sense from a narrative standpoint is inexcusable in terms of gameplay. There is also a disconnect between interactions still, and the numerous glitches and errors that mire the game world are too noticeable to not be mentioned. But what Dragon Age II does right is that it opens the doors for endless possibilities of seeing these two separate elements merge into one, becoming equally important as to how a game can stand on its own without one side or the other criticizing the importance of their respected camps being the reason to play the game to the point of venomous vitriol.

In the future we will see more innovation and attempts made by developers to encompass a storyline into gameplay elements. Dragon Age II may not be the best game ever made, but it is important because it takes the first steps into a larger world where the consequences of one’s actions early on can affect the outcomes based on the narrative. It was able to blend narrative and gameplay in a way that was fluid and complex, a way that forces the player to make decisions that will change how the game is played. For some, the future will be a revelation as to how games will be viewed. For others it shall be barely noticeable because they deem it pointless. For everyone though, they will be enriched by experiences unparalleled before because these separate but equal parts to a game will finally be separate no more.  

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