The Importance of Narrative

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I’ve been spending the past while working on multiplayer and match-making infrastructure, fixing bugs, all sorts of stuff unrelated to the narrative of the story. I’m feeling like the narrative is getting pushed farther and farther into the background. In fact, I’m planning to release the game without the narrative, as a multiplayer game with some single player missions. I’m going to add some options for procedurally generated combat for single player, they may not make the release, but they will be high on the list for free updates. Most people I talk to haven’t really been interested in the single player, what they are really interested in is the gameplay, which really is the strong point. I want to make sure that players have access to as much of the gameplay as they want. I don’t want everyone to have to wait for me to figure out how to tell a narrative before they can play and enjoy the game.

Right, all of that said, I want to talk about why I am still doing a single player story campaign instead of just doing a multiplayer game, why I believe that narrative is important, and why I got into making games in the first place.

Possibly my most favorite game ever is Xenogears. The combat was pretty good, for a JRPG (which I don’t believe is saying much), but it wasn’t something I would want to play in absence of the story. The exploration helped tell the story, it really added an extra dimension, but again the story is what made it important. The story though, holy cow, and the music, fantastic. I loved them both dearly. I can’t adequately describe what an impact that had on my psyche. Another game in the running for most favorite? Metal Gear Solid, I loved that game. I’ve really enjoyed the whole series, but Metal Gear Solid, Snake Eater, and Peace Walker have been my favorites. I’ve just barely started playing Phantom Pain, so I’m not sure where that one will come in. There are many other favorites, Command & Conquer, Max Payne (especially the second one), Resident Evil, to name a few. Those games are all pretty narrative heavy, even if the Resident Evil games did tend to get a bit absurd as they went on. Narrative has always been very important to me in games. I believe that no matter how great a game mechanic may be, a mechanic that is given a good narrative context will always have greater potential to affect someone than a mechanic without narrative context. And that’s the really beautiful thing about games, the thing that sets them apart from, and makes them superior to other forms of media. I want to have missions in my game that have some meaning attached to them. Where you’re not just fighting the enemies because it’s fun, but also because the character’s fates hang on it.

So the narrative is important, but it is the mechanics that make it a game, and the mechanics are what make this the greatest art form yet. Mechanics make it personal, they draw you in and everything becomes more important and affecting because it’s about YOU. I love stories of lost worlds and ancient treasures, Indiana Jones type stories. But I think the Tomb Raider games gave me a stronger sense of wonder and mystery than any of the Indiana Jones movies. I wasn’t watching another character move through ancient tombs, I was exploring the ancient tombs myself. When it’s you performing the actions, they carry so much more weight, especially if there is any element of choice, even a small one makes a huge difference in investment. You can participate in other mediums passively, but games require a degree of investment to even get started.

Music sells it. Music has the ability to summon emotion entirely on its own. Good application of music can turn an otherwise boring thing into something touching, here I’m thinking specifically of the ladder climbing scene from Metal Gear Snake Eater. It’s a two minute climb up a ladder requiring no more interaction than holding up on the analog stick, very boring. But a vocal-only version of the theme plays in the background as you climb the ladder, which, for me at least, made the scene beautiful. That scene for me was one of the most memorable in the game, and has stuck with me since the first time I played through it.

So the combination of narrative creating meaning, mechanics making it personal, and music tying it all up sets games up as potentially the most powerful artistic medium we’ve seen yet. I don’t know how well I’ll pull it off, but I want my game to have an element of meaning, beyond just being a fun game. And that’s why I want to include a single player campaign.

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