video games

Gameplay Vs. Storyline : Choose Your Own Awesome

October 16, 2013

Last month I scribbled down a few thoughts I had about Gone Home and other storyline based games. They were not good thoughts. But it got me thinking, are there any games out there that successfully manage to balance gameplay and storyline? I mean, I enjoy visual novels and FPS’s as much as the next guy, but they’re hardly what I’d call a happy medium. One is milk, the other is cream. Where’s the half-and-half?

Then I remembered a game that came out about this time last year that completely flipped all my preconceived ideas about what a video game should be – I’m talking about Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, the game based on the hit comic (and yeah, okay, the TV show) of the same name. It blew my mind. 
I’m going to go ahead and admit that I’d never played a point-and-click adventure outside of newgrounds – in my defense, I wasn’t even born when they were in their heyday. I never lived through the golden age of adventure games, and the most interactive software I used as a kid was the thing that made the microwave beep. 
10/10, GOTY – IGN, (1996)

So yeah, The Walking Dead blew my mind like a shotgun shell to a zombie’s face. I’m serious. Everything about it was just so good. The storyline kept me (and my boyfriend) on tenterhooks the entire time we were playing. Every time the internet cut out (frequently) we’d leap up and run for the router like a tank was after us. Sorry, crossing my zombie game wires there. Anyway. Tenterhooks. What else?

Oh yeah, the gameplay. Now, I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but when I hear the words ‘zombie game’ I assume we’re talking about a straightforward shoot-em-up or a survival horror. I was not expecting a point-and-click adventure game – in fact, when I first heard the premise of The Walking Dead, I found myself wondering how that kind of thing could possibly work. But it does. It works so well. And more importantly, it’s continued to work. 
Take Telltale Games’ latest venture, A Wolf Among Us. Again, it’s based on a comic book, so the story is paramount. But does this make it a boring hour’s worth of barely interactive TV-watching? No! Just like last year’s LA Noire wasn’t a 10-hour long movie. Heck, there’s been a lot of The Last of Us hate being bandied around lately, but even that had some element of gameplay. Gameplay is what separates the ‘interactive short story’ from the ‘video game’, just like a good storyline is what separates a generic FPS from Bioshock. 
Uh… the other Bioshock.

Secondly, gameplay doesn’t have to mean shooting up the set, or scrolling through page upon page of character stats. It can be as simple as having the player solve a puzzle, or make a decision. Y’know, meaningful decisions. Not just choosing one of two ways to wind up at the same ending… Mass Effect. I’m talking about decisions that actually impact game play, and change it irrevocably. The kind of thing that makes you wish you had a save state to frantically reset to. Telltale Games does this brilliantly – my boyfriend and I found ourselves cowering slightly whenever the game told us ‘They will remember that.’

He’s like an elephant. If elephants were assholes. 

And when the gameplay affects not only the game, but the story itself, we’re in a whole different ballpark. We’re in the goddamn Yankee Stadium (my sources assure me that it is pretty good). Interactivity makes a player feel involved, sure, but making meaningful choices makes the player feel responsible. When I found Clem in that treehouse? I felt genuinely concerned for her wellbeing. When Doug got eaten by zombies I felt like it was my fault. I wasn’t sorry, but on some level I felt like I had actively caused things to happen. Who cares if 75% of people made the exact same choice? The point is, they had a choice to make. That’s the happy medium, and that’s why I’ll keep playing these games for as long as devs keep making them.