Gameplay vs. Story in Gaming Narratives


What do we mean when we talk about a game’s story?

Most of us would categorize “gameplay” as the specific actions the player commits during the game. While things get hazy when dealing with predetermined quicktime events and the like, I’d say it’s fair to consider those fall under the umbrella of gameplay as well. Most people consider gameplay “better” if it’s complex, difficult, or otherwise viscerally engaging.

One thing gameplay isn’t, necessarily, is a story element.

Which is totally fine, by the way. From what I can tell, stories were primarily introduced as a means to give the gameplay experience more context — which would lead to the player feeling more involved. Like, Mario isn’t participating in anything resembling a real story, but the plot element of searching for Princess Peach lends the vaguest hint of meaning and structure to the enterprise. It gives you a reason to progress.

These days, games have gone Hollywood. Despite the way most game plots don’t matter much more than a symbolic search for Princess Peach, the quality of “story” matters a great deal to the players and producers of these games.

And I’m not sure it should.


Actually, I’m not sure it always DOES.

Part of the problem with talking about this subject is that “story” is such a nebulously defined word. The way I’ve come to think about it is that a STORY is not necessarily the same as a PLOT. As the great Film Crit Hulk pointed out, plots are cold, mechanical constructions. A linking of events that move from beginning to end. Stories, on the other hand, are more personal, with a deeper implication of meaning and resonance.

This is why you have such a vivid disagreement (from time to time) as to whether the “story” of, say, The Dark Knight, is worthwhile. The actual plot doesn’t really make sense at all; the Joker’s actions and schemes border on incomprehensible past a certain point. Still, the story of the Joker’s war with Batman over the soul of Gotham City (personified by Harvey Dent) works like gangbusters.

A lot of games just have plots.

Which often works. In a game like Dead Space, the point is to deliver a funhouse experience. While the game design certainly makes you empathize with Isaac, there’s no character growth or thematic catharsis or anything. It’s truly a “game.” In cases like this, the plot often barely graduates beyond a thin bit of context to give shape and variety to the gameplay. Ditto action games like Vanquish or Killzone. Nobody buys those for the story (though they include a plot anyway).



The line starts getting blurry, however, when we enter into the arena of games that DO make an effort to take their “stories” seriously. A lot of games try to have their cake and eat it too by, essentially, quarantining their story elements from the gameplay.

For instance, a game like Uncharted spends most of a gamer’s time clearing various arenas of anonymous bad guys or solving puzzles. A tried-and-true formula, no doubt, but then the series gathers praise for delivering a story experience comparable with a summer blockbuster. From what I remember, 90% of the actual STORY content is packaged in unplayable cutscenes, even if the PLOT is occasionally advanced during the gameplay experience. Whereas in high-quality action cinema, the action IS the story.

What about the original Bioshock? Like most people, I think it’s a great game. The design of Rapture evokes all kinds of feelings, the gameplay is well-balanced and even thematically relevant, and a certain plot twist in the game has become truly iconic. Admittedly, I don’t think that famous twist is INSANELY deep, but it’s certainly memorable and (from what I can tell) somewhat revolutionary for the medium.

But I also see people praising Bioshock’s story pretty frequently, which strikes me as odd because… I’m not sure it actually has one.


*scary whale roar*

Whoa, whoa, slow down! I’ve already said it’s a great game, just not a great story. From what I saw, the vast majority of Bioshock’s running time was made up of pretty standard videogame setups. Kill the baddie. Get the key. This trigger shoots lightning; this one shoots bullets. There’s an okay plot as you clear Rapture’s halls, but a story?

I suppose Rapture’s history and relationship to our avatar, Jack, might qualify, but I’d submit this is less “story” and more in-game mythology. Andrew Ryan’s history. The Randian critiques. Snippets of information dispensed as the character idles in an elevator or sits locked in a room or listens to a narrator ramble while he beats up a crazy person with a wrench.

It’s like the story is a really interesting skin wrapped around the body of a standard objective-driven shooter.


Probably by this guy.

My problem, if I have one, is that ultimately this approach feels disingenuous to me.

The best asset video games have is player participation, and building a game so that the player sits on their hands whenever the story comes back onscreen seems to limit the potential impact of the format.

During our podcast on Beyond: Two Souls, I mentioned that the game had one of the stronger stories I’d seen… at the expense of being a less-than-compelling gameplay experience.

On the other hand, this wasn’t the case with Shadow of the Colossus. Up until a couple years ago, this was the go-to example during the “are games art?” debate, and that’s because it’s effing incredible.

It genuinely has a strong story, in that the thematics and character are shown through events that happen in the game as opposed to narration and environmental decoration like Bioshock. It even manages to wrap its storyline up in the gameplay itself much of the time; the process of searching and executing the lineup of Colossi in the game.

But the thing about Shadow of the Colossus is that its story is insanely simple. Gaming typically requires repetition, and repetition works best with simple ideas. Plot-heavy games run the risk of creating a passive gaming experience, or forcing game designers to repeatedly stop the action in order to advance the plot. There’s certainly a place for them, and perhaps the great story-centric game just hasn’t been made yet.

But personally, I worry the current focus on conventional, movie-esque storytelling might be hindering true growth in the medium’s most valuable areas.


Pictured here.

If story is important(which it is), but it comes at odds with gameplay (which it often does), then we’re still not “there” in terms of realizing the potential of the gaming medium.

As of last week, gaming moved into a new generation of consoles. Let’s say the same about the games they put on them.

What about y’all? What’s the difference between gameplay and story in a video game? What are the best stories you’ve seen in the medium so far?

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  1. Stories in Games have a long way to go, and yea, going for Hollywood Spectacle may not be the right way. But when a Story in a game works, it’s just a fantastically elevating experience because you are so much more invested in characters that you actually interact with. And we are getting there, although sometimes in ways that are not quite straightforward.

    Some examples of really great Story Moments in Games:

    THOMAS WAS ALONE: Maybe THE Prime example for Gameplay being built around story and vice versa. The Protagonists may be a bunch of rectangles, but the game astonishingly builds fascinating characters and creates compelling metaphors for real life psychological quirks and issues around thier shapes and abilities that are important for gameplay.

    THE WALKING DEAD: Basically not much of a game, really, and in all honesty, the Story is much more straightforward than it pretends to be. Still, it’s all elevated by putting you in the shoes of the protagonist and torturing you with hard decisions that can rarely be identified with “right” and “wrong”. Telltale plays out a story that asks you “How would you react?” and let’s you live with the consequences, reactions, and sometimes just the sobering realization that no matter what, you just can’t fix some problems.

    HOTLINE MIAMI: A game i couldn’t stop thinking about since i finally finished it earlier this year. And ironically, a game that has a great story by not having much of a story at all. It’s all senseless violence, but the game knows this, and let’s you know what you are doing. And just at the moment where you want to be angry at the game for not telling you what the whole thing is about, it pulls the rug under your feet and throws it’s response right back at you.
    It’s basically like Funny Games, only that in this case, the creators know the appeal of the genre and of videogame violence, and aren’t smug and condescending about it like Haneke was.
    Do you like hurting other people?

    And in defense of Bioshock: It’s true that it doesn’t really seem to have much of a story from the players perspective, but other than it’s ingeniuous twist and it’s somewhat disappointing finale, i always felt that the game is less about the player being a protagonist, but rather being an observer, “devine comedy” style, picking up the pieces of how and why in the aftermath of a world gone wrong.
    But that’s just me…and at least Bioshock Infinite was gorgeous in playing with some of it’s predecessors complaints about lack of agency and illusion of choice.

    1. I would say Hollywood spectacle works if that is what you’re going for. Not every game or story for that matter needs to be Shakespeare. A game like Vanquish would IMO be ruined by trying to make it too serious. Just let me blast robots and have fun. On the other hand, I do think there is a dearth of games like Spec Ops: The Line, which do take a more serious look at things. Although, with games like The Walking Dead and such coming out, I think we’re seeing some of that be addressed.

      1. I didn’t really wanted to criticize “Hollywood Spectacle” for not being thoughtful enough or something like that, even if my examples may have given the impression.

        I’d rather wanted to express that stories in games work a lot better when there is a way for the player, through gameplay, to interact with the story on an intimate level.

        A game like Mass Effect gives you a way to interact with a straightforward Hollywood Spectacle Story by letting you define the protagonist in a limited way, letting you decide on how you want to get things done and how you treat the other characters you are stuck with. The way you can shape the story that way is very limited, but it certainly will make victories more satisfying and tragedies more tragic.

        Recent Call of Duty Games, on the other hand, just guide you through spectacle like it’s a carnival ride, because you only interact with the story in that you get through a gameplay segment to see the next scripted sequence. Gameplay is to the story like a complicated “Play/Pause” Button. Not that anyone should feel bad for enjoying that, but still you’re either watching the story unfold with gameplay occasionally interrupting, or you play the game and the story is a stopgap between more shootouts.
        There is no connection between the two, other than motive. It may be fun for a while, but it does not even come close to fulfill the potential of videogame storytelling.

        1. I think its also how games can let you project yourself through your actions or how you interact with the game world.

          I mainly think the more offensive trend towards the cinematic spectacle is making games incredibly linear corridor shooters.

          Also did you see Spike’s game of the year contenders. (Not that I take them seriously) But its really odd when Mario is the only game on the list that doesn’t have a dramatic edge.

  2. story and gameplay are often in competition with each other for our attention. Conversations in Borderlands 2 often occurred during gun fights which meant the player can listen the story and die or ignore the story and kill. Assassin’s Creed does this as well. We are supposed to eavesdrop on conversations while avoiding detection.
    The Last of Us does a good job of delivering story in cutscenes and the quiet moments before the gameplay occurs. The plot is a little formulaic, but the story and gameplay are excellent.

  3. Eh, I dunno. This is one of those things where when you start to pick it apart too much, it gets far too hazy. What is a “story” anyway? Is “story” only cutscenes? Is it “story” when you pick up an audio log in Bioshock or overhear a splicer’s conversation?

    Personally, I’m with you in that, no, not all games need deep stories. Vanquish is a fantastic game and really doesn’t need to have some deep tale talking about the human condition. Simply giving me some motivation to move forward (save the world) and keeping the gameplay fun and exciting is all that is needed. However, I do think there is a place for story in games and I don’t know if gameplay need always suffer. I think Bioshock Infinite has a good story, not just for the mind-bending twist but because you really do see a relationship develop between Booker and Elizabeth. While, yes, you do have to resort to cutscenes to do some of that, they also sprinkle it throughout the gameplay and frankly, I just don’t find cutscenes that offensive. Unless you’re Metal Gear Solid 4, that game is ridiculous on the cutscenes.

    Anyway, what am I getting at? I’m not sure. I guess, I just feel like if someone wants a story like Infinite’s without the repetitive gunfights, it seems like you really want a movie. That’s kind of the issue with Beyond: Two Souls. It seems far more like an interactive movie then a game. Honestly, I guess, my final take is there is room for all of this in the video gaming universe. So I would say, know what you’re making. Don’t try to shoehorn in a deep story to a game that doesn’t really need it. If you are making story a priority, then you need to have some character development, etc, not just try to throw in some suprise “twist” and think you’ve done enough (Prince of Persia 2008, looking at you!). Also, try to integrate “story” elements as much into the gameplay as possible rather then leaving them all for cutscenes. I really feel like Bioshock does a great job of this with the environment, audio logs, etc. Okay, I’m done, sorry for rambling.

  4. I still to this day can’t think of a better video game story than Panzer Dragoon Saga on the Sega Saturn. It’s a shame not many people have experienced it. I couldn’t recommend it more.

    I also really like the story in some Nintendo games. The Metroid Prime Trilogy really did it for me. Not because of cutscenes but because of the logs you discover. I really enjoyed going through all the logs in those 3 games and uncovering the history and mystery of each planet and what had happened before Samus had arrived. It was all done with in game text and felt more like reading a book than watching a movie. It’s a cool way of building a games story because it gives the world you’re in a lot of context without pulling you out of the immersion. (For those who haven’t played the Prime games the isolation you feel as you unravel the mysteries of a potentially dangerous world is amazing!!!) It also makes your player involvement part of the overall story in the climax only which is perfect for any action adventure game.

    1. Play Mother 3, I think it has one of the most funny and heart stringing scripts of any Nintendo game I’ve played. Shame it didn’t got out of Japan.

      Also has there been a Panzer Dragoon port. Since well, the Sega Saturn was a short lived console.

      1. I’ve always wanted to play Mother 3. love Earthbound.

        Unfortunately Sega apparently lost the source code for Panzer Dragoon Saga so there is no way to port it over which is just a ridiculous shame. If you’re willing to spend the dough you can find it on E-bay though. Not cheap.

  5. Great article, David. What do you think about games where the conversational aspect is featured heavily – Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate II (I’m kind of dating myself with those references, but I’ve been out of the genre for about a decade – see this coming Thursday’s article for details)

    It seems like it fits both ideas a bit – because while the conversations do affect the gameplay, they’re also integral to the story. Plot, story, or both?

    1. They can kind of go either way, in my experience. The good version gives the impression of a sprawling world rich with characters who all have their own interconnecting agendas. The bad version only gives the impression of that, while actually granting little more than an endless number of riffs on the “Princess Peach” idea.

      “Hello stranger! I’ve got the finest place in town to spend the night. But first, I need you to go to my farm and kill all the stumpbacked snarlbeasts. Come back to me when they’re gone.” It’s sort of a plot, but that’s not a story. Even when it’s “Can somebody help? My daughter went missing and I fear she’s in the infested city!” it’s still little more than a fancy objective.

      FWIW, I’m mainly drawing on times that I’ve played Fallout or Skyrim; it’s not my favorite genre.

      I still have to play Mass Effect, regrettably. From what I’ve heard, that one might push the needle closer to a compelling, organic story than most.

  6. I like to use the word narrative instead of story. For me that captures the world, and the history of the world along with the characters and plot events. So in terms of narrative, story is very important but so is gameplay. When gameplay is done right it can greatly enhance narrative without impacting the story. Take The Last of Us: we’re told that Joel is hard as nails character that’s been forced to be “on both sides”, meaning he’s been a victim and a perpetrator. Instead of just telling us this we see it through the course of the game. You’re forced into kill-or-be-killed scenarios with enemies who are not necessarily “evil”, just in your way. This is a perfect example of gameplay reinforcing character and narrative, which is a powerful tool. More games need to do this.

    1. Shadows of the Colossus mixed gameplay and narrative flawlessly since your journey and mine may sound similar but what came out of its likely to be something different. Its a game you have to play to fully understand. And I will be ignorant in this but isn’t The Last of Us, Uncharted but with a more serious story?

      1. I could see how you would think that if he haven’t played it. They are both admittedly very “naughty dog”. But TLoU is light years ahead of Uncharted in terms of narrative delivery, and tonal continuity between story and gameplay.

        And, full disclosure, Shadow of the Colossus is still sitting in my pile of shame.

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