254: Playing for the Story

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Playing for the Story

People play games for different reasons. Logan Westbrook tells us why the story is the most important aspect of games for him and how he doesn't care if that means he has to run down the difficulty slider.

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Thank you. This captures exactly how I feel now that my generation doesn't so much feel like the "bleeding edge" of gamers, so to speak.

Story and immersion is what I want nowadays. I still like testing my skills and going for a high score - but if I want that I'll fire up Asteroids or Pooyan or another golden-age arcade classic. If I want to be challenged, I'll play Castlevania (the original, of course). That's fun to me. My coworkers keep telling me to try Mass Effect or Fallout - but I want to enjoy the story without getting bogged down like Mr. Westbrook describes. (I also can't afford an Xbox 360 plus a Live subscription, but that's another matter.)

Excellently written.

This is exactly why I play games on easy. I couldn't care less anymore about challenge from a game, I want entertainment. If I'm playing a fantasy game, and I don't want to get mired down anymore in "die, reload, repeat".

Some games, they seem to really penalize you for that, though, which irritates me. I don't need to think of a tactic at all in Oblivion, since when I play on easy, it boils down to "Press 3 to win".

I'd like to see a bit more effort in improving easy modes so that a variety of gameplay methods can be entailed, while still not erecting massive roadblocks to the time-limited people amongst us.

(If this double-posts, please accept my apologies.)

Loved the artice, and I must say I can relate to it.

Playing Oblivion for me was no easy task. I found myself getting killed time after time, and it just became a bore. I tried active leveling, and it worked, yet there were still parts that just made me want to rip my hair off. My "pride" refused to make me slide the difficulty bar all the way down, so I just set it down when fighting a monster I found impossible, then resetting it after getting it done.

If a game has a story, I want the story. While I'll still most likely enjoy the gameplay itself, it's the narrative that mainly takes my interest. If I find a game with a good story but bad gameplay, I'll press on. Vice Versa however, I'll probably stop midway because my interest dries up. If the game has no story to begin with, or a fragment of a story (Borderlands, Monster Hunter, etc) then I'll play it for the gameplay and most likely enjoy it.

Playing Oblivion for me was no easy task. I found myself getting killed time after time, and it just became a bore. I tried active leveling, and it worked, yet there were still parts that just made me want to rip my hair off. My "pride" refused to make me slide the difficulty bar all the way down, so I just set it down when fighting a monster I found impossible, then resetting it after getting it done.

This is my Oblivion experience, too. I wanted so desperately to get into it, and there were a few moments (listening to The Slip, because the same few tracks got annoying after a while) where I wouldn't have been able to tell you the difference between my current dungeon and reality, but those moments were fleeting and outnumbered by constant death over enemies that seemed far stronger than I. Eventually, I just gave up with the entire affair. I pick it up every now and again, thinking "I"ll do it this time" but each new experience often never makes it out of the sewer.

But I agree with the article, and find myself in similar situations often. I always seem to get about 3/4ths of the way through a game before the actual gameplay begins to become boring. I did this recently with Persona 4 and simply forced myself through the last two dungeons to continue on the story - a God awful grind, but one I'm thankful for, having made it through and seen the ending to a close.

However, there are certainly some games where I play it now for the simple challenge. Excluding 'arcade' sorts of games, I play through Dead Space now on Expert just for the sheer difficult thrill of it. I suppose that, after already playing the story, I feel more inclined to challenge myself, but, until then, I do my best to make it through on normal... but always keep in the back of my mind the knowledge that "easy" is often a few clicks away.

I had a bit of the same issue you had with DA:O on my second playthrough of ME2. After beating it once I figured I was ready to crank it up a notch from the medium setting I'd played it on. This turned out to be a mistake, as I found myself dying more frequently than on my first playthrough, for (often) avoidable reasons. And this kept me from playing through the game, getting to the scenes where I wanted to explore alternative dialogue choices and decisions. So not all that far through the game, back down went the difficulty setting.

Thank you. Story is so often overlooked in games. If a developer spends hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not more) on programming and art direction, would it be so difficult to hire ONE good writer?

Great, now i'm ashamed that i actually stopped playing Dragon Age altogether rather than turning down the difficulty.

Also, for anyone who prefers fully interactive storytelling over actual gameplay mechanics, try out "Sleep is Death"

Story is indeed more laudable in pulling off in games in a generation of twitchy first-person shooter addicts. But I didn't think the story in Mass Effect 2 was all that interesting. The characters and their stories were, but the overarching plot was just... well, it was kinda dumb. Here's a couple arguments to that effect.

Most definitely agree. I prefer JRPGs over WRPGs because of these very factors.
Even those games with not-too-intelligent plots. I just play most games because i want in on the story. I also tone down the difficulty on single player games since a game that feels like a grind is unappealing for someone who can only play on controlled levels. In the end, it's all about pleasing oneself and not others. Who should care if you enjoy playing the game laid back rather than sweaty due to the intensity you put to yourself?

there is no shame in admitting your bad at the game and having to excuse yourself from playing the game on its default difficulty ;)

Flees before the reprisal of nerdrage XD

Logan Westbrook:

Okay, good; I thought I was alone. I had a very similar experience with Dragon Age: Origins and, playing it on PC, the dev-console and Mods were definitely my friend. I had no interest in leveling my characters, I just maxed everything out right away. I downloaded armor and weapon mods, unlocked all the skills on my main character for all classes; I made the character look and play how I thought the hero should... and then just waded my way through the story. Worst part? I had a ton of fun doing it that way. I had more fun cheating and modding the game to hell while playing through the story than I would have trying to play the game "as intended." Fights were simply a chore I had to do between plot points.

I wrote a quick little piece a while back called "Why Do We Hate Games So Much?", in which I talked about how the gaming community as a whole is mostly "doing it wrong" and developers are following suit. We're starting to complain about lack of story in Platformers or too many cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid. Instead of appreciating things for what they are, we like to complain about what is not there. Developers are reacting and "injecting" other elements to try and please everyone. Portal is in essence, a puzzle game, and the sequel is trying to make it more of a story oriented game. Now I'm all about the story, but I played Portal for the incredibly clever puzzles. I would have rather seen higher quality writing in a game like Mirror's Edge, which I enjoyed thoroughly, but for the gameplay elements (which also could have been better).

I would love to see more narrative-oriented games in our world, and I think since our generation (25-35) doesn't have the time for competitive play-oriented games (what with our silly jobs and families and whatnot), some of us tend to look for something different in games... more of an "experience" than a "no0b-pwning sesh." All in all, great article. I hope we see more games like Heavy Rain that focus on "interactive story" even at the sacrifice of quality shooting mechanics or deep inventory systems.

Interestingly enough, I'm the complete opposite, I use to be all about the story but since then my fascination with headshots has grown and taken over.

My reasons?

I don't see video games as a story telling experiences any more, I save that for movies. Video games are all about just the experience of being there and being put in those conditions, and testing one's skills is a fundamental part of that.

I think video games developers and gamers alike still have a long way to go to truly understanding the point of an interactive medium...=/

I did exactly the same thing on DA:O. Played through the entire thing on Easy. I hated micromanaging. I'd just choose the odd attack and watch my party wade through the enemies.

I really enjoyed it. It was great fun. Now I think about going back to play it again, but the memory of the really combat heavy parts keeps putting me off.

Some games just flat-out don't need a story - I can think of quite a few that have cutscenes which bear no real relation to the gameplay, and which could have been dispensed with entirely - but if a game does have a decent story, I want to be able to appreciate it properly and, if it's good enough, go through it again. I really appreciate RPGs that have an easy mode or New Game+; I won't necessarily use it, but I do get frustrated by games which don't have the option; I continually want to replay them just for the story, but never do, because I'm put off by the amount of grinding I'll have to do all over again.

That's exactelly why i love Bioware so much

I haven't played Bioshock or Heavy Rain, but I *did* play Dragon Age: Origins, and I too had to turn down the difficulty setting down to easy, to my great shame. It just became too frustrating, and I wasn't enjoying it, so I played it for the story. All that micromanaging was a giant pain.
On the other hand, I found Mass Effect a cakewalk, and even completed it on both Insanity and Nightmare difficulty settings. Shooting stuff, that I can do. =D
But thank you, Mr. Westbrook for explaining so clearly why the "high score" isn't all that important, in the end.

Is it just me who feels that storytelling in gaming peaked at KOTOR, Morrowind and Half Life 2 and will never again reach such dizzy heights?

Oblivion, Fallout 3, Mass Effect (1+2), Dragon Age all had rubbish main quests that were adaquate rather than epic. It seems that most video game writers are good at doing the small stuff but always seem to try to hard when it comes to the big plot arcs.

I really want to print out this article and make my friend read it. I play games on easy because 1) I have played for all that long and 2) I want to get through the story without dying 80 bagillion times. My friend doesn't understand that. He's all about the better upgrades you get on the harder levels. I've tried to explain to him that I like to get through the game once, but he just doesn't get it.

So thank you for writing this. Hopefully now my friend will understand my point of view.

Also, I wanted to mention that I got through all of BioShock on easy and I only died like 3 times. I switched to medium for my next go-round and died within 4 minutes, by the first damn splicer. Either that's a crazy difficulty curve, or I really suck of gaming.

I went a step further and just ended up cheating my way through DA:O. Yes, you can all crucify me now. I plead guilty.

At the risk of sounding like an ultra-pro-hardcore-gamer, I really have to wonder why you (Logan) bother playing games at all anymore. Most games really don't have very good stories at all and if you aren't getting anything out of the challenge, I think it's time for a break at the very least. You can become as involved in a book or a movie just as well as a game. It's like the easiest difficulty imaginable. Life's too short just to limit yourself to just games. I'm just now coming off a two month video game fast, playing Bit Trip Runner (insanely challenging, no story) and anticipating Red Dead Redemption. It's like they're brand new and I'm addicted all over again.

Is there really such a problem about cheating your way through a game, if it increases your enjoyment of it?

I was always the kind of gamer who didn't like to fail: it would quickly sour my experience if I kept losing or getting killed or can't progress past a certain point. (It's why solitaire and I don't get along. >.>) I will use cheat codes, slide the difficulty down to easy, enter console commands to give myself xp and gold, and I genuinely don't feel like I'm less of a gamer if I do so.

That's not to say I ALWAYS cheat... I went through Dragon Age: Origins cheating my way through, because I enjoyed creating the character and playing it the way that I wanted to. I later got Awakenings, and didn't touch the console at all. And I died. Sometimes frequently, and with much swearing.

But shooters are the worst for me, because I don't handle adrenaline very well. I want to play FPS games with god mode and infinite ammo, every time, because I just get so nervous. (I really miss cheat codes to turn on god-mode and ammo cheats, you wouldn't believe.)

I think so long as you are still enjoying the game and the story, no matter which way you choose to get through it, then who is anyone else to tell you that you are less of a gamer for doing so? It is YOUR free time you're spending.

Good article. I usually set action-type games to easy the first time I play because dying 40 million times isn't fun, especially if the last save is a while back. After I get used to a game, I might turn it up, or I might just enjoy the feeling of being a total badass for a while. :)

In the end, it's all about the story for me. There's nothing more frustrating than slogging through a game only to finally be completely shut down by the final boss and having to quit without seeing the end of the story (see also: rpgs that require insane amounts of level grinding in order to not die).

Thanks for writing about this; it's really good to see someone in the gaming press who doesn't have his self-worth confused with his button mashing speed.

I can relate. When I keep getting my ass handed to me, it goes down for the battle... unless there are additional rewards for using a higher difficulty.

I do the exact same thing. There was a time when I'd try to ramp up the difficulty and give myself a challenge, but that was when I was going to classes for 2 hours a day, and gaming for 8. Nowadays, when I'm working for 8 hours a day, and gaming for 2 (if I'm luckly), I just don't have the time to play through the same section again and again to get it right. I play in far shorter bursts, and want the instant gratification of mowing through a few rooms of enemies and advancing the story a bit. If I played like I used to, I would miss out on experience of so many titles.

I started to take note of certain boss fights in Dragon Age that would require me to turn the difficulty slider down. Interestingly enough, almost all of the Mage's Tower is easily handled on Normal difficulty for me, but there is one fight with a succubus and what seems like a dozen Templars, that Sloth Demon and then the big baddy up top that just pulverize. One of those moments is bad enough to exhaust my supply of healing items, I don't want to keep dying until I manage to survive by the skin of my teeth.

However, when it comes to optional bosses like the two dragons in the game, I don't make any changes. If I use 90-100% of my potions it is because it's supposed to be a damn hard fight. The only reason I'm going for those bosses is for the sake of saying "I killed the dragon", and putting the game on easy would cheapen that. However, when it comes to the story, a game designer should be able to balance the encounters.

I read on Gamasutra long, long ago an article about balancing difficulty in games. The idea isn't to kill the player but to bring them close to death over and over before giving them more health and ammunition. Games either make the stuff too plentiful or too sparse, though granted this is going to vary from player to player. Still, the idea is that you want the player to feel as if they could die, but somehow always manage to survive. It is thrilling, suspenseful and doesn't rip the player out of the immersive world repeatedly because they keep needing to replay the same confrontation over and over.

One key example used was Half-Life. I hate using Valve as some sort of Messiah of game design since they have plenty of problems on their own (Left 4 Dead 2 needed at least another six months of polish and balancing, if not more), but one strategy used by Half-Life was to decrease the amount of damage enemies dealt as you were lower in health. This is such a good idea that it is shocking it isn't more wide spread. In RPG's you could make small damage modifications but also increase the likelihood that the enemy will miss. One might argue that players will notice such things, but I know I and many others never noticed that Half-Life modifies the damage as you become weaker and weaker.

It provides a thrill for the player and keeps them alive as long as possible. It's much more immersive and thrilling to just barely make it rather than not making it and having to replay over and over.

Of course, what does this have to do with games and narrative? Well, for me, while I love narrative games more than anything, I also believe the gameplay is equally important. If the two can work together to create a mixture of emotions not found anywhere else, then you have an ideal representation of the medium. Unfortunately it feels like developers try and keep the two elements on completely different sides of the room.

My philosophy on game and narrative design is: if you can do it in gameplay (QTE's do NOT count as gameplay and need to be abandoned), then do it in gameplay. If you have a specific vision/idea you want to impress upon the player, then a cut-scene is fine. However, the player will care more about what is happening in that cut-scene if the gameplay allowed them to be prepared for it. Take the nuke scene in Call of Duty 4. By having to go save a downed helicopter's pilot, you feel a sense of accomplishment...until the nuke goes off. Then instead of showing you someone die, they let you play his final moments.

I have a boner for this moment every time I think about how genius the execution is. It's completely rail-roaded, and the nuke isn't interactive, yet every time I replay that moment it still hits me. That is the power of games as a narrative as long as you don't push story and gameplay to completely opposite sides of the room.

Bravo to both the article and to those of you who openly admit to doing what I have been horribly embarrassed about. Definitely not a n00bilicious here, so generally play on normal or hard difficulties but DAO? My (insert deity of preference here)! Most average encounters are challenging and fun on normal, but anything with one of those orange names indicating "Imma Boss Guy, Gonna Give You Ouchies Time Now", down goes that slider.

All I can say is VINDICATED! And I don't feel like such a pathetic excuse for a human being any longer.

Thanks very much for the article. I enjoyed the read and find kindred in your experiences. It's made me look at something in my own game-life I hadn't put into context before (TLDR at the bottom as usual).

Ignoring the girl factor, growing up playing games on "normal" or lower somehow always put a mark against me with other guys in the group. It wasn't that I couldn't handle the harder settings, I just didn't see the point. For me it wasn't a challenge, it was a chore. It was just more fun to progress through the story.

It's the same reason I'm happy to watch someone else playing the game instead of having the need to control it -- I'm in it for the story and that experience.

Mass Effect was the first game I ever played through on the harder settings. I've gone back and on my 4th go around and, really just for the achievement, am playing it on insanity. It's getting tedious.

Of course I wanted to play through ME again (4th time actually) - love the story line (obsessive fan girl is yes) and this time wanted to prove to myself that I was a good enough gamer to play on a higher level. Well yes I am good enough but, I'm bored. The fights just take so long to complete the missions feel like a chore now simply because of the long difficulty level progression.

The other example I wanted to bring to the table was God of War. We started playing it on normal and the battles became quickly frustrating and "oh just let me get through this" mentality set in. As soon as we caved to changing the difficulty down to 'easy' the game was suddenly a lot more fun. Why yes, kicking ass *easily* is FUN!

Like I said, I grew up with the hard core boys who cared more about kill count and skill level than anything else going on. That's been hard to get over.

The traditional stereotype of the gamer is all about the skill levels and being able to beat a harder opponent. But there is another gamer type out there that is engaging for the joy of the story and experiences presented through game media.

I'm not knocking the gamers who are focused on headshot count and skill level ability, that's your choice, and yes you would kick my butt in the game because you've had more experience at that level and care more about working towards that ablility. I'm not competing with you (anymore), it's just not fun for me, and I'm fine with that. That doesn't make me less of a gamer just because my interests are different.



I've always felt embarrassed playing on "easy" - almost like I was less of a gamer somehow - it was a total peer pressure put down. But, I've realized over time (and this article helped bring it to light) that my engagement in the game is not about the skill or the fight for survival - it's about the story and the enjoyment of progress and completion - and that's okay. The kill count gamer stereotype needs to be broken; there are more of us story centric players out there than you think.

Yeah I finished Batman: Arkham Asylum on easy, because I *wanted to* not because I *had to*.

Thank god! Its nice to see an article like this! I am the same way, I will play a game on easy (most the time) because, when it comes to it, I want to know the story, I want to know what happens next, and if what is around the corner will make the house of cards fall onto me.

If I like a game, I will go back later and play it on harder difficulties (ie/ Mass Effect 2), but, for me, Narrative, will always be the most important aspect to me.

I think at times people are far too obsessed with wanting to shove it in your face they are the most epic thing that walked the planet, all because they beat an enemy on the hardest setting, with the lowest skill weapons...bravo, its an achievement...and I can see it been fun for some people...but not for all.

I chose to play Star Wars Force Unleashed on easy for a reason. Normally, I play most games on normal, then again on hard. On rare occasions when I really love a game, I only ever play it on hard because I want the experience to last (i.e. Bioshock). But my attitude is that if you are Darth Vader's apprentice being sent out to destroy- well, everything, then you should be powerful enough that this is a relatively minor task. Yea, puzzles, whatever. I'm talking about when I go into a room full of troopers or robots or whatever, there should be absolutely no doubt that they will all die. Why? Because it's the only thing that makes sense to me in terms of the story. I'm sorry, but that's just the way I see it.

DAO became much more fun for me once I turned it down to easy. I liked the pacing and style of ME2's combat because it required much less micromanagement to be successful.

I wish there was some sort of incentive to play the game on the higher difficulty levels, like extra gold or better item rewards. It's just too frustrating to spend so much time on each encounter dying over and over again when it's just gonna land you in the exact same place as if you one-shotted it on easy.

I was just playing Dragon Age: Origins actually. On casual, too. Even though I could beat most of the game on Normal, I hated dying in that game so I kept it on there on casual. I just didn't understand the combat well enough, and also dying completely ruined the immersion. Whenever I died, it felt like all the momentum of the narrative had fallen in a pathetic heap.

I feel that perhaps some (not all) games should avoid a permanent failure 'game over' screen. Heavy Rain doesn't have 'game over' screens, does it?

I've been playing Dragon Age: Origins on easy too. Games that seem like they have a hack and slash battle style but actually have quite a tactical system just get tedious very quickly for me, so I figure...well, why not just turn that difficulty slider down all the way and play it how I want to? I have more fun just throwing attacks around and not really paying attention to the rest of my team, anyway.

sometimes I play games on harder settings if I really enjoyed the game and want to play it again, but honestly, it doesn't happen a lot. I prefer to just blast my way from cutscene to cutscene, progressing the story. I think this is part of the reason I'm really enjoying Final Fantasy XIII so much - it doesn't have sixty billion worthless, stupidly difficult side quests that I don't give a toss about.

Story is the most important thing to me by far. So much so, that it has caused me to buy games that I have been warned away from and otherwise would never have touched. The .Hack and .Hack//G.U. games are a task in mind numbing button mashing, but I loved the story so much I had to keep playing (and buying) them. Same for Xenosaga II. Horrid gameplay, but it was part of the story and it needed to be played. Anyone else have this "problem"?

That's sort of how I felt about the original BioShock. I didn't really like the gameplay, so I just set it to Easy (which sadly didn't turn off the WELCOME to the CIRCUS of VALUES every few hundred feet) and played for the story, which also was no great shakes.

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