What Do You Value More – Story or Gameplay?

With game consoles becoming more powerful, developers are starting to create worlds that are more believable and realistic than ever before.  As a result, video game stories and characters have begun to reach new levels that this medium has never been able to even come close to.  Video game stories have typically been a laughable, unimportant aspect, but now the ability to craft a rich, captivating story has never been easier.  And developers have taken notice, as the tales spun in games today are leaps and bounds ahead of what it used to be only a couple of generations ago.  But at the heart of a game lies its interactivity.  The physical act of playing a game is what separates it from other forms of art.  As I thought about how developers walk this tightrope of story vs. gameplay, two games popped up in my head: Spec Ops: The Line and Gears of War.  Both are cover based third person shooters, yet each of them focuses on different aspects that make them wholly unique.

When Spec Ops: The Line first hit store shelves, I was surprised by the amount of buzz it was generating.  I initially passed it off as a rudimentary third person shooter set in a modern military context.  But talk about its great story began percolating throughout various websites, and that’s when I knew I had to play it.  And I’m really glad I got to experience it.

At first glance, Spec Ops doesn’t seem to do anything special at all.  You’re part of a 3 soldier team looking to rescue a squad stranded out in the city of Dubai, and have to find your way to through hordes of insurgents to reach them.  The gunplay felt extremely standard, as you’re popping off headshots from cover, and then roadie running to the next action set piece.  The guns you were using were the typical firearms you would expect from a game set in a modern military setting.  There was nothing about the gameplay that was setting itself apart from the myriad of other shooters out there.  But as I dug deeper into the game, I realized there was more than meets this eye in this seemingly run of the mill third person shooter.  Your squad mates began to bicker among themselves, things started to get worse and worse, and you soon witness some legitimately messed up stuff.  Spec Ops did a damn effective job at trying to convey the horrible, ridiculous situation that you were in.

As the game continued, the ambient dialogue began to show that the war had begun to take its toll on the soldiers.

Eventually, the game turns into more than simple rescue mission.  It transforms into a deeply personal tale of the protagonist Martin Walker.  The lines between doing the right thing and personal gain begin to blur, and you’re left wondering whether Walker is the right person to be calling the shots.  And the conclusion to Spec Ops: The Line is one of my favorite video game endings in recent memory.  It divulges into the true nature of Walker, and how it has warped what the player has seen thus far.  And if you manage to see it, the epilogue is also fantastic.  On strength of its story and characters alone, Spec Ops: The Line became one of my favorite games of 2012.

Gears of War, on the other hand, tackles the third person shooter in a radically different way than Spec Ops.  Gears of War isn’t about witnessing the horrors of war or realizing the duality of man.  It’s about seeing Locust guts splatter across the screen by way of chainsaw bayonet.  And I absolutely love it.  Gears of War has always been about delivering action packed shooting with unbelievable tight controls that give the player the ability to easily move from one piece of cover to another.  Every single weapon at your disposal feels destructive and visceral in its own unique way.  The movement is silky smooth, as Epic has mastered what it means to “stop and pop.”  Whether you’re tackling it lone wolf, or going in with buddies, playing Gears of War is simply fun.

The story and characters of Gears of War probably isn’t the reason anybody is jonesing to jump into the game.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the plot is garbage or throwaway.  It’s just not the main draw of Gears of War.  Similarly, people should not be playing Spec Ops thinking that they are going to play a superbly executed third person shooter.  It’s fascinating how two games from the same genre can appeal to such different audiences.

The Cole Train runs on whole grain baby! WOO!

So do people value story or gameplay more?  If you’re only looking at sales figures or review scores, then it’s extremely obvious to see what people appreciate more.  But only examining statistics can be a reductive way at seeing things, and may not paint an accurate picture.  It’s also important to note that the budget that went into making Gears of War is probably exponentially greater than that of Spec Ops.

Like most things in life, it all comes down to balance.  The best games always have excellent gameplay accompanied with a gripping story and likeable characters.  Persona 3 FES is a game that exemplifies that dichotomy perfectly.  The Journey, which is the standard single player game from the original, has players carefully juggling the social sim aspect and the dungeon crawling aspect.  The two exist in harmony, and combine together to create a fantastic game.  However, The Answer, which is the add-on that was put into Persona 3 FES, ditches the social angle of the game and focuses solely on the dungeon crawling.  The battle mechanics simply aren’t engaging enough to be the main focus, and the whole thing flounders as a result.  Likewise, a game that was only centered on the social aspect would be lackluster as well.  The phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is apt.

I am slogging my way through The Answer, albeit begrudgingly and without any joy.

If you gaze upon what games people have considered truly great in the past few years – Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2 – you’ll see that they are able to mesh the powers of story and gameplay to bring about a cohesive experience that is outstanding top to bottom.  But for games that may skew towards one or the other, it’s interesting to see not only what the game becomes, but what the public reception of it is.