I’ve just finished playing Gone home (3 years after its release) and, while the plot ended up revealing to be a bit underwhelming, I really liked the way the game grabbed my attention and rewarded me for understanding what happened. You play the role of a young woman that returns home after an european trip only to find out that there is no one home. Playing this game got me thinking about the role of the story in a game, how it relates to the gameplay and how they both participate in the overall experience.
Somehow it also reminded me of playing Her Story, a game focused on a series of fictional police interviews in which you must decide if the woman in those tapes is guilty of mudering a man.
Both of these also brought up some contrasting memories about two of Quantic Dream’s games that I played years ago, Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit.
At first hand, these four games look similar but in my mind they have coalesced into totally different experiences.
First, lets look at what they have in common : All 4 games have minimal gameplay and a plot that revolves around some kind of mystery or conspiracy . The key difference lies in how the story, setting and themes are perceived through gameplay.
Play to progress
Both Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit have a linear story, that is meant to be played through self contained stages or acts.
Between these stages the player has a chance to interact with the game through one of a couple of possible gameplay archetypes.
Most of the times, specially in the beginning, you engage on context specific interactions, like throwing a basketball, wander around in an enclosed space or perform mundane day-to-day actions like takin a drinking, watching TV, etc
These intermissions tend to be underwhelming and insignificant. They usually don't help you to know more about the characters or the world and serve as mere distractions.
Another type of gameplay archetype are the Quick Time Events in which the player performs actions on the control device shortly after the appearance of an on-screen instruction or prompt.
These usually come in two flavours, optional or mandatory. Optional QTE's can be safely ignored since the story progresses as if nothing happened, with the exception of slight variances in the dialog that follows.
The mandatory ones behave as challenges that must be completed before progressing.
If you fail, you need to go back and retry.
Once again, these moments feel like either distractions or bumps in a road. They fail to enhance the experience and end up detrimental to the overall flow of the game.
There are also some decision moments, where, depending on your input, the story can branch to multiple paths if only for a limited time.
If you think in gameplay and story as two separate forces, it feels as though the game is constantly toggling between the two and that they are pushing in different directions.
Not only that, only one of the two forces is trying to guide the player towards the experience that the creator had intended to deliver.
Play to perceive
By looking through these lenses at Gone Home and Heavy Rain, a resemblance with a typical jigsaw puzzle comes to mind.
Considering the story as a puzzle and the player's hand as the gameplay, we can begin see how the overall sense of perception, immersion and flow are affected.
In a jigsaw puzzle, there are no defeat conditions and you cant set your own pace. The entire puzzle is already there, its connections implicit, waiting for you to explore the possibilities while trying to grasp the environment in a cohesive and holistic manner.
It feels authentic, powerful and ultimately rewarding to experience a story like this, to try to make sense of all the different signals and hints that are part of the world.
The interaction is handled in a simple and consistent manner through the use of a small finite set of actions, leaving little space for frustation.
In Gone Home, you explore the story by walking around the house, opening closets and drawers, going through leftovers, recordings and other signs of past events. You perceive the world by putting together piece by piece, by connecting different parts of a scattered reality.
The same can be said about Her Story. You watch video by video, trying to find keywords that will help you find another piece of the puzzle to understand what really happened.
If you go back to thinking in story and gameplay as forces, it feels as if they are constantly acting cooperatively towards the same goal. Since they are helping each other out, the player is always within the desired experience zone, reinforcing the sense of immersiveness and cohesion.
In fact, if done correctly, they tend to blend together so well that the player doesn't even perceive them as two separate forces, but as a single unified stream by which the experience is delivered.
Gameplay is a tool
What can we learn from this? Bearing in mind that video games are a medium to deliver rich experiences, we must consider gameplay as a unique tool that is not available in any other medium. As with any tool, its presence must be justified because it enhances the final result, and not just because it is a requirement to be thrown in without a systemic and holistic vision as to how it will fit the overarching structure.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to asking: Would Game x be better if delivered through another medium? Does it gameplay offer a unique advantage that, without which, the final result would be negatively affected?