Tension between narrative and gameplay in single player games

I finished Portal 2 today. No spoilers, I promise.

A lot of people have griped about the single player campaign being too short. I think, if anything, it was too long. I’m considering length of the campaign in a vacuum here, without regard to the $60 price tag. My determination revolves around questions of whether there was enough narrative and fresh gameplay to carry the length of the game.

I’m a fan of narrative. I love stories. I love making them up, reading them, and uncovering them. Y’know those linear JRPGs that so many gamers look down their nose on these days? I love them because I find it fun uncovering the story inside, even if I have no real control over it. It’s like an elaborate adult version of connect-the-dots. (Do they still make those?)

So back to Portal 2. Early on I was loving the gameplay. Portal is essentially a series of puzzles. I’m not often a fan of puzzles but the kinetic feel of Portal makes this style of game fun for me. And it was (I thought) funny. That was on Tuesday when it was fresh and new to everyone. I quickly got caught up in the narrative and wanted to see what came next.

Wednesday it was fun too. Thursday I believe I skipped, and by Friday spoilers were getting past my spoiler barriers. I hate spoilers, but so many people were playing and finishing Portal 2 that they were inevitable. I’m not saying anyone was being an asshat about it, but you get enough tiny bits of info from different people and you can start to piece together what’s going to happen. I won’t give examples because… no spoilers here!

As I got deeper into the game, the puzzles became more elaborate. Most of them weren’t hard but after some time my brain would just start to freeze up and I’d need to take a break. When I’d come back I’d have an “a-ha!” moment and start making progress again. That, to me, is a sign of good gameplay design.

The problem was, the further in I got, the more interested I became in the narrative experience. Those breaks started to bug me because I wanted to find out what happened next. The situation was compounded by the external force of spoilers; I was eager to finish the game before the story was completely ruined for me.

By the time I finished, after essentially spending all my free time today on the game, I was feeling pretty sick of it. That’s a shame, really. It’s got both fun gameplay and fun narrative, so what went wrong?

First was the rushing to finish. That was a huge part of it. But the other problem was one I see time and again in games. The narrative pacing slows down the farther into a game you get. This is generally because the actual gameplay gets more challenging. When you start to die and reload over and over again, that stretches the real-time between plot points. This slow-down probably isn’t apparent on the designer’s story-board, unless they’re smart enough to factor in “by now the player will probably be feeling pretty frustrated and will take a break.”

This slow-down feels exactly the opposite of most other kinds of story telling. Generally the early parts of a story are slowest and things build to a frantic climax by the end. Game designers focus on building the gameplay to a frantic climax, which usually means tougher and tougher boss battles the closer you get to the end of the game. They anticipate that gamers want to walk away having beaten a tough challenge and feeling good about that. The practical result of this is that the story bogs down. For me, when the story is bogging down because the gameplay difficulty is spiking, the designers have failed me. The cadence of the experience goes to shit. It happens all the time.

I don’t know that there’s a way to “fix” this. It’s just an observation. I certainly don’t want game designers to stop trying to tell stories with their games. Stories are why I play single player games. I don’t give a fig about challenge levels, really.

Portal 2 really wasn’t so bad in this aspect; I don’t mean to single it out. But this is the first time in a long time I’ve played a really popular single player game at launch, and so felt a pressure to ‘keep up’ so as to avoid spoilers. And so as I grew more and more frustrated watching the clock roll forward and really wanting to progress and see how the story ends, it struck me how ‘inverted’ game design is when it comes to narrative.

I don’t think it’s only me, either. In watching people talk about something like Dragon Age II, I see a LOT more chat about the plot and romance sub-plots than I do about how difficult a particular battle was.

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