Critical Examination: Gameplay Growth vs. Narrative Growth

This is one of those things that I have seen a few forum posts arguing about.  Which is better?  Is it better when a game helps a narrative grow, or one where the gameplay evolves in some way?  After all, we’ve seen how that can go wrong.  Just look at the Resident Evil franchise.  After RE4, the franchise was irrevocably destroyed.  The newest entry looks to be going into a whole different extreme.  Maybe to have a fresh start.  Maybe to capitalize on the success of P.T.  Or the new fad that’s sweeping gaming – VR.  And yes, that is a fad.  What I’ve seen from it gives me no reason to think that it won’t be a novelty.  For gamers like myself, the appeal is non-existent.  I’m a story-seeker.  What does virtual reality mean to me?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  Man, there was a digression.

Which of these two things is more important?  I’m going to highlight each and then I hope you all will have some swell arguments in the Comments (I get so few.  Maybe that’s for the best, but whatever).  You all probably know where my opinions lie.  I’ve gotten way ahead of myself already.  Let’s talk about the distinctions.

Gameplay Growth

Assassin's CreedThere are several franchises that show this off to varying success.  The one that comes to mind the quickest in Assassin’s Creed.  Each of these games was supposed to be an evolution of the franchise.  For the first four games, I argue that that was the case.  Each game gave you new elements to play around with.  The first game was raw, and the people who made it knew that.  Many of the flaws were fixed in the sequel.  Gameplay-wise, at least.  The reason I put it firmly in this category is that anyone who has played these games knows that the plot is ridiculous.  The plot was never meant to be the driving force.  That’s something Ubisoft forgot, along with what made the games good.

In Assassin’s Creed II, all of the problems that most players had with the original got fixed.  Your character could swim.  He could swoop down on people from above.  He could use other elements to hide from guards.  It was a lot better than the original.  Plus, we had a much better protagonist.  The half-baked semi-sequels to the game also had their own improvements.  I will say that the combat in Brotherhood was infinitely better than in ACII.  Were it not for how limited that game was in its scope, I honestly would have had a load more fun with it.  But by that point, the franchise was becoming Ubisoft’s version of CoD.

Assassin’s Creed III had a lot of cool elements, but the problem was that it felt half-baked.  You get the ability to climb trees, and the parkour elements work a lot better.  That was awesome.  It made being able to set up some awesome assassination options very interesting.  But the real addition that was the ship battles.  Battles on the high sees was amazing.  Everyone who played that game thought it was the best part.  There was just one problem – far too little of it.  There was far too little of a lot of stuff.  The plot of this game took over, which is never a good sign, considering how absurdly stupid it is.

Then we got what I will virulently defend is the best of the franchise – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.  That game got absolutely everything right.  Instead of the stupid crap having to do with the Assassin’s and the Templar, you are now a nameless employee of Abstergo.  There is plot stuff, but all you are doing is helping it be done by someone else.  That’s awesome!  I love that!  But the gameplay here is the best in the series.  It nailed what made the franchise so good.  Something Ubisoft forgot ages ago.  The reason we loved these games is because they allowed us to explore a world that was unique and diverse.  Lots of things to see and a culture to get to know.  Here, you are given a ship and told to go explore the Caribbean to your heart’s content.  And I did.  I so did.  I went everywhere and did as much as I could.  Even the side-quests that Ubisoft is infamous for making into busy-work were fun.  The diving bell stuff, the ship battles that just fill out a completion meter.  Each time I took on a fort was a great experience.  Which was the other thing that was awesome – the ship battles.  The formula the last game had was perfected here.

Finally, we have the most recent two entries in the franchise.  The ones that made the whole thing go to shit.  Instead of moving the franchise forward and letting us explore some interesting parts of history and get to know the culture by traveling around, we were put into a single city, and that was it.  Hell, even Brotherhood gave you side-missions that allowed you to go see other places.  It took some of the monotony away from being stuck in Rome.  That was something that died with the Ezio games – the side-quests that either took you into structures to find secret stuff, or the missions to deal with some random, likely-absurd thing in some other city.  Groj how I missed that.  Especially since the secret stuff was puzzle stuff, and puzzle platforming in those games was great.  At least I thought so.

This franchise is where the growth of gameplay over time was done right and then done wrong.  All within nearly ten years.  That’s impressive.  The franchise forgot what made it good, and instead became a mishmash of the worst things about the franchise.  The reason is because Ubisoft has been making the same game for so long that it’s all they can do.  Even when they claim to be shaking things up, they don’t.  It’s part of why their company is going to die.  Here’s hoping someone who is better at open-world games can pick up the Assassin’s Creed IP and remember what made these games great.

Narrative Growth

Before we get too far into this, let me point out that I’m not saying that focusing on this kind of growth means that all of the games in a franchise will play the same.  Not at all.  I am saying that the growth of gameplay is far second to how the story progresses.  In other words, the gameplay elements can have tweaks, but are not substantially changed, while the story has to be the focus on moving forward.  Where better to look than the franchise Uncharted 4that recently wrapped up – Uncharted.  These games have been pretty uniform throughout.  Both the primary gameplay elements, and the typical twists in the plot.  But what makes this franchise work so well in how it grew was that we were able to see the growth of these characters, over time.

The story is about the growth of Nathan Drake.  From when we first see him, as a young thief, to him being a married man who is dissatisfied with his domestic life.  We get to see how it progresses.  Between the first and second game, he doesn’t grow especially much.  Just enough to see his relationships develop.  But then we see him in the third game.  Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception has Nate getting on in his years.  He’s looking to settle an old score with a woman that he had a beef with earlier in his life, and solving what may be the greatest heist yet.  It’s a game that highlights his ego, and how he is unable to stop himself pursuing treasure and his willingness to get his oldest friend/father figure Sully in danger in the process.  The game ends with him finally being able to let things go.  Sully gives him a ring that he thought he got rid of, and tells him to make things right with the woman he loves.  At long last, he is able to set aside the thief he had become and be a better man.

We get to the last chapter, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and we see Nate is now living the domestic life, but he can’t get away from his life as a thief.  It’s calling to him, and he’s finding it harder and harder to pull himself away.  When his brother comes back into his life, Nate is given a chance to jump back, head-first, into that life again.  He tells himself that what he is doing is to help his brother, but even his wife can see through that front.  What he’s doing is for himself, and no one else.  He wants to be back in the thick of this.  When he’s finally confronted with this reality, he fights it and ends up nearly destroying his marriage and oldest friendship in the process.  But then he is reunited with is wife and both of them realize that this is a life that neither could walk away from.  Both of them need it.  However, since Elena is a clever sort, she wants to seize the day in a way that doesn’t leave them as criminals.

The franchise ends with Nate having gotten to the end of his dream and gotten exactly where he wanted to go in life.  He’s telling the story of what got him there to his daughter.  It’s a perfect way to go out on.  Nice and wrapped up.  That was the ultimate narrative growth done right.

Now let’s look at a franchise that does it wrong – Kingdom Hearts.  I do love these games.  For real, they’re loads of fun.  But I won’t lie – the plot to these games is so damn convoluted, and it just gets moreso as you go along.  I found myself scratching my head so many times.  What’s more, because there are so many spinoff games, following the plot becomes a complete mess.  I’m hoping that the final entry in the franchise is able to avoid that somehow.  It’s a small dream, I know.  But there it is.  It’s very easy for a franchise to get bogged down in its own lore.  The way the Mass Effect games were able to avoid that was by having a Codex.  This helped keep its lore and its rules very clear.  But then that series fumbled and crashed at the end.  The most unfortunate thing.  Games that focus on narrative growth have to make sure not to stretch the limits of what their narrative can handle.  It’s easier than you think.  Just ask Stephen King.  His books, while fun to read, can become so damn convoluted.

So, which is better?  That’s the biggest question.  A YouTuber I follow said that plot in a game is like plot in a porn.  I know that plenty of people agree with that.  I don’t.  At all.  Yeah, the plot in The Last of Us.  What porn plot that is.  The plot in A Wolf Among Us.  I’m sure that was on par with a porn.  The truth is that it all comes down to your preference.  The truth is that it does take a bit of a mix in order to get right.  You can focus on one more than the other, but you still can’t have a game that is too much like playing the last game over again.  It’s hard, but it can be done.

What are your thoughts?  Let me know down in the Comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“These are some of histories greatest pirates.  And they all perished, in and instant.  At this very table.”  – Nathan Drake, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Peace out,

Maverick

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One thought on “Critical Examination: Gameplay Growth vs. Narrative Growth

  1. Great article! Super interesting read.

    I’m actually the Community Content Manager for NowLoading.co, and I would be thrilled if you considered cross posting your stuff to our platform. If you don’t know much about us- we’re the sister site to MoviePilot.com, and push to give awesome writers (like yourself) the exposure they deserve. Feel free to email me! tyler@nowloading.co

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