Gameplay Mechanics vs The Narrative by: The Crazy Peanut

People keep asking me if Destiny is a good game.  And I’d argue that it is and it isn’t:

“It depends what kind of game you’re into.” – I’ve always hated this response.  It’s bland and completely subjective.  

But that’s the nature of the video game target demographic – it’s a wide variety of flavor, and everyone has their own taste.

My personal history and relationship with gaming goes back pretty far.  My first computer was a Commodore 64, and the first game to really have an impact on me was the original WASTELAND… the precursor and inspiration for the later FALLOUT series… in 1988… at age 5.

Gamers constantly reminisce of the games that impacted their lives.  To the gaming greenhorn, attempts to capture these moments of excitement that we rave about are often met with, often resulting in a “what the hell were you talking about” result.  

Don’t believe me?  Download the original WASTELAND on Steam.  Try it.  Give it a solid hour.  It’s the computer game nostalgia equivalent of my being giddy to see 12 Years a Slave or Schindler’s List in theaters again for the fourth time... it’s an insane notion to even begin to suggest.

But the nostalgia is there, there’s no denying it.  Games have an impact in our lives for a very specific reason – the developers spent their skill points in the right areas.  A “good game” is a game you think back fondly to, regardless of its flaws.  For me, the breakdown of a “good game” and its impact on me has to have its skill points spent in the right places: Gaming Mechanics and Narrative.

Traditional Arcade games gave us short term bursts of gaming mechanics we craved: dumping quarters into the same machine just to continue the mindless action of a good dopamine and adrenaline rush.  You’d almost feel accomplished.  I’d dare argue that X-MEN: THE ARCADE GAME is probably one of the best examples of a nostalgic look at a game heavy with solid game mechanics… I mean for god’s sake if you had the good arcade machine of this title, you had two CRT screens to traverse and six mutants to choose from based on what slot you put your quarter in.  A modern day gameplay mechanic’s drug of choice could be the BATTLEFIELD series, DESTINY, or even any given year’s MADDEN NFL title - games where you play them for the sake of just good old fashioned fun.  After all, even I can’t remember why you went to Asteroid M to stop Magneto other than “you’re good, he’s evil, bash things in”.

On the other hand, you have games that impact and drive you.  I’d argue that Telltale’s THE WALKING DEAD offers little to nothing new in terms of actual game mechanics that hasn’t already been introduced in a given LUCASARTS adventure.  But when you started a game like this, you needed to finish it.  SPEC OPS: THE LINE falls into the exact same argument – I don’t think any of us played this cover-shooter for the gameplay in ANY way – we were driven by the same yearning of figuring out just how bat-shit crazy war can affect your mind (and if you haven’t played it, you owe yourself a weekend to spin through it).

A good game dedicates all its effort and skill points to put towards these two fundamentals – when you don’t, you fall short feeling as if you just wasted all your points on CHARISMA (and let’s face it, that’s a waste in 90% of S.P.E.C.I.A.L. games).  If your focus is mechanics –build a rock solid player-focused experience.  If you want a good narrative –have a good script, and a damn good way to unfold the story.

But what’s the golden unicorn?  What games set the new standard that other games yearn to achieve?  When you execute it well, I’d argue that this is where you get your THE LAST OF US, your OCARINA OF TIME, your METAL GEAR SOLID of the gaming lexicon.  These are games where the game mechanics and narratives shine in a triumphant pas des deux – there’s a reason why people argue ‘til they’re out of breath that “these games are legendary”.   You remember these games as gold-standard setting, pinnacles of their platforms and respective eras.  These games drive amazing narrative through excellent gameplay and both mechanics complement each other- there was a denouement with your name on it.  You felt the craving urge and necessity to GET there.  When you finally did, you picked your jaw off the floor.  

It’s the wonder-drug of video gaming:  you can’t stop because you have to know what happens next, and you don’t want to stop because you enjoy the fact that you will have a good time getting there.  The Narrative drives the Mechanics, which therefore drives the narrative forward.  PORTAL 2 is a game that almost blatantly outlines this balance as much as STAR WARS draws from The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

I still can’t decide if Destiny is a good game or not, but I’m a step closer to understanding why I can’t put it down.

Think of your favorite games, past and present.  Where did they spend their S.P.E.C.I.A.L. points?


Side note:

I hear MLB: THE SHOW is about as close as sports games will get to achieve this gold standard.