Whenever I go to the local library for my usual dosage of Terry Pratchett books or the random DVD titles, usually prefaced on Wikipedia by “This article about a horror film is a stub; You can help Wikipedia by expanding it,” curiosity always seems to get the better of me and I always explore the building before checking out my materials. Computers, ever a popular workspace in any library, are usually in continuous use from opening until closing; their adult users exhausting their time with browsing online library material, surfing the Web, or, most commonly, playing Solitaire.
However, while I find this extremely common with adults, I have always found children to be using computers to be preoccupied with the online videogame Minecraft. Minecraft is a sandbox videogame, an open world videogame that allows the player to explore the in-game world and create anything, seemingly without limitations. Players collect blocks and tools that allow them to create structures, ranging from a simple cottage in the woods to the ornately detailed Notre Dame and beyond. Since the game is online, players are also able to create communities and play with others, which allows each person to come out of each session with a different experience and story to tell.
Minecraft’s Survival Mode
But then it hit me. If each person has a different story to tell, what is Minecraft’s exact story? To my utmost surprise, I found out that the closest Minecraft comes to a “story” is through its Survival Mode, where the player character needs to collect supplies within the game world to survive, culminating in nighttime battles against spiders, skeletons, and zombies (Oh my!). Because of this, instead of a true “story mode,” the game opts to put it entirely in the player’s hands. Though each of Minecraft’s four gameplay modes (Survival, Adventure, Creative, and Spectator) contain various similar elements, such as wood, diamonds, mining, and others, the developers at Mojang decided that such a game was not suitable for the traditional storytelling mechanics. Instead, the game will focus on players creating their own worlds and items, potentially sharing it with other users before the one troll in the group decides to burn it all to the ground just because he or she can. One can almost smell the jealousy coming out of the flames. But creativity moves on and so do the haters and the non-haters.
Arc de Triopme in minecraft
Now I have tried Minecraft briefly and can understand why people enjoy it. Who wouldn’t be enticed by a bright, colorful, and open world that is the player’s own personal background where they can create what they want, when they want while simultaneously fighting off hoards of skeletons all before lunch? Personally I did not much care for it. While I may not be the most creative person in the world, especially compared to the person that can create a life sized replica of the Arc de Triomphe out of Minecraft building blocks, I can still understand why there is such a fanbase for this game. However, my main reason for not caring for it, though I can make a mean chimney, is the fact that for me story is an important element for me to enjoy media.
When my family bought our first computer in the 90s, I was astounded over the fact that I was able to play Solitaire on what resembled a small television. Gradually, the repertoire was expanded towards videogames, mainly the catalog from Humongous Entertainment, mainly sports games and adventure games. While my sister and brother were fascinated by the sports games, I was always intrigued by the adventure games such as Freddi Fish, Putt-Putt, and Spy Fox. While these games were aimed at children, with their brightly hand-drawn animated layout, they were similar to one another and other adventure games because they were all point-and-click adventures that required the player to use the right item at the right time to accomplish the goal. Not only did this involve a lot of trial and error, but it attempted to stir creativity in the player through both obvious puzzles (wait until a man’s back is turned to steal a page of his sheet music) and the downright mystifying (use your pet mouse to retrieve a key from under the sofa that could have EASILY been picked up).
But the most notable point about them was that they always followed a cohesive narrative. There was a problem that needed to be solved, characters that either helped or hindered the player’s actions, and a resolution for beating the game. Yes the stories were simple, such as locating missing zoo animals or solving the case of the stolen toys, but they all worked towards a goal that upon successful completion rewarded the players with a satisfying conclusion. Something that Minecraft does not do, opting to let the player continue on infinitely until they log off for good or leave the mortal coil of the real world behind.
It is entirely possible that since I started reading books before I began my trek into the Videogame Universe that I am inevitably drawn to the narrative structure and like to see it applied to new mediums, whatever they may be. As a result, I tend to play games that tell a competent narrative and whose gameplay reflects the tone the story sets out to create. By having story reflect gameplay or vice versa, the game world feels more fleshed out and open, allowing the player to fully immerse himself or herself in the game. And that is what all forms of medium want, total immersion. It is what will drive people to continually come back and replay the game, relive every moment they had fun in, question underlying subtexts in the story, and create new memories through a new playthrough.
However, it has been through my experience that story and gameplay need to work together in hand instead of one pummeling the other into submission. When there is a discord between the story and the gameplay, it tends to throw the entire game off balance, like a scale with a feather on one end and the entire Playstation 2 game catalog on the other. It is a problem that happens with a lot of horror films. Sure the films are trying to build suspense, but even that is ruined by the unintentional laughter from the audience because the acting is so over-the-top that it rivals a Lady Gaga performance. Plus, the fact that the movie is going through a checklist of horror clichés like a shopper goes through a grocery list does not help it at all. The same thing applies to games. You can make a racing simulator that has a story mode where your racer is trying to win the Sprint Cup. A competent game would complement this by have you upgrading and repairing your car and racing. But if the actual gameplay during the race acts as a point-and-click adventure and you are not personally racing at all, there is a huge discord between the story and gameplay. In fact, it would be jarring.
This is probably one of the reasons why Minecraft does not have a story; no story would be good enough to enhance the free-roaming creativity that it provides. But I would like to take this opportunity to examine story driven games, specifically how gameplay can enhance or detract from a story. While there are many examples that can be used, I will be focusing on two games from one series to demonstrate both points. Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill: Homecoming. So sit back, strap yourselves in and get ready for me to tear apart your favorite games.
SILENT HILL 2: RELATABLE HORROR EXPERIENCE
Silent Hill is a long-running series created by Konami first released in 1999 on the Sony Playstation. The games series focuses on the title town, which through means involving Lovecraftian gods, monsters, and religions, has become, in essence, a sentient being that is able to draw the tormented to it so that they may be confronted with their deepest and darkest secrets. As such, this series focuses on psychological horror, a genre that is extremely story driven since it tries to get into the audience’s head and make the experience relatable. Because of this, it can be split into two camps, bone-chillingly terrifying or laughably bad. This is due to the fact that horror is in the eye of the beholder; not everyone will find the same thing to be scary and few films, books, and videogames can lay claim to the fact that it can scare EVERYONE.
Speaking of those select few, Silent Hill 2 is one of those games. The game focuses on James Sunderland, a clerk who receives a letter from his wife, Mary stating that he should meet her in Silent Hill. However, the catch is that Mary has been dead for 3 years. Despite this, James makes his way to the town to find out what is going on, meeting other people drawn to the town as well, including Angela Orosco, a teenage runaway looking for her mother, Eddie Dombrowski, another teenage runaway with a knack for being near events and corpses he “had nothing to do with,” Laura, a child who claims the town is normal and James is weird, and Maria, a hooker with an uncanny resemblance to Mary. Throughout the game, James solves puzzles, fights monsters out of a Freudian/Lovecraftian nightmare, and finally figures out what is going on, specifically Mary’s ultimate fate.
To say that Silent Hill 2 is a just game is to say that running your car purposefully into a fire hydrant is an accident. The game is an experience. The town is constantly surrounded by a thick fog, which obscures the character’s vision and makes it difficult to see monsters coming towards you until they might as well be on top of you. The soundtrack also evokes a sense of dread as the wind howls through a town that seems to have been abandoned by all human citizens, static from a radio alerts the player to a possible monster attack, and the music is an eerie combination of instruments and sound effects, including a siren. In essence, the game makes the town itself a character. It is the driving force, putting the main character through hell itself before he realizes the sad and extremely disturbing truth about his wife. In fact, it is also shown that it is not just James that is going through this turmoil, but also the two runaways, who are seen intermittently throughout the game, but contribute to the overall feel of dread. You are compelled to keep playing just to see what secrets these characters are hiding and how much they are suffering as a result. Sure the characterizations are not the game’s strong suit; it uses a great deal of blanket characterizations. But there are underlying implications to their actions, hints of darker secrets implied, but never explicitly stated, leaving the subtle and memorable horror that plays with the player’s mind throughout the journey.
I stated before that the game has monsters out of a Freudian/Lovecraftian nightmare. Maybe it would have been better to say that these would be monsters dreamt by Freud after he had read the entire H.P. Lovecraft library. Without giving too much away, since it will seriously spoil the story, all of the monsters are constructs and metaphors for each character’s secrets and dilemmas. Monster’s range from undead nurses and two pairs of mannequin legs sewn together by the hip to a monster named Abstract Daddy and an executioner named Pyramid Head who wears a gigantic red three-sided pyramid over its head. It is not until we have completed the game that we can interpret what each monster means, as the game takes painstaking precautions to avoid forcing a meaning onto them. As a result, it is the story, underlying subtext, and details that carry the game.
As such, this game has a great story. But what about the gameplay? Well, to be perfectly honest, gameplay, especially fighting, is extremely clunky. In fact, it is the one part of Silent Hill 2 that most game critics tend to single out for negative criticism. Combat tends to be slow and does not seem to make a great impact against the monsters that are out for your life. As a result, it becomes a matter of timing the blows and pressing the button at the right moment in order to hit your foe with one of the random melee weapons that can be found throughout the game.
Right now I can imagine some of you asking, “but if that is the way combat is with a melee weapon why not use a gun?” To you I say, “I am glad you asked, since I was just getting there!” While there are guns in the game, a handgun, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle, ammo for the weapons is actually quite limited and should ONLY be used for the boss battles. With this little twist, conserving ammo becomes key and makes it a necessity to fight regular enemies with melee weapons. But even though the monsters can be defeated with a gun, much more easily as well, it is still a struggle, as if James does not really know how to handle a gun.
BUT THAT IS THE POINT!
Darn it Jim, James is a clerk, not a soldier! James is a representation of the player character. What we face in the game is the unknown entities that lurk in the fog when we are not looking, the deepest depths of our subconscious. How do we fight these monsters, especially since most of us are not trained in combat? We are helpless against such an enemy, especially since we are everyday people. It is not commonplace for us to use a lead pipe to defend ourselves on a daily basis. When we do, it feels foreign. The same goes for a gun; hunters can use it with ease, but the first-time user may shoot it, miss the target and end up disturbing a hornets’ nest.
But never mind why I will never hunt again. It is through this helplessness, this clunky control over the in-game action that not only makes James more personal to the player, but also increases the game’s tension to the next level. It is not only James fighting, but us as well. As a result, instead of being a true detriment to the game, it adds to the story’s horror. James’ story is our story and we are just as anxious as he to find out what happened to Mary, whatever it may be. In the end, we are disturbed, shocked, and scared, exactly how a good psychological horror story and game should make us feel.
SILENT HILL: HOMECOMING: WHAT HAPPENED KONAMI?
What a psychological horror game should not make us do is feel like we have the advantage over the monsters!
Silent Hill: Homecoming focuses on Alex Sheperd, who has just returned home to Sheperd’s Glen after he has completed an overseas tour of duty in the Special Forces. He returns to find the town nearly deserted with only a few people remaining, a majority of them having gone mad through grief. He finds out that his brother and father have gone missing. Soon enough, monsters start appearing in Sheperd’s Glen, including Pyramid Head, and it is up to Alex, his friend Ellie Holloway, and Deputy Wheeler to find out what all of this has to do with three missing children, as well as find Alex’s brother and father in Silent Hill.
Compared to the previous story, this one feels lacking. This is because most of it lies on its somewhat predictable plot, predictable if one is an ardent fan of the psychological horror genre. But even then, the story is relatable because it focuses on family and how far we would go to save them. What also helps is that the game is heavily influenced by Jacob’s Ladder, which tells of a soldier attempting to return to a normal life after a Vietnam tour, but is haunted by gruesome images of his life and monsters that may or may not be a product of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This helps to bolster the story thematically, since the main character is a soldier who is suddenly thrust back into a horror scenario, a supernatural battlefield, after he had just left from one, the modern war zone. Again the soundtrack and sound effects add to the game’s horror tone and the fog returns to obscure monsters until they are breathing down your neck. Overall, it provides a chilling setup and you are curious to find out what the answer to the mystery is even when the experience veteran may see it coming miles down the road.
Freud must have reread Lovecraft again, since the monsters also return with the undertones that add to the subconscious horror that the previous game had offered. However, the monsters in this game tend to have their meanings spelled out by certain portions of the game, thus robbing some of the mystery that helps to enhance horror. It is similar to a modern Stephen King horror supernatural horror novel where an over-explained monster robs the book of any potential horror that the climax may have provided if some of the mystery remained in the shadows. However, some monsters do not have this over-explained nature to them, thus allowing multiple interpretations to be made to their very nature, which can enhance the horror. It truly is a mixed bag.
But what truly sinks the game is its gameplay. In this game, Alex can be swarmed by a multitude of enemies. This was probably done to demonstrate the game’s new graphics and game engine, allowing it to handle more enemies on screen than ever before. But this provides the game with the unintended hilarity often found in a low-budget slasher film. Because Alex is a SOLDIER, he can defeat swarms of enemies with relative ease. What does not help is that there are more guns in the game, including multiple variations of guns (there are 2-3 types of shotguns found in the game). Where James was an everyday person, Alex is a combat expert and most enemies go down way to easily. Yes the difficulty ramps up as the game goes on, but it does not take away from the fact that Alex, a trained military professional, can go toe to toe with a demon that can only be found from a nightmare induced through Freudian psychiatry combined with the Cthulhu Mythos. This also includes the fact that Alex can combat roll.
That is right, he can COMBAT ROLL!
What makes this even funnier is that he can combat roll outside of combat. While he is supposed to be slowly exploring the towns and take in the atmosphere that should be excreting horror, he has the option to do somersaults and combat rolls in the middle of the street! Just the thought of it happening makes me picture a group of humans and monsters just stopping what they are doing just to witness a man rolling around in the street as if he were in a warzone or practicing Somersaulting for the 2018 Olympics, but isn’t. I can image them just pulling up chairs and eating popcorn as he might unintentionally run into a fencepost or a telephone pole due to the inherent blindness and dizziness that came when he decided the best mode of transportation was becoming one of the wheels on an eighteen wheeler bound for hell!
It is the type of gameplay design decision that makes me laugh and I laugh long and hard when I find something to be funny. And this only highlights the problem; psychological horror needs to be taken seriously in order for it to have the desired effect. The story, though competent, has lost its desired effect. Sure the symbolism, metaphors, atmosphere, and driving force remain, but when Alex decides to turn into the human tire, what else can be said? He was overpowered to begin with and making him more able at combat not only diminishes the horror, but lightens the story with some poor design decisions. Once someone laugh at an unintentionally funny bit, it’s game over man, game over!
NEXT TIME ON STORY VS. GAMEPLAY IN VIDEOGAMES
In this post, I have shown that gameplay and story need to be in balance with one another in order for a videogame to be an effect form of entertainment. I have also demonstrated what happens when a game has a good story, but proceeds to nearly ruin the game by including gameplay mechanics, which, though true to the character, undermine the game to a significant extent. However, this does not end the discussion. In the next posting we shall explore the reversal of this post, what happens when gameplay mechanics are solid, but the story undermines the game. Until then, sweet dreams and good night from Silent Hill gentle readers! Thanks for reading!