Get your gameplay out of my story!
Lately I have been playing Neverwinter Nights 2, hoarding notes on various subjects for the dissertation and grudgingly enjoying my time. This is one of my favourite games... or I should rather say stories. The game itself is excruciatingly clunky. The camera is all over the place, party members have the intelligence of a comic book villain, and AI fireballs always manage to hit the smallest number of enemies.
The first few times I played it I was able to enjoy its gameplay without celebrating it. It was a distraction which later became a nuisance as the game difficulty increased to a ridiculous level, with a finale that nobody in his right mind would attempt to overcome without cheats or a dosage of something illegal. At some point in my multiple playthroughs the gameplay had to be flung aside because it detracted me from experiencing what I was there to experience in the first place.
In 1997, the first wave of IF (interactive fiction) theorists were still dealing with key concepts of narratology and other fields that could be useful in the gaming scene. Espen Aarseth, considering hypertexts as well as games, coined the term "ergodic literature", which he defines as "open, dynamic texts where the reader must perform specific actions to generate a literary sequence, which may vary for every reading." In essence, it is a type of literature that demands input from the reader/player. An amused theorist whose name I cannot remember baptised it as "constipated literature," and files all adventure games under this tag. It is true. They ask you to fight waves of anodyne mobs so that you can get to the next cutscene/dialogue/map. Imagine if you had to do the same while reading. Every fifty pages your book disappears and you're asked to punch the next person that shows up. The book deems your heroism worthy and lets you continue, only to discover that you've been reading Fifty Shades of Grey all along.
A clarification is required before I proceed any further. Under "gameplay" I coalesce the rules and mechanics of the game, not the experience of playing it. The story or narrative is in most games that which gives the gameplay a context, a casing; while in RPGs the story is the integral part of it.
And yet gameplay and story are rarely conjoined. They seem to work against one another most of the time. In order to identify when gameplay does not work, I would like to call your attention to when it does. And by working I mean when it creates a feedback loop between the story and itself, when your experience of the game mechanics affect your experience of the story.
So when did gameplay work for me in NWN2? For instance, when I tried to rob a giant red dragon of its treasure. In the safe environment of a combat-less game, a confrontation with a dragon only has two outcomes: victory by using your wits or insta-death. There can be no physical engagement with your enemy, you are never out of your comfort zone. When you are thrown into a deadly match against a dragon, your mastery of the game rules is put to test, and there is an actual physical reaction in your body, which pumps adrenaline as you are trying to force a particular outcome. Games take place in the present, where everything is uncertain and has to be driven forward by your will. In forming that illusion, gameplay can be very successful. I do not think there is any other medium at the moment which can tell stories in that particular way, thus games ought not be so easily dismissed.
It works when it forces me to stand by my decisions: killing a companion is not an abstract thing when you carry and execute the in-game commands to crush him. In Bastion, [SPOILERS] when I relinquished the hammer so that I could carry my friend, and pressed on, defenseless, through that corridor, and I was filled with arrows with every step I took, I was physically in pain, and cursing, hand-on-heart. [END OF SPOILERS] No comfortable cutscenes for you. The gameplay can have a very powerful effect, and it is a pity that game developers would see it as separate from the story, or rather the story as a necessary coating for a game about shooting stuff. Shooting stuff is perfectly fine, but why should it need a story at all, if it is invariably hackneyed and adds nothing to your game about shooting stuff?
In NWN2, I found the gameplay faulty. By gameplay I mean mostly combat, its most common manifestation. It threw too many enemies at me in brainless encounters. There is a reason for this: RPGs are pesky little hybrids, game-stories or story-games, as the critics call them, which combine two different drives without actually mixing them: the drive to play a game about advancing levels, acquiring gear and overcoming challenges; and the hero's journey, the story layout for 99% of the RPGs out there and most fantasy literature. The player enjoys those encounters from the perspective of gameplay, if said gameplay is enjoyable, but they add very little to the story experience.
My problem is there is way too much meaningless combat, mostly poorly done because these games are stories before they are games. We have games about advancing levels and gaining bigger numbers, and those are called ARPGs, and have been quite successful. They do not need much of a story, they can do fine with a few lines and some spatial narrative (game world). It actually detracts from the dungeon crawling if the story is enforced on the player (Diablo 3).
In story-games, the ideal state would be that the gameplay reciprocates with the story. Those hell ponies are not just there for you to gain a few levels before the boss; they are part of a plot which takes you back to painful memories of devoid-of-ponies childhood. A more relatable example: Amnesia: The Dark Descent works as an interactive fiction of horror because it relies on the player's actions to tell its story: what you did against the monster coming down that corridor (where you ran to, where you hid) is gameplay and story, as is your heart pumping wildly along with your avatar's. The example of the dragon is my favourite: a real challenge for a decision that cannot be made lightly. Also the little encounters along the road, like that with Zevran in Dragon Age: Origins, or any random bandit encounter, can signify in the story level as well, contextually giving out that the world is dangerous.
Hugely successful games with very little tacked-on gameplay features have been made in the past: Planescape Torment. It is not that it lacked combat, but that it was meaningful and in many cases optional. It was not entirely skippable, a decision which I laud; after all, not all conflicts can be solved with words.
PD: On Myst, one of the first commercially successful adventure games, one of its creators, Robyn Miller, said that artistically Myst was a frustrating project. He later stopped making games because he felt that the game format was too much in conflict with storytelling and character development (Aarseth 2004). What do you think about this?