As a follow-up to my last post about differences between Japanese and Western-style RPGs, I thought I would point to another article from Gamasutra (what can I say, they publish great articles) that I saw today. It’s an interview with two of the people behind Portal, on which, if you haven’t been reading lately, I have a bit of a fanboy crush.
It’s a great interview (if a smidge rambly in spots), but the part that’s relevant here is the bit about, well, narrative. Here’s a quote from Eric Wolpaw, Portal’s lead writer:
We had this theory that games tell two stories. There’s the “story story” which is the cutscenes and the dialogue, and the “gameplay story” which is the story that’s described by the actions you take in the game world. The theory was that the closer you could bring those two stories together, the more satisfying the game would be.
I spent years and years reviewing games, and that’s something that always bothered me in games, where the delta between the two stories was real high. I promised myself someday that if I ever got the chance, I’d try to make a game where that delta was almost zero. It was a conscious decision that we wanted to try and keep that world.
This to me is a really important insight and helps explain the special sense of immersion and, for me, empowerment that comes from playing a game where your own actions in the game world are tightly aligned with the narrative being “told” in the game.
I’ve only played a few games that gave me this feeling. Portal is one; Myst is another. Both are first-person perspective games (where that perspective is never broken), and both are puzzle games. Both present a profoundly coherent sense of place. Seems like the start of a promising recipe. Even Myst, though, doesn’t completely close the gap between “story story” and “gameplay story.” As the player you wander around creating the “gameplay story.” The “story story” has, for the most part, already happened and is revealed as you play through pages you find on the various islands.
In other words, your goal as the player in Myst is just to supply an ending to the “story story.” In Portal you supply the whole thing, which is pretty special.
Seems like the same idea could be applied to RPGs in their various incarnations. In Japanese-style games a la Final Fantasy, the gap can be pretty wide. The story might be compelling and the characters unforgettable, but the gameplay mode and the story mode are totally distinct. Gameplay stops when narrative starts and vice versa. Western-style games maybe close the gap a bit, but there’s still the sense that your total experience in the game world is much different than the story being told through the main quest line. Sure, I could convert my gameplay experience with Oblivion into a story, but, man, would it be boring.