Nintendo Was Hard Pt. 2: Story vs. Discovery

To make my point here, I’m going to break down the ways video games motivate us to play into two categories: story and discovery.  Consider Oblivion; the game had a distinct (if somewhat uninteresting) central story that dictated its action and progression.  It also had a strong emphasis on exploration (which was more interesting than the story, but that’s neither here nor there) and discovery.  Here’s where things get tricky: it also had an RPG skill development model, which, in my taxonomy, falls under discovery – the unlocking of new gameplay elements.

Mario, Contra, Mega Man – none of those games can properly be classified as “story driven.”  As players, we weren’t motivated to spend hours figuring out how to beat that damn castle level because we really cared about saving the princess; we did it to discover the next challenge.  In Fallout: New Vegas, I’m not currently trekking towards Novac to uncover a new enemy to fight; I want to know who the guy in the checkered suit is and why he shot me in the face over a poker chip – I want to progress the story.

Yes, yes, you can argue that progressing a story is an act of discovering what the next story element is, but that’s just being semantically douchey about my argument.  And here’s why.

Difficulty interferes with story while it enriches discovery.  Think about your favorite book or movie: how hard is it for you to experience the story?  There is no “difficulty” there in the sense there is in video games.  You don’t have to jump over lava pits or dispatch a hundred enemies before you can turn the page.  This is part of the reason there’s less difficulty in games right now.  In appealing to a wider audience and focusing more on using story to drive games, producers have to move towards a model that makes the story available to the player.

Discovery is undermined by ease.  Would Columbus be anyone’s hero (or villain) if he’d just been the first guy to push  the “discover” button and charted a map to America without ever leaving home?  Would we have cared, as kids, about getting to the next castle in Mario if all we’d had to do was hold down the right arrow?  Discovery is enriched by a sense of its being earned.

So I’d like to offer the following model for producers, a model that I think embraces both hardcore and casual gamers, and plays to all our motivations.  Stop pandering to the audience.  If all they want to do is follow a story, give them a story they can follow.  Let them be its pawn.  Let them go where they’re told and do what they’re told.  But make discovery possible.  Allow players go out of their way if they want to and uncover more about the world, the story, etc.  But make that hard.  Leave that for people who want to chase difficulty.

Kissing up to your audience by offering them easy access to all of the content destroys discovery.  While it might serve to lure in an audience solely motivated by story, I think it inevitable that in the process of becoming gamers that audience will eventually crave discovery and challenge.  They will leave story-based games behind as “all the same,” and pursue casual gaming — which is to proper discovery gaming what Prozac is to serenity…a functional substitute.

The gaming industry is trying to reach a broader and broader audience, and I can’t name a single piece of worthwhile work in another media that aims for the broadest audience possible.  Blade Runner, Geek Love, House of Leaves, Donnie Darko… hmmm, maybe I should find some less nerdy examples.

Nah, fuck that.

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