I have the fondest memories of playing Circle of Blood (The Broken Sword, for you Europeans), and The Dig, and Grim Fandango. These games enthralled me with their stories as much as any book had ever done. I was amazed by the power of a videogame to draw me in, make me care about the characters, and keep me interested by making me a part of the solution. It was these, and others like them, that inspired me to pursue game design specifically as a medium of telling stories. Which has led me here.
In all media there is a curtain that separates the creators and the audience. Most people are blissfully unaware of what goes on behind the curtain, in the realm of creation. Some are even unaware the curtain exists. It allows them to enjoy the magic that is created and presented to them. Sometimes the curtain slips, and they glimpse the gears and pulleys that are driving the show, but soon enough they forget. Those behind the curtain, however, can always see the machine if they want to. Once you know something is there, and how it works, it is a small step to see it everywhere. I've started to move the curtain of game design aside, and now I can see the gameplay.
Which in some ways makes playing games for their narrative, and their story, harder. Too often I see the gears of gameplay I never noticed before obscuring the potential of the game. Going back to play many of my beloved adventure games leaves me more frustrated at the clunky and obtuse mechanics employed to block my progress than elated by the discovery of character, setting, and plot. I see the puzzles for what they are to the gameplay, and can't get past my broken immersion to truly enjoy the story I'm exploring. This happens most when the story and the mechanics don't match.
Psychonauts: An Exploration of Mismatched Mechanics
I have experienced Psychonauts from the opening sequence to the final Boss in the final mind, and the sequel expectant epilogue. The impression it left on me was a good one, and I would recommend it to a great many people. However, I am forced to describe it as a game with a split personality. On one hand (or mind) it is one of the best story games I've played in a long time. It has rich world, unique and developed characters (for most of the minds you encounter), a subtle sense of humour, excellent dialog and voice acting, and surprising hidden depths. While the story itself is linear (more so as you progress), the game provides you with ample ability to explore at your leisure, allowing you to discover the characters and world as you progress.
However, your leisurely dip into the psyche of the game is often halted and battered by the action-platform mechanics used to make it a game. You encounter frustrating jumping and dodging puzzles, often made more complex by the same landscapes that add personality to the usually dull and repetitive platform genre. You have many Boss fights that serve no purpose greater than to pit you against a strong enemy at the end of an area. And, most heinous of all, in a game that normally gives you free reign on pacing you encounter areas and challenges that force you to run and react instead of observe and explore; killing you time and again when you fail to jump or dodge at just the right moment.
The game tries to alleviate these short-comings by providing copious amount of help to the novice (or untalented) player. The physics are as forgiving as possible. Death is never absolute, health is plentiful, and lives are easily restored. There is even an in-game hint guide given to you as soon as is feasible by the story: encounter a new enemy, difficult enemy, or unstoppable Boss and simply call on Ford Cruller for a quick but of advice. If you get stuck (especially in Boss fights) the game is apt to just give you the hints you need anyway.
But why is there all this emphasis on making the action-platform gameplay easier? I think that a lot of it was added in an attempt to make the mechanics invisible, or at least ignorable. The game really isn't about jumping and shooting and running and dodging. The game is about delving into the (sometimes warped) minds of those you encounter on your path to save the world, and your girlfriend. Half the psychic talents have no use during the action sequences. Most are best applied to creative puzzles born of environment deep seated emotional trauma. A couple are only used a handful of times because as the game progresses it increasingly relies on action to draw you along instead of the mystery and discovery that hooked you in the first place.
The game becomes a mismatch of story and mechanics. The story is lost to the adrenaline rush needed to progress. The gameplay is hampered by the detail and design used to support the storyworld. In the end you get a game that has brilliant moments, and terrible ones. It contains aspects of drama, humour, action, suspense, and thrill but lacks a sustaining feeling. You get a game that despite its flaws is brilliant. And I can, sadly, understand why it never sold well to the mass market. The split personality is something that would ultimately grate on an audience that doesn't care to sift the story from the gameplay. An audience that shouldn't have to.
I believe that there can be a balance between the story told by a game, the story created in the experience of play, and the gameplay itself. I don't think it is necessary to remove or replace what we know as gameplay mechanics to be able to tell a creative and deep story -- to build a world the player can explore. I do however think that choosing your gameplay to suit your story is an often overlooked, and sometimes ignored, part of development. When pitching a game, its easier to sell the fun than the depth.
I used Psychonauts as my example for two reasons: I had just finished the game when I started writing this post, and I believe that it could have been a better game. In fact, it probably could have been two better games. One would have had an incredible story about a kid discovering the power of his mind. The other would have been a kick-ass game with psychic powers used to create incredible action. By mismatching the story they wanted to tell with the gameplay they wanted to sell Double Fine wound up with an amazing game that I enjoyed immensely and fought with constantly.