What Makes a Great Game: Story vs. Gameplay

What Makes a Great Game Heavy Rain Mario GDC 2011

What makes a great game? If forced to pick one, would it be the gameplay or the story? Before you answer, let's back up a bit.

The Game Developers Conference is a place where game developers can gather and share ideas amongst peers and industry. Sure, there is press and off-site press events set up to hype the latest and greatest games, but GDC does a lot to stick to its roots. Between panel discussions, meetings, and chance encounters, GDC gives industry professionals many opportunities to get together and to exchange ideas.

Sometimes, however, the relationships between the interesting stories, themes, views, and philosophies that come out of totally different panels can only be seen when you are given the opportunity to step back and examine everything presented in a day. Underlying thoughts about what makes a great game is one such theme.

While a lot of cool news items were discussed and brought up during Satoru Iwata's Keynote, like Netflix coming to the 3DS, new The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword footage, and details on the 3DS eShop, Iwata also addressed broad themes in gaming over the past 25 years.

He talked about how when he joined Nintendo, he was sure he was the best engineer/programmer there. He stated how he thought this meant his games would be the best -- better than anything Shigeru Miyamoto would develop. Iwata thought his belief would be proven in game sales. He was wrong, he admitted as much on stage, and game sales certainly proved him wrong. The lesson he learned from that experience, and others at Nintendo, was that engineering was not as important as imagination and gameplay.

What Makes A Great Game Kirby's Dreamland

Kirby's Dreamland, one of Iwata's early games.

Nintendo stressing gameplay over other aspects is nothing new. Nintendo has long been championing beliefs like gameplay over graphics. So having Iwata allude to as much in his GDC Keynote was no real surprise. But what about story? No Mario game has ever really given players a great, or even good, story. That was never the hook. Sure, Iwata's Keynote was not focusing on story in games, but its absence in his discussion is interesting when compared to comments made by David Cage, Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream's CEO, in his GDC talk "Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in Heavy Rain."

As can likely be inferred from the session's title, David Cage's talk was focused almost entirely on story. Up front, it should be noted though that he did not flat out ever say story ruled over gameplay, but he did make other interesting comments that could possibly imply as much.

One such statement was that "[we] need to forget about game rules--bosses, missions, game over, etc...are old words of a old language." He challenged developers to stop making games based on the old rules established 20 years ago, and even used an image of the original Pac-Man as a graphical representation for "older" games.

Cage wants developers to focus less on on creating games that require fast thumbs for success, and more on creating experiences for the minds and emotions of players. He wants to advance storytelling in games, and to move away from button memorization by using more context-specific inputs that will allow players to interact with the game's world and connect with the story. So sure, there needs to be gameplay in a game to tell the story, but if push were to come to shove, I think Cage might very well argue story is what matters most.

What Makes A Great Game Indigo Prophecy

Indigo Prophecy, one of Cage's early attempts at fusing story-heavy gameplay with contextual controls.

But can one really be king? Perhaps it is a combination that creates the best games. Or maybe what makes video games so special in the first place is that they can fall everywhere in the spectrum, from something like Tetris (with no story), to Mario (very limited story), to Heavy Rain (story, story, story).

The topic of whether story or gameplay is king was certainly never addressed by Iwata or Cage directly in any manner I am aware of, but the underlying themes of their talks raised what I thought were interesting questions and perspectives on the discussion. It is big-picture points like this that make GDC so great. So many great minds and creators speaking about their passions, leaving those in attendace to draw their own broad-scale conclusions to take back to the games they are working on, and will work on in the future.

If you had to pick just one, gameplay or story, which would you say is king? What is an example of your favorite "story" video game and what is an example of your favorite "gameplay" game? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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