A particular topic has been turning over in my head recently – gameplay as the means of conveying the message of a game. Gameplay has been defined many different ways. As painful as it is to be vague, when I’m talking about gameplay here, I’m just generally referring to the system of interaction in a game.
Certainly gameplay can be fun by itself, as the massive sales of FPS games can attest to. Gameplay is the mechanism of engagement and makes games unique as compared to other mediums, but it is also something that I’ve felt has not been fully explored is the potential for gameplay to tell a story.
Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Final Fantasy, Diablo, almost all point and click games, all generally told their story in the ‘story’ areas of the game and engage the player in the ‘gameplay’ areas of the game. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is a phrase thrown around to capture this disconnect between gameplay and narrative in a game.
Recently, I’ve found the most powerful narratives in games that more freely mix gameplay and narrative. Small Worlds, Today I Die, …But That Was [Yesterday], Digital: A Love Story might be good examples, but The End of Us resolutely decides to tell its story primarily through the gameplay.
The End of Us is such a short game that you should go play it and form your own opinions (as a bonus, you can then come back and tell me about how wrong I am). It’s a game that Michael Molinari (aka OneMrBean) and Chelsea Howe created for the 2011 global game jam. Aside from the obligatory “Loading” and title screen, it’s a game without words. You are a purple meteor hurtling through space who is quickly accompanied by a yellow meteor. The gameplay wonderfully captures a playful, hide-and-seek type relationship that makes a beeline for childhood memories. In the end, it’s up to you make a choice that amounts to taking a bullet for a friend or sacrificing your companion to survive.
The game is about exploring the rules that are set up for interaction between your meteor and your companion. There is some chasing and avoiding behavior. There is a mini-game of sorts in which you have to collect starts that has this competitive or cooperative nature (depending on how you view it). It may seem simple, but these mechanics are convincing abstractions of playful interactions that breathe life and meaning into the game.
I think The End of Us is a gem, but what I really love is that it gives a glimpse of where games can go. Instead of worrying about bridging the narrative and gameplay, Michael and Chelsea had the story emerge from the gameplay – a unified whole. What’s more, they did it in 48 hours. If there is a more definitive answer to whether or not games are art, I think it would be found in something that fully embraces gameplay.