The Answer to the “Story vs. Gameplay” Debate

Which do you think is more important?

Recently, I’ve been playing (and complaining about) two very different games: Bioshock and Borderlands. Though these two games can easily be classified as role-playing shooters, Bioshock clearly puts its fascinating story above its repetitive gameplay, while Borderlands puts its addicting gameplay above its almost nonexistent plot. Bioshock is all about story. Borderlands is all about gameplay. So… which is better?

Author’s Note: This is a 100% spoiler-free discussion. Read with freedom.

We’ve all heard this debate before in one way or another. Games like New Super Mario Bros. and Call of Duty focus solely on gameplay, tweaking their game mechanics until everything feels perfect. Other titles like Final Fantasy and The Walking Dead focus on more on story to (try to) absorb you into the game’s universe. Some do well with their given expertise, others fail miserably, and still others mix the two in an effort to be the game that is “jack of all trades.”

A few months ago, I wrote in a separate blog post about the game To the Moon. It’s a game that focuses only on story, and despite having clunky and unresponsive controls, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my review on Steam, I stated that “[t]he only drawback [to To the Moon] is its shallow gameplay, but what does that matter in a story full of heart?” meaning that, at the time, I felt that if a game’s story was good enough, gameplay no longer matters.

Then I played Bioshock. I’ll preface my comments here by saying that I enjoyed Bioshock a lot, but there were a few things that bothered me, mainly with the gameplay. It felt… boring; there wasn’t anything special about it. The same six or seven enemy types just didn’t add enough variety. The plasmid powers are cool, but they felt underused, a missed opportunity for the team at 2K Games.

But it’s all about the story, yes? Doesn’t the story cancel out its mediocre gameplay? Sort of. I really like Bioshock’s story, and I really wanted to find out what would happen at the end. But the difference between To the Moon and Bioshock is that To the Moon explains and tells its story in every scene within a 4-hour timeframe. Bioshock, on the other hand, doesn’t really develop the story as well; sure, you learn more about the story and the environment you’re in as you play, but the plot doesn’t really move until the last 2 or 3 hours. This would have been fine if the gameplay had more variety.

So when it comes to story-focused games, some like To the Moon do it well, while others like Bioshock are not so successful.

And what of those that focus solely on gameplay? Borderlands is notorious for having an extremely slow start… but I didn’t expect it to be this slow. Sure, the gameplay is super fun and addicting, but a fun game is ultimately pointless without progression. I’ve played over six hours of Borderlands and I feel like I’ve gotten nowhere. The lack of positive feedback and the feeling of accomplishment definitely makes the experience feel a bit disappointing.

But then you might be asking me, “but Battlestriker, you’re a Nintendo fan, right? How can you not like Borderlands but love New Super Mario Bros. U, a game that also has no story?” The difference between Borderlands and NSMBU is that NSMBU does progression in a different way. Every time you beat a level, you get closer to saving the princess. You can feel this progression through the world map, which tells you approximately how close you are from beating the game. And as you get closer, the world around you changes, and it feels as if you, the player, are making progress.

Borderlands doesn’t do this as well as Mario does. Despite the fact that you do discover new areas as you progress, the amount of backtracking involved as well as the repetitious nature of the areas in general makes it feel like you aren’t doing much to progress through the game. After a while, it feels as though every action you take becomes a waste of time by the end.

And so Mario makes a gameplay-centric game feel great, while Borderlands makes it feel annoying.

So which is better, a game focused on story or a game focused on gameplay? In truth, there really is no correct answer to that question. There are some great games that focus on story, some great games that focus on gameplay, and some great games that do relatively well in both.

Indeed, perhaps the best games are the ones that intertwine the two well. I just beat Mass Effect 3 not too long ago, and it’s the perfect example for this situation. Yes, most people play the Mass Effect games for the story, but it’s the gameplay that ties everything together. In other words, the gameplay affects how you experience the story, and the story affects how you experience the game.

So in the end, this story vs. gameplay debate is meaningless. There are great games that focus on one or the other, and great games that try to do both. It’s not just gameplay or just story that makes a game. It’s the way that both things and others are used in those games, and how they are interpreted by the player.

So what do you think? Is there a clear answer to the story vs. gameplay debate? Which do you prefer? Discuss in the comments below!


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