As far back as I can remember there has been a heated debate as to which is more important to a video game; story or game-play. The answer is yes. As far as storytelling goes, video games have always had an advantage over film and television in that they are interactive, meaning the story can sometimes be told through game-play and make you, the player, the protagonist.
You may be thinking “of course video games make you the main character, you’re the one playing aren’t you?” While that’s true, it’s one thing to give the player an avatar to control, but to fully immerse the player and make them feel like the centerpiece of the narrative requires very precise game design choices. Probably the simplest way to achieve this is with a dialogue wheel that allows you to choose what your avatar says like in Mass Effect. Although I ADORE Mass Effect, I prefer a more subtle approach. When crafting a story for their games, developers must remember to give the character motivation to see the journey through to the end. Two games that absolutely nail this premise are Ico and Wind Waker.
On the surface, Ico has a very simple story: escape! You begin the game trapped in a sprawling castle, lost and alone. A few minutes in you meet your sole companion: Yorda. The only problem is that Ico and Yorda don’t speak the same language, making it impossible to verbally communicate with Yorda. It’s up to the players actions to convey instructions to her. The game builds itself around this by designating a button to hold her hand. This simple design choice makes the player prioritize keeping Yorda close and thus you form a bond to her through game play. By the end of the game, you’re so attached to her that when she is kidnapped, even though Ico is given a clear escape route, your priority has completely switched to getting your friend back!
Wind Waker begins in a typical Zelda fashion by establishing the player character, Link as an ordinary island boy. It isn’t long before the game gives you your first taste of action when it gives you your sword and has you go to town on some generic enemies. This short sequence serves to make the player feel empowered and invincible. So what happens during the first real level? You lose your weapon and are forced to sneak your way through hordes of enemies, all of which now seem much more dangerous. You are now reminded that you are not invincible, you’re still that same island boy. Now the game becomes about reclaiming that sense of empowerment you felt in the beginning, a theme that is illustrated beautifully in a later sequence where you return to this same dungeon with sword in hand.
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