Good story vs. good looks in game design

Star-crossed lovers have nothing on these two crucial elements of game design that can either make or break a title.

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It’s hard to say what’s more important to gamers: good story or good design.

If you asked Telltale Games, they’d probably say good story.

If you asked Activision, one of the developers behind the “Call of Duty” franchise, they’d probably say good design – which is funny considering their aesthetics are a far cry from some of the more visually stunning games with no story that have come out recently (i.e. “No Man’s Sky”).

Oftentimes gamers have different opinions of what constitutes a good story versus what doesn’t. We also have different opinions on game design, i.e. what works and what definitely doesn’t.

Please note that when I say design, I’m talking more about aesthetics and appearance than mechanics and developer patterns. The term “design” can mean both, as some game mechanics and developer patterns can be incorporated as elements of aesthetic design like UI interfaces and tutorial dialogue boxes. But in this case I’m talking more about how the game looks than how it plays.

In an article from Game Developer magazine, Soren Johnson questioned whether or not games should even have stories. Reprinted on Gamasutra.com, Johnson examined the essential interactivity of games and whether or not set stories conflict with that basic element of game structure and composition.

While he did acknowledge the fact that many games often benefit from a story, he stressed the fact that oftentimes games are a chance for the audience to create their own story rather than submit to “a designer’s unpublished novel.”

As interesting and truthful as his perspective may be, I disagree with his notion that story in a video game is more of a crutch than an essential aspect of game design.

In order to engage an audience, to really invest the player in whatever game they’re playing, I would argue that games have to have a story. A game can go pretty far on good looks alone, but the content can be more important than the aesthetics depending on what kind of game you like to play.

Now, I’ve been playing games with a story my entire life. I started with “Assassin’s Creed” and “Skyrim” which both have a defined narrative. Obviously, the narrative is a little more flexible in “Skyrim” mostly depending on the dialogue options chosen by the player character and the different quests accepted or rejected, but both these games have relatively set stories.

Some games don’t have such a set story and don’t need one. If the game’s focus is more on the interactivity and/or non story-based content then a story may or may not be necessary to engage the audience and provide a fun gamer experience.

But a focus on creative storytelling is often one of the best investments a designer can make.

In case you haven’t noticed, I may or may not be a little biased towards video game storytelling. But good design is also a must for games today.

In this day and age with the increasingly fantastic and overblown production value of games released today, good design is almost a given, something that has to be included in order for games to sell.

Now, good game design is subjective and can include any number of styles and types, but a clear design, often implemented with specific stylistic intentions, must be built into a game for it to sell.

Video game purists may argue that some of the earliest and most popular game franchises like early RPG’s, Mario games, and “Tetris” were designed without a specific style or story and they did just fine.

But in order to be competitive in today’s market, video games must have good design with decent graphics and a style appropriate for the game content.

They must also have a good story – at least in this gamer’s opinion – so where does that leave us?

The whole point of this post was to try to determine which is more important, good design or good story. But I don’t think it’s possible to separate them. Objectively, they are both important and there are certainly arguments that can be made on either side, but the best games combine elements of both with a good balance of the two.

This recipe for success does not apply to all types of games and may not fit with what you like and don’t like in a video game, but this is my opinion and something I continually look for in all the games I play.

If there’s not enough story, I tend to get bored. And if the design looks bad, the game, for me, is often unplayable.

But like I said, this is often subjective and entirely dependent on the player, so if you value one element over another, let me know and I’ll try to keep an open mind when I buy and play future games.

So game on, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

kind of sucky story art background.jpg

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