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fact that oftentimes games are a chance for the audience to create their own story rather than submit to “a designer’s unpublished novel.”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

The best and worst of user interfaces

Between all the running and jumping and fighting and crawling and crying and dying and dying and dying, it’s easy to forget about all the work that goes into a game’s design.

There is something to be said about the elegance and design of a good user interface.

And there is certainly a lot to say about the bad ones.

UI and UX are two important aspects of game design that are frequently overlooked, except when they are poorly designed. Then gamers can’t help but notice them.

UI stands for user interface, a fancy term that means anything the player can touch (keyboard, mouse, controller, etc.) or see (inventory screen, map display, heads up display, or HUD).

UX stands for user experience and refers more to the ease and enjoyment of the player in using the various map screens, menu systems, and controls.

These two terms are often used interchangeably and while they are very close in meaning, they do refer to two separate aspects of video game design.

If you need more clarification, or just want to read more about good and bad UI designs, check out Desi Quintans article on Tutsplus.com.

There are also lots of different technical terms for different UI designs from spatial to meta to diegetic. I’m not going to go into detail here about the types of displays, but Anthony Stonehouse’s article “User interface design in video games” on “Gamasutra” is both helpful and informative if you want to learn more.

Some of the better UI designs I have seen come from newer games, as the principles of design and the understanding of how the mind works and how gamer’s play has increased exponentially since video games first became popular.

My personal favorite (which should come as a surprise to no one) comes from the “Tomb Raider” franchise.

Both the 2013 reboot and the 2015 “Rise of the Tomb Raider” feature functional displays that work easily with the games’ narrative without taking away from the enjoyment of the game.

I am especially fond of the overlaid text that appears during the introductory phases of the game when a certain skill must be learned. It reminds me of BBC’s “Sherlock” series and how the directors managed to display the words of texts and emails without resorting to a camera shot of the phone’s open dialogue box.

tomb radier 2013 ui.jpg

Source: Inanage.com

For much the same reason, I like the Base Camp displays as it superimposes the gameplay menus over what is actually happening around Lara.

However, it is important to note that while these displays are both incredibly functional and aesthetically agreeable, they are not nearly as “portable” as some other UI displays.

rise of the tomb raider base camp display

Source: Ar12gaming.com

But for every good apple, there are several bad ones.

The weapons display from “Assassin’s Creed III” is just such an apple. Most of the display itself was blank and featureless, making it an incredibly ineffective use of menu space.

But the worst part was the manner in which the game designers chose to have the menus displayed: in order to switch weapons or tools, players had to keep a button mashed while rotating the controller sticks to make their choices.

This made the menu hard to manage and difficult to interact with, two things you definitely don’t want in a screen that could potentially be used in the middle of combat.

ac3 weapon screen change backup

Source: PortForward.com

Another example of an iffy UI also comes from Ubisoft, 2012’s “Far Cry 3.” Third in the first-person shooter franchise, this game and the others in its series are a distinct departure from most of the third-person games Ubisoft usually produces.

However, both “Far Cry” and “Far Cry 2” had displays that lent themselves to a decent FPS experience, i.e. immersive gameplay. For some reason, this did not carry over into “Far Cry 3” as this game had a display that included a large circular mini-map, a feature that doesn’t really belong in the context of an FPS.

annoying far cry hud

Source: Kotaku.com

Not only did the game include an annoyingly large mini-map and a HUD that just wouldn’t quit, it had several pop-up notifications that tended to linger during missions and combat. These observations may seem like nit-picky details to some, but these are the little things that can drive gamers crazy and take away from the overall game experience.

That being said, I’m not entirely certain I’m the best judge of a great UI. Case in point, my favorite game has a menu display composed of a mini-computer strapped to the player character’s wrist.

fallout pip boy

Source: Fallout.wikia.com

Bulky and incredibly goofy-looking, the Fallout Pip-Boy is definitely an example of an odd UI design, but one that has been proven to work for the game’s needs. Not only does it work well as a functional display and secondary component of the game, but it has also been fully integrated into the culture of the game in a way many display systems simply aren’t.

While the design of a good gaming UI may not be the sexiest topic in the universe of gaming, it’s something important to keep in mind when you are roaming about the jungle wilderness looking for a rare craftable resource, or keeping tabs on a 15th century Templar solider.

Good UI’s are easy to forget and hard to notice while a bad one can stick out like a sore thumb and ruin an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience.

Hit me up on twitter @lydmcinnes or send me a message through the contact page if you want to chat about video game UI’s or suggest a potential blog topic.

Game on, girls and guys, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.