“Story Mode,” Action Games, And Interactive Fiction


So Horizon Zero Dawn is the latest big budget game to include a “story mode” or what people are calling super-easy modes now. While some may argue against modes that significantly de-emphasize or nullify combat, they’re really part of a larger trend along with “walking simulators” and new adventure games.

I think Mass Effect 3 was the game that made waves with the announcement of a “story mode.” The biggest argument against these kinds of modes basically comes down to “why don’t you just watch the whole game on YouTube?” I think that solution only works for games where the story is extremely linear and/or is primarily delivered through non-interactive cut scenes or text anyway. Basically, games that could just as easily deliver their stories through a film or TV series (maybe that’s what some developers should do to counteract YouTube-ing, like novelizing a movie). It doesn’t work for something like Mass Effect or Witcher 3 or Horizon, where a big part of the experience is exploring the world and making your own story choices, often with a character you created.

Essentially, the emergence of “story mode” is a realization by developers that there are interactive things in video games people value other than combat. Combat isn’t the sole element of “gameplay,” and isn’t the sole element that justifies the product as a video game apart from a movie or book. Some people just want to run around in a big, pretty world or interact with interesting characters without having to worry about twitch skills. If that gets more people to buy a game, then fine.

Traditionally there are games for these people — adventure games. I think this recently-voiced desire is why walking simulators showed up and why adventure games have sort of come back on consoles in the form of Gone Home or Telltale games. A lot of people seem to just want video games that are interactive fiction, and that’s fine.

Honestly I’ve played a lot of games where the combat felt obligatory — like it’s just there because the developer or publisher felt that a console game needs to have combat. It’s part of the problem of how action games and sports games have for a long time been the centerpiece of console video games. It’s caused people to view almost all console gaming through the action game lens. I never played Dontnod Entertainment’s Remember Me but I remember the critical reception putting it down for combat that had no place in the game and detracted from its unique puzzle elements. Maybe that’s why Dontnod just went ahead and made an adventure game after that — Life is Strange.

The issue with adventure games and walking simulators though is they’ll probably never get the budgets they would need to create worlds as big and pretty as the ones in Witcher 3 or Horizon. Some people who just aren’t into action games might want to explore the worlds that would necessitate a budget that in the video game industry pretty much necessitates an action game. Thus the “story mode” solution — optional modes for those people. An alternate example might be the “exploration path” you can take in games like Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky where there are whole upgrade paths for people who aren’t interested in fighting. That’s something I wish more open-world games would try to do.

Where the “story mode” option gets contentious is in games where the action is the main or almost the only selling point. What comes to my mind is the easiest setting in Bayonetta which developer Platinum Games advertised as basically a one-button mode. I think that can be pulled off if people realize the main selling point of those games is the tactile feedback of pressing a button and getting a fun reaction out of that button. A super easy mode should at least try to preserve that.

The Souls games are a conflicting example. For a large group of people the sense of accomplishment from overcoming challenges is an indispensable component of the Souls experience. Others would simply like to enjoy the atmosphere and investigate the lore.

In the end, “story mode” is an admission that there are people who are primarily interested in the story of a game, and not the action. I don’t say “not the gameplay” because in these cases the action clearly isn’t the only component of the “gameplay.”


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One thought on ““Story Mode,” Action Games, And Interactive Fiction

  1. […] other game design news, we have some musings about story mode in games, and observations about the effects of limited parsers (on interactive fiction). More technical are […]

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