Via the RPS Sunday Papers there’s a rather nice piece on Kotaku, “Gameplay and Story Are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s a neat analogy; without music, music isn’t music (said Captain Tautology), and without gameplay you haven’t got a game. Gameplay alone works just as well as music with no vocals, but story can be just as integral to a great game as lyrics can be to a great song. Just as most game stories don’t stand up particularly well on their own, lyrics don’t have to, so long as they work in the context of the music; separated from a song they can be trite or indeed gibberish, “tutti frutti, ah rooty” indeed. They don’t have to be particularly intelligible or meaningful to be a vital element, an instrumental version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wouldn’t be the same.
There was a recent Gamasutra post, “Putting story before gameplay ‘a waste of time’ says Jaffe”, and reframing it in music/lyrics terms is quite interesting. Writing 90 verses of fantastic lyrics for a song is indeed a waste of time if they’re accompanied by someone banging some railings with a stick. Likewise a game can have a fantastically involving story, but if experiencing it involves awful controls, wonky camera angles and generally terrible gameplay it’ll rightly get slated. That’s pretty obvious. What Jaffe is really railing against, though, is gameplay being sacrificed for story, which is more difficult to parallel in music; I’m struggling to think of lyrics actively making a song worse, apart from perhaps deliberately offensive lyrics. There’s Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”: “we were trying different things, we were smoking funny things” sets my teeth on edge, but it’s not like the song was any good to start with; Geezer Butler has the same rhyming-a-word-with-itself problem in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (“generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses”), but it doesn’t spoil the song for me. I don’t think it would be misrepresenting the general position to frame it musically as: the music is the important thing, not the words. And by and large I’d agree, but there are exceptions. Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is musically simple (a few strummed chords and a bit of harmonica), but the lyrics propel it for seven and a half minutes. With a plethora of quotable lines, notably “money doesn’t talk, it swears”, it works. If it had no words, or seven minutes of “Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong”, it wouldn’t. The music/gameplay needs to be solid enough to support the base, but an RPG or adventure game can have straightforward gameplay (hit monster with sword get loot/use every item with every other item and bit of scenery in a desperate bid to work out what the hell the designer was thinking of), it’s the combination of that with a story that can elevate them.
Jaffe is fine with games like Skyrim where “the player by the very nature of playing the game … is the story”, but the analogy breaks down if you try and crowbar player-driven vs developer-driven narrative into it (Karaoke? People making up their own words to an instrumental? An otter singing along to the noise made by the machinery of an ice cream factory?) It’s clearly not perfect, but I think there’s one other area where a musical parallel may be appropriate, the idea that as technology has brought more cinematic elements to games, so developers can lose sight of gameplay in a bid to tell a story in a medium not designed for it: “If you’ve got something inside of you that’s so powerful … why the fuck … would you choose the medium that has historically been the worst medium to express philosophy and story?”
Now I’m not a big fan of musicals, ballet or opera, but I’m not going to try and shoot them down as sub-optimal mediums for telling a story; “Look, Mozart, this Figaro geezer getting married or whatever? Just leave it to a playwright and get on with writing a kick-arse symphony, yeah?” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a radio series, novel, TV show, film, adventure game, comic, several stage shows and commemorative towel without a definitive version (though the towel is probably closest), each brings out different facets that appeal more or less to different people. Games are a young medium, they might not have excelled at telling stories so far, but that’s no reason not to try.