It’s time that we looked at combat in video games and how it can tell a story, or flesh out a character.
Most modern video games include combat as one of its core gameplay features. However, sometimes the combat isn’t as effectively tied into the game’s narrative. With the majority of games, there seems to be a disconnect between story and gameplay. For example, let’s look at Hope from Final Fantasy XIII.
In the game’s cutscenes Hope is characterized as a traumatized child. He just saw his mother die trying to defend him and he’s in tremendous shock. Most of the other characters around him have been shown fighting in the cutscenes, so it’s assumed that they’d be able to hold their own in battle. We never get this impression that Hope is a fighter; his mother is the one who picked up the gun to fight, not him. However, when the cut scenes are over and the battles begin, Hope wields his boomerang weapon and fights along with the other characters. The contrast is a bit jarring and is an example of the narrative not being carried over into the gameplay. This is remedied later on as Lightning becomes a surrogate mother figure and urges him to stand up for himself, but that doesn’t help with the earlier parts of the game when he’s with Vanille.
While I still believe that Final Fantasy XIII did have a strong story, – even though it’s not told in the best way – there was a huge disconnect between the narrative and the combat. However, when we look at Final Fantasy XIII-2, there’s an effective sequence that actually marries both aspects well, and also shows how important the characters are to each other.
A lot of JRPGs revolve around the themes of friendship and a rag tag group of heroes that must work together to overcome adversity. This is pretty much the premise of Final Fantasy XIII-2 as well. The two main characters, Noel and Serah meet as complete strangers, but by the end are wholly depended on each other to save the world. This narrative arc also bleeds over to the gameplay in an important moment near the end of the game. Without spoiling too much, I will just say that the two characters are separated. You control Serah without Noel and must continue through a sequence of events. There are still random battles and Serah must fight them alone. At first, the battles are pretty easy and end quickly, but eventually they get harder. At one point I really remember missing Noel, and wishing he was around to make these battles go by quicker and easier. Serah finds herself struggling with battles that were much easier earlier in the game with Noel. I feel that including the same types of battles in these sequences lets you appreciate the narrative and the gameplay relationship that the two have developed. Not only does their relationship affect the story, it affects the gameplay as well. This is a great way the game’s combat tells a subtle story as well. Another way to combine combat and narrative is to have the character’s combat abilities embody the type of person they are.
Silent Hill is known for dark, moody and disturbing atmosphere. The first two game’s characters are Harry and James and are just two regular guys. Harry is trying to find his lost daughter, while James is trying to uncover the mystery behind his deceased wife. The atmosphere is brooding and effective, and the story is suspenseful and well told. The combat, on the other hand, is clunky and problematic. However, this is exactly how it should be and it serves a narrative purpose.
Harry and James are not cops or soldiers, so when they handle a gun it’s going to be understandably shaky and not intuitive at all. When I played the game, I got a lot more mileage out of using a two-by-four to beat the monstrosities to death. In reality, this would probably be the more effective weapon for a regular person as well. Harry and James are just normal guys who are lost in a creepy town and are understandably confused and frightened. I was in the same mindset when I first played Silent Hill 2 many years ago. The combat conveyed this feeling, making the story feel more poignant and immersive.
My final example is Undertale. The indie darling presents a refreshing way to merge narrative with combat mechanics. Similar to the JRPG Shin Megami Tensei, Undertale allows you to avoid conflict by talking your way out of battles instead of fighting. However, unlike Shin Megami Tensei, It’s possible to complete the game without gaining any experience. What elevates this from a simple gimmick to a core mechanic is how ingrained the combat, or lack thereof, is in the narrative. The NPC characters will look at you differently if you decide to kill or not. You can make friends in the game, and the good writing actually makes you happy that you didn’t decide to take their lives.
Another aspect of Undertale’s combat system is the difficulty based on how you behave. If you want to play through the game as a complete pacifist, you’ll find that it becomes more difficult to not kill. The combat revolves around moving a heart – which represents your soul – around a black box, avoiding attacks in a shoot ’em up style. Almost every enemy has a unique attack pattern and some are very unexpected and difficult. If you want to end a battle without killing, you have the option to talk to the character, interact with it or just show it mercy. Each battle is unique, and requires a different combination of actions to end it. For example, you can compliment one of them, or even just petting one will cause it to become docile. Once you spare the character, the battle ends.
There’s a town early on where many of the NPCs are seen and can be talked to. However, if you killed them at some point in the game, they won’t be there. The combat not only has repercussions in the main story itself, but in the game’s environment as well. The fact that you worked so hard to befriend a certain character makes the story so much more satisfying once you finish it. I don’t wish to spoil the great story, so I’ll stop here.
Having a deep narrative in video games is somewhat of a new art. However, there are ways to incorporate the story into the action of the game, and it’s already being done. The aforementioned examples are only a couple of ideas with potential to create a fully immersive experience. The progress of videogames, I believe, is directly linked to how developers can make narrative and gameplay work together seamlessly. Most games include combat, so having combat and character’s abilities directly informed by the game’s story will only make the story more immersive.