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How many other devs make "Nintendo-style" games? [roundtable]
 
It reoccurred to me recently that Nintendo really doesn't make games in the same way as most other current developers. I mean, if you look at it historically, we started with arcade games, which usually made the most of a single mechanic. A limited amount of content, but high replay value. Then the shift to home consoles sort of broadened the scope of a video game. Now we could have adventures (even on the 2600!). Which first meant bigger worlds in which to ply that limited set of mechanics. But soon that definition evolved to include games in which the mechanics expanded and changed over time, resulting in a more varied (but perhaps less pure) experience. In it's early history, Nintendo was a key component of this evolution from arcade games (Donkey Kong, Balloon Fight) to expanded arcade-styled games (Super Mario Bros.) to more realized worlds with more varied mechanics (The Legend of Zelda, Metroid). Over time, Nintendo has further refined its ideal of video game design. Basically, a gameplay-driven experience, in which creative level design and/or new abilities keep the experience fresh over the course of the game. We love that shit, right?

But most established developers don't make that type of game anymore. The current vogue seems to favor one set of gameplay mechanics throughout an entire game (or even series), modulated largely by change in setting or narrative. Rather than bring new actors on the stage, they change the set design. I think this explains why Nintendo fans' tastes are often so different than those of the mainstream. Why some of us feel alienated in gaming discussions. To an extent, we're playing apples, and they're playing oranges.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Independent devs mostly prioritize gameplay, albeit with a more limited scope. So, two questions:

1) Do you agree or disagree with the analysis above?
2) If you agree, which other developers still make "Nintendo-style" games?

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Posted: 06/29/15, 23:12:34  - Edited by 
 on: 06/29/15, 23:35:34
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@Stephen

As I've said, even Nintendo's understated narratives are worthwhile to me. Sometimes they do just drop it though, like in Mario Galaxy 2 and I can't say that it was a bad choice. They already had done something fairly interesting in Galaxy and in the sequel they focused on just packing in as many awesome new gameplay ideas as possible.

And yes, I remember the plot to Skyward Sword. It wasn't great but it was better than Bioshock Infinite and there was actually good gameplay to fall back on. And I know some people who liked it quite a bit. The point is that even people who don't like it get can get something out of the game whereas if you didn't like the story in Bioshock Infinite, you were pretty much out of luck (or did some people like the gameplay?).
Posted: 07/01/15, 16:04:20
@Jargon

Gameplay in Infinite was fantastic. But you get out of it what you put in to it like most sandboxy shooters. I'd certainly put it above Skyward Sword's patronizing match the angle of the slice to the weakpoint gameplay. You also seem to be focusing on the plot a lot here which is weird because story telling isn't just about that. A lot of it is about the sense of place and climate of the world. Even if you find BioShock Infinite's plot lacking you can't deny the atmosphere was way more effective than what Skyward Sword had on offer. Character also plays a huge part of it and as far as sidekicks go, Elizabeth over Fi is an absolute blowout.

I don't know why these are the two games we are comparing BTW. A better analog for Zelda would be something like the Arkham games which again have just as good gameplay and a much more accomplished story.
Posted: 07/01/15, 16:14:56
@Stephen
I haven't played Bioshock Infinite but I greatly enjoyed Skyward Sword's story. In fact, my favorite thing about it was the atmosphere and general "climate" of the world that you alluded to. The Lanayru Desert area involved making time bubbles to a past civilization and the game does some really melancholy and memorable things with this concept.

Yeah, Fi kinda sucked from a gameplay standpoint but even she had a nice ending for her character, and SS's Zelda might be my favorite in the series. You played through the whole game, right? I think most people agree that SS had a very solid story for Zelda; a good blend of character development, emotional moments and memorable world-building.
Posted: 07/01/15, 16:41:22
@TriforceBun

I did indeed beat it. Zelda in SS was better than normal which is to say she had some personality to her. I'd give the nod to Tetra personally though. It could have done a lot of stuff better with presentation and gameplay. I didn't intend to harp on Skyward Sword as much as I am but so much for that. I agree the desert was the highlight, the ship temple was among the best in the series. It definitely needed more integration of its pieces though. Each area felt like it was completely separate from one another which kind of hindered the scale as well as the sense of progress you'd made. Wind Waker didn't have that problem and that was simply them having an ocean linking all the pieces together.
Posted: 07/01/15, 17:01:59
Mario games (and some of the spin-offs like Luigi's Mansion and Captain Toad) are often great at setting up compelling worlds even if the actual narratives fall kind of flat or don't makes sense. Just being in a place that's interesting, that have a unique feel or atmosphere, goes a long way into making what you're doing more fun and compelling. Also Mario characters are just cool, they have so much personality just in the way they're designed and animated etc.

That said, the storybook stuff in Galaxy 1 was really boring, in fact whenever they to the storybook think like in Epic Yarn I find it really grating, that narrator makes me want to punch something! Yet, in Galaxy 2 when they just removed all the story elements the game seemed a little empty, like there was something in the presentation that was just a tiny bit lacking. Story in Mario games is kind of a tough nut to crack.

@Jargon@Stephen
I'm torn about non-skippable cut-scenes in games, I didn't really care for them in Bioshock Infnite just because I found the story in that game a little convoluted and boring compared to Bioshock, it all seemed to self-important or something. I did really like the cut-scenes in Wolfenstein The New Order though, even though some of them were melodramatic and silly, also they often hid load times, and they weren't that long, and actually you could skip most of them unless the level was still loading, so yeah... Machine Games does it good.

Of course I have to mention Naughty Dog, they do exactly what everyone says is wrong with modern gaming (put story and presentation in the forefront) but they do it so well that they transcend the problem and make it a strength. Also the gameplay is solid, Uncharted had a rocky start and still has some issues with player agency (hey jump to this glowing ledge, now this glowing ledge, now this glowing ledge), but if The Last of Us in indicative of where they're headed in terms of gameplay then I think the next Uncharted will shed much of those issues. Finally allowing players to go where they want and figure stuff out for themselves and approach scenarios in different ways is back in vogue!
Posted: 07/01/15, 17:13:40
Seems like there's a lot of potential solutions on this topic.

Developers should stick to their strengths as Jargon suggests. But not at the cost of scrapping narrative and world-building all together, I'm with Stephen on that.

Heck, some games don't even need a narrative (Tetris, anyone)?

I think it boils down to the developer's goals in what they're trying to present. Investment i narrative should be scaled appropriately to the game genre and the dev's budget & skill set. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution, however.

Sometimes it feels like Nintendo punches above their weight when trying to deliver narrative in adventure games like the modern console Zelda's. The text bubbles and bog-standard story beats lesson the game experience and feel archaic compared to other developers who invest more emphasis on character & plot development (Ubisoft, Rockstar, etc.). Maybe Nintendo don't need to evolve their formula as millions seem satisfied with what they're doing now. But when they're being compared side by side with genre peers, they do feel behind the times.

On the flip side you've go developers who approach game design from a kitchen-sink perspective. I believe this is the impetus of this thread. Look again at Rockstar. They try to do everything, giving the player complete freedom in their sandbox worlds. Some would argue that critical game systems suffer in the process because they're not fully baked. This is especially true of PS2-era GTA games. While all devs were going through 3D-gameplay growing pains at the time, the PS2 GTA games are pretty awful mechanically, esp. on foot/shooting segments. Rockstar has improved significantly on all gameplay-system fronts (driving, shooting, foot traversal) when you compare the evolution of more current titles like RDR & GTA V. So while they had characterization nailed down from the early days, they still continue to iterate and mature the gameplay aspects of their titles. And they still have a ways to go.

So this circles back around to what Stephen was talking about. Game development is an evolutionary process were all elements of production mature and grow increasing sophisticated over time. This isn't just a Story thing. This is an Everything, er...thing. If you look at the history of the medium you see the building blocks layered with each new generation as new tech & ideas create new possibilities and standards. That's what I think of when I think of maturation of narrative in gaming. Just another cog in a greater machine that's constantly evolving as the medium continues to grow.

With growth comes growing pains for sure. Those Bethesda RPG character interactions are a good example. Unless someone is willing to reach for something greater we stay stuck in the past. And it's something you'd never notice unless you had boots on the ground churning out the evolution (i.e. character interaction from Oblivion to Fallout 4).

I'm just glad we live in a world where developers are trying. Perhaps not always succeeding, but at least trying (and yes that even includes Nintendo when you compare the writing in Link to the Past to Twilight Princess). That's one thing that gets me down when some suggest that including thoughtful narrative in gaming is folly. Failure or clunky attempts in gaming may not reflect the highs of other medias like books and film, but the only way to get there is to work through the growing pains, something you can markedly happening right now when you look over the past 20 years of game development.
Posted: 07/01/15, 17:31:57
@New Forms
Here here! Art is an iterative process, try, try, and try again, hopefully getting a little better each time.
Posted: 07/01/15, 17:47:09
I think that saying Super Mario Galaxy doesn't have a good narrative because it's plot is basic is somewhat missing the point. The narrative in a Mario game--and in most Nintendo games--isn't something that happens to the characters in the game, it's something that happens to the player. The feeling of awe you get from traveling through that hollowed-out sun in the final level of Galaxy 1, or the feeling of discovery from burning your first tree in Zelda NES, or the tension from Pikmin... those are the kinds of feelings that a well-written book or well-directed movie could make you feel on behalf of the characters within the story, but instead those feelings are happening directly to you. That doesn't make them less valid; in my mind, that makes them more valid!

This article explains where I'm coming from pretty well, but it's kind of a long read. This one is shorter.

I do feel like lately Nintendo has been missing opportunities to enhance those feelings with their games' presentation--while Super Mario 3D World absolutely nails the feeling of "fun with your friends," it doesn't do too much to inspire awe in the player. Tropical Freeze did this pretty well with its art direction and music. NSMBU would be an example of a game that decided it didn't need to have any sort of interesting presentation at all, and it's one of the most forgettable games Nintendo has put out... well, ever.

Combining a meaningful "player story" with an interesting "explicit story" must be a really hard thing to do, since I haven't seen too many games do it well. In terms of games with the "gameplay-exposition-gameplay-exposition-etc" formula, The Last of Us is easily the best one I've played where everything just clicks together. I think, though, that using the full power of games as a medium requires you to get more inventive with how you tell your story. Stephen mentioned XCOM, and that's a good one. The feelings of fear, triumph, and loss I get from playing Spelunky are powerful as heck. Journey doesn't have a single spoken word, and people LOVE that game's narrative.

We haven't yet seen a game that doesn't use the gameplay-exposition formula rival The Last of Us in terms of emotional power, but when we do, I think it's safe to say we'll have found the mythical "Citizen Kane of videogames" everyone keeps talking about. It'll be a tough thing to pull off, since (as The Stanley Parable tells us) true choice can't exist within a pre-written story, so I'm excited to see what future developers come up with to solve this problem.
Posted: 07/01/15, 20:57:18
I'm not so sure if most people want there to be more/better gameplay in narrative games. I think a lot of people are just content with them being more like interactive movies, which is why they are so popular. I have no problem with that style existing either, as it's best to have a wide variety of games. Where I get disappointed is with the imbalance of genres, as if less people like the ones I like then less games get made. For example, it's almost impossible to find 3D platformers these days. I guess movie genres aren't very balanced either, or any market really, some things just get more popular than others. I'll just have to accept that some of the ones I like have become niche.
Posted: 07/01/15, 21:27:16
@Secret_Tunnel
@Mop it up

Great posts, guys. I agree completely.

I think it's important to remember that not all games need intriguing story to be accomplished or complete. I reductively mentioned Tetris above but feel that the sentiment can also apply to less twitch-like arcade games. There's scores of genres where story is not important, nor should they be (sports, racing, simulation, etc.). When I speak of evolution of the craft, I'm singling out gaming experiences that purport to be driven by narration. "Quest-like" games, if that makes any sense.

I also really like Secret-Tunnel's points about environmental storytelling. It's just as important as any script and can indeed completely supplant written words in cases like Journey or Pikmin. I think this is why I enjoy sandbox games so much. Anytime a developer can convincingly craft a world and set me loose, I get to create my own story provided I'm sold on the world being presented. I chose the when, the where, the why, playing to my own beats and whims. In doing so I'm crafting a unique character identity and tonal experience. This can be anything as innocuous and hands-off as Minecraft up to fully-storied landscapes like Skyrim where I control story-progression and character development. In fact, I'd argue that some of the most poignant moments in Bethesda-style RPGs are those that involve simple exploration and discovery outside of any traditional questing framework.

Finally, I'd suggest that good storytelling in games is not reliant on convincing voice-work. Kentucky Route Zero's storytelling is entirely text-based and it's some of the best the medium has seen in ages. Same goes for Pillars of Eternity. There's a few voiced lines here and there, but 99% of the game is presented in walls upon glorious walls of expertly-written text. So I guess I'd say that successful storytelling doesn't need to adhere to one discipline or another, it just needs to be good at what it does, regardless of delivery method.
Posted: 07/01/15, 22:35:06
I agree that art is an iterative process. Everyone who knows that should be disappointed that Nintendo put aside motion controls after the backlash from Wii and hope that they embrace them again or someone else does because it's a perfect example. Motion controls weren't perfect on the Wii by any stretch but you could already see huge improvement from Wii Sports to Skyward Sword, which regardless of your personal feelings about the gameplay offered something new and different in a way that Bioshock Infinite did not.

Sadly lots of people couldn't see that the Wii was basically the NES of motion controls and complained incessantly about them, just wanting the same old. At the moment, they seem to have gotten what the want. But those of us who see that games build on each other realize that motion controls are a necessary part of a truly immersive future for video games.

Relating this to narrative, no one company needs to be blazing all these trails at once. Zelda could be doing more interesting things story wise, but most people agree their stories are fine for what they are and plenty of people love them.

@Stephen

Not much of a sandbox. The atmosphere was fine, but one note. At least Skyward Sword had some variety. All of this comes down to subjectivity though so not much point discussing further. The point above however is pure fact.
Posted: 07/02/15, 00:36:35
Stephen said:
@Shadowlink
...Except for now, now apparently they do have to be one and maybe the other.

Err no. Not what I said.

What I did say was, that *if* it came down to a choice, then of course gameplay should be prioritised over story. That's a logical position to take when speaking about games, yes?

Whatever the success of The Walking Dead, that doesn't change. You can still have your games focused primarily on story. I've played and enjoyed quite a few of them. That doesn't mean it should be the norm, especially when taking into account that gameplay tends to be the first casualty in games that are attempting to do both, which is basically what this topic is all about.

Bringing it back to your example of Mario Galaxy- Does the game suffer for not having a deep narrative? No.

Do many other modern games suffer due to sacrifices made due to the pursiut of a cinematic set piece over satisfying gameplay? Absolutely:



(I will agree Bioshock Infinite is an exception. That was just plain fun, story or no. A gamey game to be sure.)


Yes you can and should be able to have both story and gameplay. But if one of them is sacrificed in a game, it generally shouldn't be the gameplay.
Posted: 07/02/15, 00:53:19  - Edited by 
 on: 07/02/15, 00:56:03
Jargon said:
I agree that art is an iterative process. Everyone who knows that should be disappointed that Nintendo put aside motion controls after the backlash from Wii and hope that they embrace them again or someone else does because it's a perfect example.

I know I am.

You too right Stephen?!!?
Posted: 07/02/15, 01:04:51
Wow, the conversation sure took a different turn. I had to check I wasn't in Zero's "unconventional narrative" thread.


I'm like Jargon in that I quite like the way Nintendo's found to tell little stories non-intrusively in their games. The latest example of that would be Splatoon. It's mainly an online shooter with all sorts of wacky characters, and a cat who inexplicably officiates matches. You get a couple of pop divas announcing what maps are being played currently. You're just in what's basically an online lobby and the game is bursting with personality already.

But if you go and play the single player game, you get a series of levels made of Mario Galaxy"-like floating platforms and a goofy story about an invasion. And if you collect secret scrolls, then you learn basically the origin of this wacky world, and crazy stuff you never suspected. You learn that even the officiating cat has a backstory. And even though it's told in a two page vignette, it manages to tug at your heartstrings.

I definitely think Nintendo needs more recognition for its storytelling in its games. Splatoon, Pikmin, etc. All good stuff, that the doubters probably will never experience, because the kind of person who'd say Nintendo's storytelling is lagging probably wouldn't touch those games with a ten foot pole.

Most of the conversation will revolve around Zelda, for obvious reasons: it's conventional. You read text boxes, talk to characters, go through events to make the plot move ahead. But as has been discussed already, it's got issues. Issues that prevent me from enjoying the games as much as its fans seem to.

But the conventional wisdom that Zelda needs to get with the times and introduce voice acting, and generally follow the cinematic path that other games have taken, is not the solution, IMO. I look at what's the end of that path, and what I see is the Final Fantasyfication of Zelda, more anime and more jarring for Western audiences than ever before.

I think Zelda should instead go the Splatoon and Pikmin path: build a convincing world and bury into it subtle clues about the history of that place. As much as possible. And do have colorful characters populate it if you want. But the actual plot should be minimal and non-intrusive.
Posted: 07/02/15, 01:26:01  - Edited by 
 on: 07/02/15, 01:29:19
@Jargon

This is an interesting angle.

If you coupled the revolution that Wii introduced with motion control with the new revolution that Oculus VR purports on the visual side, do you get one step closer to the holy grail of uber-immersion circa Star Trek's 'Holodeck'?

I'd suggest that the two are intrinsically connected.
Posted: 07/02/15, 01:31:40
@New Forms

All of the big players in VR are already planning on using similar controllers which will be tracked in 3D along with the headset. I think it's going to be compelling enough to offer some really cool VR experiences, but there's still a lot of other things to figure out like how to handle walking. Valve's headset lets you actually walk around a room already, and it's apparently pretty mind blowing, but you are limited to 15x15 feet... this is too small of an area for a lot of game experiences and I'm not sure most people have an area like this in their home to dedicate to VR. It also does nothing to simulate things like going up or down inclines or stairs, and there's the problem of collision detection. How do you stop a user from walking through solid objects in the game world?

I think we're a long way from the Holodeck, unfortunately, but I still believe in VR and expect it to be a ubiquitous technology within a decade for many different purposes.
Posted: 07/02/15, 01:49:03
@New Forms

Yup, do a reply search on this site for "holodeck" and you'll see me raising that exact point. It's going to take a convergence of all sorts of technology to reach that point. Cutting edge graphics is surely one of them and I'm glad that Crytek or whoever is doing its thing there. Realistic NPCs is another and we see strides there as well. But motion controls in some form are obviously another component. Once VR gets to the point it surely will, it's going to be weird feeling like you're in a tennis game against Pete Sampras but holding a controller to move and swing. Nintendo might not be the ones to get us there, but they've already played an invaluable role that should have been embraced by those looking forward to those kinds of experiences.
Posted: 07/02/15, 02:02:28
@Zero

Definitely not. Motion controls...are a dead end. All the big companies had a go at making them and none of them could make them worthwhile. As a way to break down barriers to let less skilled people play games they otherwise couldn't they are fine but this whole idea of them being more immersive to me is just wrong.

EDIT: By all means though, iterate if you think more is there. I just think that collectively the industry kind of decided it was a fun experiment but not worth making standard.

@Secret_Tunnel

The problem I have with the idea of an emotional journey that the player goes through being the story is that really that can apply to any good game people are blown away by. And even if that is the case it doesn't mean the story telling cannot be improved. Compare Mario Galaxy with something like say Banjo Kazooie. Banjo doesn't have a great narrative but it has more charismatic leads than Mario, a better villain, and the worlds have more characters for you to encounter along the way. Just having your characters be actual characters and your worlds be more inhabited can go a long way. And it needn't affect the core gameplay that much.

@Hinph

Unfortunately I don't see success for VR. I don't think the time is right. It's going to have a high barrier to entry and the tech necessitates cutting yourself off from your surroundings. Those are going to be two big hurdles to overcome in the coming years before it can adopted as a standard.
Posted: 07/02/15, 04:00:13  - Edited by 
 on: 07/02/15, 04:01:42
Stephen said:
@Zero

Definitely not. Motion controls...are a dead end. All the big companies had a go at making them and none of them could make them worthwhile. As a way to break down barriers to let less skilled people play games they otherwise couldn't they are fine but this whole idea of them being more immersive to me is just wrong.

What's the opposite of prescient? I guarantee that this paragraph is going to be laughable in our lifetime.
Posted: 07/02/15, 04:05:24
@Stephen

I don't think it's going to set the world on fire right away with these first consumer headsets releasing within the next year, but I don't think it's going to fail and disappear either. The costs are initially going to be prohibitive, the technology is far from perfect (especially the icky resolution), and content creators don't really know what they are doing yet. Imagine how much better and more affordable the technology will be in 5-10 years though. A self-contained headset that doesn't have to be tethered to an expensive desktop PC will be cheap, highly functional, and there will be so many applications... those applications are the reason why VR will be a life changing technology. There is at least one awesome thing that should appeal to just about everybody across all demographics. I personally think games, sports, and porn are enough to make VR a hit alone, but that's just scratching the surface of all the things it can be used for.

I'm predicting that augmented reality will be an even bigger deal, probably replacing and extending upon the functionality of smartphones eventually. I don't honestly care about AR for videogames though.
Posted: 07/02/15, 04:17:59
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