Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult guideline.
Gameplay elements are rarely designed with narrative in mind. They’re limited in quantity and tend to be blunt instruments; the mechanics of walking and jumping can only go so far in conveying complex stories. Given this limited scope, it’s not surprising that gameplay is rarely used as the main vehicle for narrative.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar had a pretty good go at it, though.
UIV is the story of the Stranger’s rise to embody eight virtues principal to the game’s setting: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. On the surface, it’s a typical CRPG of the era: there’s exploration, statistical progression, item management, NPC conversations, and combat. The twist is how these elements are cleverly subverted for storytelling purposes.
Fairly common RPG activities such as opening random treasure chests, running away from battle, and being a smart alack to NPC’s can lower various virtue-scores.
Conversely, overpaying for goods (instead of haggling down their prices), letting monsters escape from battle (and losing potential experience points), and destroying the most powerful artifact in the game (which makes combat a breeze), increase virtue. A full list of these virtue-altering actions can be found here.
UIV’s main quest involves traversing the world in order to recover 8 virtue stones and runes, learn the mantras corresponding to each virtue, max-out all 8 virtue-scores, meditate at 8 virtue shrines, obtain the 3-part key, and finally discover the the word of passage.
Once these tasks are complete, the Avatar can descend into the abyss and place the virtue stones at their respective altars. A short quiz follows where the player is questioned about the virtues, and each correct answer displays a part of the codex-symbol. When the codex is fully unveiled, the player (presumably) gets to bask in its glory and return to the real world with newly gained knowledge and experience.
It’s not an overly complex story, and its scant plot-points are almost entirely non-linear, but the narrative is closely coupled with the gameplay. UIV achieves this through various design choices.
First, the game gives a concrete role for the player to embody. It’s all fine and good to “roll” a teetotaler, pyromaniac dwarf, but it’s not nearly as much fun if this persona is restricted to the player’s imagination. Becoming the Avatar is UIV’s sole objective, so the entire gameworld naturally revolves around the player’s ability to fill the Avatar’s shoes. In addition, this is a perpetual task that encourages the player to stay in-character throughout the experience.
Secondly, UIV grafts virtue-fulfillment entirely onto existing systems. This makes the learning curve less harsh and presents interesting handicaps for familiar gameplay, e.g., avoiding hostile wildlife might not yield immediate rewards, but it aids in gradually achieving the larger goal of Avatar-hood. Since these systems are also granular, they encompass numerous ways in which the virtue scores can be affected.
Furthermore, the approach greatly reduces implementation costs. Every virtue-altering instance is not a custom, one-time cutscene, but rather an action that’s optional and repeatable. In turn, the player can actively participate in the story by partially steering where, when, and how the virtues are tested. Since many events in the game also impact more than one virtue, the overall progression is quite open-ended.
Finally, the virtue system allows the player to fail. Hints are still dispensed throughout the game — and can be actively sought out — but it’s not necessary to be aware of all the rules right from the start. There’s no game over screen if virtue is lost; no invisible wall, or awkward text prompt, or an automatic checkpoint reload. The event is simply recorded, and retributions can be made later down the road.
This makes the path to Avatar-hood a potentially bumpy (and a more interesting) tale, and prevents the game from clumsily asserting itself and its limitations.
Lots more could have been done to polish the virtue system and to make it a larger part of the gameworld, but UIV remains notable for the way it allows the player to collaborate with a pre-existing script. This is also done largely through gameplay, and, at least in part, is the reason why so many people keep playing it to this day.
Description: Indiana Jones meets Gears of War.
Conveniences: Hidden treasures sparkle periodically; when stuck, the player can eventually get a hint by pressing a button to point the camera at the next objective.
Annoyances: Horribly slow and unintuitive boating sections; wonky and excessive combat.
Standouts: A treasure hunting romp that feels like a Hollywood flick.
Description: A refreshingly unique CRPG.
Conveniences: Very thorough log that records every step of every quest; numerous auto-save slots.
Annoyances: Occasional crashes.
Standouts: A fantastic sense of verisimilitude.
The Witcher treads a lot of common ground when it comes to RPGs, but it does so with a distinct swagger. To illustrate this, here’s a quick story.
Early on in the game, the protagonist Gerlat can accept a quest to deliver a package into a quarantined city. When he finally makes his way in, he’s arrested and his possessions confiscated.
He eventually recovers them all, except for one: the mysterious bundle he was asked to smuggle.
Jethro, the city jailer, non-chalantly informs Geralt that he’s lucky not to be in more trouble. The package contained fisstech, an illegal drug similar in properties to cocaine. It quickly becomes obvious that Jethro himself is an addict and the confiscation wasn’t exactly legal.
Geralt can get his hands on more fisstech by dispatching Salamander troops, henchmen of main antagonist who tend to carry the illegal substance. The drug can then be used to bribe more information out of Jethro, shedding some light on the local crime syndicates.
Eventually it’s revealed that the Salamanders were trying to squeeze out their competition by framing Ramsmeat, a local crime boss, in hopes of Geralt going after him and the two sides weakening or eliminating each other.
Following a clash between the religious Order of the Flaming Rose and the Scoia’tael, a terrorist group (or a freedom-fighter one, depending on how you look at it), the Salamanders expand their operation into the swamps.
Various factions Geralt had dealt with in the past are affected by this: the woodcutters are slaughtered, numerous brickmakers are kidnapped and put into slave labour, and a large Salamander band move into the former Scoia’tael encampment.
When Geralt rescues the brickmakers, he discovers they were made to gather plants for fisstech production. The Salamander’s treasures even contain a book on swamp plants, the very same book Geralt had to have read in order to loot local flora.
Back in Vizima, Jethro requests that Geralt follow a lead on a fisstech pusher under the guise of cleaning up the streets. In reality, the jailer simply wants to secure the source of his addiction by cracking down on its suppliers.
The trail eventually leads Geralt to the sewers and an abandoned crypt where the Salamanders produce fisstech. Among their servants he finds a frightened alchemist who rewards Geralt with a potion-recipe if he promises not to report his slacking.
When the hideout is cleaned out, the crooked jailer and the city guard storm the area in order to secure the contraband. It’s at this time that Geralt bluntly tells Jethro that all the drugs better stay confiscated or he’ll come after the jailer next.
Finally, the documents Geralt retrieves from both the Salamander cells point him to the ultimate stronghold. As Geralt storms the base, a cutscene plays out showing a Salamander leader requesting more money following the group’s recent failures.
All these events make perfect sense from gameplay, plot, and setting perspectives. The slaves need proper skills and instructions, the bad guys require funding for their operations, and powerful factions constantly vie for supremacy.
Every element serves as a gear snugly connected to another, and when the switch is pulled, the machine doesn’t grind to a halt.
What’s more, the game itself is not homogenized. Fisstech doesn’t come across as a bullet point on a worldbuilding checklist that needs to be adhered to at every turn. It’s just part of the tapestry, and there’s a lot more of it to experience.