December 29, 2010

Against narrow game development

As we usher in the new year, we traditionally look forward and decide how to be better people. As a game designer, I want us all to make better games. Accordingly, I want to address an unfortunate intellectual current I have seen coursing through the indie community as of late. It generally appears under the moniker of “gameplay vs. narrative,” advanced in articles asserting the fundamental incompatibility of narrative and gameplay and suggesting (usually with little to no analysis) that we should discard one (always narrative) in favor of the other (inevitably, gameplay).

This is a close cousin to the visual-centric approach advocated by the Superbrothers, in that it encourages game developers to avoid the use of perfectly legitimate modes of expression in making their games. Both approaches seem to represent little more than the prejudices and predilections of their authors, which would be of little concern but for the zealousness with which they are pushed upon impressionable young developers. I will explain why this narrow approach to game development is bad in a moment. But first, some background.

I am a late adopter by long practice. I become enamored of bands five years after they reach the zenith of their popularity. I buy game consoles one generation behind. And so it is with me listening to this Jonathan Blow lecture about manipulative game design techniques, given at Rice University back in late September of 2010. Granted, I’m late, but hopefully not too late to weigh in.

Slightly more than one hour into the lecture, Blow states that game narrative, attractive visuals, and other game elements beyond core gameplay are manipulative. I won’t put words into his mouth; here is what he says:

The problem that I have is that these good game design things that I talked about–the best practices, at the beginning of this talk–are all, to one degree or another, in either subtle ways or obvious ways, manipulative tactics. And that’s why abstract games like Chess or Go don’t have them, because there’s like nobody there–there’s not enough content in those games to actively manipulate you. But video game designers actively manipulate players all the time.

Now, I have no issue with Blow’s criticism of Skinnerian conditioning in games (which, in fairness to him, comprises the vast majority of his talk). But he clearly thinks that including narrative and beautiful visuals in a game is manipulative as well. To my mind, this position is indefensible.


My first instinct is to argue that some players want to play games primarily for their great characters, thrilling stories, and stunning visuals, and that this is a legitimate reason for a player to play a game. Blow is prepared for this argument, however. He preempts it repeatedly throughout his lecture. We want things that are bad for us all the time, he says. It’s not a matter of volition, or desire, or even of fun–it’s a matter of designing games to not harm people.

This counterargument makes sense when applied, for example, to casino games. Casino games exist solely to bilk their customers of money. A slot machine sports eye-pleasing visuals designed to draw the attention of unwary victims, a bit like a real-life mimic. And that is all there is, as far as visuals or narrative. It’s pure manipulation in order to cause harm.

The “don’t harm players” counterargument also makes sense when applied to games like Farmville or Frontierville. The cutesy, attractive visuals of these games makes them appear non-threatening and accessible, when in reality they are so utterly devoid of meaningful content and so overwhelmingly, deliberately tailored to produce negative feelings in their players that one can actually say that these games are, objectively-speaking, harmful.

But that is as far this counterargument goes. There is nothing inherently disrespectful about presenting visual beauty. There is nothing inherently disrespectful about presenting a good narrative. We do not say that a masterful painting disrespects an art lover, or that a well-paced and entertaining novel disrespects its reader. In most fields of artistic endeavor, to hook a player with interesting visuals or a thrilling story is simply to be a competent artist. Why should these modes of expression suddenly become sinister when used in games?

I believe Blow’s intended point is more that video games are meant to have interesting gameplay, and that using a good story, careful pacing, and attractive visuals to drag the player through a fundamentally uninteresting play experience is abusive.

This is a more defensible point, but still not one I can agree with. It is true that Diablo, World of Warcraft, and other run-around-clicking-to-get-random-reward-drop games are largely designed to get players to continue playing compulsively. Is that is abusive? I think many will agree that the answer is yes. But the moral opprobrium heaped upon these games stems from their abusive game mechanics, not from their graphics or storylines.

We can say the same of RPGs that require players to spend hours grinding through repetitive, tactically barren encounters in order to improve their stats enough to proceed. The abuse lies in the design, not in peppering such a game with beautiful vistas or compelling characters.

In short: Blow distinguishes between manipulating human psychology in order to deliver something beneficial and manipulating human psychology in order to deliver something harmful, but many of those things he calls manipulative are things that are beneficial in themselves! Visual beauty is beneficial.Memorable characters in a well-told story are beneficial.This is, after all, why we treat paintings and novels as art, and not as socially malignant time sinks.

There is a reason why no one makes this sort of argument in other artistic fields. “Oh, that Nabokov: I just know he’s writing that beautiful, beautiful prose to manipulate me into reading his novel.” No serious person would make that sort of argument because the prose is part of the novel. Writing good prose is inherently part of writing a good novel.

Likewise, visuals are (quite obviously) a part of video games. And so is narrative. Not every game, of course, and even when it is there, the narrative is sometimes highly abstracted. But it’s still something that most games possess: even Chess, which Blow credits as a pure game freed from the trappings of story and character. Chess pieces have names and styles of movement that impart character. The very setup of the game tells a story: two kings face off across a battlefield, their queens and loyal advisers by their sides, with rows of sad little pawns lined up at the fore, ready to be marched off to oblivion at the hands of higher-class, better-equipped units. It’s highly abstract, but chess nonetheless suggests a narrative about war and social class. There is even a rags-to-riches narrative embedded in the rules: a pawn who reaches the end of the board gains the chance to overcome the class of its birth, becoming a queen.

This line of argument is a bit disingenuous, though. What narrative and visual elements Chess has are weak, even when elaborated by players through the process of play. Chess endures on the strength of its gameplay alone. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. But there’s nothing particularly right about it, either.

This is the point: although visuals and narrative do not need to be used universally in games, they remain crucial tools for instilling games with meaning.

It’s surprising to hear Blow champion Chess and Go given his purported concern that games should speak to the human condition. Clearly, neither Chess nor Go does much in this regard. I imagine that Blow likes these games because they represent a certain conceptual purity in game design. Games, he might say, are fundamentally about rules and interaction. Everything else is secondary. If we can somehow get games to intelligently comment on the human condition mostly (or, if possible, entirely) via rules and interactions, then we will have realized much of the potential of the medium.

If that is his position, he certainly isn’t alone. Justin Marks, for instance, has adopted a similar position, remarking: “I say stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them.”

But why? Interactivity may be what makes games unique, but does that mean that interactivity should be the sole mode that game designers use to impart meaning in a game? It is one thing to say that narrative needs to be well-integrated to mesh with non-linear gameplay, and another thing entirely to say that narrative should be eliminated whenever possible and that game mechanics should be used to deliver a game’s message in its stead.

Granted, game mechanics have the potential to carry a lot of water when it comes to meaning. Game mechanics are about player interaction with a system (or oftentimes, multiple systems). In designing a game’s systems, game developers are able to implicitly comment on the real-world analogs that those systems represent, and let the player absorb that commentary through inductive learning.

Yet, there’s that word: represent. I would humbly suggest that visuals and narrative are key to this process. People do not generally recognize real-world systems within a game because of the particular formulas that govern those systems; to the contrary, they recognize those systems because of symbolism, established both visually and verbally, which invites the player to draw parallels.

Consider Rod Humble’s The Marriage, a game which purports to represent the system of–no surprises–a marriage. There is no narrative, and only the barest of visual symbolism. This was intentional; as Humble put it, “I wanted to use game rules to explain something invisible but real.”

Less intentional was the fact that the game failed to convey its message intelligibly, despite bearing a title which trumpets the game’s intended subject matter to the player. Here’s Rod Humble again: “This is a game that requires explanation. That statement is already an admission of failure.”

Other, more successful “art games” in this vein provide real-world context via visuals and narrative. Every Day the Same Dream, for instance, has the player work through a deliberately linear, looping system that conveys a sense of dreariness and loss of agency. But only through visuals and characters do we know that this dreary system is meant to represent someone’s life revolving around a corporate job. Game mechanics, visuals, narrative: each works in concert to impart a message to the player, and it does so with reasonable success.

Good visuals and a narrative are not just important in some bare-bones, let-the-player-know-what-system-you’re-representing sense, however. They are independently important tools to use in communicating meaning to the player.

Suppose we have a game in which the author wants the player to experience the intractability of poverty. The designers of that game would do well to establish an economic system in the game where the player is confronted with intense scarcity, forcing her to make constant trade-offs between necessities and accrue mounting debt. This can all be represented with numbers displayed on the screen, text labeling each figure for what it represents, and little more: something close to pure game mechanics, in other words.

Should we stop there, then? We could, but it would be a pitiable mistake. Doing so would mean the player never gains a visceral feel for what this system and its numbers mean. We will end up with no tangible sense of the very real consequences of living on a limited income, of rising rents forcing us to move into a neighborhood with no grocery store, of the myriad different ways money pressures lead to a breakdown in our character’s personal relationships. A canny application of stark visuals and non-linear narrative can impart meaning in a far more visceral and effective way to the player than mechanics alone.

Just look at The Sims 3. The story of Alice and Kev isn’t sad because of the game mechanics that made it possible, although those certainly deserve credit for giving rise to the experience. No; what makes it tragic is the characters, human beings with human foibles unable to overcome adversity in situation after situation. What makes it heartbreaking is seeing how profoundly unhappy they are. It’s visuals; it’s narrative; it’s game mechanics. All three contribute to impart meaning to the player much better than any one or two could standing alone.


From the standpoint of imparting meaning, this is good design. Rather than a puritanical insistence on using only one tool in the game designer’s toolbox, we get an intelligent application of each tool as it is needed in order to craft a compelling experience that successfully delivers a message about our lives and the world we live in.

To be clear: I am not issuing a clarion call for us to start jamming our games full of unnecessary cut scenes, or to force linear stories onto open-ended games. Good integration is important. This is true across all media. Words in music must be used as lyrics, not as a novel. Music in films must be used as score, not as an album. Likewise, narrative and visual elements in games should be implemented to take account of (and credibly support) non-linear gameplay. But they should be used.

Some people will undoubtedly complain that with narrative, this simply is not possible. To those people, I would suggest that maybe they should stop thinking of game narrative as something plot-driven (which, at best, limits the entire game’s structure to something branching) and start thinking of it as something character-driven. Read the story of Alice and Kev. Look at what Doublebear is trying to do with Dead State. Character interactions can be part of a game’s system and drive plot all at once, and do so in a thoroughly non-linear way.

At the end of the day, it is our job as game developers to make this work. It is our role to craft games that effectively communicate our vision. It’s isn’t abuse. It isn’t disrespect. It’s just practicing our craft. That is what artists do, if only we have the skill and clarity of vision to do it right.

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  • Do you know, your argument sounds almost like Scott’s McCloud’s argument about what makes good comics in his work, Understanding Comics?nnIn a sense, he argues that neither great writing nor great art make great comics — what matters is that both must support one another to create art that neither could individually achieve.

  • kirby1000

    This was long. But I read it all.

  • The Duck

    The argument against narrative and art doesn’t really make any sense.

  • Calavera

    Often when I play RPGs, I experience them in a similar fashion to if I was reading a book. If the story is engaging and I want to know what happens to the characters, I’ll grind away on the most menial of tasks. I suppose that might make me an ‘easy victim’ of narrative manipulation, but if the ending is good, I’ll be satisfied and not really consider it a waste of time. Contrarily, I really have no interest at all in playing RPGs that do not have an interesting story. I may not play a game for a reason as simple as the main character’s design or personality drives me crazy.nnThat said, I recently found myself so engaged with a short and simple platformer that I played it over several times. The narrative and graphics were sparse, but held rather profound meaning. I’m interested to hear what you’d think of “Loved”. nHere’s a link:

  • internet tough guy

    I love all of your work. Keep rockin’

  • Anonymous

    I’ve played Loved before. It’s a cool little game! If you liked it, you might also like depict1:

  • Calavera

    I’ve played that one as well and enjoyed it. Pretty sure I had a hungover afternoon of philosphical platformers. I think the reason Loved had me so transfixed was how your world changed depending on your obedience, and the ‘personality’ of the narrator.

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  • Nintenths

    yes yes yes. I’m glad you wrote this rebuttal to the argument put forward by many (not just Blow!)

  • Text_Fish

    I agree that Blow labours his point to the extreme, but I also think somebody needed to do that in order to give the debate some steam. It’s a very important and timely debate, because thanks to the popularity of games that fall foul of the story>gameplay problem, young gamers expectations of what constitutes a good game are changing, to the point that sooner or later they might well accept a ratio of 80% cutscene and 20% shoehorned quicktime events.nnAlso, I think an important point that you haven’t really touched upon is that although many games involve strong interaction, a lot of that interaction is devoid of ‘challenge’. The GTA series springs to mind as a prime example — changing my character’s clothes or answering his cellphone may build the narrative, but more often than not it interupts the core gameplay and replaces it with menial actions that fail to challenge the player. In my experience, most relationship games also fall foul of this.nnI think everybody can agree that ultimately it’s a point of balancing various extremes, and the reason we’re having the debate now is that increasingly developers are getting the balance very wrong.

  • Mark Venturelli

    Let me make this clear enough for you: gameplay **IS** more important than narrative.nnThis is *GAME* Design. You can make an amazing game without narrative, but you can make a “game” with just narrative and call it a game.nnBlow’s argument is not against visuals and story (his Braid has plenty of both), but against the use of visuals and story to make up for a poor game.nnIf you want to tell a *very necessary* story about whatever and just want to toss it on a mediocre brawler or RPG just to get it delivered… well, you suck at making games.

  • Mark Venturelli

    Ridiculous typo on the second line: you CAN’T make a “game” with just narrative.nnSorry about that.

  • Anonymous

    You: “You can make an amazing game without narrative, but you can[‘t] make a ‘game’ with just narrative and call it a game.”nnThe Article: “This is the point: although visuals and narrative do not need to be used universally in games, they remain crucial tools for instilling games with meaning.”nnYou: “Blow’s argument is not against visuals and story (his Braid has plenty of both), but against the use of visuals and story to make up for a poor game.”nnThe Article: “I believe Blowu2019s intended point is more that video games are meant to have interesting gameplay, and that using a good story, careful pacing, and attractive visuals to drag the player through a fundamentally uninteresting play experience is abusive.”nnI’m not sure if you’re trolling, or if you’re just not reading very carefully.

  • Dwel

    I really enjoyed this essay! The entire game should work towards creating an experience rather than opting to use either mindless game mechanics in order to create addiction, or special affect to hide shallow ones.

  • Nidokoenig

    I think the main issue here is the finite time budget for making a game, or anything for that matter, and that a fair few gamers see the gameplay as the primary focus, with everything else being an accessory. We see a lot of games that have really high production values and are pretty as hell, have great story, but are not fun or engaging to play or are ridiculously buggy. This makes them bad games in my opinion, whereas a game that’s fun to play and looks like a corrupted text document can still qualify as good or great.n It’s not a matter of whether you should stop when the underlying mechanics are done, it’s that it’s a critical part and you really need to get it finished and polished, and invest the man hours you have available for the project appropriately. If you don’t, your players are grinding through the game to experience your great visuals, sound and story, and you don’t want that now, do you?

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  • Alice and Kev and Dead State are kind of bad examples, or maybe I’m just completely missing your point. Neither of these examples of narrative seem to focus on a designer-authored, finite experience, but provide an AI system where agents interact in very vague and nonspecific ways with other agents to create a series of inter-agent events. Thanks to some developer-authored visual cues, we see these events in succession and, as Alice and Kev does, insert a narrative and senses of emotion, characterization, and so on using our own imagination. Your call for “character-driven” games is a rewording of a call for “agent-driven” games, which is a software/gameplay construct, though honestly one we don’t see very often and should indeed be more common.nnDwarf Fortress is a better example. There is practically nothing in the visuals department, only strings of text describing highly detailed events (Urist Erbormabed’s left kidney was bruised by Innodurad Svolfur, the salt blob titan, in the year 531) and a human player to imagine the visuals and emotions on their own. Characters emerge out of a record of these events, players write stories about them, draw comics of the fate of their fortress, and so on, with nearly no static storytelling (well, they’re dwarves, they like beer) inserted by the developer. It is leveraging the human player as a master pattern-matcher; look up in a cloudy sky and your mind will create faces and other patterns where there are none.

  • This is NOT game design. It is art creation.nnAnd we’ll use whatever we need to accomplish our goals. Be it game mechanics, visuals, stories, whatever. There’s no need to limit art created with and for computers to games.

  • Bob

    tl;drnnwrite a book. profit.

  • Mark Venturelli

    I read it carefully enough.nnThe author acknowledges Blow’s argument, but on the very next line he disagrees with it. “This is a more defensible point, but still not one I can agree with.”nnThe author also argues that visuals and narrative are “crucial” for instilling games with meaning, which for me couldn’t be a more ridiculous statement. Maybe our notions of “meaning” are completely disparate.nnAlso @ Michael: please don’t use the A word. If the discussion is not about design, then it is not a discussion at all. Art can be created with anything. Most “art games” are not games, they are just interactive digital art. And I’m quite sure the author is talking about game design, not “art games”.nnMy beef with this whole thing is that people seem to value interactive motion graphics and audio when talking about “value” or “emotion”, and not, well, gameplay. The one thing unique about games. It really holds us back.nnIf you could send your message with GAMEPLAY primarily, not visuals and story and sound (like Braid does), then I would acknowledge it as good game design.

  • Anonymous

    You’re not giving reasons for your position here. How is it “holding us back” to use narrative and visuals alongside gameplay? A linear sequence of moving pictures is what makes movies unique, but you don’t see people running around demanding that movies not have dialog or music in them.

  • Mark Venturelli

    Since you brought up the inevitable movie subject, it is important to notice that when Cinema first emerged it was mostly filmed theater, with no camera movement or editing (the REAL key characteristic of movies, not a “linear sequence of moving pictures”).nnRight now a huge amount of games are trying to emulate movies like movies emulated theater in the beggining. It’s natural that this is happening, but the way to “evolution” is embracing what is unique.nnAlso, I’m not “demanding” games with no story or no graphics. Just a focus on gameplay first, and the rest to support it – not the other way around.nnAnd the author is using a written diary based (sometimes loosely) on a game (more toy than game, actually) to illustrate our power to instill meaning, which almost defeats the purpose of the article.

  • I think there may be a certain amount of cross-purpose-talking here. When Blow talked about game narrative being unconscientious, I believe he was talking about cutscenes, or at least *conventional* storytelling methods, and you don’t seem to be against that.nnThe best practices lecture was composed at short notice. A far better articulation of his concerns are here and if you want to look deeper here where he talks about “architected ideas” vs “pushing” (he also briefly talks about Go and why he says it speaks to the human condition), Pushing is Jon’s *positive* advice for game design, and in the way he presents it, it is difficult to make it elegantly compatible with language (you never know though!)nnEssentially the most dubious thing about conventional game-narrative is the idea of story as a reward, partially because the idea of rewards on their own is uncomfortable, and partially because this requires a story to be separated from the gameplay. This leads to abominations like RPG characters who get shot regularly in fights being “held up” by armed enemies in cutscenes. The reason it must be separated is that in a gameplay system the player must really know the score, as it were. The player cannot be surprised, for example, because surprises, if they are meant to be a part of a challenge, feel cheap. The only way to make it coherent is to give the player another life or whatever, so that they can face up to the challenge – but they won’t have the surprise. And “having another life” is a far more gameplay-like construct – the surprise means little if you know you have other lives. Now, surprise is an integral part of narrative as I recognise it – I might even say that narrative IS a sequence of surprises.nnI’m making a game at the moment. For all that I think about the gameplay, I acknowledge the place that your reasoning has. I believe that great works of art are ones that fire on all cylinders. The game must look like *something*, therefore it should look beautiful. And what are the most beautiful things to look like? Human beings. And when you introduce elements that look like human beings, something like a narrative emerges. So I have fleshed out my narrative in a way that I hope is coherent with the gameplay, yet once or twice I have caught myself envisioning contrived, inelegant, irrelevant features.nnI have to say I do not recognize the story of Alice and Kev as a game. It is a playthrough of a game. A moving playthrough of a game, a game which simulates human events in a way that I personally find unmoving. I would like to draw an interesting comparison though: 3rd Strike is a game where narrative and gameplay get along. Its backgrounds and sprites have beauty and express a lot about the characters, but much of the character comes from the feeling of playing them. On top of that, we have this video – this video is a story. It is not a game.nnThe Marriage, to me, is a rehearsal for Gravitation. Gravitation is one of the best games of all time; it is also the most elegant and moving expression through gameplay of all time. It has a surprise. It also evokes a little bit through its visuals. I have ideas about how Rohrer managed to do this, but a complete understanding is beyond me.nnAlso in case he’s still reading this: Michael, Fatale is a wonderful piece of work.

  • Anonymous

    This article does not call for gameplay to be subordinated to graphics or narrative. If you read it that way, then I would suggest that you are misreading it.

  • Edible

    Depends on what the game is trying to do, you can make a good game with just good narrative or just good mechanics, or a nice mix.nnQuake 3 is by most accounts a fantastic game, purely based on mechanics (or even classic quake), and this tends to be how multiplayer games roll.nnYou have listed a nice set of good narrative games.nnUse the tools that suit your aim.

  • Pete

    One Step Back — yet another one of those “philosophical platformers”. “Company of myself”, too. I have to say, without the music setting the mood, they would not have conveyed their messages as well.

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  • Like the piece and agree but I think breathless rather than citizen kane is a better reference point for film because of the way citizen kane sublimates story to other forms of artistic expression within the film.

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  • i usually play Sim games. i like this games. i loader Sim 3. i see good games.

  • Ike

    “We can say the same of RPGs that require players to spend hours
    grinding through repetitive, tactically barren encounters in order to
    improve their stats enough to proceed. The abuse lies in the design, not
    in peppering such a game with beautiful vistas or compelling

    I think there’s far, far worse than games that require grinding.

    The worst for me are games that require loads of *walking*, like the Bethesda open world variety. Hours and hours of gameplay are devoted to just basically walking from point A to B.

    Even with fast travel, it takes minutes to get from one store in a town to another, and you’re doing it constantly.

    Comparatively, grindy games like X-Com actually seemed amazingly fun in comparison. A lot of the problem I see with RPG designs nowadays is this “open world” idea which has given way to “sparse world” design. It’s nowhere close to the likes of Ultima which had huge but varied worlds. Games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 have huge but repetitive worlds with content that just seem recycled all over the place.

    I’m one of those that finds World of Warcraft to be one of the most boring games ever made, as in no game has ever made me question how poorly I’m spending my time as WoW. Yet I loved Diablo 1 & 2. One of the differences between Diablo and WoW is that Diablo is a game with a closed world, very tight content, and a lot of randomization (fun!). WoW has little randomization and a huge world (boring!).

  • Ike

    Back to the point though, I think most of the dullest games for me rely the heaviest on narrative.

    Most of the ones I always considered the most fun didn’t quite as much. Shining Force was bland, generic good vs. evil tripe. Didn’t matter, combat was fun as hell. Grand Theft Auto might as well have no story, it could just let you steal cars and cause mayhem. Doesn’t matter, game engine was fun as hell. X-Com, was there even a story? I just remember killing aliens a lot and working my way to their mother ship. Sid Meier’s Pirates! — no story, you create your own. Diablo, who cares about the plot? Jagged Alliance 2, same deal. Same goes for Rogue Legacy, Faster than Light, Caravaneer.

    Fallout was semi-important in terms of narrative but it wasn’t like Final Fantasy (a series of games I absolutely hate). I think FF had such boring gameplay, basically boiling down to random encounters and selecting combat actions from a menu all day long that they needed cutscenes and cinematics and lots of writing to hide the fact that the gameplay was so boring.

    The exception for me might be Quest for Glory. Being a kind of adventure/action/RPG hybrid, the adventure elements of that strongly needed a narrative to tie it all together. Adventure games are an exception where I think the narrative is crucial to make things work.

  • Ike

    Another thing I think goes unappreciated here a lot is minimalism and simplicity.

    What isn’t written or spelled out in a game is usually more interesting: what’s left to mystery, imagination.

    Take original Metroid on Nintendo. The plot for the game was non-existent. There was more wording in the little booklet game manual that came with the game than the entire game.

    But it built atmosphere, a sense of imagination with minimal artwork and music. One could imagine an entire alien world in that game, as with a lot of Nintendo classics like Contra. They didn’t need to be spelled out.

    Aside from being economical, they seemed richer and more complex. Nowadays, you take the latest Metroid game and the story is so convoluted and spelled out that it’s nowhere near as interesting as it was perceived in the Nintendo era.

    What is omitted and left to imagination is often the most interesting part of a game’s narrative.