I remember this one part from Final Fantasy II ("Final Fantasy IV" for you video game purists out there), where the heroes are tasked with defending a castle from a continual onslaught of monsters from the villain's army. At this point in the storyline, the heroes are supposed to be fighting a desperate, last-ditch battle in an attempt to save the castle in a hopeless, undermanned situation. The trouble is, gameplay-wise, the bad guys are actually pretty easy. Even as a 10-year-old I was able to dispatch them without too much difficulty. But after each round of combat, the heroes would announce, "We can't hold this position any longer! Fall back to the next room!" And I'm just sitting there, ignorant ten-year-old that I am, going "I JUST BEAT THE BAD GUYS. WE'RE HOLDING OUT JUST FINE." Even though I won every individual battle, the sequence ends with Golbez, the generic-feeling Darth-Vader-like bad guy, sweeping in with his big purple cape and stealing the castle's magic crystal, as well as kidnapping the hero's girlfriend. It was a bit of a frustrating feeling. I won the battle, so why should I lose the story?
Well, now that I'm older, I appreciate the tricky balance that the game designers were trying to achieve with this. The fact is, even though they didn't quite finesse the situation, they did achieve a significant victory. I might have been a little frustrated and confused, but I was still very invested in the plotline, and I still felt like I had "won" that section of the plot somehow. I had to see what happened next, but I still felt like I had made progress in the game. That's a tricky balance that a number of more recent games have failed to achieve, believe it or not.
In order for the player to be invested in a game's story, the threat level has to feel like it's generally increasing. It doesn't have to always increase (and probably shouldn't, as that gets exhausting), but the general arc needs to push the suspense meter higher as the game progresses. This is a fairly basic storytelling principle. You get your hero up a tree in Act I, throw rocks at him in Act II, etc. The hero has to keep LOSING until finally, at the climax, the hero either finally wins ("quest") or is totally defeated ("tragedy"). The trouble is that in the context of a video game, the player needs to feel constantly rewarded - small-scale victories eventually leading to the grand, final victory when the game is won. These concepts would seem to be mutually exclusive. How can I write a story that keeps increasing the dramatic stakes while at the same time making the player feel like they're making steady progress? How can the player both lose battles and win battles at the same time?
Final Fantasy II accomplished this by essentially divorcing the gameplay from the story at key moments. Yes, your heroes win the individual battles they fight - but those battles are only a small part of the larger story, over which they have no control, and which is getting worse and worse for the heroes. This occasionally results in feelings of frustration, but more frequently it keeps the player's interest alive. Here are some more examples from Final Fantasy II:
- Game Success: The player reaches the castle of Damcyan / Story Failure: The castle has already been destroyed by Golbez
- Game Success: The player rescues Yang from monsters / Story Failure: The monsters have already killed the rest of Fabul's army
- Game Success: The player slays the evil king of Baron / Story Failure: The king was just Golbez's puppet
- Game Success: The player defeats the demonic dancing dolls / Story Failure: Golbez's severed hand takes the crystal anyway
In this way, the game (roughly) manages to make the player feel like the story's stakes are increasing AND that the player is somehow making progress and achieving goals.
Contrast this with the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The introduction starts out pretty strongly - it turns out that the entire land of Hyrule has been overtaken by a mysterious dimension called "Twilight," turning the kingdom into a playground for freaky monsters and all the people into ghosts. The trouble is that the villains are never stronger than they are at the beginning. As Link clears each temple in succession, the Twilight gradually recedes from the land until it's restricted to a single pyramid around Hyrule Castle. The story stakes actually go DOWN as Link makes progress in the game - the villain gets weaker and weaker until Link finally finishes the job in the last act.
Granted, Zelda has never been much of a story-driven game, so it's somewhat forgivable. But Ocarina of Time, a previous Zelda title, handled it better. Do you remember how, halfway through the game, you're teleported 10 years into the future and Hyrule Castle Town is destroyed and swarming with moaning zombies? How Hyrule Castle has been replaced with Ganon's volcanic palace? That was an excellent, disturbing moment, and represented a more successful raising of stakes. Young Link may have successfully found the three amulets in the past (gameplay achievement!), but now that he's in the future, it's a whole new ballgame (story stakes are raised!).
So it can be done. Golbez proves it!