Overlooking Gameplay Mechanics: Is The Story Enough To See A Video Game To The End?

One of the biggest reasons I got into gaming are the well-crafted stories behind the cool graphics and fun gameplay. Stories with an emotional heartbeat and memorable moments that will remain with you even after the last credits have rolled. It’s a connection I seek out in much of the video games I play. So what do you do when you encounter a game that has a potentially mind blowing story, but to get there, you have to slog through gameplay that’s less than what you expected?

A few months ago I finally purchased Dontnod Entertainment’s Vampyr for the Xbox One. After the studio gifted us with a gem like the Life Is Strange series, it really felt like a no brainer to add this to my growing list of backlogged games to play. Dontnod also has a proven track record of bringing gamers compelling story and characters with decision trees that are far more complex than they appear to be. And to have their next game set in the world of vampires and 1918 London? I was all in on experiencing a dark and gothic tale about a newly turned doctor struggling against succumbing to the beast within to feed on the innocent and not so innocent civilians he’s supposed to save. After an hour or two spent on Vampyr, I already hit a snag with the game—the combat controls.

Vampyr takes the intricacy of making decisions from Life Is Strange, but tosses in an open world and combat component. As Dr. Jonathan Reid, you’re encouraged to skulk around every back alley and abandoned building for useful items that will help you craft medicines to cure the sick or subsist on the occasional rat you see scurrying around for their blood, if you’re avoiding to kill any humans for your own survival. But like any open world game, you’re bound to run into creatures or unfriendly folks who will act hostile towards you and attack. Unfortunately, the combat is lackluster and mostly frustrating than fun.

[Credit: Dontnod Entertainment]
While the game presents a bit of a challenge to fight against enemies, should you choose to go on an all rats and non-NPC diet, it really shouldn’t be impossible to gain the upper hand in a fight with these restrictions. The controls feel disjointed and unresponsive at the worst of times. There are instances when I would push certain buttons to have Dr. Reid deliver a devastating blow only to get his ass handed to him instead. Somehow, fighting in this game sucks (no pun intended) the fun out of being a vampire. Rather than wanting to run headlong into a battle, I want to run away and avoid it at all costs. Since then I haven’t picked the game back up.

I’m a little disappointed that I can’t motivate myself to continue with Vampyr. It’s not like this is Dontnod Entertainment’s first foray into the action adventure realm. Their first game Remember Me had a balance of pretty decent combat and smoother controls that didn’t frustrate, though, I have yet to finish the game in its entirety. It’s a little baffling why Vampyr, arguably a similar type of game but in a different setting, doesn’t play as well. At least to me it doesn’t. From what I have played of Vampyr, it looks like the studio spent more time developing the story than in perfecting the overall gameplay. This isn’t the first time I played a game where the gameplay is mediocre but the overall story is phenomenal. The best example of this is Spec Ops: The Line.

Released back in 2012, 2K Games’ third-person shooter video game wouldn’t have been on my radar initially if it wasn’t for a good friend giving it to me as a gift one year. I’ve written about my time playing Spec Ops: The Line on the blog many years ago, and it’s certainly a game that isn’t what you would expect. The narrative is surprising and carefully written to give gamers an amazing and thought provoking experience. It’s truly one of a kind, but what this game does have in common with Vampyr is having gameplay that is more on the wonky side. Again, I dealt with button commands not registering the way it’s supposed to whenever I needed Walker of Spec Ops: The Line to do simple actions, such as ducking in and out of cover. I remember being irritated with the gameplay here, except maybe not as much as Vampyr since I did complete this game and I got one of four possible endings.

[Credit: 2K Games]
This brings me back to my original question in the title of the post, can story ever be enough to overlook a flawed gameplay system? Maybe, but there’s a lot to consider. It depends on how bad the gameplay is and how patient you are in soldiering through it to be rewarded with a satisfying payoff in the end. I think the gameplay issues in Spec Ops: The Line were minor enough to not detract from the story as a whole. Vampyr, on the other hand, has been more of a challenge to keep playing because the controls to make Dr. Reid fight effectively against opponents has too many kinks I haven’t been able to ignore. There is an easy mode to the game that will allow you to focus more on the story than the fighting aspect, but that’s not what I came for. I want a balance of both story and somewhat challenging gameplay. Playing it on normal shouldn’t feel like I’m playing it on a higher difficulty setting every time I enter a fight.

I’m not saying I have given up on playing Vampyr and seeing Dr. Jonathan Reid’s journey to the end. I’m just not in any hurry to finish the game at the moment.

Do you think a good story will always make up for a flawed gameplay design? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

9 thoughts on “Overlooking Gameplay Mechanics: Is The Story Enough To See A Video Game To The End?

  1. I don’t think story can completely overcome gameplay. I played Vampyr as well, and actually liked it for the most part. I felt the combat was often clunky too. Against single opponents, I thought Dr. Reid felt very powerful thanks to his ability to chain dodges together. Against multiple opponents, bosses, and over-leveled enemies (10+ levels higher), it’s like he was made of glass. There were several encounters that took me many, many tries to get past and I found it really frustrating. However, I didn’t mind this *too* much because I felt like it was in keeping with how difficulty works in Vampyr: feeding = power = easier game, while abstaining = weakness = harder game. Such a system wouldn’t work if the combat controls were more intuitive. Long story short: I found the combat frustrating, but tolerated it due due to the difficulty system being unique among games I’ve played. (Hopefully they can implement it in a way that feels better in their next game, if indeed they try to do it again.)

    All that said though, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going with Vampyr if I didn’t think the exploration part of the game was interesting. Without that, the story simply wouldn’t have been enough. Games are supposed to be about gameplay first and foremost. If there isn’t something interesting/enjoyable for the player to do, then they aren’t going to enjoy playing the game. If the story is still good, one would be much better served just looking it up on YouTube.

    1. You make a good point. Obviously, the best games are the ones that have a good balance of both—story and gameplay. Neither can do without the other. But yeah, that’s my initial frustration with Vampyr. Single enemies are fine for the most part. But against multiple or higher level ones? Forget it. As I said, I’ll probably go back to the game at some point. Right now, I’m just not interested in trying to invest more time into it at the moment.

      1. Yeah, no reason to force yourself if you’re not having fun. Almost gave up too about 3/4 of the way through. There was a particular encounter that I was not built for and didn’t allow enough room for the usual chain-dodging. Very frustrating. Felt cheap and broken.

  2. I actually didn’t finish either of these games (Vampyr or Spec Ops) because they both didn’t do it for me from a gameplay standpoint. I definitely think there is sort of a bar that a game has to clear from a gameplay point of view for me to be able to keep playing it just for the story. And I guess that bar probably moves a bit based on just how good the story, characters, etc. are.

    Poor controls are the thing that frustrates me the most in games now. That is probably what is most likely to get me to drop something. If the actual gameplay is a bit rote or by the numbers but it controls slickly, I can deal with that more easily than say really poor or unresponsive controls.

    I guess ultimately there are a number of factors that weigh into the answer to the question you pose, but it is definitely something I have thought with many games as they sort of hovered around that bar I mentioned earlier. Great topic and post here.

    1. Thanks! I guess how each person answers that question will differ based on what matters to them the most in video games. You had a hard time continuing with Vampyr and Spec Ops, whereas for me, I’m able to push through with Spec Ops and experience an incredible story for my trouble. With Vampyr, I still can’t quite bring myself to move forward with it, despite knowing that the story is probably done well.

  3. I’m in line with the other commentors here. If I can’t actually *play* a game, no amount of awesome story is going to make me want to push through. For me, Thief is a good example of this. Its finicky controls and uninteresting gameplay were the two major reasons why I gave it up. The story seemed pretty solid, but for that, all I needed to do was watch a 15-minute YouTube video. Saved me a ton of effort!

    1. Yeah, especially with our time being as limited as it is, you’re probably better off watching the story on YouTube to see how it all ends. I guess I haven’t really reached that point yet. I rather experience the story on my own than watch someone else who managed to get through the whole game. There’s something really satisfying in the moment when you can just experience the story first hand on your own. There’s an excitement and thrill about it that’s simply not there when you watch a YouTube video on it.

  4. Brilliant post!

    You really got me thinking as to whether a good story can save a game with a flawed gameplay design.

    My idea of an excellent game is it has to have a good story and a well-designed gameplay.

    If the gameplay is forgiving, maybe a good story can compensate.

    I remember back in 2005, Quantic Dream had this cinematic interactive drama action-adventure called Fahrenheit.

    It was criticized for having meaningless Quick Time Events and bad controls but hey its phenomenal cinematic story telling was a saving grace.

    Conversely, Final Fantasy X-2 received so much praise for its outright beautiful combat system.

    Thanks for sharing about Vampyr. Now I know what I’m getting into when I play it.

    1. Thank you! Yeah, the key to a really great game is having amazing story and gameplay from the start. It’s a bit frustrating when a game doesn’t have a balance of both. Like there’s something missing from it. I suppose not all games can nail both, but I think that’s what gamers always hope for when they pick up a game they’re interested in. You want to get what you paid for and have it be worth your time and effort to play.

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