Content of the article: "Gameplay-first vs. Story-first design: Do you buy this distinction? And which do you prefer?"
I once read a behind-the-scenes interview about Super Mario Sunshine. Nintendo said they came up with the core water pack (FLUDD) gameplay first, then built the rest of the game around it. It was a classic example of "gameplay-first" design. Get the central mechanic locked in and polished, then add other elements—like a world and story—later.
Nintendo is almost always a gameplay-first designer. Pikmin centers around the core experience of marshaling tiny plant armies and tossing them onto big beasties. The surrounding story? Good enough, but nothing terribly special. Then there's Splatoon. It plays like butter: smooth, tight, just right. But it's not going to win any story of the year awards.
On the flip side you have a game like The Witcher 3. The world is shockingly well-realized, the characters deep and unforgettable. Every side-quest adds to the player's understanding of the world. And all of it is in service to a deep, sprawling story. But the actual mechanics? The way the game plays? Fine? It's a classic case of story-first design. Build out the world, write all the characters, nail down the core gameplay later.
It's a fun distinction to make, and we as humans love to place things into neat categories. But do you buy it? Curious if this rings true for you.
As a way to stress test it, here's my attempt at categorizing some recent popular games. You might disagree with a few of these:
- Gameplay-first: Sekiro, Bloodborne, Fall Guys, Fortnite, Minecraft, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Splatoon, ARMS, Cuphead, Ori, Marvel's Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn
- Story-first: Uncharted 4, The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher 3, Persona 5, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Mass Effect, INSIDE, What Remains of Edith Finch, Life is Strange, Until Dawn
Naturally, the game's genre factors in pretty heavily. A traditional RPG will most likely be story-first. A platfomer will usually be gameplay-first. But there are exceptions. I'd guess that INSIDE (a platformer) started with the world building and atmosphere, while the actual running and jumping was secondary. Meanwhile, I could argue that Octopath Traveler is actually gameplay-first. It's got a really tight battle system, but then there are 8 disparate stories seemingly slapped on top.
Finally, genres in the middle—like action RPGs and open world adventures—seem like they can go either way.
Personally, I tend to prefer gameplay-first. I like internalizing the mechanics of a game, gradually mastering them, forgetting I even have a controller in my hands. It's one reason I love the Souls series so much. Yes, the story/lore is there for those who want it. But the core gameplay is so pure and so central.
Meanwhile, I couldn't finish The Witcher 3—despite putting in nearly 40 hours—because the core gameplay just didn't feel good enough to me. The story/world could only hold my attention so long.
But there have been exceptions. I loved how unapologetically story-first Firewatch is. The writing is great and the game is just about perfectly paced. I also really enjoyed the original Last of Us, and mostly for its story.
Anyway, curious to hear what you think of this distinction, and if you buy it, which type of game you tend to prefer. (And as a bonus, whether any games in your less-preferred category have pleasantly surprised you.)
- SIBThe Last of Us Part II if I enjoy story games.
- I’ve realized that gameplay alone is not the only thing that draws me into a game.
- Splatoon 2 or Kirby: Star Allies
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