We’ve all been there. We’re playing a game, and a cutscene comes up. Our favorite character and the villain meet…and the villain kills them! We stare, dumbfounded, at the screen as the character’s allies cradle their corpse and scream to the high heavens “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!”.
And our only response is “Just bring them back to life like you always do. Jeez.”
What we’ve just experienced is gameplay and story segregation (aka, ludonarrative dissonance). Basically, this is any time the narrative requires something that simply does not make sense given our understanding of what goes on in actual gameplay. A commonly lampooned example is Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII(the Final Fantasy series as a whole has a big issue with this, like with Palom and Porom turning to stone…nope Golden Needles don’t help either). While in many cases it serves to only take you out of things for a moment, sometimes it just turns things on its head. I doubt anyone would say Final Fantasy VII is ruined by the relatively minor plothole of Aerith’s death (maybe all those other times she “died” she was just unconscious or something), but that’s because the game is solidly plotted otherwise. This is an anomaly, so we can give it the benefit of the doubt.
It’s when this kind of thing happens in a story multiple times though that we hit a snag. Fallout 3 is one of the best examples of this. Now, I like Fallout 3. It’s one of my favorite games ever (though I will never play it without running it through Tale of Two Wastelands again). Buuut, you can’t really claim its plot doesn’t have issues. Most people like to harp on the scene at the end, where you need to activate Project Purity and die of radiation poisoning as your robot, ghoul, or Super Mutant companion laughs at your misfortune in raw sadistic glee. And yes this is dumb. Yes it takes you out of the narrative and kills the moment, sapping it of any emotional impact because you’re too busy screaming “WHAT? WHY? THIS IS DUMB!” at the screen. But I don’t think it would be so universally reviled if the whole game leading up to it hadn’t been riddled with the same issue. The biggest offender in the who game, in my opinion, is the sequence at the end of Vault 87, where you are ambushed and summarily knocked out by a never before seen, and never to be seen again knockout gas grenade that somehow doesn’t affect someone else who isn’t wearing a gas mask r anything…because reasons. This is a game where you wade through armies, survive nuclear powered car explosions and are fine after eating some potato chips, and three guys with a single grenade take you out with no issue.
Not only does this kind of plothole negatively impact story cohesion, it negatively impacts player engagement, investment, and suspension of disbelief. Every time you pull this the player is going to focus harder on it, they’re going to care less about the next plot beat, and they’re going to start nitpicking everything else wrong.
This kind of plot hole is the saddest kind because it’s easily avoided…if you design a game the right way. Going to invoke my rarely used Extra Credits card here, because they illustrate the likely primary source of this common problem: People write the narrative first (or worse, completely separately) and the mechanics afterward, with little thought to how they’ll mesh. The above plot holes would be easily fixable if the game was designed first, and story designed around that. You could identify potential pitfalls (like your game having a resurrection mechanic) and write in an explanation. It doesn’t even need to be a really good one; you’d be surprised what you can get away with in writing a story and just acknowledging its flaws EXIST. People like to give writers the benefit of the doubt when they’re not being slapped in the face by blatant dissonance.
As an example: Bioshock. The original, that is. It is possible to die in that game, and rather than reload from a previous save you simply respawn at a nearby spawn point. It was designed this way to make the game more fun and less punishing to die, and could have made for some major gameplay and story segregation if you were in danger during cutscenes or what have you. But a simple explanation that these respawn points existed in the world, and a subtle reveal that they only worked for people with Andrew Ryan’s DNA (a powerful hint at the protagonist’s origin that’s easy to overlook at first). A disadvantage is turned into a narrative advantage, just that easily.
If more games designed their games first, and wrote narratives second, we’d have far fewer of these frustrating moments. Thankfully games seem to be trending that way somewhat, but the same companies keep making the same mistakes much of the time. Hopefully they’ll get with the program too.