Far too often when I’m playing big budget games I see a huge disconnect between the gameplay on offer and the story. These massive titles seem all too content to riff on popular film techniques instead of embracing what makes video games unique and interesting. And it is for this reason that I was extremely surprised when I recently played through Titanfall 2 where the bulk of the character story is told through gameplay. Yes you read that correctly. A shooting game made by former Call of Duty developers has good interactive story-telling. So let’s take a look at how and why Titanfall 2 speaks through gameplay.
For those not in the know, Titanfall 2 is a first person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment that came out back in 2016. The game has two somewhat unique gimmicks that form the core of its identity. The first is the ability for players to summon massive mechanical titans that they can pilot in battle. The second is a number of movement based abilities centered around gaining and maintaining momentum while players have boots on the ground. This creates two distinct types of gameplay where players flip-flop back and forth between being a goliath powerhouse and a nimble pinball, which makes for a satisfying shooter experience.
During the single player campaign of Titanfall 2 we get to step into the shoes of Jack Cooper, a rifleman currently enlisted in the militia forces of the rebellion. Shortly after the tutorial, Cooper is forcefully paired up with an autonomous titan named BT-7274 and the two of them have to work together to carry out their mission. Cooper and BT have very different abilities and it is through these differences that we’ll see them form a symbiotic relationship. Where they would fail as an individual, they succeed as a team and the campaign continually illustrates this through gameplay.
As an example I’d like to look at the second level in the game. After completing the first titan segment, BT and Cooper are separated. When finally their paths cross again BT is behind a wall of sewage and Cooper is beset by an onslaught of enemy soldiers. BT voices concern and wishes to assist, but isn’t able to see the skirmish and doesn’t want to injure Cooper accidentally. Because of this, BT sends out a sonar scan that highlights every enemy on Cooper’s helmet display. This gives Cooper a significant edge against the overwhelming forces until the sewage wall clears and BT is able to start shooting alongside him.
Several levels later, Cooper and BT need to replace a satellite’s relay so BT tracks down an operational relay and the pair set out to retrieve it. Unfortunately, shortly along the way it becomes clear that BT won’t be able to cross an enormous gap to get to the relay so it throws Cooper over the gap to continue pressing forward. After running a platforming gauntlet Cooper obtains the relay at which point the roles from the second level are reversed and BT requests Cooper’s assistance as it is under attack. As players rush to help they’re able to flank soldiers heading to BT before they eventually reconvene with their robot pal and fight alongside each other to repel the assault.
On the surface neither of these examples seem special, but they both allow Titanfall to demonstrate how Cooper and BT learn to fight alongside each other as a team. In the second level the dynamic duo are still getting to know one another, but BT finds a way to assist Cooper despite being separated from the action. Likewise, Cooper is able to assist BT in the satellite relay level by performing a task that BT can’t while also taking out soldiers who are enroute to BT’s location. In both of these instances the gameplay is speaking for the characters so they don’t have to.
Titanfall 2’s approach to telling the story of Cooper and BT is so subtle that I didn’t really notice all of it until my second play-through. Respawn have very intentionally designed many of the levels and encounters therein to demonstrate how Cooper and BT need one another to succeed. What’s even better is that as the player improves at using both of these characters they’ll naturally demonstrate the increased aptitude that Cooper and BT have fighting alongside one another.
Titanfall 2 uses the individual gameplay mechanics of both of its main characters to help solidify their relationship in a way that simply wouldn’t be as effective through dialogue or cutscenes. You don’t need to be told that Cooper and BT are improving as a team because you get to be an active participant in making that happen. Given that video games are the only medium where this kind of personal story-telling can be achieved I’d like to see other games attempt something similar. Titanfall 2 sets a remarkably good example for how video games can act as interactive stories and a lot of developers could stand to learn from it.