How should we evaluate narrative tension in videogames?
I recently played through 2013's Tomb Raider and it was a delight -- a wonderful reboot that modernized a series whose originals I loved but that are quite dated by today's standards.
In the game, Lara, the main character, is in peril constantly, and she is driven into worse and worse situations in an effort to save her crewmates and friend. The narrative of the game demands immediate action -- any dawdling risks all of the characters' lives.
Of course, we know that games' timelines aren't necessarily time-driven but character-driven, so it is trivial for Lara to stop at any point in the game and not advance the story. The killers who are prepared to murder your friends will patiently wait around as long as necessary. Furthermore, the game gives you plenty of reason to do so! There are collectibles to find and story and lore bits scattered about the levels that you have to go out of your way to encounter. Finding these gets you more XP and resources which unlock skills and weapons that make the game easier. The game lets you fast travel back and forth to different areas as needed, and I spent a good amount of time at the story's height of tension not resolving that tension by advancing to the climax but by ignoring it and scouring the island for all the things I missed instead.
I use Tomb Raider as an example here, but I'm sure you can think of plenty of other examples where the game directly incentivize actions that outright subvert its story. What I find interesting is that, on paper, I should care about this discrepancy, but in practice I really don't. In fact it's customary for me to do this in nearly every game I play, as I find that I like "checklisting" and cleaning things up rather than advancing the plot (of course -- do I actually like that, or do I merely like that I get rewards for doing so?).
I don't have a singular question to ask but instead have some jumping off points for discussion:
- Is this undermining of narrative tension an actual issue, or is it just part of the suspension of disbelief embedded into the medium of gaming?
- Have you felt that particular games were made worse due to this issue? If so, why? If not, why not?
- What games are counterexamples -- games whose narrative tension is not undercut by their gameplay? What makes them work? Does that aspect benefit the game, or would the game be roughly the same (or better) without it?
- If you consider this an issue, does the "responsibility" for it lie with the developer of the game for incentivizing gameplay counter to narrative, or does the "responsibility" lie with the player for ruining their enjoyment of the narrative by pursuing other goals?
Also, don't feel limited by these questions or my choice of game and feel free to address anything else relevant to this idea that you feel is important or relevant.
I love Tomb Raider, be it 1996 or 2013. I agree with your assessment of the reboot insofar as I felt no particular sense of urgency to complete the narrative once I cleared any given area. I remember taking great lengths to 100% the collectibles, despite it not being particularly fun in and of itself. Completionism is a mindset that dominates video games, and is implicitly encouraged by developers with the inclusion of such materials. I'm not really a fan of this practice, especially in the case of open-world RPGs like The Witcher 3 (2015), as I believe that stuffing games with irrelevant material dilutes their aesthetic and experiential value. However, I would also clarify that the concept of "side content" is not automatically an issue in a game, and in fact many titles are made far more interesting because of their supplementary areas, items, and mechanics; that is, their omission would be their ruin.
I'm of the opinion that a narrative—for the purposes of this argument, described herein as the conduit for the work's philosophical thesis or overarching artistic telos, however strong or weak it may be—cannot be extricated from the gameplay in which it finds itself situated. Fundamentally, the video game is a medium comprised of other mediums; to pretend otherwise is simply to revert to one of said component media, which defeats the purpose of making a game.
No game exists that can honestly be described as having a narrative that is not influenced by its mechanics, level design choices, entities, and other game elements. It is not even possible to create one with any particular coherence, even as an art piece; by virtue of intending to somehow create a narrative entirely separate from the work's gameplay, a developer must necessarily embrace a type of gameplay that (intentionally) disrupts the narrative, thereby recognizing it all the same, and inadvertently creating a counter-narrative which ultimately subverts the primary narrative to itself become the game's primary artistic focus. Within the realm of tangible works, the remaining choices are: 1) a work with no narrative at all, i.e. a fun, though ultimately mechanical procedure that exists outside the realm of this prompt 2) a work with no gameplay at all, i.e. a literal book/film, or 3) a work that is not fulfilling to players on account of making no sense and having components so extraneous as to wholly invalidate or distract from the narrative. (For example, a game clearly intended to have a narrative-gameplay dialectic that is unfortunately impossible to comprehensibly navigate.)
Conversely (equally), and somewhat less intuitively, the gameplay of a given title cannot really be extricated from the narrative it supports (or complements). To extricate it fully is to deny the existence of a narrative, which, as stated, has no bearing on the matter at hand. I would actually make the argument that even a game like Pong (1972) still has a "narrative" of sorts, though I would better describe it as a telos, insofar as any competitive sport has a certain overarching purpose, even if it is not laid out in prose. But this is a tangential matter that I must revisit at another time. To return to the argument, you can absolutely create games whose narratives are only vaguely related to their gameplay elements (with one or the other being more dominant)—my belief is that, in almost all circumstances, rejecting a unity of narrative and gameplay elements rejects the fundamental purpose of the medium of video games, and thereby weakens each individual element's position within the work as a whole. That is to say, while an individual, disjunct element in a game (such as a narrative) can be strong in and of itself, if it is not properly complemented by additional elements (such as game mechanics) themselves constructed with enough care, the "game" as a whole does not live up to what it could live up to. This does not make it automatically "bad," just "less than it could be." Of course, when applied to games whose quality bars are "fine," the natural proclivity of this diminution in experiential quality is for them to end up "meh" or, as the case may be, "a waste of time." As with every passing second we each hurtle rapidly toward our demise, I feel that time is of great import! I see no purpose in playing games which fail to properly make use of every element of the medium of video games when, if I wanted a masterpiece in just one, I could seek it elsewhere.
My analysis here exists as a theoretical framework. Just as it is for all intents and purposes impractical to create a game that truly has no relationship between narrative and gameplay (and also functions as an enjoyable game), it is effectively impossible to create a game that strikes an absolutely perfect balance between all of its constituent elements. However, I believe that there are several games that come pretty close. I am not a video game critic, and therefore may not have the exposure to all titles that some of my fellow Tildestians do; I am also not a complete snob, only a mild one, and do not bear any serious resentment toward such genres as visual novels, sport simulators, or Candy Crush (2012) derivatives. As an addendum to the above argument, I would add that the optimal balance between narrative and gameplay within a title varies greatly in accordance with its genres, intended audience, historical and sociopolitical context, hardware standards, and any number of other factors. Thus there is no way to create a "rubric" of "games that properly integrate all their constituent elements" that is not quite vague, focusing on the subjective player experience as the only emergent property of the work, rather than the actual components themselves. A video game is not a game until it is played; until then, it is simply a screenplay, score, vocal performance, art gallery, and robotics demonstration that all happen to be in the same room.
Of interest here is a game by Jonathon Blow called The Witness (2016), whose thesis I would personally describe as an attack on the video game industry's rejection of the theory I have laid out above (more or less). This is never directly stated in the work, but I feel that it becomes sufficiently obvious in playing through the variously "required" or "optional" puzzles in the game that the distinction between them (and thereby the narrative/gameplay) is almost nonexistent. Through a carefully structured world and an extremely intentional lack of emphasis on collectibles, Blow argues that the player is best treated by a game that allows them to take on the puzzles they want to take on and not feel bad about backing off from completionism. Exploration and by extension an implicit narrative are encouraged by the design of the game world, which is open, but full of puzzles, whose completion in turn open it up even further. The work has obvious structure, and a certain type of progression is revealed as puzzles are finished—the world changes a little, and what I could describe as "narrative elements" hidden around the map become more available. However, there is not exactly a hard separation between "narrative" and "gameplay" because of the care that is taken to avoid a jarring contrast between them, and to avoid hamfisting a generic narrative into a puzzle world (these "narrative elements," which are mostly statuary and audio fragments, feel very appropriate). I am reminded of George Miller's comment about Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) of a similar nature: "Most movies have the talky bits and the fighty bits; in this movie, they're the same thing" (heavily paraphrased); in an ideal multimedia work, a perfect relationship between these elements is the goal. Completing a puzzle in The Witness places the audience that much further along the "narrative," or the "aesthetic thesis of the work." And indeed, finishing enough puzzles opens up a certain gameplay event that, constituting a change from the formula of "start puzzle -> finish puzzle," suggests a perception of narrative finality that never requires an awkward dialogue scene to catch the player up. If they've gotten that far, they understand it already. Of course, the game does not actually "end" there; very much in the spirit of discouraging a pointless rendition of completionism, Blow places additional material slightly more clearly associated with a traditional narrative deeper within the puzzle network, allowing interested players to continue exploring to the true aesthetic climax while not turning the process into a grind for those who are satisfied with what they've already achieved. One might feel pressured to complete such an ending in search of the useless title of "100% completed," but that originates externally, not from the game itself. Every game tries to varying degrees to integrate gameplay and narrative in such a way that one suits the other, but The Witness is one of the first games I've seen to really critique the industry in this exact way while also presenting what is, at its core, a very good puzzle game. In many ways it's an art piece, but its unified "gameplay narrative" is not artificially hampered by this quality; rather, it is what makes it work. As I alluded to earlier, the context surrounding a game informs the way in which its narrative and gameplay interact; the game's telos happens to provide the setup for a recognizable and decipherable integration of these elements so that both aesthetic and mechanical value are heightened.
Beyond meta works like The Witness, the title that first comes to my mind as a good example of this integration or fusion of narrative and gameplay is Valve's Portal (2007), which I'm sure you're familiar with. I have played games with more elaborate background lore (e.g. Skyrim ), more robust object manipulation (e.g. Half-Life 2 ), more extravagant art direction (e.g. Ori and the Blind Forest ), or whatever else, and all of them offered good experiences. Individually, any one of these elements could be argued to be superior to its equivalent in Portal. However, when I sit down and really try to consider the finest examples of holistic quality in the industry, I am hard-pressed to diverge from a refutation of any of those works being superior in sum. Remembering, of course, that a game is a game only in its entirety, as its components considered individually make it a different medium, I would clarify that in appreciating Portal for its emergent quality as a unified work I am not "settling" for a lower bar for any one of its constituent elements. Portal, for what it seeks to do, accomplishes just that. And, honestly, its scope is deceptive; it's the type of game that can keep you thinking for a long time. Rarely does a title evoke such distinction after 14 years. Every element that it does have is carefully integrated with the rest: the premise is novel, the gameplay progression is natural and thought-provoking, the level design is intuitive but innovative, the characters are robust and full of life (so to speak), the lore is intriguing (but not overbearing), and the little quirks hidden throughout (particularly the radios) provide an additional level of entertainment nominally separate from but ultimately within the context of the "gameplay narrative." To compare object-seeking in Portal with the stalled tension you describe in Tomb Raider, the facts of GLaDOS' physical orientation, extensive but ultimately limited capabilities, and temporal comfort being what they are ensures that any time spent by the player looking for radios hidden in strange places, privately debating whether or not to throw a cube with a heart on it into a fire, or crawling into walls to read about cake does not create an active sense of disjunction within the narrative. In development, Valve recognized that the structure they envisioned with Portal allowed for these very qualities; they were not just lucky. If the testing process had an inherent time limit, then of course the structure of these extra gameplay elements would, in the ideal, be different; not necessarily gone, but appropriately suited for whatever alternative context they existed within. In a hypothetical worst-case scenario, the fast pacing would be offset by poorly designed gameplay complements that cause the player to question, "Why am I doing these things in the context of the narrative?" But this need not be considered, as Portal has no such issues. One may argue that Portal 2 (2011) does an even greater job than its predecessor on account of its greater depth, and I would respect that analysis.
I could probably come up with more examples—DOOM (2016) comes to mind for its pairing of visceral combat with relatively intelligent level design and an excellent soundtrack—but it's getting late and I've written far too much already. I'd be interested in hearing what other people have to say about this prompt, as I believe it's an interesting and important one to bring up. I've taken a highly academic position here; like you, in the "real world," I'm not actually bothered by the utter lack of urgency to complete, say, the main quest in Skyrim before its many hundreds of side quests—intellectually, maybe a bit, but not enough to make a fuss about it; a joke or two at most. In fact, ignoring the main quest until the last possible moment is how I tend to play most open-world RPGs. In some cases, a misguided attempt to excessively integrate narrative and gameplay has the capacity to irritate players just as much as not integrating them enough does; take, for instance, the insistence of Fallout 4 (2015) on completing the main quest bothered many players who sought a more open-ended role-playing experience. As I stated before, a game's genre and other contextual aspects affect the relationship its various elements have with one another. Skyrim is a power fantasy that tries to give the player a certain amount of leeway in determining their place in the world, so if that means becoming the head of every major faction in the province before dealing with the end of the world, so be it. In Fallout 4, player expectations are similar but developer expectations are somewhat more focused on the narrative, leading to an "aesthetic break" when players avoid the main quest out of spite, rather than unadulterated intent to roleplay for its own merit. In a game like the Tomb Raider reboot, Lara Croft is a narrative-defined character whose circumstances require something of a sense of urgency on the part of the player in their gameplay escapades. Therefore, dillydallying to find obscure GPS caches when the narrative implies you should be moving forward creates a similar aesthetic break in the work. In the original Tomb Raider, hanging out in tombs is the entire point; the only reason Croft is there is to find artifacts, so taking a long time finding the game's many secrets (which I have never fully been able to do) makes a certain amount of sense.
The complexity of video games is their foremost attraction but also their Achilles' heel. A thoughtfully designed game can be an unrivaled multimedia experience that no book, no movie, no composition could ever hope to achieve on its own. Games involve player agency, spatial design, narrative, visuals, audio, and so much more; and that's what makes them special. But when developers fail to create a work that exists in harmony with itself, the experience can be all the more frustrating to players. Of course, everyone's reading of these things is going to be different, which is the beautiful thing about art. At the end of the day, if your gut feeling about a game is good, then that's that.
I think the game I've played that comes together the most cohesively between narrative and gameplay mechanics is Papers, Please.
This is an entire game in which you play as a national border agent to an autocracy in a state turmoil and growing unrest. Your entire role in the game is the wake up, go to work, and check passports all day. All the gameplay mechanics are about running a border crossing booth and checking entry papers.
Every in-game day, you have to walk to work, and read the latest border entry instructions, as the rising turmoil in the country means regulations have to be adjusted accordingly at a daily rate now. You check those instructions against your previous ones and understand what you need to allow someone through. You open your booth for business. A person walks up to your booth and slides in their passport. You have to take it, you have to open it, you have to flip through it to find the information you need and crosscheck it against your information resources. Ultimately, you have to rubberstamp your approval or denial their entry into the nation of Arstotzka. Then the next person comes up. You do this until the workday is over, and then you close up and go home. This is the entire game.
At the end of the day, you get paid per person you processed. You earn a meager wage, this is not a glamorous position in the party. You are the first line of defense, they will tell you, but you are also not important enough to earn a big wage in this society. You have a large family to take care of. You need to work fast to make enough money. If you don't, you must choose between food, shelter, or medicine. If you do well, you can move your family upwards into better housing but you'd have to work so fast and so hard for so long to do it. You can do it if you really try... right? You just have to be a diligent, hard worker for the glory of Arstotzka.
If you approve someone who is not supposed to enter, your pay gets docked. They know immediately when you've done it. Three of these in a day and you can expect a visit from state authorities, and you don't get paid. How will you feed and shelter your family without income, comrade? You have to work hard and work well for Arstotzka, and your family.
This is all the basic gameplay and premise to the narrative. Your entire agency in the world revolves around this booth. You are helpless outside of it outside of the decision on how to spend your income to keep your family safe and healthy. The world of the game marches on though, and you will start to see its influence at your border crossing station soon.
You're used to people thinking they had all the right paperwork to enter, but they did yesterday and today is a new day with new regulations. Yes, this mother spent the last year applying for the visa to enter and see her son, but that visa was replaced by an all-new state entry form just yesterday so she is unfortunately out of luck—deny her entry.
But now you have someone who is sneaking you an envelope filled with cash and asking you to let him through unchecked. It was under the clearly fake passport he passed under the slot (that's not his face in the picture). It's still sitting there. You can see all the bills. It's more than you make in a day, and you still have all your failure allowances free. You can take the hit to your pay, you'd profit so much more. They're not watching that closely, are you? You let him through, and pocket the cash. You get the notice of failure immediately, but you discard it without a glance.
The next day, you go to work and nothing eventful happens. Same with the day after. On the third day, you hear about a bomb in the capital. You get a visit from a state agent that day, and he wants to question you. You have to shut down your booth for the day. You do not get paid for that day. Your family will have to go without heat, food, or medicine today. They need to be sure you're not sympathetic to unpatriotic causes so they have increased your punishment double. Be good for the next two weeks, they're watching you more closely now.
The next day, you have a lady whose papers check out but she clearly is in distress. She asks you to reject her, please for the love of God. But her papers check out. She says she is being forced to cross and her life will be in danger if she does. If you refuse, you will get a failure notice and docked money. Your family had no medicine yesterday, and they may not get food or heat tonight if you agree to reject her, and the state will be more suspicious of you.
What do you do? Just remember: while you weigh your options, you are losing out on further income since you are losing processing time. Be a hard worker for Arstotzka if you want to keep your family safe.
Everything I described there is the core gameplay of the game. The story I described are just some regular occurrences as you play as these are the choices the game asks you to make every single day through its mechanics and what my thought process was as I faced them when I first played the game back in 2013—this is how much it stuck in my head as I played it. I've never faced such difficult choices from any other game.
This isn't an emergent narrative in the traditional sense understood in other games, where the serendipitous clashing of mechanics results in unique roleplaying story situations. This isn't something like Crusader Kings or other Paradox 4X titles where everyone who plays it can have a wildly different experience. Paper's, Please plays out its situations the same way for everyone, and it's only everyone's individual decisions and responsibility for their choices that changes. The game has something like 54 different endings, and lets you revert back to any previous day to continue the story from that point and make a different set of decisions entirely.
The simplicity of this game combined with the thoughtfulness behind its mechanics means each thing you can do, no matter how mundane, is a conscious act. Without spoilers, it only gets more intense from here in terms of what new mechanics you get access to and what they mean for the story. Through these simple mechanics that are completely designed around checking entry papers, you get an extremely involved and immersive exploration of what it means to live under an autocratic rule and the challenge of weighing multiple negative consequences to find the best possible path just to survive in a harsh world.
@just_a_salmon linked the Wikipedia article for ludonarrative dissonance elsewhere here and there's a section for "Ludonarrative consistency" with one rather questionable example but I think Papers, Please may be the pinnacle of that particular concept. For my money, this game has the least amount of abstraction required to deliver a narrative along with the mechanics in a game (and maybe even no abstraction at all!).
I don’t have anything to add, but there is a technical term for the conflict between the narrative told by gameplay and the narrative told by the plot: ludonarrative dissonance.
Yeah, as a casual gamer whenever I see this, it always confuses me. Is this part of the game I have to do in order to achieve the actual goal my character is supposed to achieve? Or is this just some extra side thing to do for fun? I can't tell, and now I'm enjoying things less worrying about it.
I've also seen the opposite, though. In Batman: Arkham City, there are a number of side stories. Like the game is probably 90% side stories. But there is one main story you work through, and when you get through it, it seems like the game is over, but if you haven't completed all the side stories, you can keep playing until you do. But the city is really empty once you've completed the main story, so it seems really weird trekking around the city to get all your extra points when everybody's left for the most part.
While I'm being an old man shouting at a cloud, these side quests often lead to being able to upgrade your weaponry. But in my opinion, there are already too many types of weapons in most of these games. I hate having to decide which weapons I need to buy or build or find because if I haven't yet played through the whole game, I have no idea what I'll need in the future. This was something I found really frustrating about BioShock. I don't know which freakin' thing I need from the weapon vending machine or the magic potion vending machine! How about you put the weapon I need into the game and let me find it through the narrative? And how about you don't make a 150 different weapons, because I can't remember which one is in which slot, and by the time I need to use it, I've forgotten I have it, and can't remember which key combo to press to use it anyway! How is this supposed to be fun? It's just overwhelming.
So yeah, I'm an old man now. I'm gonna go take a nap.
Your description makes me think of a series of videos by a guy who goes by Razbuten who got his (non-gamer) wife to play games in an attempt to understand the unspoken rules and context that gamers take for granted in playing and developing games. There's a number of videos in the series at this point, but they're all interesting.
Yes! I love those videos. The thing is, I've been playing video games for something like 45 years, so I'm not a new gamer. I'm also not a hardcore gamer, though. I can't tell you how many times I sit down to play a game and am completely lost as to how to do anything. For example, I recently started playing The Return of the Obra Dinn. Before starting the game, I pressed the "Options" button to see what the controls were. It said that the A and D keys were for turning pages in a book. OK. There were a few other things, none of which had anything to do with movement. But this game is in the style of an old-school classic Mac game, where you couldn't freely move about in 3D. So maybe you don't move around traditionally like in a 3D shooter? I guess we'll see.
So I start the game and it tells you to press the space bar to climb up out of the dingy and onto the Obra Dinn. I did that and then stood there staring at things. I could turn the camera using the mouse, but I didn't have any clue how to move. Pressing W and S didn't make me go back and forth, so I figured the usual movement controls didn't work. I pressed "A" and moved to the left, though. Then I remembered my keyboard is in Dvorak and the A key is in the same position as a normal keyboard. I quit the game, switch my keyboard to QWERTY, start it up again, and sure enough the standard game controls work. I can use aswd to move around. But there's no place this is explained. It's just assumed that you've played 3D games before and know those are the standard controls. It didn't occur to me to switch my keyboard before starting because most games ignore the key mapping you have set up and use the hardware control codes for getting input, so most games work with the QWERTY controls even when my keyboard is set to Dvorak. I know this because I'm a programmer and have used the same APIs in different ways. I have no idea how a normal user would figure that out if they hadn't played games most of their lives.
Anyway, I didn't intend to hijack this thread. Sorry for the rant.
Your comment reminded me of when I played OneShot, in which a mysterious entity exists outside of the in-game universe and can interact with your computer by creating files or launching programs in separate windows. One of the puzzles assume the game is running in a floating window, and I was playing it in a tiling window manager. Even after giving up and looking up the solution, it took me a few seconds to remember how to pop the window out of its tile so that I could move it around. Really threw me for a loop.
Hades is the best example of a game I can think of where the narrative and gameplay are intertwined to the point where all the gamey things make sense and add to the worldbuilding.
For those of us who have not played Hades, how does it do that?
Hades is a roguelike/roguelite, so you are going to die quite often, especially at the beginning. Every time you die, you are sent back to a hub from where you can upgrade your gear, character, and buy some stuff for future runs (gold, healing, etc.). However, this hub is also where you can talk to characters, give them gifts, and progress their personal stories, as well as the overall story. While this might prompt some people to just die repeatedly in the first room out of the hub, there are some characters who you can only really meet and interact while going through the combat and whatnot, so there is some deterrent to that strategy. The story needs you to get through all of the floors as well, so you might as well put in some serious attempts to win while you're progressing the characters' stories
And without getting to spoilers, the game justifies the repeated complete runs you likely end up doing incredibly well.
Children of Morta uses a very similar system for dealing with story in a roguelike game.
I'm both a software developer and a gamer. (For some strange reason,) Something I like to do in adventure games or story-driven games is deliberately try to bypass interaction elements, and interact with them out of order. Contrived example:
Your character enters a villain's hideout. In the first room your character gets to, there is a very-obviously placed interaction element (say, a computer console), and then a door on the opposite side of the room. I'd deliberately avoid the console, and go straight for the door, and see what's on the other side, and probably travel down the hallway, or whatever, and interact with other things. Then later on, come back to the console and interact with it. The console might do something like trigger a video which says "Welcome to my secret lair. I have been expecting you. You'll find it heavily guarded." And then I'd chuckle because I'd already been down the hallway, and taken out all the guards and security devices.
Dunno why I'm amused by stuff like this. It's sort of like doing QA on another developer's work, and finding edge cases and flaws.
I do this accidentally all the time - in one game I walked to the next village, but I couldn't continue the quest because I had to take a cart instead (which triggered a cut scene). In another I went too far without talking to someone, and suddenly a building was burning and I could hear sound effects from a cut scene that I wasn't supposed to be seeing yet. It's funny when it happens, but also a bit annoying to realize my freedom to explore was less than I first thought.
I think this is one reason I loved Outer Wilds so much. When the whole point of the game is to explore and the game devs design it so that you can stumble upon things in any order, there's much less of a chance that something breaks the immersion — or the tension.
For example, there's something you do to trigger the end-game in Outer Wilds, and because of the time loop mechanic you can decide when you want to go for it, even after you have all the pieces to the puzzle. But once you do trigger it, the tension ramps up, and since you've already explored to your heart's content (and because there's a time limit inherent in the loop), it's go time. It feels urgent, because it is... And yet you can choose when that happens so you can get the most out of the game.
I think it's possible to do this well if game designers don't mind (and they shouldn't) putting more constraints on the player.
Example: Baldur's Gate 2 solved this all the way back in 2000. Without any spoilers, there is an urgent central plot to the game that gets roadblocked as the player does not have the resources to continue. The game just casts you adrift with the task of raising 20k gold. Of course this forces the player to do side quests before the main quest but narratively it works quite well.