Story and Gaming Part 1 – General Terms
I’ve been thinking about story in games a lot at the moment for a couple of reasons. The big reason is that the newest game we’re designing is ‘A Song of Tales’, a game of storytelling. The other reason is that I’ve been kicking around the idea of a game based on a couple of computer games with strong storytelling elements and I’ve come gradually to the realization that the way they tell stories is significantly different, different enough that trying to re-create it is not only creating a rod for my own back, but fundamentally creating a worse game. Clearly all forms of storytelling are different, but there are ways that one form can usefully and interestingly stretch itself to emulate or reflect another form, and ways where it simply cracks and distorts itself.
I’m writing this blog to make some general points about what I see as the advantages and shortcomings of storytelling formats apart from tabletop games, and how they relate to tabletop games. In part two I’ll write about the elements of storytelling in boxed tabletop games and their strengths, weaknesses and limitations, and then in part three I’ll do the same for minis and tape measure games.
Not all games have traditional narrative as central to their theme or design, but all good and successful games have good, strong and memorable stories at their centre, even abstract games have a story of struggle, success and failure. When we complain about a game with a runaway leader or an unsatisfying ending we’re complaining about the lack of a strong story. I’ll be talking about four parts of a format’s storytelling method that I’d like to define quickly: continuation, emergence, identification and discovery.
I won’t be talking about many aspects of storytelling, most noticeably I won’t talk about plot. This is not because I don’t value those elements but because while the intention here is to analyze some elements of building stories, it is primarily to make a point about where and why tabletop storytelling can over-reach itself, and why acknowledging some of its limitations can be beneficial, so I’m only going to focus on the elements that assist in illustrating that point.
Continuation – Continuation is the element of stories that drives those who engage with them to follow the next step of the story. It’s the part of certain computer games that drive users to ‘one more turn’ almost involuntarily, or that cause readers to go for one more chapter in a book. Traditionally this has been something that visual formats such as movies or television struggled with, though modern streaming and boxed set binging is changing that.
Emergence – Emergent storytelling comes from all the elements of story that are both intended by the original text but not present within it. Often it is these elements that produce dissatisfaction with cross format presentations of stories in fans, we experience a story in one format and an element not present becomes emergent to us, many times it will be the element that is most beloved to us. When that story is presented in another format and those elements are made concrete we often find our most beloved elements destroyed, at which point fans will protest that a character in the film version of their favourite novel doesn’t look or sound the way that they pictured them.
Identification – How the story user identifies with the protagonist of a story, and how easy it is to identify with them, is a huge element of how well a story connects with them. This ties in closely with emergence in formats where the user can define elements of their protagonists for themselves, as in novels the hero will often be pictured as like the reader in areas that are undefined. It is also for this reason that many visual formats, generally quite distancing, work so hard to ‘immerse’ their users with greater depth and definition.
Discovery – The ability to discover something within a narrative is a huge part of the driving force of any story. Most often this is a discovery of breadth, such as who did it in a murder mystery, but for many static formats to offer repeated experiences it will often have to include a discovery of depth, to deeper and richer understanding of the story and character motivation.
I will make a quick examination of visual formats (cinema and television), digital games and written formats (novels and short stories) in relation to these elements.
Visual formats – Ironically, given their popularity, cinema and television struggle to present their central stories in any of these forms. Of course, there is a payback of effort and story engagement and visual formats have the lowest effort of all formats. Where visual formats do excel is in the area of discovery, it is by the very lack of effort required that they do so well in this area as opposed to tabletop games. In tabletop games players need to understand how the game runs, they need to read a manual, before they begin playing. As such, while there can be breadth of discovery since cards can have hidden content there tends to be little in the way of depth of story discovery. Players can reach buried levels of mechanics, but rarely of plot or story, since they have to understand they flow of what is happening on a deeper level more quickly than in a movie or television show.
Digital games – Digital games excel in Continuation, Identification and Discovery, and in manners that tabletop games struggle to replicate for a range of reasons. Digital games are well known, positively or negatively, as strongly encouraging continuation, users are hungry to engage with the next part of the story with “one more turn”. Any story that its participants have to actively and hungrily push to continue will garner attachment from that activity. This is generally managed in one of two ways, laying in automated turns and building half completed or passingly begun missions. Automated turns happen in digital games where players take their turn and click to finish then the digital opponent takes its turn, changing part of the game state, the game does not agree to stay static at the end of the player’s turn, luring them in for another turn, Sid Meier’s Civilization is a master at this sort of play. Every turn players create their own cliffhangers that they are able to instantly resolve. The method of the half completed, or half begun, mission is most often used in sandbox games, particularly open world RPGs. On the way to achieve some other set goal, a door that cannot currently be unlocked is seen, or the entrance to a dungeon that there is not time to investigate, or a none player character mentions some mystery that there is not time to look into. In these games it is often impossible to complete the simplest job without seeing three or four fragments of other missions, since human nature drives us to complete the things we have begun we feel driven to follow these answers to their conclusion. Tabletop games are generally single sitting engagements, even modern Legacy games keep their individual games separate and distinct, although they could easily end games with a trailer for the next game the closest Legacy game so far to come to this method is Stonemaier’s Charterstone which reveals a card each game hinting towards the rules and plot of the next game.
Identification is another area where Digital games excel, it is difficult not to identify with a character when you have seen through their eyes, made their choices, lived and died with them, often for several hours. This is an area that defines many areas of a game’s design, in particular difficulty, if a character fails too often and so appears too feeble players will be driven away from identifying with them, but if they never have to struggle with the character they will also never see them as anything more than a pawn. Tabletop board and card games rarely either develop a character deeply enough or ask players to live with them long enough to achieve much in the way of identification.
Finally, digital games also do well in the area of discovery, again while they lack somewhat in depth they have extra ordinary breadth with even relatively simple games offering hundreds of hours of possible discovery. However, since digital games are often solitary pursuits in which every detail is not just passingly defined but defined sufficiently to be engaged with they rarely inspire emergent storytelling.
Written formats – There is a distinct difference between the format of short story and novel here, and it is a difference that is indicative of the story telling capacity of the tabletop game as opposed to the story telling of a digital game. A short story relies for a large amount of its impact on the fact that it is consumed in a single sitting, the reader is expected to hold all details of its plot in mind at once, not just in memory but directly. The novel is, however, a sustained effort, its final denouement may be read days or even weeks after its introduction. In both cases though engagement with the form, the necessary imagination of the visual elements described, achieves some of the strongest levels of identification possible in storytelling. The reader can, and often will, fill in with their own hopes, dreams and ideas for that of the hero of whom they are reading.
Clearly the ability to inspire the drive to continuation depends on a written work being at least novel length, but the drive to complete an immersive novel or at least read just one more chapter should be familiar to any keen reader. Discovery is the area in which the written format is at its strongest thanks to its ability to examine the infinite complexity of the hero’s psychological drives. The philosopher Freidrich Neitzsche wrote extensively about what he perceived as the dramatic failure inherent in the presentation of heroic psychology in the novel. Ancient Greek heroes did not need to explain their psychology, they did terrible things and they decided to do what they decided to do because they decided to do it, their power was their justification. Modern heroes have to be perceived by their audience as acting in accordance with some previously justified psychology or code, and this is a tendency born with the novel. Largely visual storytelling mediums such as plays, cinema and television struggle manfully with this pressure, characters will sometimes speak their internal motivations aloud in a manner that is hugely unnatural, even Shakespeare sometimes has to have someone spend a few minutes explaining their psychological motivation to the audience in a stage whisper. The novel though, as progenitor of this requirement of the hero has no such problem, it can spend pages running through every gamut of a character’s internal drives and thoughts. While a movie will then sometimes, at its greatest depth, return with the answer that the hero did something because it was in the script, the novel can be plumbed, examined and explored. Every nuance of a hero’s thinking should be available in the novel, and so its depth of discovery, its re-experienceable nature is always unparalleled.
This has been by way of, lengthy, introduction to my thoughts on these issues generally. In the next blog in this series I’ll be presenting the meat of my point by relating these points to storytelling within the medium of boardgames.