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Story games
by steven mathers on 02/27/14 04:17:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I recently came across this article by Greg Costikyan about the fundamental incompatibility of story and game  Story vs. Game.  This is as a result of a really interesting discussion on that topic at Keith Burgan’s game design forum.  I don’t want to critique Greg’s article so much as offer a counterpoint to that line of thought based on my experience playing and designing both computer games and tabletop roleplaying games.

The main thrust of the argument against combining story and games is that good stories are pre-determined and linear, while good games are not — they require the player to  have the agency to be able to make decisions that change things up.  So the conclusion drawn is that limiting the player’s agency makes for a worse game, and conversely allowing the player to mess with the arc of the narrative makes for a worse story.  You are effectively making a frankenstein that is unsatisfactory from either perspective.

I can’t argue with most of that, but to cut directly to the chase, I think it’s missing the vital point — you don’t play a story game to produce a story, you play it to be in a story.  The objective literary value of the ‘story’ produced as a result of play is irrelevant.  To quote Lemmy, “the pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say“.  And in fact Greg talks about the huge advantage that participation gives games  over other mediums towards the end of his article.

There are also a few assumptions that go along with the story vs. game argument.  The first is the very concept that story and game are distinct and separate things that need to be mushed together somehow.  I think this is because so many games do exactly that — tack a few cut scenes in between blowing shit up.  Most gamers be like “How quickly can I fast forward through this stuff?”  But that type of stitch job isn’t the only option available.  A story game needn’t be “story + game” any more than an arcade game would be considered “game + physical challenge” or a strategy game as “game + planning”.  A story game can be simply a game about story.  The genre of interactive fiction.

The Story vs. Games article does consider “Choose your own adventure” style of games and also touches very briefly on paper RPGs.  The problem that Greg sees with CYOA games is that they lack goals. I don’t agree.  The goal is to work in the best interests of the protagonist.  Fictional Bowser kidnapped your fictional Princess Peach?  Man, you got to fictionally get her back!!!   The real problem with CYOA games is that they are just really simple little things that won’t hold any serious gamers interest for more than a few minutes.

For me, where Greg discusses Paper RPGs is the most interesting part of the article.  That part stands out because it concedes that yes, these peeps have fun playing their style of game, and that participation is the key to appreciating any resulting ‘story’.  But then glosses over that observation to conclude that by an objective literary measure, the ‘stories’ aren’t much chop.  To that, I refer you again to Lemmy.  But I will also add that the paper RPG community has made huge strides in the genre since 2001.  There is really a whole lot of insightful designers that have spent the last 20 years doing a mountain of great work with games intended to be both great fun to play and produce satisfying narrative as a result.

The second assumption is that a story game must necessarily be inferior as a game.  It ain’t necessarily so.  In fact, the factors that are most important for engaging gameplay – consequential decisions made in the pursuit of goals – are precisely the factors that make for engaging narrative.  So putting players in the position of the protagonist and giving them the opportunity to select those goals and make those consequential decisions seems more like a match made in heaven than a fundamental incompatibility.  They are just different types of decisions and goals to arcade games or strategy games, that’s all.

Lastly I would like to touch on the possibilities that story games offer.  I’m not going anywhere near  ’games as art’ or ‘games vs. art’.  What I will say is that all types of games offer moments.   Arcade games can offer moments of exhilaration.  Puzzle and strategy games games can offer moments of satisfaction or triumph.  Story games can offer moments of emotion and insight.  It’s by the frequency and depth of these moments that story game players derive satisfaction from the ‘narrative’ rather than some literary measure of coherency.  Ask anyone who has played  improv theatre or paper RPGs, and has experienced a point where the talking stops and everybody stares at each other like ‘Did that actually just fucking happen?‘  There is definitely something worth shooting for there that only interactive fiction can provide.

The fact that nobody has quite yet managed to successfully bring that experience to computer games (that I’m aware of) isn’t anywhere near enough reason not to keep trying.

Armpit Games Steven is a game designer and developer at at ARMPIT GAMES (game design blog) 

dungeonbash  currently working on DUNGEON BASH for IOS and Android mobiles.

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Ardney Carter
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Don't have anything to add to that really but just wanted to say I hear where you're coming from and feel pretty much the same way.

"I think it’s missing the vital point — you don’t play a story game to produce a story, you play it to be in a story. "
"What I will say is that all types of games offer moments... Story games can offer moments of emotion and insight. It’s by the frequency and depth of these moments that story game players derive satisfaction from the ‘narrative’... "

Both of those statements do a good job of encapsulating why I enjoy 'story' games. And the great part about gaming as a hobby is that I have the option of playing those types of games when I'm in the mood for them or doing something more purely goal/competition based when I'm not. Provided people don't give up on trying to craft the former experience because of the naysayers, ofc ;)

steven mathers
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Hi Ardney. Thats the point of the article really - why treat story games differently from other games? Other type of games aren't judged objectively by spectators, it's the subjective experience of the player that counts. And that applies to design as well - most games are dynamic systems based on goals and choices. There is no reason why story games should be treated any differently from that perspective either.

Sam Stephens
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The issue here is that the cognitive process of understanding gameplay is just inherently different than understanding the structure of a story. They can exist side by side, but at any given moment, one is always going to be the focus of the player's attention over the other.

I would definitely recommend this essay to see what I am getting at.

steven mathers
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Hi Sam. Thanks for the link -- Ill definitely check it out.

Can I cut to the chase and ask why the player needs to understand story structure or pay attention to anything other than the goals and decisions that are inherent in the gameplay?

Sam Stephens
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Thanks for the response.

When I said "understanding the structure of a story," I did not mean that players need to consciously analyze story or gameplay. What I was trying to say was that there is a certain mindset that all who experience these materials are involved in. For example, although many have called movies and books passive mediums when contrasted with the interactivity of gameplay, the truth is that watching a movie or reading a novel is very much an active process.

Most of the storytelling elements in games tend to be cinematic with some occasional text, so players use thinking patterns associated with watching and reading to understand the story. Gameplay challenges also require a specific thought process in order to engage with them (the "gameplay gestalt" mentioned in the link). This process is a bit different than watching a movie or reading a book. It's more like driving a car really. It's also very demanding because it requires learning and stresses player skills. So gameplay creates its own emotional experiences that often don't jive well with the formal story being presented, or demands more of the player than the story does, lessening the salience of the story. Of course, there is the now popular ludonarrative model that seeks to merge these two thought processes into one holistic experience, but most of its proponents either don't understand gameplay or don't appreciate it in its own right.

That is not to say that story and gameplay have never been successfully married together. There are some examples I can think of where the structure of gameplay and the structure of the story are one (The Legend of Zelda). But at some point we have to ask ourselves what is it that we truly value; game design, or interactive storytelling.

steven mathers
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Ah OK - I don't advocate there be any 'formal story being presented'. A series of events that occur independently, and/or as a consequence of player activity - sure. But as we area talking about a dynamic system, those events won't be predetermined, so a 'formal story' won't be possible, or desirable.

Sam Stephens
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Right, but this kind of emergent storytelling usually won't be as complex as a more "conventional" story. When the story becomes interactive, the storyteller loses some of their control over the experience which means that it can be much more difficult to shape and guide the audience.

Luis Guimaraes
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Virtuality sits between Reality and Fiction, and yes it can bridge both worlds together. It's perfectly possible to merge both Form (story) and Function (gameplay) in one perfect working match.

I won't say it's going to be easy – if you want easy you're in the wrong medium – but it's certainly possible.

Ara Shirinian
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You may want to read another perspective on some of the more precise details about why narrative and gameplay don't go well together: