Posts Tagged ‘ storytelling ’

Storytelling in Games: What about Board Games?

I have one last follow-up to my recent posts about storytelling in games, and then I promise to move on to other topics. Despite my interest in how games can advance stories, I haven’t brought up my preferred medium of board games. The reason is simple: I don’t have any reason to believe that board (or card, etc) games are a good venue for storytelling.

Quite simply, an interactive story depends on the participant(s) trying to guide the events but accepting that a force outside of them is in control. In a computer game, that force is a complex program that can send players through all sorts of paths and consider everything that has gone before when calculating the next event. In a traditional role-playing game, that force is another person, who has planned out a myriad of possibilities and adapts them to the players’ choices. In some more experimental role-playing games, that force is a group consensus, who may not have prepared a story but do have a shared agreement that cooperating to advance the story is the chief goal.

In contrast, a board game is ultimately about who wins and who loses. Maybe there’s one winner, maybe there are teams, or maybe everyone cooperates, but in the end the theme and actions are just fluff. It can definitely enhance the game, but the more you play games, the better you get at looking past that and focusing on the underlying mechanics. I’d say that that’s a contrast to most RPGs, where the people who play them all the time are the most invested in the story. (Even D&D min-maxers are ultimately going to remember the story of how they single-handedly slayed a dragon, not just the loophole that got their strength to 50.)

Most stories are meant to be experienced just once, unless they change each time or are good enough to “re-read”. (Some computer games skirt this rule, but that means that the person is playing it for the game instead of for the story.) In contrast, board games are intended to be played repeatedly. If you tried to design a game full of “plot twists”, they’d either be predictable by the second time you played them, or rely on a lot of random chance. And while many board games do throw randomized plot elements at you, they just feel arbitrary to me. Unlike a computer game or a human moderator, the board game’s plot changes are going to be completely random. They can’t calculate the new status based on previous events, unless the algorithm to do that is part of the rules the players all know about. And in that case, it’s just one more game element to be manipulated by the winner. If players are expected to cooperatively tell a story without just focusing on winning or losing, then by definition it stops being a board game and becomes a role-playing game.

Perhaps a game could have cards or books complex enough to offer unpredictable but fair stories in the same way that computer games are programmed to do. I can’t imagine a way to do that that wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. More practically, I could see a limited pre-planned campaign providing a story along with a decent amount of replayability. If so, that probably wouldn’t fit my group of friends who meet up in different configurations all the time. (Legends of Andor may do that, but just last month I dismissed it as something that wouldn’t make it to my table.)

If you do want to come up with a theoretical way to add stories to board games, I’d suggest looking at the rare games that can provoke actual emotional reactions. These often accomplish it with techniques (like player elimination) that are considered bad design today. I do have a soft spot for social games like Werewolf, though. These let people take on roles and move towards long-term goals in ways that are more circuitous than standard board games. It’s a long way from there to having an emergent plot, though; People definitely tell stories about memorable Werewolf games, but they tend to be very focused on the mechanics.

For now, I’m going to stick to my claim that stories don’t work in board games. The players are too directly involved in the heart of the game mechanics, leaving no mysterious force to bridge the game between storytelling and trying to win. Fortunately, I don’t think that games have to have stories to be good. I’m just glad that there are so many varieties of games out there to meet so many different needs.

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Storytelling in Games: Does Music Have To Be Poetry?

I want to follow up on my thoughts earlier this week about storytelling in games. I may have implied that all games need to have stories, or that the quality of the stories is definitely a factor in judging how good the game is. That’s not exactly true. It’s helpful to think of this in the same way we think of using words with music. Yes, some songs include wonderful poetry or tell stories, but that’s not a requirement. There are good songs with simple, inane lyrics, or even with no lyrics at all. While a person could argue that  songs should just be used to deliver poetry, they would need to use a very expansive definition of the word “poetry” and also ignore many qualities that music can offer.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but I think it’s instructive. Music can be focused on poetry, but it doesn’t have to be. And even when it is, we often look for different qualities in poetry that is sung than poetry that is written or spoken. Similarly, stories in games are going to be different than stories in books. When it’s a linear narrative, the point of the story is to give meaning and context to the player’s actions rather than to enjoy the story for its own sake. And when the player can influence the story, that changes everything. How do you discuss or review a story that became unique to you?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Role-playing games and other shared storytelling experiences have been around for a while. And judging from them, the answer to “how do you discuss them?” may be “you don’t”. There are few things more annoying than a person trying to tell you all about their RPG campaign. On the other hand, the fact that people keep trying to do that is a testament to how powerful the story was to them. It just shows that stripping away the interactivity completely changes the value of the story, just as some effective song lyrics are weak when stripped of the music and written down.

My hope right now is to see games defined by stories that are worth coming back to. Do you know anyone who still plays Diablo instead of Diablo 2? Maybe they play Diablo 2 instead of Diablo 3, but that’s because they have quibbles with the copy protection or skill trees of the third one. Even with Diablo-esque games outside the series, such as Torchlight, the general consensus is that one new, better game can completely replace another. Old games are usually just replayed for nostalgia, or because they offered a unique gameplay element that hasn’t yet been made obsolete by the sequels.

On the other hand, people still read Lord of the Rings and The Great Gatsby. I do frequently argue that old works eventually get supplanted by new ones, but certainly not in the sudden way that games replace each other. I couldn’t imagine a new Terry Brooks series suddenly making Tolkien obsolete. Similarly, old songs become less popular as styles change, but their poetry and stories still stand on their own. Even the games that were revered for their stories ten to fifteen years ago (like Marathon and Planescape: Torment) are pretty much completely ignored today.

Maybe technological advances will always make video games fade faster than books or music. I like to think that this is at least partly because we’re still learning how to use the tools of the genre, though. I hope that someday, it will be common for people to play ten-year-old games because even if their mechanics and engine have been improved upon, the stories they tell are unique.

Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

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Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (iPhone Gamebook Review)

Sorcery 1Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an attempt by Inkle Studios to update classic RPG gamebooks to the iPhone. It’s actually a new version of an old Fighting Fantasy volume. Never having played that, I can’t comment on how much this edition changes, but it obviously does adapt quite a bit. Many choices that you have are dependent on other events, and where the book would have to say “if this has happened, you may turn to this page”, the app simply doesn’t show you the choices.

The design does a lot of things right: Your story is shown on a virtual parchment, and after you make a choice, that list of options disappears. That means that the results show up as another paragraph right after the earlier one, creating an appearance of one cohesive story rather than a scattered collection of pages. The writing from one paragraph to the next flows smoothly, with good reasons given for why you made your choice and some variations in the text based on things that happened earlier. The app seems to support many small choices that would feel awkward in book form, but are fun when you’re simply tapping buttons. (And even things like “do you take the right or left path?”, which normally annoy me in these games, are tolerable when making and undoing decisions is so easy.) After every small scene, your next choice is shown as a series of locations on a map. This gives you a visualization of your hero’s cross-country journey, and also provides an easy way for you to tap the old locations to rewind the story. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in reading your whole “story”, you can’t see the previous locations’ text again without rewinding and playing through that point. I didn’t really mind this, because while the text is well-written enough to enjoy in the moment, it wouldn’t really be worth re-reading without the fun of having choices.

The combat system is also very clever. Virtual dice are not as interesting as physical ones, so instead there is a mini-game in which you and your opponent simultaneously choose how much energy to put into each attack. The higher attack always damages the other, but if you “defend” with a very low attack value, you’ll be able to deflect much of the damage while recovering your own strength. Battle has been turned from a passive luck-based experience into one in which you make a lot of important decisions. Even if you don’t have too much information about what your opponent may do, this is still a big improvement.

Sorcery 2The app does a great job of updating an old game system that had been heavily dependent on a specific technology. I was a little more frustrated with the plot they chose, though. You play a promising young hero sent off on a mission of great import to your people, but it’s possible to play through the whole thing without getting a clear description of what that mission is or what this world is like. Yes, an opening dream sequence mentions a magical crown, but it wasn’t clear to me until halfway through my first game that that was my real goal. And even then, I had no good understanding of why it was urgent to find this item that was lost to the ages, what kind of culture my people had (aside from a few undeveloped hints), or even why I was chosen to seek the crown alone. I spent the first half of my first game feeling absolutely no connection to the events in front of me, even less than I’d expect from a physical gamebook. Though the whole thing plays through in a matter of hours, it still took me a few weeks to find the motivation to get through it.

I tried a second time, though, and that went much better. The knowledge of my first game gave the second more of a purpose, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of the different results available. Though you keep returning to the same general path, there are a lot of major branches, and also very different choices within them. This isn’t just a matter of playing through two or three times to see every result, because a lot of encounters will go differently if you found items or information from earlier in the journey. I’m sure this would feel repetitive after another couple games, but I’d probably still be making some major discoveries beyond that point.

A couple other notes: The game has a magic system with many spells, but only a few available at a given time depending on “the stars’ alignment”. Most of the spells require ingredients that you’ll only have if you made lucky discoveries earlier, and because you actually “line up” the star symbols when casting a spell, it’s not always obvious which choices you’d have anyway. In my first game, I thought this was annoying and unnecessary, especially since you are only given the chance to cast spells at specific times. But on my re-play, I found a few interesting things to do that were not immediately obvious, and I see that this system provides a lot of hidden options for people who want to search for secrets. The system of “gods” fared less well, though: As you make choices, your spirit animal changes to reflect the personality you’re displaying. Each one has a flowery, full-page description of its attributes, and this was one of the things that first drew me into the game. After all, traditional gamebooks can’t keep statistics that you are unaware of. But before long, it became obvious that the various gods all offer the same limited options. If they ever gave me new opportunities or changed the results of my actions, I didn’t notice.

The bottom line is that Sorcery! is a huge leap forward for a game system that I thought was bound to old technology. I have more mixed feelings about the story they chose, though. It eventually won me over and proved that it had more subtleties than expected from a 1980’s gamebook, but I can’t overlook the fact that it did not seem interesting for the first couple hours. Knowing what I do now, though, I can recommend it both for its design concepts and as a story worth the time to explore.

Grade: B