By Obscure 0 Comments
As an artform, games have more in common with music than they do with cinema.
If you’re making a tabletop RPG, you’re often creating a set of guidelines that will let a group of people tell a story together. The rules of these games help decide what’s canon and not, and often provide a little creative input, but the real power of tabletop RPGs is the ability of the players and game masters to tell interesting stories on the fly. If you’re making a more traditional tabletop game, or a video game, and you can’t package humans with it, telling stories gets a little more challenging.
Outside of tabletop RPGs, there are three, maybe four broad types of “story” you encounter. The “fourth” type is questionable because it’s the non-story – games that are completely abstract, or feature no story elements beyond the barest context of the game within. Think of the perpetual Red versus Blu conflict in Team Fortress, for example, or the nuclear-threat premise of Missile Command.
Games with more elaborate stories often bolt a pre-written, linear narrative onto the gameplay. This practice strikes me as ill-advised, since, in the simplest philosophical sense, linearity and interactivity are mutually exclusive. Linear storytelling, like that featured in books, comics, and movies, is made powerful and effective by the ability of the creators to exercise complete control over the audience experience. Games, by contrast, require the creator to hand control over to the player, allowing them to determine what ultimately happens. The incompatibility lies in the fact that the creator cannot simultaneously control the entire experience while also allowing the player to express themselves, hence the innumerable game stories that feel like they are quite separated from the gameplay itself. These games have to shift between modes of linear narration and player interaction, but the two are ultimately immiscible.
If you want to integrate story into gameplay, you need to make a game out of the story – player inputs have to affect the story. The most familiar form of this is probably the branching story, in which the player is presented with a set of discrete options, and unique pre-written narratives accompany every possibility. Think of choose-your-own-adventure books, visual novels, some RPGs, or the modern adventure game design codified by Telltale’s various oeuvre.
The final story variety, and the one I would like to see more of in the future, is the emergent story. These are hard to pull off, because they amount to playing an interesting game and hoping that something narrative-like will spontaneously happen. In theory, any and every game is capable of emergent stories, but they’re usually very personal, and they don’t come across as well with a retelling. One can, however, deliberately design a game so that it will reliably produce emergent stories, and that’s an art that I think needs much more exploration. For a few guiding examples, look to Papers, Please, Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor, and (so I’m told) the Fire Emblem series.