What we mean when we talk about stories in games

There's a lot of arguing about story in games recently. There was this, then this, and then this. Each one kicks up a bit of argument, and then later someone come back with another tack. So here's me, butting in.

So as I see it, there are two basic ways stories and games can happen together.

The two can happen at the same time, and they can be blended, so it's not always easy to tell them apart, but they're clearly not the same thing. This isn't going to be a exhaustive study of either one, because either could be a lifetimes work.

I find holding in my head that these are two separate things clears up a lot of discussions on stories in games. So often people argue against one, and for another, or use examples of one to support a claim for the necessity of the other. But they're different things!

So now let's muddy the waters, and try to find the limits of each. This is necessarily a brief overview, as each would offer many lifetimes of study.

It's easy to think of clear-cut examples of either one. The froth generated by LARPing[1], that's a story about a game, that's when meaning is imposed onto a possibly incoherent experience. If I was running a LARP, one of my big criteria for success would be whether the LARP generated stories worth telling. For a videogame perspective -- I've spent many happy hours reading stories generated by Dwarf Fortress and I've never played the game. Or epic tales from Eve of galaxy-spanning deceit and betrayal. What these obvious examples have in common is the wide degree of player agency. And the uncertain outcomes. Bow, Nigger[2] is a wonderful story told of a game -- it happened in a space with more tightly constrained agency, but the captivating part was the part that was entirely human, was the part that coincided exactly with the the player's freedom. But I don't think a open, unscripted world is necessary to produce stories -- although it does make the ones that get told more worth listening to. If people can happily recount the plot of soap operas, then a scripted game can produce stories for telling (or retelling, I guess). And similarly a game of Tetris can be told as a story, but it's gonna be a terrible story. The point of that game lies elsewhere (although I do have a theory about similarities between narrative structure and pacing -- but now is not the time). The crucial point here is it's a shit story if it's telling you stuff you could hear elsewhere, or in this case, is the same one you'd tell if you played the game too. Or is just a rubbish story.

It's also worth noticing that the story comes afterwards. That's a process that occurs when reflecting on the game, integrating your experiences into a coherent narrative. I assume this is because the human brain is really good at remembering and reasoning about stories, particularly ones about the actions of things having human-like agency. But I was a Cognitive Scientist slightly too long ago to link to anything interesting on the topic, or indeed speak with authority on it. Running with the supposition does imply that if you're wanting to make people learn something from a game, giving them a story to tell afterwards with the lesson embedded in it is probably a good way to go about it. And it's furthermore worth noting that you don't actually have to tell a story to someone else for it to be a story -- you just have to have assembled it and made sense of it. The Oppenheimer quote "the best way to learn is to teach" comes to mind, as does the way writing this post has sharpened and cleared my thoughts on this very topic.

Similarly, it's pretty well established that you can tell stories in games. You can have a single plotline one merely advances through in an unbroken line. You can have branching choices. You can have choices made earlier having subtle consequences throughout the entire game. You can do far more interesting things, in hugely emotionally affecting ways. It's a noble goal to tell a story -- as I said above, it's the basic way humans make sense of the world, so it's strong stuff. Ultimately, though, these stories don't come from the player's agency. It's something done to them, not what they do. Of course, they have to be involved, or it's not a game. But for a game creator to be telling a story, it has to be their story, or possible stories, not one that the player has created.

For example:

"At heart, pulling off a tragedy in a game is about manipulating the player into accepting a situation they don’t want while still making them feel responsible for it. This is no small feat, but it’s not impossible by any means. None of the examples I listed are really immune to the basic “reload and fix it” issue that threatens to rob game tragedy of its impact, but they all suggest methods for making that solution less desirable."

 -- Line Hollis talking about tragedies in videogame stories

Here, she's directly saying : to create a feeling of tragedy, we need to trick someone into thinking they have agency, when they don't. And the biggest problem we have is that they can always take the nuclear option and metagame their way back into having agency. And if they have agency, why would they submit to your tragedy? [3]

Sidenote: Can you tell a story that is entirely generative? Sorry, that question is nonsensical. Can a story be told that is entirely generative? I think I'm obliged by my belief in strong AI to say yes. For a story to be told somebody has to be telling it -- if that person is actually a computer, does it count as a story? Only if the computer can impute meaning to it's (sorry, their -- I think this is a criteria for personhood) words. Else it only becomes story when it reaches the players head. Am I making up this condition, that only people can tell stories? I'm aware this is a silly distinction -- but it's by reaching for the stupid scenarios that we can see the real limits of things. If you made a game that made me believe a computer was telling me a story it had invented, I would be more impressed by your accomplishment than wanting to quibble with your terms.



None of this is original thought from me, of course. Here's an excerpt from a recent Electron Dance interview with Richard Hofmeier, creator of Cart Life.

Electron Dance: "I see lots of discussions online about people who believe games should be all about rules, right, rather than narrative"

Richard Hofmeier: "It's troubling to me, right, when I was making my failed attamept at games journalism. I said, in not only the Drawf Fortress peiece, but also something I wrote about Snakes of Avalon (which is another Adventure Games Studio piece) is that the only reason to play any game is it's story. And I guess I meant that, and I still feel that way, I do. And I think it's either the deliberate intentional narrative of the developers, or, in the case of something best represented by Drawf Fortress, or Spelunkey even, something more emergent. I think that as a player, we can't engage with either system without creating a narrative for our own enjoyment of it. So we create a story from a Dwarf Fortress playthrough. And for me that's -- Tarn Adams calls them the "After Action Reports" -- but these epic tales of histories of populations and the -- it's fantastic. And they're entirely in the head of the person playing the game. And it says more about the games player than it does, I think, about how well made that game is. Maybe it's easier for me to say that after having spoken with him about it, and his kind of disinterest in posing his own visions on a player, and really it's just a tool for soliciting imaginative work from the people playing -- it's really interesting for me that he does that, but it doesn't change my mind about the only reason to play it is for the story and so whether it's game, or Cart Life, or Dwarf Fortress or Spelunkey, I think that narrative is the only game mechanic. That might not go for something like Tetris, or maybe Sim City, or something -- those toys. I tkind of deteriorates with that dynamic - it's just a semantic problem that we call them all games, when of course some are games, and some are toys, and some are more like movies. I guess in a perfect world we'd have a term for thme -- I don't want to be childish about it, but for me the semantic problem is hugely consequential, and if we had a term for -- I guess it's all interactive fiction really, and that would be one host, one hemisphere, anfd then maybe games could be more precisely used, that term. Interactive fiction is too many syllables, it's very pretentious and academic, we don't have a good word for it, like "movies" is a great word which is fun to say, and it describes a uniting characterist of a whole spectrum of propositions, and they're all united in that they're moving pictures, and games are just interactive - they're not games, they're just interactive, and that goes for board games and card games and videogames is just awful, just a really blunt instrument of language to use to describe shit that has no buisness being called a videogame, you know what I mean?"

[1] Please can we not argue about whether LARPing is a game or not?

[2] I'm aware I'm about a decade too late to make this criticism, but a problem with New Games Journalism is that it privileged games that make for cool stories, rather than games that tell cool stories. Thus Kieron Gillen, lover of Deus Ex and hater of Zelda. You could have the most fantastic time with a game, but if it makes for a shit story...

[3] I'm echoing Pippin Barr here. ie -- some players will choose tragedy, given agency. So let them have agency.

29 February 2012