Sunday, April 22, 2012

Random Shots: Telling A Story

  • If you looked only at the works of Bioware, Square-Enix, Irrational, and the like, you might suspect that storytelling in games is little different from movies or books. There might me slight variations from player to player, but the narrative is received from the developer and unfolded by the player through their actions. Many theme park MMOs use these same techniques. These are fine for what they do, but these are the stories that fire everyone's imaginations. The best gaming stories come from systems based games. Instead of following a narrative path, these games let you interact with a system and the story arises from those interactions.

  • I started pondering systems based narrative while listening to the recent Three Moves Ahead podcast about Crusader Kings 2. The panelists' tales of the rise and fall of dynasties and the crazy interactions between characters and between nations inspired my imagination. From there, a link on the 3MA forum led me to a Let's Play archive retelling a playthrough of one dynasty through four of Paradox's games. That, of course, reminded me of other stories I've read for EVE Online, Dwarf Fortress, and others. The examples never really stop.

  • The biggest problem with most of these games is their density. If you read stories about the game and decided to try for yourself, you would invariably run into a brick wall of arcane interfaces, obtuse tutorials, and inscrutable systems. These games are their own worst enemy. People learn about them and want to try them, but the learning curve is so steep that it drives them away.

  • It doesn't have to be like this. The age old genre of 4X games learned a long time ago that you could attract a wide audience if the systems were open but easy to manipulate. Everyone has a story about one crazy game of Civilization that they played. For myself, I don't think it has ever been better then Master of Orion. MoO could generate epic stories that unfolded over the course of several hours, all determined by my decisions.

  • And let's not forget the biggest systems-based storytelling game of all time: The Sims. Their interfaces are always easy to read, the information is clear, and goals are easy to set. But underneath that, the system interactions were incredibly complex. It's just that EA hid all of that from you, only showing you want you really needed to accomplish your goals. Can you imagine if strategy games were as easy to learn as The Sims?

© 2012 Marty Runyon. All rights reserved.


  1. Dwarf Fortress has got to be the poster child for this. At least once a year, every year, I read an amazing story from someone's play through and think to myself that it's time to try again, but the learning curve on that game is like a sheer cliff.

    1. "#$%&!"

      That's me trying to play Dwarf Fortress. You can imagine me sounding like Q-bert if you'd like.

  2. Nethack is another game from which astounding narratives sometimes emerge. It's one of the more open ended rogue-likes. Games have the possibility to produce endless quantities of narratives. It's a quality unique to games as a medium.

    That said, I also think that games can be a great way of conveying a static narrative. They make you feel like you are part of the story in a way that a novel/ play/ movie just can't. FF VI remains one of the most moving stories I've ever experienced. If it had been presented to me as a novel, I doubt I would have found it so astounding.

    1. Very true. Rogue-likes are amazing for this. I really think there is a reason that Diablo was so well received, since it stripped all of the cruft away and left the meaty core of that experience. Now if only Diablo had the depth of randomization that Nethack did...

  3. I've suggested a few times that the most important stories in gaming are the stories that players tell, not the stories that the devs tell. I think that the best devs facilitate that quirk by letting players have control... and that the devs who can't let go of the reins might be better off making movies.


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