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What I’ve learned about stories in games

Storytelling in games is a huge subject, dividing opinion across the industry. Were one to listen to certain industry figures, one might quickly surmise that the industry had better decide one way or another about story-driven games and gameplay-driven stories, and games that are just games and might have stories and oh isn’t it all terribly confusing and what ought we to do? Looking at it from a functional perspective, I think that there are two reasons, with respect to stories, why people play games. One is obviously to experience the game’s story, whether it be completely linear or branching like in the excellent game Way of the Samurai.

The other reason, and this is something I’ve wrongly scoffed at before (and even very recently), is experiencing the game. People have said to me that Tetris tells a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It sounds ridiculous in the context of a plot, but where the idea holds water is in retelling this story to other people. I can’t be sure how many players of Dwarf Fortress were introduced to the game after reading SomethingAwful’s forum goons “Let’s Play” session in the fortress of Boatmurdered. I bet it’s a huge proportion. Many games become popular through word of mouth and the best way to get someone interested in something is to tell them a story about it. If a game can create accounts that are interesting to tell and interesting to hear, as well as interesting to experience first-hand, that is a powerful thing for the players and their friends.

When I first heard about Chris Crawford’s Storytron, I scoffed at that, too. I downloaded it and couldn’t make head nor tail of it and that was that. I recently downloaded it again, and tried to read the web site, and didn’t get much further than before. But this time I actually understood what he is trying to do. He’s trying to make it possible for people to create a set of data that will produce interesting stories. Imagine a game like Way of the Samurai, with its branching plots and intricate character layers, but it’s not a fixed tree any longer; each time you play the characters interact in a different (yet still predicatable) way. It would make for some excellent whodunnit style games, at least. The systems in place in Dwarf Fortress are the same, really – you have a large set of data and a simulation, and running that simulation with player interaction, even if it’s a fairly simple simulation, can produce intricate stories for retelling.

Some of the greatest game stories I’ve ever heard came from people who had been playing MMO games: Player versus Player conflicts on a massive scale in Dark Age of Camelot; epic raids in World of Warcraft; spontaneous gatherings to mark a real-world death in City of Heroes; pilots going rogue and spying on other corporations in Eve Online. Surely the draw of these games is driven by this, whether the players know it or not.

Why do we play?

I was reading the Tarn Adams interview on Gamasutra, which is absolutely terrific and I encourage everyone to read it, and then I came home and read about people being fed up with modern gaming. I started thinking about why older people stop playing games, why they get bored, and began asking myself the usual questions: Are the games badly made? Are the settings boring? Are the game designs too derivative? Then I started thinking about game types, like shooters, world-building, puzzle games…

Then I stopped, because it didn’t make any sense to tackle it from that angle. Instead I started to think about why it is that people play games in the first place, and I came up with a bunch of reasons. It’s worth noting that I haven’t studied play in any way, so I’m really just throwing out lay ideas.

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