Can story and gameplay be friends?

Ruins of Elysia, from a story and word-building standpoint was, admittedly, a throwing spaghetti at the wall affair.  The game had already been fully conceived from a mechanics point of view, and during early play-testing had a slew of terrible working titles based solely on my idea that the land was some kind of special named place and players were making their characters into the stuff of legends there.  As such, I wasn’t really that shaken when one of my play-testers a while back told me that the game did a poor job of selling its theme.

However, I think we have ironed out almost all of the kinks in the mechanics at this point, so I have turned my attention once again to theme, and as such have been researching narrative driven games.  I’ve become somewhat disappointed and discouraged to learn that narrative driven board games are almost exclusively the realm of big, expensive, complicated legacy games.  This disappoints me because this describes the things I don’t want Ruins of Elysia to become.  They said of Pixar in its early days that their lightning in a bottle came from them making the kind of movies they wanted to see. 

Ruins of Elysia is the kind of game I want to play.  I don’t like the consumable nature of legacy games.  I also don’t like games with a lot of complexity.  The worst of the worst are games that have a lot of actions and said actions have a lot of contingencies.  I also don’t want a game that’s a sucker punch to the wallet.

But I do love a good yarn.  Surprisingly, however, telling a story through games is a divisive topic.  Some of those who want to be spellbound find the mechanics of the game simply get in the way.  Some of those who want to play the game find the narrative constricting.  I found this argument on board game geek, which boiled down to this; the nature of a story as a linear sequence of events is in direct conflict with the multitude of available actions a player has in a game.  Essentially, the argument was, the necessity of story would mean the game would be “on rails” such that story and gameplay would be subservient to and hindered by each other instead of allowing one to reach the zenith that would be possible without the other.

I have to object.  I think they missed the forest for the trees on step one.  A linear telling of events by itself is not story.  And I raise this objection not simply to interject with examples of non-linear storytelling, but to get to the very heart of what story is.  History is a linear telling of events, but no one has ever finished a chapter in a history book and said, “that was an amazing story.”  Sure, all the facts are there, but something is missing that would turn those dry lists of dates and events into something we intuitively know to be story.

That missing component of story is meaning, otherwise known as theme.  All stories have a character, a setting, some goal the character is striving for, and some obstacle that is preventing them from getting this goal, but theme is the answer to why events have unfolded the way they did.  Whether presented internally, or by the world at large, every character in literature experiences a conflict, and that conflict is the result of two competing ideas regarding the innate truth of the world and human existence.  At some point in a narrative, the stakes (that is the goal and the consequence of failure) are revealed.   Failure would affirm some truth about the world that the character is fighting against, and success would affirm its opposite.  This is the real tension behind every work of literature

So, does the non-linear nature of gameplay destroy the ability to tell a story?  No.  Does it destroy the ability of a storyteller to tell a story with a deep and meaningful theme?  Maybe.  For a game to feel like a game, it needs to provide its players with free agency.  To deliver meaningful theme, said theme needs to directly inform the conflict, and by giving players free agency the choices they make and the consequences of those actions may not have anything to do with the meaning you were trying to convey.

So, ultimately, I haven’t answered the question I set out for myself: can a non-legacy game tell a good story without being text heavy?  Should I even bother?  Can the choices made by players still have thematic depth, and if so how would I achieve such a thing?

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