Open and Shut: Videogames, Stories, and Digital Myopia

I’ve been reading about the Big Model of tabletop RPGs over the last few weeks, especially its doctrine of creative agendas. According to the Big Model, there are three distinct ways a player can play an RPG: as a game, as a story, or as a simulation. For the gamists, the experience is about skill, mechanics and competition. For the narrativists, the game exists as a medium for drama and character development. The simulationists just want to discover and explore, to be transported.

The thinkers behind the Big Model emphasize that it’s vital to make sure that all of the players in an RPG are on board with a single primary creative agenda. Otherwise, the GM may find that although all players appear to be playing the same game, they may be approaching it in such totally different ways that the consensus reality breaks down and the game flounders. For example, if some players are prioritizing story, they might decide to sacrifice themselves for the sake of drama, just as the gamist players were counting on them to defeat a level boss.

At first glance, this looks a lot like what writers in videogame journalism have been calling ludonarrative dissonance, or the conflict between a player’s actions and the creator’s intended story. If so, the Big Model’s solution for RPGs might be helpful to designers in the digital world.

Social, Digital, Physical

But it can’t be as simple as that. For one thing, there are some fundamental differences between videogames and tabletop RPGs that aren’t easily avoided. At their roots, videogames are far more akin to boardgames than they are to traditional RPGs. RPGs are unique in that they have a kind of open structure. Despite their massive tomes of rules, they are far less constricting than traditional games, since the real shape of the game remains largely up to the players. The rules describe how the players interact with one another and their setting, but a player’s actions within that setting remain limitless. There are no rules for what you can do, only for how you can do it.

On the other hand, digital and physical games are almost always closed systems. They exist in the discrete, logical, binary framework of computing, rather than the fluid interpersonal space of tabletop RPGs. As a result, what you can and cannot do is strictly laid down, and all possible situations are set up beforehand (or generated procedurally) from precise rulesets. Social games like RPGs are fantastic vehicles for interactive story precisely because of their open structure; drama and character development are limited only by the players’ abilities. Videogames and boardgames, on the other hand, are ideal for the gamist types. Their closed, pristine systems offer the perfect platform for balanced, rewarding competition and personal mastery. The simulationist approach could probably go either way.

The Problem of Interactivity

This is not to say that games can’t tell great stories (Dear Esther being a favorite example of mine) but to be honest the problem with most of these stories is that they are being told. We have several different art forms for telling stories, and they are far more effective than videogames. Indeed, Dear Esther is just as affecting when watched passively as it is when played actively. It could easily have been a short film. Games like Gone Home gain almost nothing by making them interactive; nothing is lost by watching someone else play it. The interactivity seems to exist only to trick players into sitting through the whole thing, since most people would not watch a film of someone ransacking an abandoned mansion, accompanied by a fairly pedestrian audio story playing in the background. I tend to think of games like these as lift-the-flaps games, because, like lift-the-flaps books, they offer a façade of interactivity over a basically unalterable story. As far as I can tell, this tendency holds true for almost all “story-focused” digital and physical games.

Truly interactive stories, that is to say stories that are made by the players, rather than simply played, are impossible in videogames, or nearly so. The stories they do have are a crutch stolen from film and literature to prop themselves up, but linear stories are weak and out of place in an interactive medium. They serve no purpose there that they would not serve better in their traditional forms. The underlying plot of Bioshock: Infinite would make a fantastic film or novel. The fact that the plot is tacked onto a fundamentally gamist framework is not so much a problem of dissonance between the two as a problem of apples and oranges. It’s not a problem of presentation either; both elements are done exquisitely, but the experience of an interactive shooter bolted onto a linear plot never feels quite right. The story and the game are pulling the player towards two different experiences, the active and the passive, which lie in opposite directions.

Real interactivity in a story requires real choices, choices the players invented and decided upon. In a closed system, all choices have to be designed head of time. You’re inevitably playing someone else’s story, not your own.

One intriguing possibility might be to have the story emerge organically from the videogame mechanics. This is only really possible in large-scale multiplayer games like EVE Online, where real human interaction has the opportunity to generate narratives naturally, similar to what happens in social games. Still, since a videogame remains a closed system, even these types of games will, by their very nature, lack the level of freedom and creativity a player can express in a traditional RPG. Players sitting around a table coming up with stories is the purest form of interactive storytelling possible. Putting that framework into a closed system inevitably reduces choices to a limited set. It puts narrativist goals into gamist box. Randomly generated roguelikes like FTL do offer the possibility of a story-like experience, but these suffer from the same basic problems as an MMO, and the likelihood of a compelling story arising in them is even slimmer.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Real, emotional, and profound interactive stories are possible in games (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but not in closed systems, or at least not to the extent that they are possible in open ones. In the same way, the tense, mechanical enjoyment of a real gamist’s game is not supported nearly as well by open systems as it is by closed ones. Understanding the capabilities of games and their artistic possibilities requires more than just videogame examples, especially as the boundaries between the online and offline worlds blur. The extraordinary work being done in social gaming (FiascoThe Burning Wheel, DreadPolarisDo: Pilgrims of the Flying TempleFreemarket) as well as physical gaming (WaldschattenspielRisk: LegacyKemetAndroid: NetrunnerLadies & Gentlemen) deserves much more attention from the digital games community.

By looking at social games, digital creators can see examples of what real interactive storytelling looks like, in a form that’s been pushed far beyond what closed-system digital games are capable of. Physical games, on the other hand, can provide examples of ingenious mechanical structures for videogames to aspire to. Both of these game types are relatively inexpensive to create and publish, and as a result take far more risks than videogames and stretch the limits of design farther and faster.

We’re all gamists, narrativists or simulationists at one point or another. We want experiences that nurture these creative agendas to their fullest, and flesh out what is possible in a game. However, games will never reach their full potential if their designers keep trying to force one particular type of game to yield up an experience it was never meant to support. The pursuit of story within a game structure is a worthy cause, but digital creators should be using the tools and systems appropriate for stories if they ever want to see them truly live. Doing so may require them to take a step back, and turn off the screen.

2 thoughts on “Open and Shut: Videogames, Stories, and Digital Myopia”

  1. Where does a videogame like Dwarf Fortress fit into this?
    It’s a roguelike/simulation game with no built-in plot, but there’s a culture of narrating the stories that emerge from the mechanics — see things like Boatmurdered and Bravemules.

  2. The font in this blog entry is gray, which is difficult to read against the black background. Any chance you can update this? I want to link this article to my blog and social media follows.

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