I ended last time with a summary that mentioned a single thread which I thought ran through the highest quality work. This thread is story. Whether it’s game design, art, or writing, there is a story running through the best of it. At least, I’d say so.
Clearly there is story in prose, and games all have an initial state that changes as they are played – so there is a narrative to be pulled out if you want to. Art is trickier, but I think that even there a good picture can imply a before and an after to the specific moment illustrated, and that flow tells a story of sorts. At least, it implies one. It makes you think about the moment in the context of its before and after.
For example, whether you like the style or not, the posing of the characters, composition, and use of concepts familiar to the viewer give this evocative piece by Matt Dixon a sense of being one moment in a larger tale. Matt’s very good at this and this sense of time is present in many of his works. I expect to come back to this in more detail in a later post.
Today I have a slightly different kind of post for you. Short, for one (for me). But really, the main thing I wanted to do was to ask you guys what you thought of story in games, and story in art. Is it something you look for? Care about? I know people that make up a story when they play anything, and others who don’t care about the most obvious narrative – they’re all about the mechanics.
What do you think?
I completely agree. The story is the backbone that give reason to play. It can create driving points in a scenario without creating new rules. And the best use are the stories that allow the players to contribute to the dialog, whether by interaction and conversing, or through action and game play.
From the time you gave me a bump start with Dwarf King’s Hold I have been working on game design because I think a game system should be supported by building or exploring a story. I found a lot of ways to handle a story poorly but seem to be making progress toward something I will be happy with. I looked at a supporting app to process the story but have found reasons to abandon that idea. I tend to see story and campaign play as things that makes a game great. I also am spending more time on solo and cooperative game systems because I think that allows a story with a better arc.
It is great you are active on your site again.
Sounds like intriguing stuff. Do let us know when you’ve got something you want to share.
I have been breaking the story elements into layers by game function.
Distant past provides myths and rumors so there is something in game to discover which ones are true but all of them can be reviewed by players before and during the game.
Current politics provides motive and reason for players to take risk and explore.
Hostile groups have a backstory to provide a reason for being hostile. I could make that random but the groups encountered have a random factor so random backstory seems like over kill.
Of late I have been influenced by Shadow Deep and Gloom Haven. Shadow Deep is current reference for solo excellence as it is the best solo game I know of at the moment. It is easy to have an attack go wrong in Shadow Deep however you have limited control of risk so that bothers me. Story line is fixed so it is an issue for replay and story line excitement. Gloom Haven mechanics are great fun with three to four players but I find supporting the mechanics painful solo. Gloom Haven story is also a grind to discover.
I found that Shadow Deep AI made my Conan game much more fun for hero players and got distracted with Conan hero player mechanics for a while. The game did have a lot of RPG style hooks that were not exploited on the hero side. It is funny that Conan has one of the best overlord mechanics I have seen but it breaks the game for the heroes if someone good is running the overlord. Through a make it simple process the Conan mechanics are fading away but spending time on them were useful.
I have had the thought that mechanics are not that special while the mix of the mechanics used does matter. Seems like a solid set of mechanics could carry a lot of story. What is the product mechanics or story? If mechanics are flexible enough to carry many types of stories, easy to learn and play it seems life would be good. I am finding the story is the fun part to create and to play through.
It’s always useful to examine how someone else has approached and solved a puzzle, especially if you enjoy their end result, so I think you’re on the right track looking at Conan and picking apart how they’ve done it. As you note, the natural next step is to move beyond that, taking the learning with you into your next project, and so again I’d say you were going the right way about this.
I also like your mix of predefined and random in backstory. That works well for me too. You have, after all, to keep yourself interested as well as everyone else.
Individual mechanics, like individual plot points or character elements of a story, are just the tools you use to build the end result. It’s not really about them individually, but the result of the particular mix and balance that you’ve employed.
Story is often where I start with a project, though not always. Sometimes crafting a clever mix of mechanics can be rewarding too. In the end, I think that the joy in creativity is where you find it in the moment, and not necessarily where it was last time. You should try to leave yourself open to it wherever it appears.
Story can carry me through a game that is, at its core, not a good game. And good mechanics won’t pull me through a game that can’t make a story live for me. At least that’s what I’ve been finding out via various games I’ve kickstarted.
In games I don’t care for prepackaged stories. In fact, I hate the way big brands like GW push narratives in miniature games like WH40K or Age of Sigmar. What i want is theme done well, not fully developed storylines we can only passively consume. Story has to emerge from play, and it might be different each time for every player group. I want a game universe that through its visual style & rules sets a particular mood, and lets players run with it. Don’t overburden it with too much detailed background info, and please, avoid padding rulebooks with second-rate fiction. Particularly if what you’re bringing is just another slight variation on a classic theme.
This is why of the GW games, I tend to gravitate towards Necromunda… I’m interested in a framework that encourages making my own story.
it’s only a matter of time before you get named characters, tie-in novels & comics and a big overall story arc. These addons were wildly successful in the case of WH40K, so no reason not to do it for Necro (or Blackstone F., or Warcry…) unless the game is really too niche and not worth the investment. For GW it’s yet another marketing tool to push product and plenty of people like being spoonfed.
I get why they do this and mostly ignore it. Just like I buy the minis but don’t play WH40K as I intensely dislike the rules. What really disappoints me is that indies think they should also go that way, setting themselves up as second-rate mini-GWs.
I think that it’s all a case of degrees, and where you draw the line between theme and story is difficult to definitively set.
As a player, I also want to be able to make my own stories within a wider setting. However, I don’t see existing stories necessarily getting in the way of that. Even with named heroes living out their stories, the world or universe is a very large place with a lot of room to explore, and there are many other adventures to be had and stories to tell.
I disagree that details are a problem with backgrounds – quite the opposite. Without them you will, by definition, have something broad and vague. Hard to see how that’s going to have much character.
There is no simple answer. I enjoy both games which tell a story and those which don’t. Abstract games like go, Zertz, poker are enjoyable on their own. Fun comes from toying with the rules, there is no need for the narrative. Some games, like Star Realms, Dominion, Dungeon Saga or Aeon’s End, have a story but I tend to ignore it and focus on the rules. Some games, like SW Rebellion, Eclipse or War in the Middle Earth naturally produce a story which adds to the experience. That said, the story may be a game-changer, I strongly prefer Half Life 2 over Doom 3 in big part because of much better and more engaging story.
I might be a bit biased as I play RPGs where the story is one of the most important elements. They may satisfy my needs for a good narrative so I don’t look for it in other games.
Or you may get your story fix from reading or film or somewhere else entirely… this will vary between individuals. Takes all sorts. In general, I’d say that most role-players I know bring a different outlook to their board games, though not necessarily the same one as you. Some seem to look for story more rather than less, and make one up if it’s lacking.
And you’re right that pure abstract games bypass stories and near abstracts almost do. For me this can make them a cold exercise in mechanics, and often maths, which is why they aren’t a major feature of my collection. I only keep the ones I find the most beautiful (like the Gipf project games) or clever; or the slickest of fillers. Speed is one key element for me personally, as without story in a game I find that I have only a limited tolerance for it.
No story = No fun