Story in Games

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In a recent Trashdome Shellhead mentioned that he wouldn’t play QUEEN’s GAMBIT because the movie it’s based on is utter crap. That got me thinking: we always say that good AT games tell stories, but what games actually tell good stories? And more importantly: why? A look at the dramaturgy of board games might give some answers.

aristotle.jpg First of all I believe we need to distinguish between story and theme. Theme is to some extent all the stuff the story is about – fantasy, science fiction, crime, impressing the duke etc. – whereas by story I mean the dramaturgy – that is the way the story actually unfolds. Furthermore I believe games can tell two different kinds of stories: those that are told during the scope of the entire game and those that are more situational. By the latter I’m referring to all the stories about a lone army in RISK holding out against overwhelming odds, the gangster just emerging from St. Mary’s only to be knocked out by a freakishly lucky cultist and so on. This might seem a bit redundant, but it’s an important distinction. Just because a game creates lots of situational stories (small stories) doesn’t mean it actually tells a story in a dramaturgical sense.

Tragedy vs. Games
Now, I don’t want to go into a huge discussion about what constitutes a story, but two simple (and related) definitions might be worth looking at. The first is Aristotle’s. In his Poetic’s he writes: “according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Of course games aren’t tragedies, but they do tend to be extremely linear stories with a very finite ending. So, if we want a game to tell an Aristotelic story it has to have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end.

Games that do this are very often scenario based. Scanning my game closet I find Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US), Last Night on Earth, Memoir ’44 and several other scenario games that clearly have a beginning, middle and end. Gearing up and searching, fighting for the artifact, mortal combat (Buffy). Positioning, heavy fighting, rash moves to gain the last VP (Memoir). On the other hand a game such as NEXUS OPS does not have the same feel, I think. Yes, you gain more and more of the expensive units as the game progresses, but you score points the entire way so it doesn’t really tell a big story. It’s still shitloads of fun, but it doesn’t really tell a good story.

But a game doesn’t have to be scenario based in order to tell a story. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is the prime example since the very core of its being is not only based on a storyline, but is also a very effective dramaturgical engine. The beginning is mistrust and confusion, then comes the middle (around when the players get their second loyalty card) with more direct confrontation and accusations, and finally the end which is typically a pitched battle between revealed cylon(s) and the humans.

As mentioned above theme and story aren’t the same. A good example of this is TWILIGHT IMPERIUM. It’s in many ways my all time favourite game and there’s loads and loads of theme in it. But if you look at it closer I do believe that the three phases are not of appropriate length – something Aristotle points out is of great importance. The expansion and exploration is obviously the beginning, but the middle and end of the game melts together to a huge and badly arranged lump. On the way you’ll most likely experience lots of small stories, but the big story is too hard to make out which is partially because of the enormity of the game – an enormity that is an important reason for me to like it as a game, by the way.

The Five Act Model
A slightly more advanced way of looking at the dramaturgy of tragedies is to split it into five acts than can roughly be described as follows:

  1. Exposition – where the characters and the plot are revealed.
  2. Complication – where the plot thickens.
  3. Confrontation – where the main conflict of the drama is at its high point and thus where the scales slowly start to tip.
  4. Desperation – where everything looks bleak for the tragic hero.
  5. Resolution – where a sort of order is re-established.

Again, games are not supposed to be high drama, but this model goes to show why ARKHAM HORROR – a game that most certainly tell a story – sometimes falls absolutely flat for me. In one game I played we fought hard against the gates and the great old one. I started – as ARKHAM does – with gates opening all around us (exposition and complication), but we managed to gain the upper hand. And early on it was obvious that we would eventually pull a win (confrontation). But instead things just dragged on and on and we never seemed to get the clues we needed to win. This would be fine if the game was nearing a win, but it wasn’t. Instead we could see victory ahead of us the entire time, but were unable to reach it. And then suddenly we lost. No building up, no sense of desperation, we just lost.

See, even if we had eventually won, it would have been a bad game in a dramaturgical sense. But losing made it a train wreck. And this is not the only time I’ve felt the dramaturgy of ARKHAM being a bit off track. The game will often start with a mad dash to close gates while the sealing of the last two can take several very uneventful turns. Luckily ARKHAM HORROR offers tons of small stories and it also manages to nail the perfect story often enough to make it one of my absolute favourite games.

Another game I really like is STARCRAFT – a game that tells a story through its source material, but more importantly through the very way it plays out. As far as I remember a game of SC will take four, five or six turns – not too far from the five acts mentioned above. A typical game will progress something like this:

  1. Players position themselves and the fronts are drawn up.
  2. First serious battles.
  3. This is where good players start to worry about their special victory condition and about getting enough conquest points to win a tie.
  4. Chaos. Big units, destruction and so on.
  5. A player pulls a win by fulfilling his SVC.

Personally I love the way STARCRAFT ends. Everybody has a chance to win, but if you look closer you’ll see that getting more conquest points than your opponents is a very important strategy. In a real tragedy the downfall of the hero is inevitable, but in SC the player with the best position mid-game will just most likely win, I believe. For me, this not only feels great game-wise since every player can potentially be part of the game to the very end, but it also makes sense on a dramaturgical level since the ending is so tense and therefore needs to be short. 

Of course there are plenty of other examples and of course games can be good without adhering to the five act model or even the idea of beginning-middle-end. But I do believe that the games that are not only good games, but also tell a story are the ones that make sense on a dramaturgical level. And also that looking at games from this point of view can tell us more about why they work. In the end, however, if a game makes you feel like you experience a story – be that about the rise and fall of civilizations, crushing your enemies, or (however unlikely) impressing a king – then it most likely must be working on some level, dramaturgical or not. 
There Will Be Games
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