I recently came across this article by Greg Costikyan about the fundamental incompatibility of story and game Story vs. Game. This is as a result of a really interesting discussion on that topic at Keith Burgan’s game design forum. I don’t want to critique Greg’s article so much as offer a counterpoint to that line of thought based on my experience playing and designing both computer games and tabletop roleplaying games.
The main thrust of the argument against combining story and games is that good stories are pre-determined and linear, while good games are not — they require the player to have the agency to be able to make decisions that change things up. So the conclusion drawn is that limiting the player’s agency makes for a worse game, and conversely allowing the player to mess with the arc of the narrative makes for a worse story. You are effectively making a frankenstein that is unsatisfactory from either perspective.
I can’t argue with most of that, but to cut directly to the chase, I think it’s missing the vital point — you don’t play a story game to produce a story, you play it to be in a story. The objective literary value of the ‘story’ produced as a result of play is irrelevant. To quote Lemmy, “the pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say“. And in fact Greg talks about the huge advantage that participation gives games over other mediums towards the end of his article.
There are also a few assumptions that go along with the story vs. game argument. The first is the very concept that story and game are distinct and separate things that need to be mushed together somehow. I think this is because so many games do exactly that — tack a few cut scenes in between blowing shit up. Most gamers be like “How quickly can I fast forward through this stuff?” But that type of stitch job isn’t the only option available. A story game needn’t be “story + game” any more than an arcade game would be considered “game + physical challenge” or a strategy game as “game + planning”. A story game can be simply a game about story. The genre of interactive fiction.
The Story vs. Games article does consider “Choose your own adventure” style of games and also touches very briefly on paper RPGs. The problem that Greg sees with CYOA games is that they lack goals. I don’t agree. The goal is to work in the best interests of the protagonist. Fictional Bowser kidnapped your fictional Princess Peach? Man, you got to fictionally get her back!!! The real problem with CYOA games is that they are just really simple little things that won’t hold any serious gamers interest for more than a few minutes.
For me, where Greg discusses Paper RPGs is the most interesting part of the article. That part stands out because it concedes that yes, these peeps have fun playing their style of game, and that participation is the key to appreciating any resulting ‘story’. But then glosses over that observation to conclude that by an objective literary measure, the ‘stories’ aren’t much chop. To that, I refer you again to Lemmy. But I will also add that the paper RPG community has made huge strides in the genre since 2001. There is really a whole lot of insightful designers that have spent the last 20 years doing a mountain of great work with games intended to be both great fun to play and produce satisfying narrative as a result.
The second assumption is that a story game must necessarily be inferior as a game. It ain’t necessarily so. In fact, the factors that are most important for engaging gameplay – consequential decisions made in the pursuit of goals – are precisely the factors that make for engaging narrative. So putting players in the position of the protagonist and giving them the opportunity to select those goals and make those consequential decisions seems more like a match made in heaven than a fundamental incompatibility. They are just different types of decisions and goals to arcade games or strategy games, that’s all.
Lastly I would like to touch on the possibilities that story games offer. I’m not going anywhere near ‘games as art’ or ‘games vs. art’. What I will say is that all types of games offer moments. Arcade games can offer moments of exhilaration. Puzzle and strategy games games can offer moments of satisfaction or triumph. Story games can offer moments of emotion and insight. It’s by the frequency and depth of these moments that story game players derive satisfaction from the ‘narrative’ rather than some literary measure of coherency. Ask anyone who has played improv theatre or paper RPGs, and has experienced a point where the talking stops and everybody stares at each other like ‘Did that actually just fucking happen?‘ There is definitely something worth shooting for there that only interactive fiction can provide.
The fact that nobody has quite yet managed to successfully bring that experience to computer games (that I’m aware of) isn’t anywhere near enough reason not to keep trying.