Game Stories

The outcome of any given game is inherently uncertain, since it must be possible to win or lose (or, at least, to play without end). Yet stories, as they are normally understood, should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and only one of each. Games which include stories – referred to in this book as interactive narratives – have thus proved hard to analyse. There has been considerable debate as to whether it is desirable, or even possible, that games have stories. This question was a frequent subject for dispute between wargame players and role playing game enthusiasts in the 1970s, with the former group emphasizing the importance of simulational accuracy over narrative and the latter taking the opposite position. More recently, the growing commercial importance of videogames has led to the repetition of many of these arguments amongst academics dedicated to the new field of "game studies". Regardless of the details of the debate, it seems clear that many modern games contain detailed characters, complex settings intended to express significant themes, and predesigned or spontaneously generated plots which allow explicitly or implicitly for various narrative paths to be taken depending on the actions of the players. Such features are more important in some forms than others; story and characterisation seem especially significant in gamebooks, RPGs and some videogame forms, such as adventures and computer role playing games. Since there is no standard categorisation for the types of interactive narrative seen in games, this book employs an original schema based on the identification of common patterns in various types of game and "interactive literature", influenced by several sources – including Ken Rolston's article on "Adventure by Design" in issue 31 of Different Worlds (November 1983) – but especially by terms used in videogame design. The forms of narrative included in this model are:

Frame This refers to a fictional setting, possibly including a short story, comic or cartoon, which provides context for a game but is not important during actual play, and is not itself interactive. Examples include many sf and fantasy wargames, which typically concentrate on simulating fictional battles rather than telling stories. Such narrative frames can be strikingly detailed and evocative, as in the extensive universe constructed to support Warhammer 40,000 (1987 Games Workshop) designed by Rick Priestley, Andy Chambers, Jervis Johnson, Gavin Thorpe.

Embedded An embedded narrative is one which occurs before the game begins, and which is split up into fragments which the player can reassemble into a coherent story as they are discovered. Interactive narratives of this form can resemble detective stories, though the goal is generally not to solve any specific mystery but instead simply to reconstruct the past. One of the more interesting science-fictional examples is the role playing scenario Secret of the Ancients (1984 Game Designers' Workshop [GDW]) designed by Marc Miller, in which the players can uncover the hidden history of the mysterious forerunner species which scattered early humans across the galaxy of Traveller's Third Imperium.

Explorable Explorable narratives resemble conventional stories in that there is only one sequence of events connecting a single beginning and end, but differ from them by allowing a reader (or viewer) to traverse those events in more than one order. Thus it might be possible to start with a single character's name and follow a variety of paths leading from that point until the entire plot has been explored. This approach is commonly found in hypertext fictions, such as Geoff Ryman's non-sf website 253 (1996), each section of which is concerned with one of the 253 passengers and staff on board a London Underground train which is about to crash.

Linear Linear narratives are often described as having a "string of pearls" structure, a phrase which appears to have originated with the videogame designer and fantasy writer Jane Jensen. The plot proceeds in a broadly straightforward fashion from beginning to end, with each major narrative event represented by the string between two pearls, or nodes. Within each of these pearls, however, players are generally free to approach the game as they wish, until they have performed whatever actions are necessary to move on to the next node, advancing one step further in the overall plot. Linear stories are perhaps the simplest of all narrative forms which – unlike the frame, embedded and explorable types – allow the player to interact with the ongoing plot, and are frequently used in role playing scenarios. This simplicity, however, can lead to some players feeling unduly confined by the game's structure, since they are only free to act between narratively significant events. An award-winning example is the Traveller scenario Twilight's Peak (1980 GDW) designed by Marc Miller, in which the players explore a mysterious underground complex.

Multilinear The multilinear form is a natural development of the linear one, converting the simple string into a branching tree of possibilities. This allows participants to take a variety of different paths through the plot, depending on what choices they make – fight or flee, befriend or betray – at the predefined points which correspond to a branch. Several problems exist with this approach. It is clearly unfeasible to create a branch for every choice which a player might wish to make, and many options which should be physically possible would in any case produce an unconvincing and unsatisfying story. Multilinear designs therefore tend to offer a limited number of choices, many of which loop back to nodes which have been previously encountered, or diverge only to recombine, thus reducing the amount of planning necessary. For example, players might find themselves exiled from their homes whether or not they chose to kill their father's murderer. Such limitations, however, can result in some players feeling constrained by the plot, though this is certainly less common than with linear narratives. Multilinear plotting is the standard method used to construct gamebooks, and appears in such RPG scenarios as The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues (1985 West End Games), designed by John M Ford for West End's Paranoia. It is also common in computer role playing games; one notable example of its use in this form is the broodingly philosophical epic Planescape: Torment (1999 Black Isle Studios) designed by Chris Avellone, Colin McComb, set in the Dungeons and Dragons world of Planescape.

Modular Modular stories are constructed from a number of largely independent "modules", in a similar manner to the separate episodes of a picaresque novel. In games the individual sections are typically placed in different physical locations which can be visited by the player in whatever order they prefer. These modules may make up the major part of the game's plot (perhaps positioned between a single beginning and a single ending), or they may represent separate "side stories" which the player can choose to involve themselves with if they wish. Works which make good use of this technique include Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands series of gamebooks, of which the first was The War-Torn Kingdom (1995), and the RPG scenario Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984 Chaosium), designed for the Call of Cthulhu game by Lynn Willis and Lawrence G DiTillio. This approach is also common in computer role playing games.

Emergent Arguably, playing any game which includes recognizable characters and settings can cause a narrative to spontaneously emerge in the mind of the player. This viewpoint seems of little use for practical analysis of narrative forms, however, so this book uses the term to refer solely to games in which the emergence of story is encouraged by design. Typically, this requires the existence of a clear goal which the player is attempting to achieve, considerable freedom of choice as to how that end might be accomplished, and personalities which the player can identify with and be opposed by. The nature of these requirements means that this approach is generally seen in videogames rather than in RPG scenarios (or in other hobby game forms such as wargames or gamebooks). Successful examples are rare, but one interesting attempt is the heroic fantasy King of Dragon Pass (1999 A Sharp) designed by David Dunham, Robin D Laws, Greg Stafford, a combination of 4X game and mythic quest set in the role playing world of Glorantha. The design focuses on groups of individual characters, treating those personalities as parameters supplied to abstract templates which express potential narrative structures.

Environmental The basic concept behind the environmental approach is to create a "story-rich environment" containing characters, background details and short missions for the players to perform, in the expectation that a story will then evolve. It differs from the emergent form primarily by not including a strong goal and not attempting to deliberately guide the evolution of a narrative. Typically, this approach seems to require the participation of several players (allowing them to compete against or cooperate with each other, which encourages the formation of memorable stories), and is greatly helped by the involvement of an individual who is deliberately attempting to shape the narrative, in the manner of a gamemaster. Environmental narratives appear in RPG supplements which present comprehensive descriptions of a location and its inhabitants as well as "seeds" for adventures which might occur there, a tradition which began with City State of the Invincible Overlord (1976 Judges Guild; revised 1978; revised 1987; revised 2004) designed by Bob Bledsaw, a detailed account of a fantasy city which was also the origin of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy game world. A science-fictional example of this approach can be found in Cloud Captains of Mars (1989 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick, which depicts a Martian city for the steampunk game Space: 1889 (1988 GDW) designed by Frank Chadwick. Environmental designs are also common in such digital forms as multi user dungeons and massively multiplayer online role playing games.

Generative While the gamemasters who mediate RPGs often use predesigned plots – which are typically linear, multilinear, modular or environmental in form – they must also shape the narrative which emerges from the game as it is being played, with the assistance (or hindrance) of their players. Thus the skills and talents of the gamemaster are vital to the appearance of a sense of ongoing story in a role playing game. Similar techniques are used in alternate reality games, where puppetmasters construct the actual narrative from their pre-prepared plot and the decisions of their online participants. This ability to generate story in response to players' actions, whatever they might be, is the ultimate goal of many videogame theorists, though it seems unlikely that it can be achieved using only computer software as it is understood today. To date, every truly successful attempt to generate narrative in this way has been mediated by a human storyteller.

Many actual interactive narratives employ more than one of these approaches, including some of the works mentioned above. For example, RPG scenarios may be both multilinear and modular, as in the blackly comic Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986 Games Workshop [GW]), comprising The Enemy Within (1986 GW), Shadows Over Bögenhafen (1987 GW), Death on the Reik (1987 GW), Power Behind the Throne (1988 GW), Something Rotten in Kislev (1989 GW) and Empire in Flames (1989 GW), variously designed by Jim Bambra, Graeme Davis, Phil Gallagher, Ken Rolston and Carl Sargent. It is also interesting to note that, of the nine types of narrative listed here, in the first three the actual sequence of events which make up the story is fixed, while in the remaining six it is mutable. (Arguably, linear narratives should also be categorized as having a fixed story, since only events which are of no great importance to the narrative can be affected by the player in this form.) If the frame approach is discounted on the grounds that it is actually a non-interactive form of narrative used to provide context for an interactive game, the various categories divide into two groups: one (containing the linear, multilinear, modular, emergent, environmental and generative types) in which the sequence of events can change, and one (consisting only of the embedded and exploratory forms) in which the events are fixed but the participant may experience them in a variety of different orders. In essence, this is the distinction between the series of incidents which form the narrative and the manner of their presentation to the player (or the reader), the difference between a story and its telling.

All Contents Pseudonymz Ltd unless otherwise noted.