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10:35pm on Monday, 22nd October, 2012:

Story Machines


I thought I'd spend the two hours I had free on the train today writing this, so I have something to point at next time I get into an argument about games and stories.

Games are machines for generating stories.

According to E. M. Forster in his celebrated book on the craft of storytelling, Aspects of the Novel, a story is a "narrative of events arranged in their time sequence". In other words, events happen; some of these events are selected and described in the order that they will be read (if not necessarily the order they occurred); the way they are told is a narrative; the result is a story.

A plot is not the same as a story, because it is predefined and includes causality. One event happens because another situation, event, or series of events, preceded it. For example, consider the following story, which consists of two events: "I ate a bar of chocolate. I was sick.". You don't know whether eating the bar of chocolate made me sick, or whether I ate the bar of chocolate because I was sick. You don't know that the story isn't going to continue: "I stroked an armadillo. That's three things off my bucket list.".

Much of the enjoyment from reading a story comes from reconstructing the plot that overlays it: figuring out the causal links that connect key events. It doesn't have to be all about this, of course — I love Chekhov's short stories because of their characters, not because of any discernable plot. However, the reconstruction of the plot from the events presented in the story — realising what caused what — is at the heart of why stories are compelling.

A narrative is the telling of the story (although you could also regard it as the conveying of the plot through the device of the story). The term tends to be used to mean the telling of the story as a whole; if you mean it at the nuts-and-bolts, words-on-the-page level, it would be a discourse rather than a narrative.

Backstory is the retelling of events that preceded the events of the story. Although backstories can be directly present in a story, more often their effects are felt only indirectly. For example, in designing a character who is a charity worker, an author may have constructed for them a backstory in which they spent six months in prison in their youth for credit card fraud; this would be felt in the story by their need for atonement for their past indiscretion, but it would not necessarily have to be mentioned at any point.

A history is the retelling of a related series of events or episodes that have previously taken place. When the events are not presented as causally connected, these are mere records; when they are, it's history. For real events (as opposed to fictional ones), there is no overall plot created by a god-like author but there could be plots authored by historical individuals or groups (as in the Gunpowder Plot). The job of the historian involves looking at the records and providing explanations and interpretations as to why certain things turned out the way they did. Although the result may look like a plot, it doesn't have to be one: the crops could have failed because the smoke from a volcano in a distant land obscured the sun, which is a causal connection but not a plot because it wasn't predefined by an author. A chain of events doesn't have to be plotted to be causally connected.

So, let's apply these terms to games.

For games, the story is the linear sequence of events experienced by the player. It doesn't have to be the same for each player nor for the same player over each (re)playing of the game.

The plot of a game is a not-necessarily-linear series of events predetermined by the design team. It will account for some of the more significant events that occur to the player, but only a minority of the overall total. Most of the events that the player experiences will be as a result of interactions between the player and the game system. Although these are also predefined by the design team in the sense that the game's design implicitly embodies the totality of all events that can possibly occur within the game, they are not predefined as events. They are predefined as a system for generating events.

When game designers talk of narrative, they usually mean the way that the explicitly predefined (that is, plotted) events unfold for the player. They don't usually mean the way that events contingent on the predefined game system unfold. Designers do have authorial control over that, but they call it gameplay, not narrative.

The events that took place prior to the player's beginning to play a game are its backstory. Often, the story will pick up as an ongoing continuation of the backstory; in this case, the backstory is authored, fixed, and will be the same for each playing of the game. However, this does not have to be the case. For example, a new player joining EVE Online will discover a web of relationships between players and corporations built up over the several years of the game's existence. From the new player's perspective, this is backstory: it's a series of events that took place before they started to play that predicate and provide the contextual springboard for many of the future events that will affect the player. It's immaterial to the new player that these events weren't conceived by a designer, they're backstory either way.

From the perspective of a long-term player of EVE Online, the events of the past are not backstory, though: they're history. They're the part of that player's ongoing story that has already been read. Importantly, though, they only become part of the player's history in the retelling: as events, they merely constitute an ordered set of records. When players selectively choose which of all the events that have occurred to them to relate (either to themselves or to someone else), the resulting interpreted story is a history.

These stories — these histories — are the ones that matter for games. If you can't tell another, attentive player what interesting things happened to you, that means no interesting things happened to you. If no events worth speaking of occurred, why were you playing the game? You had no decisions to make, you had no unexpected situations to deal with, you had no obstacles to overcome, you had no heart-stopping moments: nothing of interest to you happened.

When you read a novel, you are presented through the narrative with a series of plotted events — a story. When you play a game, you may also be presented through the narrative with a series of plotted events; however, you will also be presented by the gameplay with a series of unplotted events. In design terminology, games (particularly MMOs) heavy on plot-driven events are "theme parks"; ones heavy on gameplay-driven events are "sandboxes".

Games don't actually need to have plots. Abstract games have no plot by definition, because they have no fiction to give foundation to their chains of causality. They nevertheless do create story, because the causality is implicit in their rules and mechanics. If you've ever told anyone what an amazing game of Tetris you just had, how you couldn't believe your luck, how the pile had nearly reached the top when suddenly, in a glorious sequence of long-awaited blocks of just the kind you wanted, line after line evaporated until you were looking at a pile of rubble and a new personal best high score; if you've ever related that kind of experience, you've told a story — a history — of an abstract game. Yet Tetris has no plot whatsoever. All it has is gameplay.

If games don't need to have predefined plots, why do so many of them bother with them? Is plot simply a way of adding dressing to make a world more believable and so more immersive? I had a long conversation with Lee Sheldon about this several years ago and one of the points he made struck home: some people are just better at creating stories than others. Left to their own devices, players will always do things that initiate events, but these events may not necessarily be the stuff of which great stories are made. If you encourage someone proficient in crafting stories to create a plot that directs events such that they are more emotionally loaded, more intellectually significant and lead to a more satisfactory and meaningful conclusion, then this will enhance the player's overall experience.

This is a view I do accept. However, following it through to its logical conclusion raises the question: why bother with games at all? Why play a game when you can watch a movie or read a novel, with a plot constructed by someone so much better at creating plots than you are?

The answer is that people are individuals. Some things are incredibly important to them, but not to anyone else (or at least not to many other people). In playing a game, a player can cause events to occur that might not even impinge on the consciousness of the majority, but to that one person are a major experience. They don't even have to be a major experience, they can be a minor experience that the player is using as a building block to construct a more meaningful story in their mind. That story may well be garbage to anyone else, but it's not to the player concerned. They did what they did in the game because it generated or is working towards an event that is a continuation of the unique causal chain the player is assembling, extrapolating, appropriating, honing and personalising.

Games, as systems, allow players to experiment with events, picking from them the ones that make the best story for them, which will lead to the further stories that are best for them. An overall, plot-driven series of events can also do this, but by necessity it's offering a general rather than a specific story. Games allow people to weave these plots into their own story — the one that is arising from the gameplay they are operating.

Games can be played automatically to create random series of events that make causal sense; that doesn't make the results stories, however. When players play, the events they create aren't arbitrary - they're purposeful. Why that one series, out of all the possible series, rather than another? It can only be because of the choices the player made, which ultimately can only have been made because at some level they were somehow significant or important to that player. There may be some randomness involved, there may be some plot involved, but there will always be gameplay involved.

Games are machines for creating stories. Play them, and your imagination will construct ones that work for you.

Everyone likes stories, but they like their own stories most of all.

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).