Recent online discussions about board games have evoked some surprisingly intense reactions in me, and in an attempt to help me understand why, I started writing down some of my thoughts on the topic of narrative and stories in board games. I hope these attempts at elucidating my own thoughts prove helpful, useful or at least mildly interesting to others.
Let’s start with a simple opening statement: I think that games aren’t designed to tell stories. I would go so far as to say, that any game that is made with the sole purpose of telling a story will, at best, produce a middling experience in play. On the other hand, I also think that a great game, and even some good ones, will feel like you‘re experiencing a story when you play them.
That‘s because stories are a byproduct of our biological disposition to make sense of the world around us. So when we play a game our sense-making and pattern recognition reflexes can‘t help but see some implied, hidden logic and meaning in the events unfolding before us. This is arguably the reflex upon which all fiction is built.
If we’re watching a movie that first shows a man walking from the left side of the screen towards the right, and then a woman walking from the right side to the left, our brains will assume that they are walking towards each other. Even if they’re never in the same shot. Just as when we flip the order of those shots, we will assume that they are moving away from each other. The narrative power of film editing relies on our cognitive reflexes to “connect the dots”.
The same reflexes are in use with literature as well. When we read dialogue between two characters whose interior monologues we are familiar with, and that dialogue is terse and monosyllabic, it tells us so much more than just the words on the page. It tells us something about their relationship, their demeanor and maybe even their emotional state. The narrative power of subtext relies on our cognitive reflexes to “connect the dots”.
When we‘re fully engrossed in playing a game, planning our moves without looking up rules, trying to outwit our opponents or accurately gauging the difficulty of things to come, we feel something akin to immersion. We play the game and everything that happens coalesces into a coherent whole, with its own rhythm, its own flow and its own ups and downs. Play makes sense because our brain managed to repackage the events of the game into a comprehensible and digestible paradigm: a story. The narrative power of a game relies on our cognitive reflexes to “connect the dots”.
The resulting narrative doesn’t have to produce an elaborate story with all the bells and whistles we’re accustomed to. It doesn’t even have to be complete, let alone fit neatly into what we expect or want that story to look like. Antagonists don’t need to get their comeuppance. Plucky underdogs don’t have to snatch victory at the last moment. People don’t need to grow or learn.
All that a game needs to do is cover the bases of what players need to know to (literally) make sense and produce a narrative: protagonists in pursuit of goals come into conflict before reaching a resolution at the end. That’s all it takes.
Any game that manages to hit those marks will create a narrative through play.
The narrative is simply there for anyone who pays attention to it. Regardless of whether the designer wants it to be there or not. The building blocks for it exist by function of the game itself. The only thing a designer can do is attempt to either acknowledge and incorporate this layer of a players’ experience or plain ignore it.
But as far as I can tell, the time when designers could simply write off narrative as the fringe preference of a “different player types” is rapidly coming to an end. This isn’t the eurogame scene of the 1990s anymore, where “theme” was basically a fancy way to select your game’s color palette. It’s no longer a question of “taste”, “preference” or “target audience”. If a game’s design doesn’t support the narrative that play creates, people will complain about the game’s story not making sense.
This is valuable feedback. But it’s important to understand where that criticism is coming from. It is not some vague notion of wanting games to play out in hokey three-act structures. Gamers don’t bring up stories as a talking point, because they want their games to mimic telling a story. They bring it up, because they want their games to provide an emotionally satisfying experience.
That is the origin of talking about stories in board games. They are a concept with which players frame the emotional experience of playing a game. It is the way in which our cognitive reflexes seek to make sense of the time we spent playing. An emotionally satisfying experience creates a story, not the other way around.
So when somebody loudly rejects a rule, mechanism or concept as getting in the way of a good story, it’s the emotional experience of playing the game that is being criticized. Specifically, the way that said game fails to deliver what it promised to do: giving its players an emotionally satisfying experience using the bits and pieces that came in the box.