The other day I was kindly invited to join a panel at Non3pub about narrative in board games. One of the ideas that I took away from the panel was the notion that narrative is not a single coherent concept in board games. In fact, there are multiple ways in which narrative exists in board games. During the panel the point was made that it is more of a spectrum, utilizing different means and tools at the designer’s disposal. While I do think that this approach isn’t without merit, I think it is more fruitful to differentiate more closely. That is to say, I want to think of different board game narratives as different genres.
Games are often categorized by their mechanisms (deckbuilder, worker placement, negotiation game, etc.). I’d say that we should also distinguish between types of narrative board games. In much the same way that rules and mechanisms create different game genres, and ask players to do different things to create an enjoyable experience; so do narrative concepts ask players to engage them differently to create the engrossing story the game promises.
That doesn’t mean that there is no overlap between narrative genres, only that certain features are at the forefront while others are less prominent. After all, few games are “pure” deckbuilders or “pure” worker placement. Most draw from various genres, and the same I think is true of board game narratives.
Naturally, the next step has to be naming at least some narrative genres in board games. Since board games are a participatory medium, it’s not enough to differentiate in tone and style of the narrative, but also in how players are asked to participate in its creation.
Type I – Experiential narrative
We live the game’s narrative. We are its protagonists and there is little to no barrier between ourselves and our role in the game. It’s the most immersive form of narrative in a board game, as we are led to ignore the artifice of the medium itself. An immersive film experience lets you ignore that you are actually safe and sound in a comfortable seat, with maybe a beverage or a snack on your lap. An immersive board game narrative lets you ignore that a colored wooden cube is not gold, that victory points are not prestige or that your friends at the table aren’t actually conspiring to ruin your fun.
I’d argue that this is the most common and widespread form of game narrative, or at least the one that most people engage in. Even if they don’t consider their experience of playing the game to from a narrative in itself. It’s just “playing a game”.
The experiential narrative is not only the one we feel most intensely when we play, it’s also the one that a game’s design most prominently helps to shape. Its incentives give the narrative direction. Its challenges provide the protagonists (i.e. us) with conflict. Its arc of accruing achievements provides the scaffolding that leads the narrative towards a climax. It’s not that board games “tell” stories, but they create narratives, that are unlike those of any other medium, by putting us in the center of them.
This comes with a certain amount of responsibility and accountability, as every player directly affects the narrative everyone else at the table experiences. How we interact with each other, how we respond to conflicting ideas and goals, becomes an integral part to making the narrative enjoyable for all involved.
Type II – Deferred narrative
In this type of narrative, it’s our avatar that is part of the story. We have a strong disconnect between ourselves and our representation or role in the game. This might allow us to put on funny voices or play-act our position when we play. It lets us act in a way that is consistent with the avatar’s goals, but maybe not perfectly in line with what we personally enjoy. It’s the avatar (or the ‘role’) that lies, betrays, attacks or loses. It’s not us.
I believe this to be the second most common way of experiencing board game narratives, and a position many players fall back on once the primary, experiential narrative becomes uncomfortable. This can most often happen in highly competitive games, where the emotional distance placed between ourselves and the events in the game, provides a kind of protective layers.
We’re not the ones doing things or having them done to us. It’s the rules, that we simply follow studiously. It’s not personal, it’s
business just a game. These types of narrative are by definition not very immersive, but still allow for high levels of interaction. Provided that the barrier between personal experience and the events in the game is kept up. (It’s one of my pet peeves that this is called the “magic circle”, when it has nothing to do with it. But that’s a different topic.)
Type III – External narrative
In this type of narrative, the story is contained within the game and its components. The game’s narrative is external to us as players and separate from our actions. Through play we are given access to it, discover it or watch it unfold. In some ways it is the least board game like way of telling a story. But it is the one most easily recognized from other media. Books, film and video games generally employ this method to tell their stories.
As players we simply react to new story developments. Sometimes our actions may introduce them, but we are not the ones determining them or controlling them in any way. This style of board game narrative is often looked down upon as it’s said to patronize players and relegate them to be a passive audience to the writer’s prose.
While it is arguably the safest and most “conservative” way to enhance a game’s narrative, there is still much to be said for it. It frees players from having to do much narrative work. They get to focus on playing the game and are rewarded with a new story beat as soon as they’ve achieved some goal or another. It “only” needs a good writer to make it work, and they can focus on crafting story parcels that are dispatched over the course of the game, or even an entire campaign game.
Most efforts have arguably been put into refining this approach in recent years. Game makers continue to experiment with how to convey an external narrative without relying on long blocks of story texts to read during the game. This may include secondary texts to expand a setting’s lore and enrich player’s imagination when they next face a certain foe, or return to a certain location. It may be the multimedia tools of an app to expand a game’s audio-visual representation and so on.
An external narrative’s biggest strength is that it’s easy to grasp and for most players also easy to engage with. This is arguably one of the most important goals of design.
Type IV – Reported narrative
Simply put, this is the story we tell of the game we played. In a very literal sense the narrative is taken out of the game and handed to the players. The events of the game provide us with the material from which we get to weave our personalized tale. Think of the game we played as raw camera footage that we edit as we see fit. Sometimes a lot of editing is necessary to make it seem like an actual story. Actions may have to be interpreted through the lens of the game’s setting and mechanisms. Placing one of our tokens on the board might be interpreted as an invasion. It might be interpreted as setting up a trading post, discovering unknown space and so on. Depending on how much effort was put into aligning mechanisms and theme, we may have little room for interpretation or we might be able to really stretch our creative muscles.
Whereas the experiential narrative is based in immersion, the reported narrative is based in reflection. It asks us to actively interpret and attribute some kind of story meaning on our actions, based off of presentation and flavor texts.
Since games are a participatory narrative medium, players are pivotal in deciding which narrative genre they will pursue in a game. By extension players inclination towards one style over another may clash with the assumptions that are baked into the game’s narrative design.
A game like Pandemic Legacy Season 1, for example, is not a good match, if players are looking for a reported narrative. The game’s developing objectives and storyline put too many limitations on players to let them tell the story they want. All the elements they seek to name, interpret, edit have already been determined by the game’s writers. Players came to the table to tell a story using their experience playing the game, while the game already had a story it wanted to tell.
Similarly, the experiential narrative of a game is highly reliant on the objectives, incentives and interactions a game provides. The more varied those are, the more interesting and exciting the narrative becomes. Which goes some way to explain why so-called eurogames eventually feel unthematic or soulless to players. There are only so many variations of “exchange one resource for another resource to get VP” you can go through, before it all starts to feel stale. Players may have come to experience a narrative, but were instead deferred to the role of “competitor” and to only pay attention to the challenge the game provided.
I think we need to find a way to communicate the type of narrative a game aims to support and we need to advise players in what way they are asked to participate in the game’s narrative. This will not only help popularize board games as a narrative medium with its own unique techniques and features, but should also allow us to aim for more nuanced and sophisticated narratives beyond those stirring tales of overcoming challenge(r)s.