The Invisible Art of Storytelling

I’ve been playing a lot of Descent Legends of the Dark the last few weeks. One thing I picked up in conversation with other players is that they seem to consider the story a little too wordy and easily ignored. The game itself – once seperated from its story – seemed to have its supporters. I’ve found this distinction quite strange. To explain my reasons, I have to take a few steps back first.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadaian philosopher, who originated the phrase “the medium is the message”. I’m not going to be so bold as to pinpoint the exact meaning or “correct reading” of that phrase. But I want to use it as a jumping off point for a related thought: the medium in which a story exists, shapes the defining features of that story. In other words: depending on the medium we use, different features make a story recognizable to us.

The shape of a spoken story is different from that of a written one. If you’ve ever witnessed how a few flippant words can quickly escalate into a flame war, you understand how communication in the spoken and written form works differently. Once we move on to the field of visual communication, there is yet another set of features that help us see the what and how of the story.

Storytelling in a game is based on what we (players) do within and as part of the game. It’s our decisions and their effect on the game state, that form the core of it.

Before I go on, it’s probably useful to quickly outline two terms when talking about stories in a game. I don’t claim to offer universal definitions for those terms, but at least one that works in the context of this article.

Those terms are narrative and plot.

Narrative is supposed to describe the way in which a story is presented in a medium. The story of a book like Dune is told differently in a film, compared to a book. Its chronology might differ. Situations that a text describes with words, a film presents in a picture we can scan with a simple glance. While the inner life of characters in a book can be expressed through words, a film has to rely on staging (sound, camera, editing, etc) and acting to communicate the same ideas.

I use plot to describe a chain of events and individual actions. These may be connected causally: I forget my coffee in the machine, leading to my coffee getting cold. But the events of a plot can also have separate origins and only prompt something else to happen in combination. For example, it may be raining and the bus runs late. That is why my shoes are wet, when I reach the office leading to the freshly cleaned floor to be dirty again. The bus doesn’t directly lead to a dirty office floor, but is part of the plot.

In a game, the plot generally originates with player actions. We play cards, place markers, roll dice, choose actions, etc. Our decisions and actions create the game’s plot until they lead to the game’s conclusion. Most of the time, we make use of the game’s provided metaphor, to make our actions more entertaining. We could, for example connect two US cities by way of a railroad; or travel the world as scientists to treat people infected with some virus, or we might be Afghan warlords courting favor with imperial powers for our own ends. All of these are metaphors to illustrate the actions we take in the game, which would otherwise seem mundane and flimsy. Instead of playing tokens on map, we “connect Chicago and Pittsburgh”. We don’t discard cads and remove cubes, instead we travel to Santiago and treat the infected there.

These stories aren’t found in books

This is the entertaining part of the “magic circle”. It’s the part, that elevates our enjoyment of the game. But it’s not explicitly necessary for play. A number of eurogames with so-called “pasted-on themes” show, that we can play a game even if its theme is clunky, incoherent or simply uncomfortable.
A vivid, well-attuned and carefully considered metaphor is a lot of fun, and is often described as highly thematic. But it remains a metaphor. The more we try to deduce or interpret, the further we move away from the game’s plot and by extension its story.

Because a game’s story is not its metaphor. That is why it’s neither engaging or interesting, when that metaphor is expanded upon with the use of additional texts. Diving deeper into the facets of the game’s metaphor, regardless of how well written those texts may be, does not tell a story. It is at most exposition. It’s the necessary background knowledge we can make use of, to make our plays more appealing and engaging.

Imagine a simple game in which we move our player pieces across the board to collect victory point tokens. This description is serviceable, but it’s also dry and boring. If we were to call our player pieces “archaeologists” and the point tokens “relics”, things gain a little more traction. Now we’re Indiana Jones or Lara Croft style explorers in a race for precious artifacts. But we can go even deeper. Each relic may have a specific backstory written on the back. Whenever our playing pieces end up next to each other, we might have a book of dialogues to read from. These conversations may offer additional information about the relationship between the characters.

Even if these dialogues might seem like a story, they are crucially not in the context of a game. They are only the continuation of the game’s metaphor. They expand the game’s theme, but do not forward the plot. If these dialogues do not help us collect further victory point tokens, they are only mood pieces. If neither the goal of the game or the purpose of the design is to reveal the relationship between the characters, these dialogues function as embellishments and detailed flourishes. They serve the game’s narrative, without being the game’s story.

That said, these dialogues can have a strong emotional impact on us, because of what they talk about. An exchange about a burgeoning friendship, regret over past misdeeds or witty teasing may resonate with us and create an emotional bond between us and the characters. All these can help to enrich our experience of the game. Even if it doesn’t constitute the game’s story.

Separating the story from the game seems strange to me, because of that. I understand that the criticism aims at the effort that was put into expanding the game’s metaphor past its usefulness. It strikes me as the same type of overproduction, we often point at with other games for their physical heft. Similarly to how too many, oversized miniatures and countless tokens and markers feel distracting, so does an overabundance of metaphor hinder playability.

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