Every Game a Story

Every Game a Story

Corvus Elrod

Corvus Elrod extends Bruno Faidutti’s claim that all games tell stories by making the counter-intuitive argument that board games like Chess and Go are more effective story vehicles than RPGs.

Ben Underwood:

Elsewhere in this thread, Chris Crawford describes a storytelling language with syntax similar to that Elrod ascribes to Tetris - although not elegant, such sentences can effectively convey narrative.


As much as I agree with Faidutti’s premise that all games tell stories, I feel he does a great disservice to classic games such as chess and Go when he declares them ‘mere substitutes’ for LARPS. If we are to successfully argue that gameplay is a capable storytelling vessel, then it would be far better to make a case for games that borrow very little from traditional storytelling forms, such as literature and theater.

In my own exploration of play and story, I too have turned to Umberto Eco, namely a collection of his essays on semiotics titled The Role of the Reader. Among these essays, Eco explores the idea of the open text, which is a work Eco does not specify that the work must be a literary one, citing music compositions and works of art as well as literary works. that is structured so that the audience is able, drawing upon their own unique life experiences, to find their own story, their own emotional journey, within it. His essays also touch on the proposition of Russian formalists, which draws a firm distinction between fabula (story) and sjuzet (plot or discourse). The plot is the actual presentation - the words written, the music composed, the sculpture carved. The story is the internal logic of the work, as continuously reinterpreted by the audience when they participate in the plot. Couple these thoughts with Marshall McLuhan’s famous assertion that the medium is the message, and we begin to see that structured play is a perfect framework through which the audience can experience meaningful stories.

To this end, I have found it useful to separate the terms story and narrative. I propose that games are narratives with which the audience is able to experience a story through play. The principle component comprising any game narrative should always be gameplay, with textual, musical/auditory, visual and presentational components serving to support this primary device. Play is the most effective means by which a narrative allows the audience to control the unfolding of the plot and, in my opinion, is what makes games a superior storytelling device to any traditional medium.

In my exploration of play as story, I have found it useful to take a linguistic approach to discussing game mechanics. Borrowing from Chris Bateman’s lexical Play Specifications. See link below. By using nouns for game objects, verbs for available player actions and modifiers (adjectives/adverbs) to describe objects states or action levels, any game can be discussed with terminology familiar to those used to analyze more traditional narratives. Even Tetris, often held up as a video game that breaks all attempts at narrative analysis, with its handful of nouns (I block, S block, T block, etc.) limited verbs (move, rotate) and single modifier (accelerate), reads something like a 1930’s Dick & Jane reading primer, “See block. See block fall. Fall block, fall.”

Comparatively, a game of chess or Go is a complex and rich narrative with remarkable capacity for story, made all the stronger for the lack of authoritatively enforced context. This is not to say that context, or traditional narrative trappings, are entirely useless to the goal of providing a story experience with a game narrative. The names and design of a classic chess set are evocative of ancient battles and political maneuvering. If the knight was called the turn-screw and the most powerful piece on the board was called killer as opposed to queen the chess game would be a very different experience indeed. Go’s narrative trappings lie in the ritual of play. Holding the stones between the first and second fingers, the attitude with which a piece is set on the board, the traditions of Go are redolent with ancient conflict and formal rite.

I contend that these games have such lasting power, reaching beyond their original cultural boundaries, precisely because they are far more compelling storytelling devices than any live action role playing experience could hope to be. They do not force the audience to imagine themselves an elf, or vampire, or 1920’s gangster. Instead, they leave it to the audience to imagine themselves in whatever context they wish. They do not force the audience into uncomfortable theatrics. Instead, they allow the audience to decide what sort of theatrics, if any, they wish to add to their play style. Nor do they force them to perform actions that remove them from the core experience, unlike a LARP where you may be forced to stop a character interaction to roll dice. Instead, they provide a compelling set of game mechanics and just enough context that the players themselves become the true storytellers. And that conversion of player to storyteller is the true power of the game narrative.

Play Specifications