Why Make Games That Make Stories?

Why Make Games That Make Stories?

2008-03-19

Jesper Juul argues that James Wallis’s focus on definitions in his intervention into the story/game debate doesn’t give the experience of story - or game - its due.

Wallis makes a number of excellent observations about story-making games, the type of story-game where players explicitly create or co-create a story. He discusses story games that make only very broken stories and shows how the genre knowledge of players can be instrumental for actual game play.

So let me ask the “ludological” question: Why?

Why is it so important to create games wherein players tell good stories? Wallis lambasts Cluedo (Clue) for inconsistencies in its story logic, but at the same time Cluedo is a best-selling board game. This denies the necessity, if not the possibility or desirability of good story-games. The success of Cluedo demonstrates something interesting about players in general, as the fact that Cluedo tells bad stories apparently did not pose a major problem for the millions of players who played the game. Good games with broken stories are perfectly palatable for a broad audience. This toleration of poor stories tells us a lot about how games work and what expectations players have towards stories in games.

On the other hand, perhaps players just have low expectations for stories in games, having been fed inferior stories for years or millennia. Wallis has an excellent answer for why as he has set himself the aesthetic goal of making games in which the players create a good story. This is a reasonable goal to which I cannot disagree. Why not dream? Even though there is nothing wrong with games with incoherent worlds, simple stories, no stories at all, why not aim for the stars and try to have it both ways? Still, the goal of combining games with stories should be an aesthetic goal: not to create a work that can be called “story” by a chosen definition, but to create a specific experience. The goal should be experiential, not definitional. A definitional goal is perfectly valid in theoretical discussions of whether games and stories are similar or different.

A healthy skepticism is recommended towards terms such as “narrative” or “story” because it is usually unclear what it means in relation to games. Is it about having a specific formal story structure? A set of themes? Internal consistency? A type of interaction? A specific type of sequence?

Second Person contains many variations on the discussion of games and stories. I think the conclusion must be that this is not a single solvable problem. Games and stories are different beasts and no silver bullet will appear that allows any arbitrary story to be made into a satisfying game. We will have to do with less than that and realize that the conflict between games and narratives is a large number of small problems, some of which are structural (in case of temporality or the determined character of stories), and some of which are psychological (as with the difficulty of making game tragedies). This is not bad news, it just means that there are many smaller and local solutions to find.

Wallis has found such a local solution. Since rule-based systems are notoriously good with games and bad with stories, hand over the story-part to those who know and appreciate stories: players.