Tuesday 2 August 2011

Everybody Is A Game Designer

Everybody is a storyteller

I was lucky enough to be at the Develop Evolve panel ‘New Stories for New Platforms’. I’d gone along expecting to leave at the end filled with seething rage. See I’m one of those people who doesn’t like stories in games. Not the kind that the designer tells the player. I’ve never found myself wishing a story had more game in it, so why would I want more story in my game?

The story the designers bake into a game is never as powerful, memorable or relevant as the story that players tell themselves. I can’t remember the story in Halo (I think it may have been set in space?) but I can regale you with a seemingly endless selection of anecdotes about that bit where I was killed by that guy or that thing with the buildings and that one time when I accidentally killed all of my own men with a single, inappropriate grenade.

This isn’t surprising. As they sip red wine and smoke cigarettes in an imaginary French bistro, clever people can often be heard suggesting in their serifed voices that our brains look at the world in terms of metaphors and stories anyway, whether we like it or not. The little person inside, narrating our lives is a real thing. If players are going to tell themselves stories anyway, it’s the designer’s job to make sure that those stories are great and many.

Much to my pleasure, the panel spent quite some time discussing this exact idea. Instead of setting out a linear narrative, Alexis Kennedy of Fail Better Games likened this approach to ‘fires in the desert’ an idea explained in this blog postThe designer should point the player off in the direction of the next major plot point - you’re secretly a woman, you’re your own brother, your arms are made of jam - but between these points, the player should be  encouraged to be their own storyteller. Because they’ll be doing it regardless. They talked about a bunch of other stuff too, but I’d stopped listening by that point.

Fires in the dessert

Deal or No Deal: Vendetta

If players tell themselves stories, we can make games that inspire the player to tell particular kinds of stories and we can make games that allow the player to tell themselves as many stories as possible. But games are about story enabling, not story telling. If you want your players to enjoy your game, remember your game and tell other people about your game, you should aim to get their inner voice to tell them the funniest, scariest or most exhilarating stories possible.

Game shows already understand this principle very well. Consider Deal or No Deal. The mechanics are simple to the point of barely being there at all, but the show is still embarrassingly easy to watch. That’s because the game gets out of the way and encourages the players to tell their own stories. The whole achingly dumb, yet effortlessly engaging rigmarole of luck being transformed by sheer will into tales of love, honour, betrayal, desperation, misery and exhilaration is the result of the designers thinking about how to make a bunch of great stories, very cheaply.

Nodeal Edmunds
Where all this gets terribly interesting is where we see that people don’t just tell themselves their own stories, they also play their own games. Don’t step on the cracks. A game we invent and play inside our own heads. We add a rule to walking and now walking is a game. Walking: Vendetta. Grinding through the washing up to unlock the cigarette at the end. Super Washing Up Man: Vendetta. Throwing your socks into the basket from great distance to avoid the penalty of having to walk across the room and put them in. Sock Ball Jam Washing Basket Adventureland: Vendetta.

I’m so meta, I shit myself

The recursive madness contained within all of this is that if we make our own games up, we must logically make up our own stories about our own games. Not only do we avoid stepping on cracks for high score, we internally narrate our progress through our attempts at crack avoidance. We pass on to ourselves tales of our triumph over the forces of washing up, we exalt in our now certain progress to the national finals thanks to that arcing long range sock dunk.

Children will turn anything into a toy, any toy into a game and any game into a story. Adults do just the same thing, they just don’t do the noises. At least not when anyone’s looking.

L-R Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Invisible Man
Play is a fundamentally creative act, this is completely unavoidable. Even if you have no interest in your players telling themselves metaphorical stories in your game, or adding their own rules to change the way the game works, they still will. You can embrace this, and make them love you, or you can ignore it and pin your players to a board like so many greasy, unwashed butterflies. 


  1. Yah. I can't wait until games are built as narrative toolsets, rather than task sets to drive a narrative.

    I like to think Borderlands was a step in this direction for relatively open FPS design - the formal story was a thin line running through rich playfields of combat and loot drops and nuff informal stories to fill a novel.

    I wonder what it takes to build a gameworld designed around story/anecdote construction - and if it's possible to have all players build the same narrative arc.

  2. From Dust is another great example. It is literally a sandbox, and I could probably go into a quite embarrassing amount of detail about the little seaside community I built last night.

    But I'd love to see someone take a swing at nailing player generated stories.

  3. I seem to point this out to somebody about once a month (and you've probably already read it) but, here you go anyway:

    I never realised that Edmonds had such gorgeous blue eyes.

  4. I hadn't, but it's a great piece. I've never played L4D myself but I've had the pleasure of experiencing many such stories in Halo, with friends and strangers alike. Doubt I could write them up quite so eloquently.

    That L4D seeks to do this, rather than it just happening to fall out of a game which hasn't had that level of consideration is especially heartening. I can't wait to see this kind of thinking applied to the huge audiences of social games.

    And yes, I find the image of Edmunds to be both oddly beautiful and deeply terrifying.