When people sit down to play games, what exactly are they doing? I spoke of this a bit a couple of weeks ago. Depending on the nature of the game, we are doing things that can be just as difficult as a so-called ‘job.’ Games come in so many different forms; games of luck, of physical prowess, of strategy, of skill (broken into many different types of skill; spatial reasoning, manual dexterity, mathematical ability, and so forth), games of knowledge or memory or bluffing or deduction… It may be obvious by now that I am most strongly drawn towards games that have a series element of telling stories.
Some games are so incredibly simple; everybody is familiar with ‘The Quiet Game’ that teachers use to keep students silent at opportune moments. Such a blatant manipulation, yet many students love playing this game. In fact, I got to play it just yesterday. In my day job as an elementary school resource teacher (that is, I don’t have a regular class of my own, but I pull students out of other teachers’ classes periodically through the day), I went to pick up my next batch of students as they were lining up to return from the cafeteria. The teacher wasn’t there; she’d had to take a student to the office. The other second grade teacher was having the students play The Quiet Game whilst waiting for the first teacher to return. I decided to be silly, so I sat down with the students and proceeded to play The Quiet Game with them. The students, of course, found this to be hilarious, and I was picked three times before the teacher returned. When it was my turn to choose the quietest student, I made a big production of walking up and down the line, my finger on my mouth as I was deep in thought, deciding which student was the quietest.
The other second grade teacher and I car pool to work. On the drive home, we usually talk about one of two things: topics that are bothering us (legal and political issues in our home state, misbehaving students, bad parents, etc), or I spend most of the drive home telling stories. The story of The Quiet Game, though ultimately pointless, is one of the more enjoyable stories I have to tell. We enjoyed discussing the humour that the students found in the experience, and I found I was having just as much fun telling the story again to my spouse when I arrived home.
I love telling stories. Apparently, I’m quite good at it; I’ve been complimented on it by friends in the past. It doesn’t matter if I’m retelling the tale of an actual event, or if I’m reciting a fictional adventure. I find I get swept up in the narrative, in sharing the emotions of the people involved, in temporarily transporting myself and others to another world, another time, in the age of wonder (bonus points for anyone who recognises that quote).
In fact, I’ve just posted a video over on my other blog in which I tell to story of Alice, the mean little girl who is granted wishes by a magic snail. I encourage you to pop over there and watch the video to see what I’m talking about.
Back to my point: what do stories have to do with games?
A lot, actually. There are a lot of games out there that are based around storytelling. For those familiar with my specific Lawsian Gamer Type (Storyteller), you already know that tabletop roleplaying games can have a strong stories-based element to them. But there are even many board games and card games that centre around stories. One example is Gloom, which is mostly about making people sad and then killing them, but is not at all fun when played straight; it’s most enjoyable when you tell stories about how the card effects come to pass. You don’t want to simply play the ‘Eaten by Bears’ card; you want to describe how the notoriety that Lord Wellington-Smythe gained from the ‘Seduced by a Strumpet’ card two rounds ago spread through the bear world (I have a story about how bears share knowledge that I can share with you at some point that makes this a plausible detail), leading a pack of bears to descend on Lord Wellington-Smythe’s home, hoping to find him engaged in carnal pursuits, only to find him alone, and becoming so angered that they ate him.
Or what about Fiasco, which may be the best example of a storytelling game ever? More so than in any other game, players win not if their characters are successful, triumphant, or fortunate (in fact, the rules are often set up to discourage this sort of outcome), but if they tell incredible stories together. I recall one game set in a universe very much like Star Trek, in which one player accused the ship’s captain of being a shapeshifter masquerading as a human. The other players reacted with shock; how could anyone accuse him of such a thing! The next player to have his turn was the ship’s medical officer; the first thing he did was to turn to the captain and say, ‘Captain, they’ve discovered your secret. I can’t keep it hidden any longer!’
These are the moments that make my life worth living. I understand that not everyone feels this way. Just a couple weeks ago, I tried to play a game of North, South, East, Quest at the local game club. I find it frustrating that people have so much trouble telling stories, but several of the other players would describe events that had nothing to do with what was going on so far in the narrative. But that is often what happened. So I get it.
What really frustrates me about this is that I sometimes feel alone in this regard. So many of the people who attend that club want to play nothing but the X-Wings miniatures game. There’s no story involved in that. No characters, no plot, no personal growth, just ‘I move my ship here and shoot at that ship there.’ Which is fine for those people. If that’s what they enjoy, I will not try to convince them otherwise. I just wish I could meet more storytellers like myself.
Even some video games are more appealing to me than that. The Secret of Mana is a perfect example. It had a compelling story to back up the gameplay. I enjoyed seeing how the characters interacted, and changed, and dealt with the choices before them.
I kind of feel like I’m rambling at this point, so I’ll go ahead and wrap it up. I think the important thing I want to highlight with this post is this: I know I finish every entry with my traditional ‘Game on!’ But sometimes, I feel an urge to say instead a variation of Wil Wheaton’s closing on his Tabletop series: