Since I had an hour to prepare, I threw some notes together before speaking, to reduce the amount of inevitable “Um… oh, and one more thing,” common to whenever I try to just wing it. My resultant ramblings were coherent enough to keep me from being lynched or booed from the stage, so I figured I’d share the notes here before throwing them away, in hopes of spreading some wisdom.
Um… oh, and one more thing. I should mention that these were mostly written about video games, though they can apply nearly as well to tabletop games too.
The Role of Story in Games
Story is to games what ketchup is to French fries.
- You don’t need it, but it makes the experience that much better. French fries are still good without ketchup, but ketchup can really bring out the flavor of the fries to raise them to the next level.
- It can’t save a bad game. If the fries taste like soggy, grease-soaked twigs, drenching them with ketchup won’t make them taste any better.
- A little goes a long way. If you drown your fries in ketchup, you won’t taste them at all. All you get is one mouthful after another of pure condiment. That might be okay if that’s what you’re looking for (they’re called “visual novels,” they aren’t really games, and you can find them in aisle six), but if you’re selling the customer delicious French fries… go easy on the red stuff.
In games, story plays its role by performing three main jobs: attract players, provide context, and create a connection.
Stories sell games. When I know nothing else about a game, it is its story that pulls me in. It’s the story that dictates the art on the box front, the blurb on the box back, or the icon in the app store. Players will come for the story and stay for the gameplay. Again, it’s not absolutely necessary (Bejewelled has zero story, but seems to be selling just fine), and it’s won’t guarantee a sale, but if it convinces a player to click the link or pick up the box when he otherwise wouldn’t, then the story is doing its job.
Stories tell the player why he’s doing things in the game. Why am I trying to stop this train? Oh, because the President’s daughter is aboard, and it’s going to crash in 60 seconds. Why am I killing 10 rats? Because rat spleen is a key ingredient in the shaman’s secret health potion recipe, and he always needs more spleens.
(Tabletop Note! This is especially important in board games to keep them from being too abstract. Why am I moving the blue cubes from this space to that space? Because the cubes are medical workers, preventing an outbreak of clown flu in that space. Of course, if you want to go abstract, there’s a market for those types of games too.)
Creating a Connection
Story can help create an emotional connection between the player and the game’s characters. This is hard to pull off. (Some would even say it’s impossible, but I’d point to an army of cos-players who say otherwise.) The point of creating a connection is to deepen the player’s experience, and to raise the emotional stakes within the game. And if all story is useless ketchup, this stuff is the utterly unnecessary ultra-fancy dijon ketchup brewed by monks in the Himalayas and brought in by helicopter.
Time’s Up; Move On
Games don’t need story. But games with story can be better (more fun, exciting, and memorable) than those without. Used wisely, story can take your game to the next level. And isn’t that what we all want? Second-level French fries!
If you have your own notes, please post ‘em in the comments. I love to see other folks’ take on the subject.