Thursday, August 20, 2009

Board Game Narratives, Part 1

This will be a multi-part post, with a new post popping up every few days or so with regards to "Narrative in Board Games." It should be noted that I’m just collecting random thoughts on this subject. Various thoughts as described herein probably have many fallacies when viewed through the lens of different types of game, and I'm sure that anyone could find a particular game that refutes any thesis that I'm providing (heck, I can do that on my own).

What lead me to collect these thoughts is due to someone in my local prototype group searching discussions/papers on game narratives, and him complaining that there's not being able to find much out there. So now he can(Hi, Tim!).


Narrative in board games is a tricky business. Most of the time, the purpose of designing a game is based around the ideas of just making it work, which includes balancing opportunities between players, making the rules "flow," or other such nonsense; trying to incorporate a narrative structure into this kind of world usually goes against these principals.

It is important to realize that, unlike other game genres, most board games do not really need an apparent story-like narrative to survive and be enjoyed. Obviously, abstract games exist for no other reason than for players to match wits across some pre-defined set of mechanics.

On the other end of the spectrum, role-playing games all have some amount of story driving the game, even if it’s a simple dungeon crawl. In many cases, the entire purpose of a given particular RPG is solely to drive a narrative; the game becomes much more similar to a work of improvisational theater. In fact, many “indie” RPG games are pushing the boundaries of this kind of thinking. See My Life with Master and The High Flying Adventures of Beatrice Henrietta Bristol-Smythe for examples.

Wikipedia describes the term “narrative” as a ”story that is created in a constructive format that describes a sequence of events.” All games can have a simplified story structure if you are thinking about things in the standard abstract layout of how a story is told. In other words: “Beginning, Middle, and End.” So, in a most basic sense, all games have a story. But are they a good narrative?

As with most things, the pure existence of a narrative doesn’t make it good (like any art form). But in the terms that are frequently bounded about as far as narrative games go, the term “narrative” itself implies something more than a mere cycle of start-to-end phases. It implies that there’s an actual story with characters, or things that can be abstractly though of as characters, that are doing something. And that’s the hard part. Characters need to have goals, and reasons, however flawed, to achieve them. And it probably needs to be more thematically tangible than “to score the most points.”

Unfortunately, at a board game level, the game is mostly about simply winning. Typically, there aren't very many results: Be the first to score XXX, whoever has scored XXX at the end of a predetermined event, or last to survive. There are various twists to these themes that are often implied, but much like the Seven Main Plots, that's all there really is to it at it's most basic level.

“Story” as a term involves something that is a rather collective unconscious kind of thing. While a game of chess could be told as a story, and retold as a simple series of events with regard to “how one person won the game,” from outside of the chess knowledgeable world, there probably is not much interest in it. In fact, it becomes the equivalent of geek speak to a non-geek. It is simply series of somewhat complex movement notations, with not much emotional heft, or cultural understanding to it, aside from "capture the king."

However, if you can somehow retell the story of the game not as a series of interesting moves, but as thematic entries, you are much further along an interesting narrative path. So here’s a key component: “how is the story re-told to other people after the events occurred.”

“Moving my knight to C8 to fork my opponent’s Rook and Queen…” quite possibly is a key component to a victory in a game of chess, as forking two expensive opponent pieces is typically rewarding, and a turning point in the game. And from the story of the game itself, could be considered to be a key plot point.

But as a thematic story itself, it’s not very exciting to those who don’t understand the intricacies of chess.

It’s why a lot of hobby board games fail in terms of an interesting narrative (while they still may be a compelling game to play). Sure they have a theme. But there is a lot of wood bit shifting around to maximum efficiencies. It’s not a very fulfilling story to a neophyte when you tell of your thrilling victory because “you managed to fill up the corn ship before Chuck could take his turn.” More often than not, this is commonly referred to as having a “pasted-on theme.” The theme merely exists in order to hopefully, in some great way or small, explain the abstracts of the mechanics.

As a counter example would be explaining what happened in the game through thematic episodes that had happened in the game. For example, in my last play of Tales From the Arabian Nights, probably the best moment came from a player who, in an act of trying to steal a magical statue of a horse that flies, she gained the assistance of another character (non-player). The theft was a success; however, the non-player character pushed her off the horse, and flew away, leaving her crippled.

It was a grand moment, but if you note in the re-telling of it above, no mention was made of the countless chart lookups, the destiny die roll, or any other mechanical rules-wise thing we needed to do.

Now, I probably should note that this is an extreme example (as Tales from the Arabian Nights is a pretty extreme case in these matters). Other games do manage to tell a story without directly “telling the story of the game mechanics” pretty well. Battlestar Galactica, for example, does a good job being able to re-tell parts of the game without getting into the rig-a-ma-role of explicitly needing to explain the mechanics: “The Admiral decided to force a jump at the cost of a few civilians in order to avoid the ever increasing Cylon menace that just kept coming; the cost of those lives were nothing compared to the possible loss of the entire fleet.”

Part 2 soon to come...

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