Saturday, January 7, 2012

Games Don't Need Plots to Have Stories

I saw a prominent blogger (JB over at the Blackrazor blog: ranting in the new year) taking the game to task for being low-brow.  JB is fun to read because he brings a lot of passion to his blog and isn't afraid to step on the soapbox.  Going into dark holes, kicking down doors, and stabbing monsters in the face is dumb; it doesn't tell the kind of story you read about in fantasy novels.

It's true, you don't see much looting in fantasy novels.  But games shouldn't worry about emulating fiction; they should worry about being good games, first and foremost.  Dungeons & Dragons is a very good game.  There's a reason it's endured in a sea of forgettable RPGs, each trying to tell a story.  When a game is good, and you play it over and over again, excellent stories emerge after the fact.

Let’s talk about another game that's just a big dumb game - Pro Football.

Here we are on the verge of the NFL play offs, and the beloved Broncos are a day away from getting crushed by the Steelers in the play offs (again).  It's a good time to reflect on the NFL season and how things developed this year.  Football is just a dumb game - a bunch of big dudes, with helmets and cleats, trying to jam an odd shaped brown leather ball across a line in a field of grass.  It's got some funny rules, and a referee.  No novelist or screenwriter sits down to script out how the NFL season is going to unfold.

Denver Post:  Tebowing
This year, the big story with the beloved Broncos was Tim Tebow.  Who saw that one coming?  Tebow was the 3rd string quarterback coming out of Broncos camp, and the new coach considered him a wasted draft pick by the previous regime.  Kyle Orton was the starter.  And then Orton's Broncos started the season 1-4.  The fans were restless.  Colorado has a strong evangelical presence and folks clamored to see Tebow hit the field; they even bought billboard space across from the stadium to campaign for their guy.  It was Tebow's chance to pilot the team after the bye.

The Broncos went and ripped off a string of 7 straight victories, many of them in dramatic, 4th quarter come-from-behind fashion with Tebow's late game heroics.  People started to notice.  A story about the Broncos began to emerge.  I would imagine even those of you who dislike sports have seen some kind of mention of Tebow over the past month; there was even a Saturday Night Live sketch with Jesus in the Broncos locker room poking some fun at the phenomenon.

This particular story took a nosedive when the Broncos finished the season 0-3, getting killed by the Patriots and Bills, limping into the playoffs, and now facing the hard-nosed Steelers in tomorrow's game.  I don't have high hopes, but it's been a fun and memorable season nonetheless.  Real stories don't need endings like books.

The lesson here is simple.  Football is a simple game, a bunch of big dudes smashing into each other and running around.  But when you toss in the high drama elements of competition, rivalries, grudges, egos, strong personalities, amazing athleticism, tactics, strategy, dynasties, history, the media, the fans, then the stories become larger than life.  Every minute counts in the NFL and there is no tomorrow.  These emergent stories are much better than anything someone could have scripted, because no one predicted them.  Consider how often you're watching something and can tell where a movie plot is going to end up, or how a book is going to finish?  Why would you want to copy that in a game?

The confluence of factors that come together in Dungeons & Dragons make it an excellent campaign game and thus an excellent vehicle for emergent stories.  Lairs, dungeons, wilderness hex crawls, and landscapes filled with petty rulers for toppling, are fertile ground for a player-driven campaign.  The character class structure of D&D fosters team work and group planning.  The XP for gold structure provides a built-in overarching objective.  Compared to the motivations that drive literary characters, looting wherever you go is a bit shallow, but it's very very good for ongoing gaming.

I find that when I let go of the notion of genre emulation, and let the game do what it does best, we don't lack for amazing stories.  My campaign journal is full of them.

Note:  The idea that games should stop trying to tell stories and just focus on being good games is not new or original; I remember hearing a Microsoft video game designer talking about the football and story analogy on a podcast and it made a huge impact on me.  I've never played Minecraft, but I hear similar things about it as a plot-less game.  Video games with their cut scenes tell the designer's story, but fail when compared to the amazing and original stories that emerge from a good tabletop sandbox game.

Photo: Daniel Petty, The Denver Post