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Archive for the tag “Games that tell stories”

Storymaking in sports (a brief interlude)

In an earlier post, I argued that stories don’t just ’emerge’ from open-world computer games,  but are actively constructed by players, and that this construction – what Gaynor calls storymaking – requires both a particular stance towards the game experience and some skill. In this post, I turn towards a kind of games where storymaking is done on a regular basis: sports. (For the moment, let’s just ignore that sports may or may not be games – they are sufficiently similar for the discussion to work.)

Just as all journalists, sport commentators are professional storymakers. But where journalists make stories out of real world events, sport commentators make stories out of play sessions. (In this sense, their job is surprisingly similar to that of a game master in tabletop roleplaying.) Sports are in fact better suited for storymaking  than the open-world games that I discussed in my previous post, as the structure of a match or a tournament automatically creates the basic framework of a story (a beginning, middle and end). To add, many spectator sports  have rules that create an interesting dramatic curve (tennis is a perfect example, as the person who seems to be losing always has a chance to turn the match around). The structure of a competition creates adversaries and the adoption of a ’home team’ provides you with a protagonist. There is also rich background material to draw from: players can be rookies or veterans, young or old, recently injured, teams may be leading or losing in a league, etcetera. In all, successful sports provide us with many excellent examples of game structures that support storymaking (which may be a reason why they have succeeded to become spectator sports).

However, sport commentators are not players – they are professionals, creating stories from a spectator perspective. Do the participants themselves tell similar stories? Given the ’story-friendly’ structure of sports, I believe they typically do. But there is one crucial difference: participants tell stories in which they themselves are the protagonists. I’ll give you an example from an interview with Mary Kom, winner of an Olympics gold medal in boxing:

This is a fantastic day, it is unbelievable for me to be here, very special. I have been fighting twelve years to get to this point, to be at the Olympic Games. It has been my life-long ambition to get here. My victory is very emotional because not only as am I finally here but it is also my twins’ fifth birthday today and I am missing it. This win is a gift to them.”

See where this is going? In every sport tournament, there are as many stories  created as there are players. Sports provide us with the first clues towards how games can support storymaking:

  • Game sessions (or tournaments) can provide a basic story structure (identifiable beginning, middle and end points)
  • Games can provide access to background material on players, adversaries, and various teams/factions/cultures
  • Game mechanics can create a dramatic curve
  • Player create their own stories, in which they are the protagonists

But in sports, storymaking is not a major objective of the game (winning is), so the stories tend to be rather similar in plot and theme. In role-playing games, storymaking is one of the core desirable effects, and in Nordic larp it may be considered a major design goal.


Gaynor, S. Storymaking. Blog post, Jan 31st 2009.

O’Neill, M. Olympic games – Day 1 review from London. WBAN news story, Auguest 5th 2012.

Why I don’t believe in emergent narratives

(This post is about videogames only. There will be a follow-up post about larp.)

Every late autumn, I teach a course in game analysis at Stockholm University. We cover Salen and Zimmerman ’Rules of Play’ cover to cover with some sideboard readings, and the homework assignments include playing games and analyzing them from various perspectives. One of the homework assignments includes this question:

”To what extent does the game create any emergent narrative? Explain your answer.”

Students have huge problems answering this question for just about any videogame they analyse, and I  understand why. To summarize, emergent narratives are not created by games, but by players.

Morrowind aimed for a rich story world, and used a combination of scripted stories and procedural content (such as the reputation system) to create it.

The concept of ’emergent narrative’ is most commonly seen as part of a more general design ideal of a ’360 illusion’, a complete and consistent fictional universe that is there for the player to explore. The idea is that such worlds also could function as story spaces, in which numerous stories could emerge depending on what the player chooses to do and what to explore. (The 360 illusion is a very old design ideal that predates computer games, and for video games it has been advocated by e.g. Jane Murray in ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’.) Games that have aimed to achieve this ideal include many single-player RPGs such as Morrowind. It is not an ideal that appeals to everybody: many players value challenges more highly than exploration, or favour a good story above a complete simulation.

The problem is that a rich and complex world is just a world. Worlds are not in themselves stories or challenges, but they can function as a canvas or a backdrop for both. (I believe it poses issues for both, but here I focus on stories.) As a storytelling canvas, the 360 illusion poses several limitations. The most obvious one is related to time: unless you tweak the representation, the player can only experience any plot in the order it is played out, as a story world ‘now’. For this reason, most 360 illusion games include a back story that is both represented in the world (through architecture and relics, clothes and cultures, posters, books lying around etcetera) and in dialogues with NPCs in the world. The back-story lends itself to free exploration but is static – in this sense little has changed since MYST. Already the separation of the back-story from the story in-game sets games apart from traditional narrative media, but more seriously, the stories that play out within the 360 illusion will always be told in the order that events happen in the world. This is true even when stories are triggered or generated as an effect of the player moving freely in the world and selecting her own interactions. More interesting and complex narrative structures can be created as players re-load earlier saves or replays the entire game to explore various options – but these are narratives generated by players and only occasionally foreseen by designers.

A second limitation is that it is the player who will play the protagonist in a 360 illusion game. In literature, it is possible to present stories from a first-person perspective or a third person perspective, and in film, the perspective is typically a third person perspective; all forms offer plenty of ways to present the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist to the viewer or reader. But when the player enters a 360 illusion world through an avatar, it is to play the role of the protagonist. If the game prescripts what the avatar can say or do, or how it should react, it will limit the expressivity and freedom for the player. But if it does not, it will be up to the player to create all those reactions and emotions – and there is no guarantee that he or she will. I believe that when Tom Cross’ argues for creating meaningful games by populating them with NPCs with their own goals and purposes can be seen as a way of overcoming this problem: using his model, the player becomes an in-game spectator and less of a protagonist.

The third limitation I want to bring up is both a limitation and a potential: the randomness of a world open for free exploration. There is a level of randomness already in letting players explore a world at will, and another layer in that the events they trigger can affect each other. But narratives are not perceived as random but as intentional structures: Tom Cross puts this as ”narratives speak of an intelligent, exterior design to readers”. When we are looking for narratives, we are looking for the intent to tell a story.  Random occurrences will still seem random unless they have been carefully designed (and yes, it is possible to design for coincidence, as discussed by Reid for location-based games). Hence, most computer RPG games include pre-scripted story content where the intent to tell a story is clearly in place, that serve as a context in which random occurrences become meaningful. Cross argues for procedural narrative: stories that have been designed into the game but that are generated rather than pre-scripted.

Hence,  in order to create coherent stories out of random coincidences (with or without linking to pre-scripted story content), the player must be active in making the connections. The player becomes not just the protagonist but part author of his or her own story. Steve Gaynor talks about this as ‘storymaking’:

“One should not ask a game designer to tell them a great story; rather, the game designed should be judged on the player’s ability to make his own stories within its mechanical framework.”

If we are given nothing but random coincidences from the 360 illusion, this is a very hard task. Such stories do not just ’happen’ or ’emerge’ out of a rich world to explore – they are actively and consciously created by players. It is not necessarily something that every player is good at or even wants to do, and furthermore, the 360 illusion is not necessarily the best way to support storymaking. Calling this form of narrative ’emergent’ just obscuring what is really going on.

Stay tuned, because there are some that got this right – the table-top and larp communities.


Cross, T. Analysis: Story and the trouble with ’emergent’ narratives. Gamasutra, July 10th 2009.

Elder Scrolls III: MORROWIND. Bethesda game studios 2002.

Gaynor, S. Storymaking. Blog post, Jan 31st 2009.

Murray, J. Hamlet on the Holodeck. MIT Press 1998

MYST Brøderbund, Robyn and Rand Miller, 1993

Reid, J. Design for coincidence: incorporating real world artifacts in location based games. Proceedings of the 3rd international conference on Digital Interactive Media in Entertainment and Arts, Pages 18-25. ACM.

Waern, A, Montola, M., and Stenros, J. The three-sixty illusion: designing for immersion in pervasive games. Proc. CHI’2009.

Just a little lovin’, and techniques for telling stories in larp

The poster for ‘Just a little lovin’.

I am trying to gather my thoughts after participating in the art larp “Just a Little Lovin” (or JALL for short), designed by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo. The larp was first staged last summer in Norway, and was now re-staged in Sweden in collaboration with Miriam Lundqvist, Anna-Karin Linder and Petter Karlsson trough LajvVerkstaden. Reports from other players are gradually coming up on-line: I recommend in particular Elin Dahlståls report for a comprehensive and accurate description of the larp design and its game mechanics, and Mikolaj Habryn‘s report of a first-time larpers experience of this quite hard-core Nordic larp – larps that designed to move you at a personal level rather than to be fun. Also, Nathan Hook has written a light-weight review of the techniques used in the game, especially concerning sex simulation techniques.

The Nordic larp genre differs from most other forms of larp in its focus on immersion (in role and world) and storytelling. You cannot game a Nordic larp because there is nothing to win. Whereas ten years ago the genre was dominated by a strive towards complete and realistic simulation, the last ten years have seen an increased focus on various ‘meta techniques’ – here we could call them game mechanics. Some meta techniques are primarily about safety – techniques for simulating violence and sex as well as the safety words for pausing play belong to this category. Some of them focus on the development of story, and this is where I would like to focus this post, because I think that “Just a Little Lovin” provided the best storytelling mechanics that I have so far seen in a larp of this genre.

From a storytelling perspective, the goal of larp  is to make every single character the protagonist of his or her own story. To make this work, players must  collaborate by getting involved as support characters for each other. You will constantly present invitations to plot openings and play on the invitations of others; you will be playing out several stories at once and so will your co-players. In practice, this becomes unmanageable unless you have some game mechanics to help you. JALL used four main techniques to support this: inner monologues, black box scenes, act breaks, and an element of randomness. In addition, many players made up individual or collective goals for the dramatic curve of their storyline. For example, I had decided in advance that my character would emerge from the larp as a stronger and less conflicted person (unless she died), no matter what she went through during the larp. My core group decided to play on the theme of children (I had two fictional children in-game, with different fathers and no functioning relationship with either father), going from a custody conflict towards a rainbow star family. Hence, we added an element of fate play into the game – we did not know exactly how to get there, but we knew where we wanted to take our story from start.

Inner monologues: These are thoughts that a character says out loud, in-game, to let your fellow players know your feelings, plans, or thoughts without communicating it to their characters. Inner monologues provide great opportunities for plot openings and story development, but they need a game mechanic so that players know when something is a monologue rather than something the character says. In JALL, the inner monologues were part of the sex simulation – if your character had sex with another character, the scene should end with the two characters side by side both speaking their thoughts. Personally, I think this might have been the story development technique that worked the least well. Sometimes, these inner monologues indeed became very intense and emotional, but since they were compulsory they very often just became reflections on how good/bad the sex had been. Furthermore, the monologues were usually only heard by a few people (often only one sex partner), it was impossible to share an inner monologue with a character you could not share a sex scene with, and some players preferred to play out pillow talk post-sex rather than inner monologues. I think the game would have benefitted from an additional form for inner monologues that players could initiate at will.

Black box scenes: Black box scenes are scenes played out outside of the time and place of the ongoing event. They are often used to play out scenes in the past or the possible future of the characters, they can be dream scenes or abstract scenes representing a mood or emotion. In JALL, there was a room reserved for blackboxing, but players could just go offside to play out a black-box scene anywhere, and players could do them on their own or recruit an organizer to help direct the scene. We also did some blackboxing before the larp and in act breaks. The black box scenes became really popular in JALL, to the extent that the organizers started to recommend players to consider playing out more of this content in-larp. I played about four blackbox scenes in-larp, which is more than I have ever done before, and found them extremely useful. In particular, they helped my core group develop their parental relationship to each other and to the (non-present) children. On one occasion, we recruited help from a co-player to act as the teacher of the oldest son, and her confusion when three parents turned up for the teacher meeting. It was funny, but became very uncomfortable when she started to talk about how our son did not respect the personal border of the other children…

Act breaks: One of the most important story development method used in JALL. The larp lasted for three days, but the larp was broken off at eleven o’clock each day for a round of debriefing, ‘world’ briefing for the next act (as it played out a year later), and work-shopping to develop new relationships and plan out the core group goals for the next act. (The next act would then start at five in the afternoon the same day.) I found it very hard to break game after the first day of play, but it worked better the second time. The act breaks were crucial in order to develop new stories and groups, and to get a story back on-track that had been going in a unproductive direction. Some players would change characters between acts (especially those who’s characters had died), or re-design their character a bit. In my case, I used the act breaks primarily to develop secondary relationships. When the larp started we had two main contact networks: the core group (me and the two ex-boyfriends) and a social circle. My social circle had basically no play at all during the first act. For the second act, we reshaped the social circle a bit and I also got a tiny link into a second circle. In the third act we decided to dissolve it altogether, and I changed to a new circle ‘the aids prevention campaign’ which worked much better. Also, my core group got together to plan out when to play out our main story arch. We also had debrief sessions in larger groups to see that everyone was feeling (reasonably) well and having a good play experience. In my debrief group, there was one player who definitely didn’t. We helped him to reshape the character and his social relationships, and he ended up having a much better play situation in the last act.

Randomness: JALL was a larp about love, desire, and living in the shadow of death. Whereas the techniques for simulating kissing and having sex were central to play on love and desire, the risk of dying was simulated by a lottery. Any character could get infected by HIV, ill in aids or cancer, or die. Each morning, we played out a very emotional meta-scene (as all participated, it can hardly be called a blackbox scene) called ‘lottery of death’. It was conducted by two angels in black costumes, who handed out lottery tickets. Depending on your risk level, you put one to five tickets with your name on into the lottery. Ten people were called, who went off to the black box to get their sentence: maybe they had a false call and were well, maybe they got infected or ill in cancer – or maybe they died. These scenes were among the most emotional in the game. Those who were not called up waited silently, and we were then called to the chapel for a funeral ceremony that was the end of the current act. On our way there, we would be met by those who had been called away but allowed to come back, and together we would go up to the chapel to say farewell to those who did not. The lottery of death came very close to almost everyone in the larp, and in my case it became the device that shaped my character’s story arch throughout. One of my character’s former boyfriends (the one she was still in love with) was called up already in the first lottery but came back. I cried the whole time while waiting, and when I ran up to meet him (together with all the other women that loved him – he was not particularly monogamous) he was strangely distant. The year after, he was called up again and when I walked towards the chapel I soon understood that he was not among those who met us. I collapsed in a hug with his most permanent girlfriend, and while she started crying I let out a scream that I know not where I got – it was a sound I have never heard from myself before. For me, the last act became entirely centred on mourning someone I’d lost twice and had no real right to mourn – a deep and complex emotion and a great story arch.

Fate play: Fate play means that you have some sort of pre-planned story development for a character or a group of characters. JALL used a tiny bit of fate play in the pre-set story arch, as it was played out over three years and certain events were scripted into those years. During the first year, aids was still largely unknown and we were just partying wildly. During the second year, people had started to die (only one in-game character), and we understood that many more were infected although we did not know how it spread nor how to prevent it from spreading. This year was played on fear and paranoia. During the third year, the HIV test had been discovered and we also knew it could be prevented by using condoms, but it was still a death sentence to get infected. As many had died and even more were ill,  the story became focussed on comforting each other and overcoming loss. It was up to us as individual players to use this story content. For example, since my former boyfriend had died from aids I decided I had fairly high risk between the second and third act (I still escaped in the lottery of death) and I also decided to take the HIV test in a very uncomfortable blackbox scene (negative, phew!). Secondly, I got involved in aids prevention (and as a consequence, handled more condoms than I probably have done in my entire life before). I have also mentioned that my core group planned out a story arch concerning parenting. When one of the guys got infected after the first act, we decided to speed it up so that it would be completed during act two, as he most likely would be either dead or seriously ill during act three.

In all, the level of rich and complex storytelling that went on in JALL was amazing. Almost all players have stories similar to mine, or even more powerful. The characters became rich and complex, far from any stereotypes, even though most of us had spent rather little time preparing them prior to the larp. Our relationships were equally complex and varied, ranging from uncomplicated or conflicted friendships, over the loving jealousy between myself and my former boyfriends true love, to intense passion.

Finally, our individual stories were put in context. After the larp, we had yet a ‘world brief’, this time with  a queer activist, an aids activist and a HIV-positive participant who told us about the status of alternative lifestyles, aids prevention in the world today, and the life as HIV positive. Larp is primarily a personal experience and a collective ritual, but by this world brief our personal experiences were put in context and politically and ethically framed. I believe that in particular the queer movement gained many new members this day – many of us straight. Through this framing, JALL succeeded to bee not just an artsy larp but also a persuasive game. This was probably my best larp experience ever – heartbreaking, mind-opening, and life-changing. Larps may not change the world directly, but they can surely change people.

Flying and falling – on the emotions of motion

Screenshot from "The Journey"

I got two story-based single-player games for my birthday, The Journey  and Catherine. The games make an interesting comparison, so I will write about them both at the same time, although I am far from finishing Catherine.

The Journey is the rare example of an arts game that becomes an immediate bestseller. It is abstracted to the extreme: just as Shadow of the Colossus, The Journey takes a few interaction elements from the singleplayer genre, slims them down and refines them to the extreme, and integrates them into a hauntingly beautiful graphical and audial setting. There is very little you can do in The Journey. There are very few enemies and the ones that exist you cannot fight, only free from. The puzzles are few and simple. There are no dialogue trees to choose within as there is no dialogue at all, even though there is a cryptic backstory that gets revealed through graphical cutscenes throughout the game.

Action-related emotions in The Journey, the full game.

Instead, the gameplay experience in The Journey is completely based on how it feels to move in the game. You are travelling through a barren desert landscape, initially just walking. Almost immediately, you find out that it is easier to walk in some directions where you can slide with the sand; in other directions the sand and wind will instead work against you. Soon, you also learn to jump and to fly, creating an enormous feeling of empowerment and freedom. But when the problems start to mount, you lose your abilities and must struggle forward against wind, sand, and snow.

The ability to jump and to fly is very often used in games to make players feel powerful; just think about the double-jump from the platformers. The feeling is particularly liberating when it comes after being earth-bound. I remember Black and White in which you were cast as a god over the villagers on a small island. But for being a god, you were rather crippled: your avatar was a huge hand, and you moved through the landscape as a clumsy five-fingered crab. If you got enough worshippers, they could give you the ability to fly, at least momentarily. After hours of earthbound struggling, the feeling was exhilarating.

The Journey casts the player as a hero throughout the game. Although it is a bit unclear what you are expected to accomplish, it is clear that you are not guilty for the problems depicted in the back story, but that you can help. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that The Journey can be played together with other players. If you play online, you get paired with another player to complete the game together. You cannot talk to each other, but you can help each other and you can play simple music together. This wordless interaction creates the strongest sense of togetherness that I have ever experienced in a game. It reminds me slightly of the very rare occasions in World of Warcraft when I collaborated with a player of the opposite faction, and the communication was almost as restricted. In line with the rest of the game, the collaboration is slimmed down and refined to its purest essence in The Journey, creating a much stronger emotion than in WoW.

Activity-related emotions in Catherine, the initial part.

Catherine can be seen as the very opposite of The Journey. The best way to describe its genre is as a survival horror platformer. The player is cast in the role of Vincent, who is having strange nightmares and a strong fear of women, and finds himself cheating on his long-term girlfriend. (I have mixed feelings about the misogynic theme of the game, but it is still a great game.) From the very start of the game, the story generates a feeling of guilt, as Vincent feels a bit guilty for his reluctance to commit himself to his long-term girlfriend. The feeling of guilt is reinforced throughout the first part of the game, as Vincent gets more and more entangled in a web of lies and threats.

Catherine consitst of a mix of quite extensive cut-scenes, some scenes in which you can walk around and interact with characters in the game, and a puzzle-solving platform game mechanic. The latter occur primarily in dream scenes, and consist of a timed puzzle in which you must find a way to climb upwards on a wall, where the lowest part keeps falling off and you sometimes are hunted by a monster.  Catherine is not about flying but about falling, or rather, the fear of falling. If you fall you die, even if it is in a dream. Just as in The Journey, Catherine offers no enemies that you can fight – all you can do is to flee from them to survive. But there is no game element that creates a sense of power and freedom in Catherine – at least not as far as I have played.

A nice touch in Catherine is that your character doesn’t level. You never get any lasting powers, although you can find or buy temporary power-ups. Even so, you do get a feeling that you are getting slightly more empowered, if only through the fact that you are learning how to solve the puzzle.

Finally, just as The Journey, Catherine offers an online element. In line with its horror theme, it is one that breaks the fourth wall, directing itself directly towards the player. Throughout the game, the player gets to answer questions related to his or her ethics, and the results are compared to what other players have answered. (At the point where I am now, these questions seem to have nothing to do with the game at all, but this might change later in the game.) Ultimately, Catherine is a game about ethics and morals, and interpret this element as an attempt to create a bleed effect.

(I need to finish off this sequence of blog posts on single-player games soon, to get to more juicy stuff on role-play. But there is at least one more post to go.)

Mass Effect 3 and the Quest for Multiple Endings

(This text contains minor spoilers about Mass Effect 3, and the texts I link to contain major spoilers. If you hate spoilers, come back when you’ve finished the game.) Read more…

Action-related emotions in single-player stories

Action-related emotions in storybased games (primarily singleplayer games)

The difference between games and traditional narrative media is that players act in games. In storybased games, this typically means that  player actions have an impact on the state of a fictional universe. A typical single-player storybased game casts the player as a protagonist: there is a problem that needs to be solved, and the player is cast in the role of the single person who, for some more or less obscure reasons, can solve it. The job of the fiction is to make the player care about the problem and feel responsible for what happens.

These games tend to play on a very specific set of emotions, related to how players feel about their actions. Firstly, players can feel more or less empowered to act. Secondly, when players feel responsible for what happens in the fictional universe, these emotions can range from guilt to pride. (Although this emotional palette occurs in multiplayer games too, the situation tends to be a bit more complex for them.)

I use this two-axis diagram to depict the action-related emotional palette. If the player feels both empowered and proud, we get the purely positive feeling of being a hero – it’s depicted in the upper right corner of the diagram. To the upper left, we find the feeling of playing a villain – the person who has all the power but uses it for personal gain or pure evil. Many RPGs offer players a choice between playing ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (Knights of the old republic is a good example), and this means that they play on emotions in the upper half of the palette. Frustration, on the other hand, is typically connected to the feeling of knowing what you must accomplish but being unable to make it happen. I place it on the positive side on the accomplishment scale (as you would feel proud if you succeeded), but it ends up in the lower righthand corner as you feel powerless. Feelings of powerless guilt (the lower lefthand corner) are more unusual in games, but can be very effective. A good example is the opening scene of Farenheit, where the player character murders a complete stranger. When you gain control over the character, the crime has already been committed and you can’t do anything about it – and the first thing you need to do is to escape the police!

Most games create some kind of trajectory towards a greater sense of empowerment and achievement. For example, horror games tend to stay on the lower half of the graph. The sense of being powerless is a huge factor in fear, and it is not uncommon for horror games to also make players feel guilty (as in Manhunt, that I discussed in a previous post). Action-adventure games on the other hand typically start somewhere close to the middle of the diagram, and move towards the ‘Hero’ corner of the graph with very few detours into any other quadrant.

The emotional trajectory in "Zelda: Skyward sword"

We can take legend of Zelda – Skyward sword as an archetypical example. When the game starts, the hero-to-be is a nobody and a dreamer, immediately incapacitated by losing his bird (you fly a lot on birds in this game). This opening scene is designed to make the player feel a bit incapacitated and pretty much without any sense of accomplishment (although not much guilt either). But once you get the bird back, the accomplishments start to pour in. And one of the things you get to know is that although you are not the legendary hero yet, you are destined to be. This way, the game pushes you towards the ‘hero’ corner quite quickly and without much variation.

It seems like many players have come to expect this curve – which might be part of the explanation behind such phenomena as the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. Personally, I prefer games that play in several of the sectors at once – in particular, when a singular act makes you feel at the same time proud and guilty. (Mass effect excels in this – but this is for another post.)

Dys4ia: Computer games as a media for autobiographical storytelling

This blog post is devoted to dys4ia, a gem of a game that I found through Ian Bogost’s blog. It is created by Anna Anthropy and is an autobiographical story of her hormone replacement medication.

Dys4ia is a storytelling game. It presents almost no game challenge at all. The minor game challenge I found was in the form of an interaction puzzle: in each scene you must figure out what to do to progress in the story. But this, you figure out almost instantly, by clicking around a bit and using the arrow keys on the keyboard. Neither is it very strong at interactive fiction in the classical ‘360 illusion’ sense – it does create a ‘story world’. The world created is implicit, through crude sketches representing abstract scenes that depict key events in her life.

So, Dys4ia tells a linear story (no branching, no options) with some opportunity for interaction. But the point is that these interactions  are vital. As player, you are tasked with acting out the  humiliating, scary, and stigmatizing events the game designer went through. There is a wonderful mix of symbolical events (e.g. one representing the feeling of being an awkwardly shaped puzzle piece) and concrete acts such as repeatedly ensuring ‘yes, I am a woman’ and swallowing the pills that may or may not be good for you. The game offers an opportunity for players to get involved and by that — feel responsible for what happens.

There are two possible ways to classify Dys4ia. One is that computer games is a media, and that it is a media that can be used to develop interactive stories that are not games. The other is that the interactivity of the game offers a very, very simple opportunity for role-play. By the few actions offered, the game succeeds to invite you as a player to walk in somebody else’s shoes. I think the strength of the game lies precisely in this invitation.

Storytelling in games

Game studies was more or less formed out of the ‘ludology – narratology’ debate, well documented in First Person. Basically, ludologists argued that games do not need to tell stories to be good, and they may not even be a good media for storytelling. The debate was a bit loop-sided as nobody really represented the opposite view (that games are about storytelling), but Hamlet on the holodeck is perhaps the book that comes the closest. In this book, Janet Murray presents a vision for a full 360 illusion narrative environment, giving players the power to shape stories in which they take active part. It is not a completely unrealistic vision: Murray was deeply influenced by table-top roleplaying, and although she was unaware of it, the Nordic larp community had already been experimenting with 360 illusion live role-playing for some years when the book came out. Later, research prototypes such as Façade have aimed to realise this vision in computer technology. (Façade exists in a holodeck version – AR/Façade.)

However, there is a huge difference between creating a 360 illusion and storytelling. In The art of videogames, Grant Tavinor argues that videogames are great vehicles for creating fiction (due to their simulation capabilities), but that storytelling requires a level of narrative control that is not entirely compatible with giving the player agency. And player agency is, after all, what games ultimately are about.

Since this debate, we have seen many, many storytelling games being produced; as larps, table-top games, and computer games. But these are seldom aspiring for a 360 illusion, and some of them don’t aspire to be games either. I find this development interesting, so I will blog about some such games over the coming weeks.

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