There’s a lot of ways that story can be conveyed within a game. Some games use mechanics to tell us about the characters and the world (the abilities available to characters based on class in an RPG, or the way some objects are placed in a Metroid title). Some games use an impressive amount of text to convey highly detailed stories (the second half of Xenogears is a perfect example of tell instead of show).
Other games contain such highly complex and detailed systems that they don’t inherently tell a story: they allow one to emerge naturally from the events that occur as a result of available interactions. You know, they don’t even need incredibly detailed systems to accomplish this: they need systems that are just detailed enough to allow unique playthrough experiences.
How about we take a little look at both types (as they are and in relation to each other)?
I have a lot of fond memories of discussing RPGs with friends. We worked our way through several games both together (in the same room) and together (at the same time, but playing on our own in our own homes). We also introduced each other to countless games, recounting the incredible tales within to get the others interested. Of particular note, I think, was Xenogears. The first time I saw it I had no idea what it was or what it was about. My friend Nate showed me some late game content, for which I had no context, but it sure looked cool. He even showed me the beginning of the game and how things start so simple and suddenly – giant robots!
There were incredible stories in those games, and sharing them with one another was always exciting. There were fascinating worlds to traverse and characters to follow, and like a great book, you felt obligated to tell your friend about it and compare impressions and theories when you were done. While there were often little bits here and there that one saw/noticed and the other didn’t, the stories were ultimately, the same. Your takeaway might be different, and your head canon about how things fall in place behind the scenes might be unique, but ultimately, you had played through the same story.
For me, a lot of the most exciting stories to share or have shared with me were the unknown. Talking about Secret of Mana when we had all played it was okay, but being told about the incredible world of Xenogears or sharing the strange time travels of Final Fantasy Legend 3 was where it was at. It was that learning of things previously unknown that made me excited to game more. Little did I realize then that there were so many games that could provide a constant source of new and unique experiences.
Games featuring procedural generation are the most common type I’ve seen that tend to generate stories from the act of playing them – stories that are not crafted in advance, but arise from spontaneous situations. The complicated systems available in roguelikes and the many games that diverge (sometimes greatly) from that formula make strange situations possible that can be extremely fun to experience and to share.
Dwarf Fortress is a notable game for spontaneous story generation: the insane level of detail available can make for some stories that simply could not have been planned out in advance. There are a large number of Let’s Plays of the game that show vastly different but equally interesting experiences. The first time I ever played the game I was still learning, and as a result of my rookie mistakes, some hilarious events occurred: while two dwarves were doing all of the work, the others were drinking all of the ale since they had nothing to do. I discovered my mistake when I found that all of the ale had vanished, and the poor dwarves were in a bad way (no real dwarf will drink water unless they’re dying and are forced to). I had to scramble to set up a brewery, trying the whole time to figure out why all the ale had vanished in the first place. It’s little tales like this that seem to constantly arrive during a game of Dwarf Fortress.
I had an interesting experience during a game of FTL, as well. During the fight against the final boss, I had a single character survive. It so happened that the character was one I had rescued from slavers earlier in my travels. I couldn’t help but picture this creature, battered and bruised, fixing up the ship to go finish off the final phase of the final boss, grateful to be alive and eager to avenge the crew that had given him his freedom. It was a tiny bit of narrative that naturally cropped up from the events of the game that had transpired as much through luck as anything else.
My stories may not be incredible, but they are indeed my stories. This is where the comparison between the two types of game stories get interesting. The tale of Fey and friends in Xenogears is a crafted tale, prepared carefully and with great consideration for an amount of backstory best described as obscene (seriously, there’s a 300 page book explaining the world of Xenogears). The tales I have from DF and FTL are by no means carefully crafted for maximum interest and emotional impact, but they are events that I got to experience in a world all my own. The two types of stories can both have incredible impact on the player, in spite of their nearly opposite origins.
The two different types of games do tend to generate very different sorts of stories. RPGs tend to tell large scale epics with tons of things happening in the background and intertwined with their events. Spontaneous stories from procedural generation games tend to tell specific, focused, somewhat slice of life stories. Perhaps most interesting would be a title combining the two methods (which happens to some degree in games like Fallout 3 and Shadow of Mordor). Or maybe a method will be discovered that allows for the unique details of a Dwarf Fortress world, woven together into a grand epic like that in a Final Fantasy. That would be a sight to see.
Gaming is an ever growing and evolving medium, and its capacity for telling and creating stories is drastically different from any sort of book or film. With the integration of storytelling and video game mechanics, there are opportunities to tell all kinds of tales, and draw in and involve the player in incredible ways. While there are so many missed opportunities in this category, there is always time for things to improve. JRPGs seem to be making a comeback of sorts, and with a little luck we’ll get to see a new set of incredible worlds, characters, and stories.
With spontaneous stories, the explosion of roguelikes has made them far more common, and that’s very exciting. Spontaneous tales are entering the hands of those that don’t want to spend a ton of time and effort mastering a game like Dwarf Fortress (though, really, everyone should give it a go, it’s brilliant stuff) or don’t know that it exists. It’s exciting that more gamers than ever before are having the chance to experience their own unique and incredible stories.
Regardless of how the tales come into being (written out in advance or occurring by chance), it’s always a pleasure to share them with others and have them shared with you.