On stories and games

I’m pretty weird for a geek.

Okay, I’m pretty weird by anyone’s standards, but until recently there was a huge hole in my geekish education: I’d never played a roleplaying game, and the last computer- or console-based game I’d spent any serious time with was built on ASCII characters. (Rogue, anyone? Oops, I’ve just dated myself.) I had no idea what a huge part of the storytelling universe just wasn’t on my radar.

Fortunately, I’ve got friends & associates who can spot the need for an intervention. In recent months I’ve come to realize that games can take story into territory that the written word alone can’t accomplish. And in typical obsessive fashion, I’ve been sucking up knowledge in this area as fast as I can digest it: reading; picking the brains and observing the work of some very generous gaming masters; learning by doing in cooperation with the guys from Cliche Studio, who helped me develop two games for my Way of the Gods universe. And I’ve been regaling anyone who was too polite to send me on my way with tales of this fascinating new (?!) area of my storytelling life. Just in case I’m not the only writer who has managed to overlook the wonder of gaming as it relates to story and doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, here’s the meat of it.

Written stories—and film, by the way—have the ability to deliver a carefully-crafted glimpse into lives we would never otherwise know. They deliver a sort of vicarious experience, and they excel at communicating *meaning*. In the end, I think, that’s the most powerful thing those sorts of presentations can give their audiences: ideas and events that resolve in ways we can digest, can experience without real risk, can derive meaning from when real life frequently leaves us wondering what the *point* of it all may be. If the writer has done her job right, we carry the memory of that vicarious experience and the meaning we’ve derived with us long after we close the book or leave the theatre.

Where game excels, it seems to me, is in the arena of *experience*. When we read a story, that is not the same thing as living a story. When we write a novel, we’re delivering one story, more or less, even though each reader will take it in according to her own mindset. But when we craft a game, we create a cloud of possible experiences. In some cases, when the game we craft involves roleplaying, among the experiences we offer others is the opportunity to build and participate in wholly unique stories that will never exist except in that time and place. Game masters create stories, create the frameworks for experiences, within the frameworks game designers create. They are telling stories to the people with whom they game. And those gamers are also creators of the stories they experience: they frequently create their own characters, and they change the game the game master originally conceived with the choices they make.

In game, there’s not usually an audience in the typical sense. You don’t go to a tabletop gaming session to watch a story play out, but to help create it. The satisfaction arises not from the game’s completeness and evident meaning—neither of which a game necessarily delivers, or even really promises to—but rather from the experience of participating in it.

In a sense writing a novel is “high art”, while participating in a game that offers story is “arts and crafts”: games matter to us because they are our own experiences, our own creative expression, rather than because they are likely to please a disinterested observer. I see written stories, film, and game as parts of a continuum of ways we can experience stories, parts of a continuum of ways artists can share their conceptions with others.

To me this is the essence of the thing people mean when they talk about “transmedia”, and I believe game—true, usefully participatory game, as distinguished from the thinly-disguised advertising so many media tie-ins are guilty of—allows the story to become something we can participate in. It allows us to experience the story world, almost as if we could actually enter it.

Recently I talked with Elizabeth Campbell of Darkcargo about my explorations and the things I’ve been learning about story and game. She remains one of the most penetrating interiewers I know, and she made me have a number of new thoughts on this fascinating new-to-me medium in the process of our conversation. You can see what we talked about here.

Meanwhile, I’m going back to the studio. I’ve got this great idea for another game…

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One Comment on “On stories and games”


  1. […] prevent me from having a great many opinions–as can be seen in this interview and this post. And of all the laundry list of potential topics I offered them when we were discussing […]


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