I posed the title of this post as a topic at GameCamp.
The idea is this: We get very heated on the discussion of whether games are a storytelling medium or not, with members from all four lenses often talking at cross purposes. Games historically do a bad job of telling stories but sometimes do a good job of catalysing memorable experiences. Those experiences then go on to be formed into stories by players, post hoc.
What do you think?
I don't consider 'narrative design' to be a core skill for making games, and I suspect game writers both know and hate what I'm talking about. I see the job of the game writer as more akin to the copywriter in advertising or a text illustrator: He fills in the detail of the world, but plot arcs and characterisation are generally superfluous.
While the theory of narrativism tends to float somewhere around the idea that players make stories for themselves as they play, or become the heroes in their own stories, or even that reading is a form of interaction, the games that seem to become great stories later are usually the ones that avoid heavy handed telling.
A personal example of this is a game of Scrabble I played a few weeks ago while on vacation. I love Scrabble, and it's one of the few board games that I'm actually good at. I tend to be able to conjure unusual words in odd situations and so sneak into triple word scores. One such word that I played was 'gluon' (a kind of particle which transmits nuclear forces). It was just one of those words which wins you a game while being so improbable as to be memorable.
In my mind that game has become the story of the game of Scrabble that I played on holiday. My art brain has reconstructed it into a narrative by assigning myself and my friend Kevin (my opponent) roles within it, organised the play into something of a plot (I was losing a lot of the time pre-gluon) and editing out all of the other parts where we played more normal words. My point is that I was not playing a story while playing Scrabble. It only really became a story in retrospect, and even then only certain parts did.
Sports are especially good for post hoc story making because they are spectator events. Last weekend Manchester City won the English Premier League in a match that went down to the wire. It had all of the hallmarks of a great story: A great victory, an overcoming of an ancient enemy (Manchester United), the beating of a 44-year legacy of near misses and almost-wins, a bad foul on the pitch that turned the tide, and finally not one but two goals in the final minute to clinch it. It's a story that City fans will retell for a generation, growing larger than life with each telling.
Heroes, reconstruction into a plot, powerlessness (of the audience) and editing are the basis for great stories. But of course when you're playing a game none of those things exist. Not even in a game where there is elaborate time given over to telling you who your avatar is or arranging the gameplay into missions. Once you become empowered to play then narrative context goes out the window (or as James Wallis put it, all players become terrorists), and you always play in game time rather than edited time.
It's doing rather than telling.
At the talk one person mentioned that a curious trait of more narrative-organised games seemed to be that the stronger the plot, the less likely players were to tell the stories of what they did in it. You might say, for example, that you played LA Noire for the random missions and avoided the plot as much as possible, but that's not really the point of the game is it? You might say that you never actually finished the game, but likewise. Contrast this with a session I attended at GDC in which one of the writers of LA Noire asked for the mic just to say that he had worked on the game and, in his words, "You're welcome".
Games are dynamic worlds under pressure, four dimensional artworks (including time) that reflect changing states, death and chaos, and those worlds have storysense but not story. Games, it seems to me, are catalysts of possibility. Often the play of the game is boring and forgotten, but sometimes what happens in the magic circle actually is magical. Those experiences become stories when we makers deliberately lay off trying to tell them and just let players get on with making their own.
(Today's image comes from the appropriately named Sensible Soccer blog)