This is not the start of a new sub-series though I will go over the various types of games in future installments. However, I can’t do that without a proper overview of games as storytelling methods, something you think is recent but has actually been a storyteller for a lot longer. Since the days of “Cowboys And Indians” or “Cops And Robbers” (and I’m not sure you can play either anymore without some adult having a fit) and before, when kids in Merry Ol’ England probably played “Knights And Dragons” backstory was at least needed to set up the premise and rules of the game. Candy Land may not have a deep lore to it (I don’t think it needs to, do you?) but there is a goal, a name for various locations, and other forms of worldbuilding. Even Pac-Man has a premise. You’re a yellow food freak trying to clear a maze while four ghost-like monsters try to eat you. It was only later that we got the various lores from the cartoon, the games themselves, a record I own, and the rebooted game histories.
In the future I’ll be discussing each form of game, some of which have a video game and physical counterpart so sometimes video games will have a section for themselves and sometimes not. I will go over how each tells a story, though for some genres (say, puzzle games), the discussion stops here. This is a general list of game types and how it tells a story, only most of which will be further examined in later installments. If there’s any you think I really should get to first or focus on, or if I missed one, let me know. With that, let’s get started.
Video games: If we’re discussing games as storytellers we might as well get this one out of the way right now. Whether telling a linear story where you’re playing to reach the next cutscene as well as the next level, simple backstory in the manual to explain why your pile of blocks is fighting other piles of blocks, or using sidequests and decision making to further immerse you in their world, video games are only starting to be seen as a storytelling too. Each genre of gaming has it’s own strengths and weaknesses as a storytelling tool. Puzzle games use lore and worldbuilding but not much else and it rarely matters to the gameplay. RPGs need lore, characters, and someone making sure the mechanics make sense to the actual world or you get a game mechanic that makes zero sense in the world, or may actually ruin the world while only being there as a play mechanic. Of course you have floating “health packs” or clean and cooked chicken in walls to replenish your health so that’s a balancing act we’ll be discussing in those articles.
Gamebooks: You may know them by the one particular brand name like how photocopies were called xeroxes (despite Xerox being the brand name of one particular company that makes photocopy machines) or how Q-Tips are only one manufacturer of cotton swabs but you usually ask for a q-tip even if they didn’t make it. In the same vein “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a brand and type of gamebook, a story where at various points you choose what path or action the heroes take. The right path continues the story while the wrong path has you die in gruesome and occasionally hilarious ways. I love these things and this will definitely be its own article.
Board Games: This one will not be its own article however. Board games are like the puzzle video games in which the “story” is really just the plot explaining why your little statuette is trying to climb a mountain death trap or your fake gingerbread man is walking only the number of steps needed to reach a color, even if that color means blindly stepping into a swamp so famous it has its own title. There’s no story here unless the players are making one up as they go along. However, that’s better used for…
Role-playing games: While this is also a genre of video game, it started out with what is now called the tabletop RPG. You know, like Dungeons & Dragons, one of the OGs of RPGs and probably the most famous–or infamous as the case may be thanks to the 80s concerns about how D&D affects their kids or the current debate over whether or not having Orcs be an all-evil race is racist. We (and that includes you in the comments please because I don’t want to derail the discussion) will ignore that for now, but this is definitely a topic worth exploring, as is the RPG as storytelling. While one person is in charge I’ve heard stories where the actions of the other players will often move the story in unintended and sometimes hilarious ways. My favorite is when one player was brought to a dragon by cultists as tribute. The dragon offers him some last words and he basically presents the cultists as tribute instead. Thanks to a miracle roll of the dice this actually worked, to the surprise of the DM, the player and the other players. (And presumably the cultists, who ended up as BBQ.) We’ll definitely come back to this one.
Card games: Card games these days are more than just Old Maid or Uno. With Magic The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh in the world now you have monsters fighting each other. This requires stats and abilities and that’s where the worldbuilding comes in, even more than board games. Monsters, spells, traps, and their sci-fi equivalents in other games often come with flavor text involving the monster’s history or the effects of the spell, and stat boosts based on chosen locations or other triggers. There are plenty of stories about these games being played or the worlds they build but the games themselves aren’t a storytelling tool, unless again the players are telling a story. Then again, I guess they are telling the story of two wizards or whatever sending monsters to kill each other, so I guess they are telling a battle scene short story. I don’t think this needs it’s own article.
LARPing: I could lump this in with the tabletop RPG but it’s just different enough to get its own mention. Whether or not I’ll give it its own article I’m not sure of but currently I have no plans. Instead of sitting around the table they “live-action role-players” put on costumes and use props to act out the story. Video games have made this virtual, with guide books to come up with a plot but without a “dungeon master” to control the story. There are no “non-player characters” in this one.
I think that’s it, but again if you think of something (and coming up with a story involving lawn darts or something doesn’t count) let me know. Some of these are worth exploring in future Art Of Storytelling articles but this is just an overview of how games have become a worth storytelling tool. Of course you can just play a game to have fun and I’m all for that. I’ll also defend it, which is why I’m not against games on your phone. However, play is how we learn about and interact with the world around us and with other people. That’s also what stories do for us so it’s no surprise that games can tell a story we can experience for ourselves. Just as long as you remember it’s only a game, but that like any story they and the characters mean something to the players, especially if they created the characters themselves. It’s a fine line but on that line is imagination at its finest. I like that.