by James Jones, daredevil commuter student and gaming genius
Story in game design is an important and oft-misunderstood beast. To many, “story” means a pure narrative delivered to the player with careful pacing and spectacle; the tale each player moves through from the time the game turns on to when the credits roll. But it isn’t the only kind of story that surrounds games. Damion Schubert, who worked on Meridian 59 and more recently, for BioWare, proposes three different kinds of distinct stories in and surrounding games. To complement the Narrative, Schubert describes two other types of stories: Mechanical and Social.
Narrative is the most familiar story type, and it serves as the basis of many successful games. Mass Effect and even Call of Duty are memorable for the stories they tell us as we play through them, full of memorable characters and situations. It is also the only kind of story specifically provided by the game designer and development team. But the narrative doesn’t necessarily end with the game itself, as anyone that has read bad fan fiction well knows.
Mechanical stories, however, have more to do with the stories we tell about playing games than the game itself. Everyone has these stories, but few give them serious thought: the time you almost beat that hard part of the game, the wonderful streak of luck right when you needed it, and the amazing skill required to accomplish some feat. They arise from how the game plays, its mechanics. These aren’t stories you play, through; they’re stories you tell about playing through.
Social stories are similar to Mechanical stories in some ways, but don’t deal with the game itself. Rather, they arise from the people playing the game and arise naturally from the culture of multi-player games. They range from guild/clan drama to the amusing anecdotes about having to take out the trash at the worst possible time to that one time you caught your mom playing Super Mario Brothers and she kept jerking the controller around trying to make Mario jump. These stories are virtually impossible for a game to create, but it is possible to provide the tools that make these stories possible in the first place. Multiplayer modes, chat options. and the like allow and encourage Social stories.
Ultimately, however, one can only design a game’s Narrative story directly. A game can provide opportunities for the mechanics to create memorable stories for the player, but a designer probably can’t ensure that will happen. Mr. Schubert doesn’t think so, saying “if you depend on social and mechanical stories as being what’s awesome, you’re effectively depending on serendipity to provide the player with good stories.” But it isn’t impossible to encourage these types of stories. Social options in games open up social stories, while some games try to increase the frequency of mechanical stories by upping the difficulty. The game FTL is an example of this – see this earlier Sandbox review.
But the first step in designing something is to realize that it even exists as a goal. Is it possible to design Social stories into games? Is difficulty and ‘Losing is Fun’ the only solution to increasing the frequency of Mechanical stories? Are Narrative stories even desirable, given the power of the much more personal Mechanical and Social stories? Time and game designers trying to make games with new kinds of stories will tell. Share your thoughts in the Comments section below!