Open and Shut


I’ve been read­ing about the Big Model of table­top RPGs over the last few weeks, espe­cial­ly its doc­trine of cre­ative agen­das. According to the Big Model, there are three dis­tinct ways a play­er can play an RPG: as a game, as a story, or as a sim­u­la­tion. For the gamists, the expe­ri­ence is about skill, mechan­ics and com­pe­ti­tion. For the nar­ra­tivists, the game exists as a medi­um for drama and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. The sim­u­la­tion­ists just want to dis­cov­er and explore, to be trans­port­ed.

The thinkers behind the Big Model empha­size that it’s vital to make sure that all of the play­ers in an RPG are on board with a sin­gle pri­ma­ry cre­ative agen­da. Otherwise, the GM may find that although all play­ers appear to be play­ing the same game, they may be approach­ing it in such total­ly dif­fer­ent ways that the con­sen­sus real­i­ty breaks down and the game floun­ders. For exam­ple, if some play­ers are pri­or­i­tiz­ing story, they might decide to sac­ri­fice them­selves for the sake of drama, just as the gamist play­ers were count­ing on them to defeat a level boss.

At first glance, this looks a lot like what writ­ers in videogame jour­nal­ism have been call­ing ludonar­ra­tive dis­so­nances. If so, the Big Model’s solu­tion for RPGs might be help­ful to design­ers in the dig­i­tal world.

But it can’t be as sim­ple as that. For one thing, there are some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between videogames and table­top RPGs that aren’t eas­i­ly avoid­ed. At their roots, videogames are far more akin to boardgames than they are to tra­di­tion­al RPGs. RPGs are unique in that they have a kind of open struc­ture. Despite their mas­sive tomes of rules, they are far less con­strict­ing than tra­di­tion­al games, since the real shape of the game remains large­ly up to the play­ers. The rules describe how the play­ers inter­act with one anoth­er and their set­ting, but a player’s actions with­in that set­ting remain lim­it­less. There is no closed list of what you can do, only how you can do it.

On the other hand, dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal games are almost always closed sys­tems. They exist in the dis­crete, log­i­cal, bina­ry frame­work of com­put­ing, rather than the fluid inter­per­son­al space of table­top RPG. As a result, what you can and can­not do is strict­ly laid down, and all pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tions are set up before­hand (or gen­er­at­ed pro­ce­du­ral­ly) from pre­cise rule­sets. Social games like RPGs are fan­tas­tic vehi­cles for inter­ac­tive story pre­cise­ly because of their open struc­ture; drama and char­ac­ter devel­op­ment are lim­it­ed only by the play­ers’ abil­i­ties. Videogames and boardgames, on the other hand, are ideal for the gamist types. The closed, pris­tine sys­tems they wrap around their play­ers offer the per­fect plat­form for bal­anced, reward­ing com­pe­ti­tion and per­son­al mas­tery. The sim­u­la­tion­ist approach could prob­a­bly go either way.

This isn’t to say that games can’t tell great sto­ries (Dear Esther being a favorite exam­ple of mine) but to be hon­est the prob­lem with most of these sto­ries is that they are being told. We have sev­er­al dif­fer­ent art forms for telling sto­ries, and they are far more effec­tive than videogames. Indeed, Dear Esther is just as affect­ing when watched pas­sive­ly as it is when played active­ly. It could eas­i­ly have been a short film. Games like Gone Home gain near­ly as lit­tle by mak­ing them inter­ac­tive; you real­ly lose noth­ing by watch­ing some­one else play it. The inter­ac­tiv­i­ty seems to exist only to trick play­ers into sit­ting through the whole thing, since most peo­ple wouldn’t watch a film of some­one ran­sack­ing an aban­doned man­sion, accom­pa­nied by a fair­ly pedes­tri­an audio story play­ing in the back­ground. I tend to think of games like these as lift-the-flaps games, because, like lift-the-flaps children’s books, they offer a façade of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty over a basi­cal­ly unal­ter­able story. As far as I can tell, this ten­den­cy holds true for almost all “story-focused” dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal games.

Truly inter­ac­tive sto­ries, that is to say sto­ries that are made by the play­ers, rather than sim­ply played, are impos­si­ble in videogames, or near­ly so. The sto­ries they do have are a crutch stolen from film and lit­er­a­ture to prop them­selves up, but lin­ear sto­ries are weak and out of place in an inter­ac­tive medi­um. They serve no pur­pose there that they wouldn’t serve bet­ter in their tra­di­tion­al forms. The under­ly­ing plot ofBioshock: Infinite would make a fan­tas­tic film or novel. The fact that the plot is tacked onto a fun­da­men­tal­ly gamist frame­work (and an excel­lent one at that) isn’t so much a prob­lem of dis­so­nance between the two as a prob­lem of apples and oranges. It’s not a prob­lem of pre­sen­ta­tion either; both ele­ments are done exquis­ite­ly, but the expe­ri­ence of an inter­ac­tive shoot­er bolt­ed onto a lin­ear plot never feels quite right. The story and the game are pulling the play­er towards two dif­fer­ent artis­tic expe­ri­ences, the active and the pas­sive, which lie in oppo­site direc­tions.

Real inter­ac­tiv­i­ty in a story requires real choic­es, choic­es the play­ers invent­ed and decid­ed upon. In a closed sys­tem, all choic­es have to be designed head of time. You’re inevitably play­ing some­one else’s story, not your own.

One intrigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty might be to have our story emerge organ­i­cal­ly from the mechan­ics. This is only real­ly pos­si­ble in large-scale mul­ti­play­er games like EVE Online, where real human inter­ac­tion has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to gen­er­ate nar­ra­tives nat­u­ral­ly, sim­i­lar to what hap­pens in social games. Still, since a videogame remains a closed sys­tem, even these types of games will, by their very nature, lack the level of free­dom and cre­ativ­i­ty a play­er can express in a tra­di­tion­al RPG. Players sit­ting around a table com­ing up with sto­ries is the purest form of inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling pos­si­ble. Putting that frame­work into a closed sys­tem inevitably reduces choic­es to a lim­it­ed set. It puts nar­ra­tivist goals into gamist box. Randomly gen­er­at­ed rogue­likes likeFTL do offer the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a story-like expe­ri­ence, but these suf­fer from the same basic prob­lems as an MMO, and the like­li­hood of a com­pelling story aris­ing in them is even slim­mer.

Real, emo­tion­al, pro­found inter­ac­tive sto­ries are pos­si­ble in games (and don’t let any­one tell you oth­er­wise), but not in closed sys­tems, or at least not to the extent that they are pos­si­ble in open ones. In the same way, the tense, mechan­i­cal enjoy­ment of a real gamist’s game isn’t sup­port­ed near­ly as well by open sys­tems as it is by closed ones. Understanding the capa­bil­i­ties of games and their artis­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties requires more than just videogame exam­ples, espe­cial­ly as the bound­aries between the online and offline worlds blur. The extra­or­di­nary work being done in social gam­ing (FiascoThe Burning WheelNumeneraPolarisDo: Pilgrims of the Flying TempleFreemarket) as well as phys­i­cal gam­ing (Waldschattenspiel,Risk: LegacyKemet,Android: NetrunnerLadies & Gentlemen) deserves much more atten­tion from the dig­i­tal games com­mu­ni­ty.

By look­ing at social games, dig­i­tal cre­ators can see exam­ples of what real inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling looks like, in a form that’s been pushed far beyond what closed-system dig­i­tal games are capa­ble of. Physical games, on the other hand, can pro­vide exam­ples of inge­nious mechan­i­cal struc­tures for videogames to aspire to. Both of these game types are rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive to cre­ate and pub­lish, and as a result take far more risks than videogames and stretch the lim­its of design far­ther and faster.

We’re all gamists, nar­ra­tivists or sim­u­la­tion­ists at one point or anoth­er. We want expe­ri­ences that nur­ture these cre­ative agen­das to their fullest, and flesh out what is pos­si­ble in a game. However, games will never reach their full poten­tial if cre­ators keep try­ing to force one par­tic­u­lar type of game to yield up an expe­ri­ence it was never meant to sup­port. The pur­suit of story with­in a game struc­ture is a wor­thy cause, but we should be using the tools and sys­tems appro­pri­ate for sto­ries if we ever want to see them truly live. Doing so may require us to take a step back, and turn off the screen.

Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.