Playing Stories | Games, Gamers, & Gaming, March 15, 2016

Games are a dynamic storytelling medium: as personal or universal as the best books, as visually exciting as blockbuster movies, and as engaging as the most addictive TV series.
Games are a dynamic storytelling medium: as personal or universal as the best books, as visually exciting as blockbuster movies, and as engaging as the most addictive TV series. Having a healthy collection of games can be a way to help your patrons explore narratives of their own.

Roll for imagination

dragoncancer.jpg31416The best (and probably oldest) example of storytelling in games can be found in tabletop role-playing games (RPGs). Good RPGs encourage players to craft their own story—build backgrounds for the character, complete with motivations and sensitivities, and stay true to the character’s demeanor during game play. A solid role-playing group is akin to a theater troupe, with the game master serving as director, letting the performers improvise while maintaining just enough control to keep everything from spiraling into chaos.

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the go-to RPG for many library gaming groups, and the most recent edition (the fifth) brings back some of the classical, open-ended, imaginative structure that the fourth edition lacked. In this new version, rules for combat are written so that no map or playing pieces are needed, allowing players and dungeon master to be more imaginative and free.

gameofthrones.jpg31416The “World of Darkness” RPGs are an even better platform for pure storytelling. Players create their character, focusing on history and personality and assigning a few points to some key skills and traits. Then, during the game, whenever a conflict must be resolved, players roll a number die equivalent to their rank in the associated abilities, with the game master setting a difficulty level. Any die at or above that level is a success, and the game master determines the outcome based on the number of successes. Unlike D&D, there are no campaigns and modules in “Darkness” games, simply guidelines for crafting original stories and personae.

Of course, these are two of the many, many role-playing systems available. The key thing to remember is that RPGs are less about winning and losing and more about collaborative creation.

Playing inside the story

While RPGs let players craft their own stories, video games allow players to be active from the inside: the narrative and setting are already firmly in place, but the players are involved as the tale unfolds. Recently, more and more games highlight story over tests of skill.

gonehome.jpg31416Gone Home is a standard-bearer of narrative-focused gaming. Arriving home to find no one there, players piece together an emotional story as they explore the abandoned house that should be alive with laughter and warmth. To the Moon is one of my favorites. It only has rudimentary puzzles to serve as game-play mechanics, but its story is a roller-coaster ride through a dying man’s mind. On a journey to implant the memory of a trip to the moon, the main characters explore his loves and losses; the heartrending final act is one of the most moving moments I’ve experienced in any medium.

Traveler’s Tales is a consistently excellent developer that has brought new life to “point-and-click” games—adventure games in which players interact with the environment by responding to prompts and solving visual puzzles. In these games, players’ choices affect the story in very significant ways, up to and including matters of life and death, and they do an incredible job of making players care about the characters. Traveler’s Tales has adapted numerous properties, for example, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Its games are all worth exploring.

Undertale looks at first like a traditional RPG, but it soon takes on a life of its own. Using a combat system that merges tactics with fast reflexes, it also allows for non­violent resolution to encounters. Play reveals much about the gamer and turns some combat encounters into emotional affairs.

All of those stories, however, are the kind of big narratives we expect from video games: adventures and mysteries that take us out of the everyday. That Dragon, Cancer, is something else entirely. It follows the struggles of a father whose infant son is dying of cancer. The game captures the agonizing poignancy of trying to take advantage of every moment while knowing that the end is coming soon.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention independent developer Jason Rohrer, who builds incredible minimalist games, many of which he’s released into the public domain. With only some simple graphics, he tackles the struggles of parenthood and the trials of building relationships, among other subjects, with quiet intensity. Having his games available on your gaming stations is a must; see for more.

Though some naysayers insist that narrative games lack a “fail state”—a trigger that ends the game in a loss for the player—the fail state for narrative games is the point at which you are no longer engaged in the story. A well-crafted story is just as addictive and rewarding as the most arduous test of skill and reflexes, so present these narrative games to your patrons, and let them discover and enjoy relevant tales unique to the medium.

Until next time, keep telling yourself: just one more level!

RobbinsWebfinalM. Brandon Robbins is Media Coordinator, Goldsboro High School, NC, and a member of the 2011 class of the American Library Association’s Emerging Leaders

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