These past two weeks, as part of one of my game studies classes, I’ve been engaged in taking a largely uninitiated party of undergraduates through the paces of a tabletop roleplay campaign. We had just come off a screening of Darkon and a series of readings on the Atari 2600 (including Adventure and the origins thereof) so we were all of a mindset to begin exploring actual game creation and interacting with real systems. Our professor, taking a philosophical approach to the subject that I wish more academics of new media would, divided the class into three groups: gamist, emphasizing combat systems; simulationist, emphasizing ambient world effects and modeling; and narrativist, emphasizing storytelling. I DMed for the last of these.
“But wait, Kris,” I hear you saying, “Aren’t you a ludologist?” I’m glad you asked, dear reader. I actually think of myself as a post-Aarsethian ergodic narrativist/aestheticist, but that is neither here nor there. The Great War of ludology versus narratology is an important conversation but a decidedly dead one, nor does it matter whether anyone won (arguably, the only winners were the ones who didn’t play). What does matter is that my professor suggested that narrativist tabletop roleplay was beset by cliche and was the structurally weakest of play types. That sounded like a thrown gauntlet to me.
Womb With a View
I will be the first to acknowledge the stigma associated with so-called “narrativist” games. We gamers have devised a list of expectations for our game stories so stringent they often read like commandments. Something like:
1. Thou Shalt Not Privilege Thy Cinematics Over Thy Gameplay.
2. Thou Shalt Not Force Thy Player to Fail.
3. Thou Shalt Not Begin With a 20 Minute Cutscene. I Mean, Look at Metal Gear Solid 4 for Christ’s Sake.
And so forth.
We’ve grown so mired in opinions on what game stories should not be that we apparently remain at a loss for what they should be. And while most game writing commandments — like the religious ones that they reference — begin with some presupposition of ideal behaviors and best practices, a lot of them (just like the real 10 Commandments, if you were to actually look at them) end up stinking of bias and an appallingly outmoded worldview. Thinking critically about where these prohibitions come from will get us a lot farther than deciding that the behaviors themselves are intrinsically bad. In other words, it isn’t that a game takes a long time to get to the gameplay but that the player was at any point made to feel so much time was passing without twitching his impatient man-fingers.
…Okay, so I’m a little biased here myself. Hence “ergodic narrativist“. I believe stories have a place in games, especially as windows into worlds and situations beyond our everyday experience. Where I part ways with the mainline narratologists of yesteryear is in the presuppositions that a) everything is a narrative and b) narratives can be transposed without consideration of medium.
Having been in dialogue with my professor about Hiroki Azuma‘s configuration of the “grand narrative” as part of modernity, one which we’ve lost as part of the post-modern condition, I was interested in creating a fictional world with a clear ideological point of view. As I outlined in another essay on my personal blog, my strategy here was to create a kind of anti-Star Trek: a future of humanity completely obliterated by hypercapitalism.
Taking the privatization of space exploration as a starting point, I started outlining a universe that I had described at the margins of previous (largely unfinished) stories: a spacefaring society where corporations are the sole surviving nationstates. Following the dessication of Earth, the two controlling mega-conglomerates, i* and e*, head off on generation ships in search of new markets. With opposite bearings, the two ships lose track of one another almost immediately, and, thus, the two homogenized capitalist entities no longer have one another to do corporate battle with.
Lacking any sustainable rhetoric of competition (“that other corporation” being just as meaningful as “the Russkies” for most young gamers of today), the generation ship that we focus on, i*, devolves into centuries of factionalism and vicious in-fighting. When they finally emerge at a new system fit for terraforming, the i* humans have split violently into pro-materialist and anti-materialist groups, both sides competing for resources on the main colony planets and moons.
Negotiating Dialectics with Space
Not shown: my impeccable map-drawing skills.
Based on feedback from my players, I wrote a scenario involving an independent salvage crew visiting a derelict orbital, a religious commune ship called Sacrosanct. There was an emergent plot involving a governing AI who had killed off the station’s inhabitants after declaring them heretics and her chief architect turned head of church, who could offer help or extra resistance depending on how the players reacted to him.
I tried to leave solutions as open as possible, both narratively and spatially. It was a large space to traverse, and using the foundations of the Eclipse Phase mechanics (sans its backstory), I wanted to encourage my players to think creatively with the afforded tech and environmental specifics. As a short-term fix to trying to map a three-dimensional, zero-gravity field on a two-dimensional hex map, we used colored markers to signify distance from the floor of the station. Rather than use Eclipse Phase‘s meticulously laid-out hacking regimen, I had my players complete timed mazes in an effort to get them to think less abstractly and more materially about the task but without bogging them down with too much real world minutiae.
Eclipse Phase morphs.
This alone could provide plenty of exploratory action for players. To that, I needed to layer in the story of the setting in such a way that exploring it could reveal, rather than railroad, the narrative. There were multiple ways that the party could discover what had happened on the station from examining the bodies of the dead or accessing records or questioning Lev, the AI’s architect. Lev, a late addition I made to the campaign, did not have to be discovered for the story to conclude but added significantly to the conceived dialectic I intended to set forth.
As prefaced by the worldview that I had built up, I wanted exploration of Sacrosanct to pose a dilemma about non-dialectical thinking. The AI, Elly, could only act in accordance to her programming, however corrupt it may be. When she declared her religious subjects needed to be purged and the synthesized natural environment of the orbital with it, her control was too absolute for anyone to stop her. Later, players learned from Lev (though they could have also learned the same from other sources) that Elly was being sought by private corporations, compelling Lev to sequester her among the non-materialist religious collective of Sacrosanct. He went so far as to convert to New Spiritualism and take a position as a priest, though all he believed in was the sanctity of his program, not any sort of higher calling.
Sacrosanct orbital map with “religious” geometric pattern.
This setup was intended to model different iterations of greed: the capitalist greed of the corporations that wanted Elly, who then go so far as to transmit a virus into Sacrosanct in order to subdue her, inadvertently causing her corruption; the private greed or jealousy of Lev for lying to others (and putting them at risk) just to keep his creation “safe”; and the greed of the spacefaring salvagers that the players act as, who break into a religious commune ship for fun and profit.
Apart from the name of the station and the residential zones that the characters pass through (all pseudo-Abrahamic names like Hel and Kalel — even Elly was short for “Elohim” from one of the Hebrew words for God), I tried layering in several hints that my players were traversing what was nominally sacred ground, even suggesting that the distant separation of important map goals was due to the orbital being designed after a complex religious symbol. It settled the complaint, but I could have gone farther with it. In fact, there were a lot of areas where I could have done much more with my design, which I will get to next.
Derailing for College Students
Penny Arcade, 2009.
“How hot is she?”
As I later related to one of my other players on Steam (classroom gaming begets out-of-class friendships), “That was the first time in ten years where I’ve had to roll someone’s Comely.”
I could bang my face into a wall over and over for all the absurdly immature antics my players got into as our sessions wore on. I’ve decided to give up on it. Class tabletop sessions are as valid a place for Feminism 101 as anywhere else, but I have no one to blame but myself for designing a campaign that left issues of sex and gender almost completely off the table. Also, at that point, I was already keeping my players after class on a Tuesday night.
But the larger problem is that I had designed my dialectical dilemma without a counter-voice, assuming that my players — this being an in-person arena of play where your words and actions are backed up with a face and a voice — would naturally provide it on their own. Not so. A reflective story requires reflective players to work. Instead, my players broke Lev’s leg and left him for dead inside Elly’s deactivated AI core, fleeing in hijacked escape pods before the entire orbital blew up. So much for a salvage mission. Greed did indeed prevail, but it was player greed and not any of the narrative varieties that had a lasting impact on the party.
So what went wrong, and how could I have communicated my scenario better?
Set The Right Tone
Games are spaces for acting out situations that we don’t abide by in real life. Games are also spaces for practicing our way through certain logical or moral exercises. But you need to set the right stage and continually reinforce it.
I like to harp on the Shark Trial from Heavy Rain for this. In this mission, you play a father who is forced to assassinate a drug dealer (and father of two darling little girls) in a bid to rescue your kidnapped son. But it’s far too easy to divest yourself of the actual psychological or moral significance of murder with “I have to get a good ending” playing in the back of your mind. Imperatives for play, accomplishments, even reaching benchmarks all outweigh story in a moment like that.
To make things worse, there are no negative repercussions for killing the guy. You can defeat the kidnapper, get your son back, and have a happy epilogue with absolutely no mention of being implicated for murder. As an event, it is simply written out of the record. I’m a little more positive about Heavy Rain than many of its critics, but this part of the game is still one of its larger failings in my eyes.
So what did my game need? Not just repercussions, but a clear understanding of how actions and repercussions were expected to work. And also an understanding of what kinds of behavior were outside acceptability. What I didn’t tell you earlier was that after indulging my player by providing a Comely score (“3”) he responded by declaring “I slowly put my dick away.” Funny, in that 12-year-old schoolyard humor kind of way, and I can take a joke. But it led to an avalanche of sexual humor that defeated much of the austere tone of the setting, leaving nothing new to take its place.
So while on the one hand, I give props to my players for being subversive and giving us all a laugh, it was both a teachable moment I did not exploit (being one of only two women at the table in a class predominated by boys) and a serious draw away from my narrative material. But it did tell me that my narrative material wasn’t completely working.
Don’t Overextend Yourself
There is room for smart conversations in game writing. I also believe even the scummiest of Xbox Live trashtalkers have a greater capacity to engage in thoughtful exercises than we habitually give them credit for. But under most circumstances games are not for cryptic or didactic writing. Mine was both, so I shouldn’t be surprised that what players engaged with were the surface-level elements.
What could I have done differently? Taken more time. This so much was only partially within my power, as we were bounded by the time constraints of our class meetings. But then I had two other alternatives: scale down the scope of the campaign or write a different one.
Under the circumstances, I think I would have opted for the latter. Scaling down presents its own inherent risks of oversimplifying, not only in terms of content but in terms of message. If you were to ask me, I’d say that the tensions and character relationships of my scenario were already highly reductive — to reduce them any more would risk sucking any remaining narrative vitality out of them. But complex ideas can still be told simply. It’s just a matter of isolating them.
Combat Must Die
Eclipse Phase character.
It was largely a constraint of prep time, but I ended up eliminating all combat from my campaign. This streamlined story advancement by mainlining exploration, something I am quite proud of, but the vestigial limbs of Eclipse Phase still clung to our game via the players’ character sheets.
Tabletop RPGs have their origins in wargaming, so it should come as no surprise that emphasis on battle stats stay with us to this day. But there are so many more ways to model conflict than battle. Maybe if I took away even the suggestion of combat as a solution for my players, my poor NPCs would still be alive. Killing is a simple solution to all the complex situations that tabletop is potentially able to simulate.
It’s for this reason that I’m excited for games like Corvus Elrod’s Bhaloidam. It is able to accommodate combat but doesn’t privilege it the way most tabletop systems do. It is, in fact, a completely flexible gameplay system oriented specifically at telling emergent stories. Had my class’s timing been different, I would have loved to use Bhaloidam as the basis for our game. If circumstances permit, I’d love to incorporate it in a future semester. Anyone interested in innovative takes on tabletop play are highly encouraged to check out the Kickstarter page for more information.
“Wait, I Thought You Were the T.A..”
I wish I had had this idea first.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say designing a game, any game, is a requisite for those involved in game criticism — but it does certainly help. This campaign was not the first game that I had ever written, but it was the first time in a long while when I dealt with live players in real time, and it was enlightening on a number of levels.
Following the end of our second and final session — Sacrosanct destroyed, the players escaping in uncontrolled emergency escape pods, their employer’s salvage ship in unknown condition and their captain probably out for their blood very shortly — my players told me that they were impressed by the game’s depth. They each came away from our game table enthused and appeared to feel they had all made a meaningful contribution to the unfolding events. So while I can’t help but be critical of my game’s shortcomings, the fact that my players enjoyed it is a significant first step for me.
The way they commented on the game’s depth proves one thing in particular to me: depth is good. Players can handle it, in fact respond wonderfully to it. Depth is not to be feared. Again and again, my party managed to pick up on small details any decently cynical writer would say were too complicated or elusive for this kind of audience. While I do feel I didn’t do well enough to keep my players consistently engaged, I’m gratified to know that I didn’t give them too little credit.
The second takeaway — I’ve decided — is the importance of a flexible storyteller. I know myself well enough to acknowledge that I can often be draconian about my own writing and that consequently this campaign was to be a significant test of that tendency. While I didn’t allow the roll of the dice to dictate things away from a generally intended trajectory for my story (I’m generally against the idea of treating everything like a set of odds), I did let the wishes of my players take the lead more often than not. I indulged their curiosity whenever I could without breaking the outer walls of the scenario that I had built up and I allowed for any logically thought out solution they could come up with, no matter how far away it was from what I had planned. Until electronic games can match a tabletop DM’s ability to respond instantaneously to player desires, drawing from creative resources as diverse as the human brain, I’ll know which I consider to be the better play experience.
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