Storytelling Engines: The Story Arc Has Ended and Yet the Game Keeps Going

In most cases, we think of game stories as something that happen around the mechanics of a game or gives context to those mechanics. But around the end of the last decade, there was a movement by developers to systematize storytelling in games. Emergent storytelling was the term coined to describe when various mechanics in a game interact in such a way as to create unique stories in a game’s play session. However, in practice, the attempts didn’t create stories so much as they created anecdotes.

More recently, several games have been released that present themselves as storytelling engines. These games set up their circumstances and establish a theme, but the specifics of the story are determined by your play session. These storytelling engine games provide an arc-like structure for the player to fill in the details of, resulting in narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. This type of game can and does create personally affecting stories. A narrative remains in the player’s mind more when it exists solely because that player picked out the melody amidst the noise. Yet, I find most attempts at this type of experience eventually fall flat thanks to the fact that overall they are still chained to a narrative goal constructed by an author.

Recently on the podcast, we discussed Darkest Dungeon. During that discussion, I related this story:

I was on a dungeon crawl in search of loot and XP, like you do. It wasn’t going well. The stress in my party was building up fast. My vestal was getting the worst of it. They always go for the healers first. Her meter built up over many battles against the horrors and her stress reached 100. However, instead of giving in to an affliction, she became virtuous, Stalwart, in fact. Her stress meter dropped to a third of what it was, and she healed a little bit of her compatriots’ anguish along the way. The battles continued and my vestal’s meter filled again in the same dungeon. Against all odds, she once more became virtuous. This time, she became Courageous. Suffice it to say that team beat their foes back and returned to town mostly intact and leveled up.

This vestal was now the highest ranking character in my company, an astounding level two. In my mind, she was the main character of the game. She was my hero. She had triumphed over evil in such an astounding fashion and against all odds.

Many quest attempts later, during which she never succumbed to an affliction and even gained another virtue during battle, I sent her back in to face the game’s first boss, the Necromancer’s Apprentice. The group never found him. Instead, we were waylaid by a ghastly horror capable of infinitely spawning ghost warriors. Despite my best efforts to heal the party, my vestal was pushed to death’s door three times. Another round started and before any of my characters would get another chance to act, she was felled. Before she died, her stress meter filled up, but I don’t remember if she succumbed to the Hopeless affliction. Given how the story ended, it would be apropos.

This was a brilliant narrative arc that fit so well with the Lovecraftian tone and theme of self-destruction that is central to Darkest Dungeon. The problem is, this was still in the early game. I had yet to face even the first of the many bosses in Darkest Dungeon. I know it is a long game and that I had many more characters at my disposal to send in and ground up into adventurer paste, but I was done. My protagonist was heroic in the face of evil. Time and time again she held her ground without fear. But the dungeon took its toll, and her faith could not save her in the end.

I got what the game was about, I think perhaps a little better than Darkest Dungeon understood itself. Adventurers come and go, and the only narrative element that is consistent is the boss, which relates back to the man whose family opened the gateway for the horrors and whose fortune this is all about. I am supposed to be that man (or possibly his middle manager), but the game spends so much time with the adventurers that the mechanics make it about their stories. I could have found a new protagonist to follow and cultivate, but the narrative would have been a poor rehash of the same thing.

When I reviewed Redshirt several years ago, a similar thing happened to me.

Instead of a fantasy RPG, Redshirt is a social simulator set on a Star Trek style space station. There’s an unnamed threat coming to kill everyone, and this information is being kept hush hush. Only the top officers will be transported off the station in time. In order to get ahead, through manipulating your social media page, you have to make friends and get into relationships with those of a higher rank than you, while ditching those of a lower rank than you.

I started out at the lowest rank and made friends with every one of my co-workers. After a time, I became romantically involved with one of them. Her name was Qoa. We shared interests and enjoyed going out on the promenade together. We were sent on a disastrous away mission in the same landing party. As one by one our fellow redshirts fell, I feared for Qoa. Only the two of us returned alive.

Then tragedy struck. My girlfriend went out with someone else behind my back. Maybe I had missed some signs of her subtlety pulling away. In any case, I got promoted and dumped her. Yet, after another promotion, out of nowhere, I received a friend request from my old flame. I wasn’t involved at the time and accepted it. Despite being two ranks her senior, I eventually took her out again, and we had a reconciliation.

Again, this was still the early game. Redshirt was only about a fourth of the way done. In order to continue, I would have to go on scamming people for friend requests and getting involved in order to be promoted. It also meant ending all my relationships along the way, since none of your co-workers ever level up along with you. I wouldn’t get to be with Qoa. It would be the same story with different people. I broke it off with Redshirt at that point. We wanted different things from each other.

In both Darkest Dungeon and Redshirt, the narrative arcs that these games generated ended long before either of the games were over. If I continued playing either of them, it would change the stories from the vestal’s rise and fall and the office romance break up to an old moneyed man getting his inheritance back and a sociopathic backstabber leaving everyone behind to die, respectively. There is a disconnect between the stated long term goals of each game and the short term narratives that the interconnected mechanics detail.

Unlike in nearly all other fantasy RPGs, success isn’t guaranteed in Darkest Dungeon. The fear, the worry and the pain of a party of adventurers searching for fortune and glory is brought to the forefront. While the game presents them as cogs in an industrial machine, the vast majority of the time is spent with the cogs rather than the machine itself. I see their suffering and empathize in their small moments of struggle more than I consider the greed of their employer.

Likewise, the tools of the Redshirt narrative crafting machine are about watching relationships ebb and flow through the lens of a social media platform. The jovial co-worker, the creeper manager, and the love of one’s life are the characters in this intimate little soap opera that doesn’t mean a hill of beans to anyone else, but that means a lot to me. Yet, the long term goal of the game is one of literal survival, the need to get off of a doomed space station. I’d rather make it through to the end of the day, so I can go where everybody knows my name.

Over a longer stretch of playtime these small narratives would lose their meaning and simply become more detailed versions of the anecdote system of the emergent narrative games. Had I continued playing, the goal enforced narrative would have superseded the more intimate, randomly occurring ones. I don’t care for those narratives, and given the small scale nature of most of what you do while playing, neither do these games. In fact, I do wonder whether this disconnect is further facilitated by the ugly nature of their fixed narratives over the more spiritually satisfying emergent narratives that arise from playing them.