Storytelling and Games

Poetry, Rambles, Theatre

0.

Yesterday I ran a new storytelling game of my design as part of Book Week Scotland’s “CallooCallay” scavenger hunt. It was a game-within-a-game: at my station, teams had to co-operate (and compete!) to tell a fairytale-type story together, which they could then relate to the event judges for points. This is a wee reflection on games and storytelling as a result.

Caveat: I am not a game-design expert. I am more like a very well-read amateur – I’ve been following games (LARP, tabletop and computer) for many years now as an avid reader and player, and occasionally designed them. But that means that I could easily have missed important texts, debates, progressions in the discourse, &c.

1.

My game (download here) was heavily inspired by Victor Gijsbers’s “Stalin’s Story“. Both games take as their root a deck of cards based on Vladimir Propp’s “Morphology of the Folktale”, a seminal work of  structuralist folklorism. It claims that Russian fairytales can be broken down into 31 distinct narrative moments, which (whether inverted or negated or otherwise distorted) are present in all Russian fairytales. The idea of the game is thus that a deck of cards based on these archetypes can generate an infinity of possible fairytale-type stories: the basic structure of events remains the same, but the protagonists change.

So yesterday, a Parisian sewer-rat adventured through Paris to find and eliminate a wicked Damien Hirst; a young girl from a southern trailer-park travelled to Las Vegas to earn her fortune and ended up taking out casino boss and cashing in on the insurance; and a milkman named Joey journeyed through a magical door and encountered a series of dangerous giant insects, all from the same series of cards.

Both Gijsbers’s and my game have two elements: co-operation between players to tell a story, and competition between players for a goal outside of the story. In my game, storytellers are trying to accumulate points, as the person with the most points at the end will win a prize; in his, storytellers are trying to curry the favour of a Stalin-type figure who holds the balance of their life and death. The result, of course, is two very different games.

2.

In “Stalin’s Story”, the telling of a Propp-propped folktale is secondary to the real action. The game actually consists of a series of back-stabbings, realignments, toadyings and vicious manoeuvrings of courtiers in Stalin’s court. That is to say, there are two stories: the story the players are telling, and the story the players are enacting. Having played “Stalin’s Story” a few times, I can reliably say that the story players enact is far, far more satisfying than the story they tell. Because the game puts more at stake in the enacted story, its dynamics consistently interfere with the told story – the competition between authors tears the told story apart. But that competition is thrilling!

In my game, the point-scoring and competition between players is very light indeed, in fact almost arbitrary. Players have a modicum more control than they do in Snakes & Ladders, but only a little. The competitive element – the extra-diegetic narrative – is not satisfying. But the point-scoring and randomness does lead to very satisfying folktales: it makes what happens next feel unexpected, and supports the tellers in relating an interesting and enjoyable story. In other words, the type of narrative which the game produces is the exact inverse of Stalin’s story. In my game, the folktale is the focus; in Gijsbers’s game, the telling of the story is the real story.

There is no doubt which is the better-designed game! “Stalin’s Story” is rich, multi-dimensional, original and scary fun; my game is more of a parlour game, a diversion – a way of generating interesting stories, rather than an interesting way of telling them.

3.

It’s worth explaining why I chose to include a fairly arbitrary point-scoring mechanic. My game had to be suitable for all ages – the people playing it would be a mix of parents, students, teenagers, children, and anyone else who might come along. That meant that the different mechanics had to entertain internally diverse teams.

My expectation, which was confirmed in the playing of it, was that younger children might struggle to maintain their focus if the game were just a series of story-telling cards. They wouldn’t necessarily see “the point” of playing a card to advance the next stage of the story. By attaching a simple point-scoring dynamic, I gave them an extra-diegetic reason for telling the story.

However, if the arbitrary element were too strong, adults might find it annoying. I don’t know any adults who enjoy playing Snakes & Ladders. Adults who aren’t hardcore (or even softcore) gamers were unlikely to be interested in complex dynamics like those of “Stalin’s Story” either. What they were most likely to enjoy was the storytelling itself. “Stalin’s Story” is a game for people who are comfortable with gaming; mine is a game for complete amateurs. Part of my purpose was thus to establish a structure in which adults who felt inhibited in telling stories were freed to be inventive – and this aspect was definitely a success. And, indeed, when playing with teams of only adults, they would often forget to take points or use the “special powers” each card conferred, so wrapped up in the story were they.

I making a few generalisations here. Obviously, some children get bored with arbitrary games quickly, and not all adults enjoy storytelling. But I do think there’s a broad a division which can be made — or, rather, a moment of change in our lives, where subjecting ourselves to chance is no longer satisfying. Could it be that children, whose lives are governed by rules imposed from outside, relish the opportunity to submit themselves to the whims of chance (which can reverse their parents’ fortunes as much as their own), whereas adults, who have been forced to come to terms with the essentially arbitrary nature of existence, enjoy rule-based games which re-establish an understandable and manipulatable order for an hour or two?

4.

I’m a gamer. Dealing with the world is tough. Life’s rule-set is incomprehensibly massive – literally incomprehensibly – and it keeps changing, it’s like Nomic, the players are rewriting the rules all the time and you don’t always know when or why or how. Lots of us gamers – let’s be honest – are pretty socially awkward. I ran this game in Edinburgh GamesHub, a new business providing a café, space and games to groups of players, and it’s clear that it’s being used as a refuge by people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable elsewhere. (Aside: many cafés have this function, the Forest not the least among them, it’s just that what the social group is and why it might feel uncomfortable changes from café to café.) I love games for the stories, for the intellectual richness of good game dynamics, for their metaphoric weight, but I also love spending a few hours in a world where I can just about grasp the rules and where, if I fail, I can at least understand why.

The chief interest of my game, though, was as a way to generate interesting stories. And so I might be pushing the chaos/order analysis too far, because, as I’ve said, part of the purpose of the game was to release creativity, to disinhibit performance. The game dynamics provided a safe, simple structure which supported good storytelling. And there is definite resistance in all games to too much order or too much chaos. Think, for example, of the child who perceives the violation of justice in even the most arbitrary game and shouts “That’s not fair!” Or the Game-Master who puts down a rulebook-consulting pedant of a player with “Stop spoiling the fun.”

5.

I don’t think my game was as well-designed as Gijsbers’s, although they were working to different functions. The dynamics were not well-balanced, and it required GM-intervention a few times to prevent it breaking. But I would like to refine it. I’d like to design a fairytale storytelling game which:

  • is simple and accessible
  • supports creative storytelling in most players
  • has a satisfying point-scoring dynamic to hold interest
  • and allows for many inversions and diversions from the classic plot

The closest I know of is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. It’s a brilliant game, with clever dynamics, and it generated excellent stories — the balance between the story told and the story enacted is struck very well. It is, however, a game for people who feel comfortable performing: it won’t release the storyteller in a recluse. No game can be for everyone, but I’d like to get as close as I can.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling and Games

  1. This text seems to do a few things. It’s a nice review of Stalin’s Story and the relation between your game and it (your game would be a text in its own right, and it’s one I haven’t read, so). I think the most interesting part of your essay, which I’d like to see developed further, is talk about the motivations people have towards gaming, and your attempts to set different games in their social contexts. I might have a think and post something on the topic at some stage.

  2. Harry, thanks for this piece. As far as I know, you’re the only person who has actually played Stalin’s Story (I myself believed that it was fundamentally unfinished), and I would be very interested in hearing about your experiences! So you have my e-mail?

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