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Storytelling, 8.28.09

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An underutilized concept in board games is telling a story.  Sure, in a sense, many games tell a story.  But not in the same sense of a movie or a book.  Movies, books, even video games, can portray stories of astonishing depth and complexity leaving the viewer with a sense of loss, wonder or even a need for introspection.

It is a problem with the medium itself.  A board game is a competition where specific rules must be followed in order to play.  A game may be dripping with theme, but necessarily more attention is given to the play of the game by its players.  While not every game needs to have emotional impact, it could take a good game and make it a great game.  More significantly, a game often needs to have a winner (and a clear ending).  Other mediums can leave story elements unresolved intentionally to provoke emotion.  What if we were to sneak storytelling into the play itself?  Here are a few specific examples of what I mean…

-Moral Ambiguity.  Take a post-apocalyptic game where every player is a survivor in a small encampment.  There are other ‘NPC’ characters that offer abilities, VP if they survive, etc. represented by cards, as well.  Over the course of the game, food and other supplies would be divvied out to NPC and player alike (with supplies given to NPCs simply ‘returned to the bank’).  If any loses too much health (or doesn’t eat enough), they die.  Basic enough premise, yes?  Curveball:  some of the characters are worth a fair # of VP but have less ability in terms of special skill or are fairly frail (a child, elderly person, etc.).  What kind of choices would players make as to who to save or give supplies to?  Purely from a rules system perspective, some options will be better than others;  keep the special skilled characters alive and so forth.  What about from a gameplay perspective?  In a situation like this, a child is a liability; they frighten easily, are very dependant upon others, the list goes on.  But it’s a child.  It’s human instinct to protect them.  This kind of trick should not be mistaken for sensationalist design (although it could indeed be used that way).  The point of this approach is to make people make difficult decisions and deal with the consequences.  What would you do in a similar situation?

-Episodic Content.  Have the game itself tell a story over several titles.  Each game could play as a stand-alone game (or be an add-on) of the original title, with each subsequent release bringing the story proper closer to the final curtain.  This approach would also allow for ‘campaign’ play, with the results of playing a previous title affecting starting conditions of the next installment in addition to stand-alone play.  The trick would be to incorporate the story into the mechanics of the game to make each one feel satisfying to play on its own, but leave the players wanting the rest of the story.

This the ending, the ending of the po-ost.  The ending.

Keep on designing, yo!

Phil

Special thanks to Mike Purcell and Chris Rock for their insights regarding this particular article.

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Written by krinklechip

August 28, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Concepts, Game Design

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