In my class, I constantly compare game design to screenplay writing. There is the story at the core of everything and there is the spine of it all, the plot. Where you take this into game creation the spine is the gameplay. In essence, the game is what you do, as opposed to what you watch, read or witness.

So this is a fairly simple comparison because of the common core, where the game takes the audience one step further into the plot, allowing members of the audience not just to identify with the protagonists, but rather be the protagonists.

Thus far, simply put, is the basic reasoning behind my insistence on teaching the principles of story: plot structure, the types of narratives, the fabula and the sujet, dialogue and subtext. But what if I am wrong? Important as it is to learn storytelling, and bearing in mind that many game producers such as me regard themselves as “storytellers”, maybe it is not the right way to look into game creation?

When you start talking about games from the narratology approach, you get your listeners to jump out, saying “yeah? So what’s the underlying story in Tetris?”. This is a valid argument, but we philosophize about the boundaries of game: do not look for the narrative dictated by the game designer. The story of the game is created by the player, each time they play the game. Tetris is easy to explain as a personal player story and it is a different one every time. The real problem of defining the player story, is where the game is rich in narrative and invites the player to step into the creator’s world. Does it mean that the player’s experience has nothing to do with creating the story? Does it mean that all relevant elements are already there, before a single player acts?

Now there’s a possibility for another approach, taking Game for what it is and not forcing Story into it. For what is a game? It is an activity confined by the boundaries of the rules accepted by the players. We can agree to bang our heads together against walls to let the first one who cracks his scull to win the cash prize gathered from participation fees (Yes, I know the rules should not be as simple as that: the game needs at least an umpire who will decide what qualifies as a cracked scull, can I move on please?)

So a game is a system with governing rules that may or may not have a story in it. Gameplay in the domain of Game is not the equivalent of plot in the domain of Story. They may be similar at times, but are different entities with different extensions, which sometimes overlap.

I am undecided about this. Story is very important for me as I am extremely fond of story based games (even though I spend most of my waking hours playing casual games, such as Zuma or Bejeweled). Story theory is a very important part of the critical thinking I advocate and it allows me to better conceptualize even the simplest gameplays and games’ artwork. Letting Story go will be a loss in this respect, but maybe this is the best way to have a pure theory of Game?

Posted by Samuel Miller