Saturday, December 11, 2010

Story as evolutionary success or failure lessons

Idle thoughts for a rainy December evening.

Viral player stories.  When you create games with deep systems, player run into amazing, emergent scenarios on a regular basis.  From these moments of player experience grow myths and legends.  Players tell them.  Press repeats them. Your game goes viral without requiring any of the whirring, queasy machinations of your local social network dealer.

Why does this occur?  It happens without prompting.  It requires no points, no bribes.  It is as if, after the right experience, the urge to tell stories bubbles up innately from inside even the least imaginative human.

A story, at an evolutionary level, is a lesson in success or failure intended to improve the survival rate of the tribe.  This is why we create them.  This is why we share them.  This is why we consume them.  Like play, story (even fiction) serves a function. Good stories were at one point a matter of life, death and reproduction. Humans have a nose for truths and when we spot them amidst the maelstrom of daily experience, we instinctively share them.

When we, as game designers, create meaningful systems whose depths are only revealed after a process of deep mastery, players instinctively extract stories from their experiences within these playscapes and pass them on to their friends and family. "When I kicked the soccer ball, my foot slide on the wet grass and I heard a distant sickening crunch in my knee." To experience a unique lesson that you've learned in your bones after a thousand trials is to hold a treasure.  And being human, we can't help but share. Over and over and over again.

A critical realization for a game designer is that meaningful success and failure, the basis of stories, can only exist in the context of the systems and value structures we design.  A gripping tale of trust crushed in a game such as Eve exists because a designer made a very explicit set of rules that defined the concept of economic value and politics and trust.  Remove the value structures inherent in the design and the stories go away.

One sign of a great game is therefore not the story that the designer tells, but instead one that contains mechanics robust enough to yield player experiences rife with lessons that must be shared. As an exercise, look at the mechanic (apples, trees, 9.8m/s^2) and the story of gravity (Apple falls on Newton's head) as two distinctly separate elements. The designer's role is not to tell the story of Newton and the apple. Players will perform that service just fine.  Instead, our unique role in the process is to define and polish the system of gravity.

Don't build games in order to tell a single story. Build meaningful systems that create an explosion of culture, spread by the players who are absolutely thrilled to share what they've learned.

take care,

Nethack, Populous, Lemmings, Sims, SimCity, Minecraft, Spelunky, Fantastic Contraption, Dwarf Fortress, Team Fortress, Ultima Online, Civilization and some I've forgotten.  Any others that you feel compelled to share?


  1. Total War. To this day I remember the brilliantly talented general who was in command of my English armies in France (playing Medieval, in this case) who, after routing the French armies found that the Spanish had formed an alliance with them against him. A huge Spanish army surged out of the Pyrenees, trapping him and his army near Bordeaux. A battle ensued in which my brave Englishmen were massively outnumbered, but they had the advantage of a defensive position on a hill. The first two Spanish attacks were beaten with heavy losses on both sides, and as the Spaniards regrouped for a third assault (in which my beleaguered and exhausted troops would be surely overcome) my general ordered the slaughter of all the prisoners that had been taken. Seeing this terrible and merciless massacre, the morale of the surviving Spaniards was crushed, and they fled the battlefield. The propaganda told of a glorious victory (not dissimilar to the real-world Agincourt) but my general was ever after a haunted man, fearing to sleep as his dreams were filled with blood. He took to drink and eventually took his own life.

    It's all pure fiction, but it's a wonderful story of exactly the kind that happened "in real life" - the latter of which is of course not a requirement of "deep games generating stories", but the power of the unfolding events is one that has stuck with me ever since. None of it was predetermined, it all emerged out of the "rules" of the game, but it demonstrates clearly the narrative power of (supposedly non-narrative) games.

  2. Very interesting post. I guess a game like Minecraft has exactly what your writing about as experiences are virally shared (from users and press) on a regularly basis and the sells aren't bad for it either ;)

  3. Oh, sorry, I didn't see the Minecraft reference until I took a second glance :S

  4. Dune 2 and those that followed it?

    I kept thinking Nethack as I was reading. Still play it for that reason (and others).

  5. One thing that's interesting is how this approach plays out with Tabletop RPG design- both in terms of mechanics and in terms of world-building. I usually start by conceiving a number of "sample" stories, and reverse-engineering mechanics that could support all of them effectively.

    Actually, on reflection, one of my biggest runaway successes came from altering the logic of the core resolution mechanic to match this principle. Rather than describing your intent and then combining the story factors with die rolls to determine the outcome, the die rolls determine *both* the overall outcome *and* the story factors that contributed. The palyer then takes these cues and describes their character's actual actions.

  6. I have been shilling for this kind of design as well, Danc. I believe that great games are frameworks that generate stories, not stories that force you into some arbitrary skill test at random points before revealing more of its static content. Stories arise naturally from players manipulating interesting and sufficiently complex game mechanics. Those stories are frequently more powerful than the subpar static stories written into games.

  7. I have that feeling ("I've got to tell people about this!") almost every time I play an indie tabletop RPG: Geiger Counter, In a Wicked Age, Apocalypse World, and Lady Blackbird to name a few.

    In video and computer games, almost never. Scribblenauts is a good exception, though the story is usually of the form: "Did you know Scribblenauts has [something crazy] in it?" where [something crazy] is God, Cthulhu, time machines, etc.

    I also like to tell the story of a game I was working on, where I was trying to abstract the "mission generation" of rpg's - any NPC could pay you for a mission, you could pay any NPC to do a mission, NPC's would pay each other to do missions. And missions could be any kind of interaction the game supported - killing, kidnapping, mating, item recovery and more. Imagine my excitement when an NPC offered money to another NPC to mate with them; the game had inadvertently invented prostitution! But, on the sad side, that happened once in a blue moon, and the other sorts of stories I hoped the game would produce (revenge and various sorts of family drama) almost never happened either, and I eventually buried the project...

  8. I don't know. I think that you can get compelling stories out of simple systems as well. Look at Minecraft. Poor physics, crumby graphics, jam-packed full of bugs, but strangely accessible. The system has just enough complexity and polish for people to feel empowered and creative.

    Somewhat random video

  9. Taking it to the next level (that's what we're trained to do now, right?), I think there's also a place in sort of "camp gaming," of playing a video game that has systems geared for the opposite of what Danc is talking about, but eschewing its ostensible goals (saving the princess, killing the enemy) for more obscure (ideally, more fun) goals.

    My brother would play games with cheat codes all the time when he was younger, and at a certain point you stop seeing it as cheating and start seeing it as amateur game design. You make up your own game on top of the existing game to create experiences the designers never intended you to have, turning a mediocre FPS into an open-ended adventure game.

    ...and then what if we as game designers started making games in the hope that the audience would do exactly that?

  10. "A story, at an evolutionary level, is a lesson in success or failure intended to improve the survival rate of the tribe. This is why we create them. This is why we share them."

    Forgive my picking at a trivial thread here, but at an evolutionary level there is no such thing as a story, since stories are a part of culture and from the long view of natural selection there is only genetics and the environment. At best, a story is an invisible fragment of the environment at the evolutionary level.

    And when you say 'intended to improve the survival rate of the tribe' - intended by whom? This is not why the members of the tribe tell stories - they tell stories for very different reasons - and there's no way that "evolution" can *intend* anything at all unless you intend to fancifully embody it, as the Greeks did with their deities.

    We don't create stories to improve the survival chances of our tribe, and we certainly don't share them for this reason. This is one of those misleading teleological games, I'm afraid.

    That we create and share stories is certainly facilitated by our genetic and environmental heritage. But this is a long way from saying this is *why* we create and share stories...

    Nitpickingly yours,

    Chris. :)

  11. Appreciate the nitpicking, Chris.

    You are correct to call out the improper use of the word 'intented'. A common enough trap when telling evolutionary just-so stories. ;-)

    I do believe that there is a biological impulse driving our story telling, much like there is a biological impulse driving our urge to mate. This urge, in order to it to be preserved as a functional element of our anatomy, was likely selected for with increased survival rates in populations exhibiting the trait through human evolution. There are a large variety of utilitarian benefits to story that might result in increase survival, so I would look there for the functional drivers of why we tell stories. That there are also non-functional drivers is fine and perhaps the topic of another conversation.

    Now admittedly, the reality is complex and this is very much a reductionist manner of looking at culture and story. It helps me live with the world. ;-)

    take care,

  12. Boy it's getting deep in here. Better put on the hip waders. (Merry Christmas Danc and Aya! Miss you guys tons! (Bought both your Kindle games for my mother-in-law's Kindle... buwahahaha!)


    PS> I really liked Keith's comment. Sometimes the game isn't the point.

  13. "A story, at an evolutionary level, is a lesson in success or failure intended to improve the survival rate of the tribe. This is why we create them. This is why we share them."

    If you want to speak evolutionarily, more likely, stories are simply the process humans use to model complex realities.

    Life and events are rarely linear, nor easily understood in regards to cause and effect. We model stories about our day, in order to better understand them. Failures and successes are indeed often a reason for this - fairy tales began as lessons for aristocratic women.

    However, that is far from the only reason to tell stories. Often "plot" or the "lesson" is the most straightforward and surface level reading of a story. Understanding people, motivations, emotions, or being able to digest abstract ideas are more often than not the deeper meaning for stories. Those are the most difficult and complex thoughts, and so gain the most by being modeled into stories.

    The problem I have with your last two posts is that I agree with their ideas. However, I cannot agree with your dismissal of narrative games. Why you have to be so dismissive of another aspect of games is as silly as saying all movies should be documentaries, or non linear examinations. Or that all prose should be poetry.

    Whether or not you feel that this sort of storytelling is relevant or stronger to you, you seem to discount that popular opinion, and even evidence is against what you say. Narratives and campaigns are only becoming stronger, and people more and more want to play games with compelling stories.

    Multiplayer stories about your latest frag, or the latest cool stunt in Just Cause 2, or how funny the Red Dead Redemption man cougar video was, is all well and good. But don't mistaken the viral spread of player experiences as some sort of replacement for storytelling.

    I play TF2 almost every day. I share stories all the time. I like reading about hilarious things that happen. Its social, and its fun. However, off the top of my head, I can't recall any of them. However, I can feel, on a deeply personal level, exactly what went through my mind when I played the first few moments of Limbo. I can also express the sorrow I felt when Trip found her village in Enslaved.

    Danc, you are a gift to the internet, and the effort and work you put into your posts and the wisdom you share is welcome. Perhaps "traditional" storytelling isn't your forte. However, not every designer thinks like you, and not every play plays like you.

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  15. Danc's all about open-ended creativity. His dismissal of the narrative story-based game, I believe, comes from an inbred fear of being preached to... :)


  16. @Raymond
    It all stems from one key moment when I was quite young. I was playing a Japanese RPG and absolutely trouncing a boss. And then they automatically knocked out my party and declared that the boss had won.

    From there on out, any time the designer took control of the system to make a plot point, I took notice. It evokes the same feeling you get when you are playing an important game and someone begins to cheat in an obvious and egregious fashion. It made me ask the question "There is something broken about how games are designed; how can we fix it?"

    Funny how small experiences as a child are turn into an entire career of looking for alternatives. :-)

    More generally...
    I'm not sure if anyone has played Bunni or Steambirds, but there is quite a lot of plot and setting in those games. They form a tale by creating an evocative emotional landscape. The next version of Triple Town will have even more of a emotional and thematic thrust. However, I'm using a different process than the designer god arbitrarily screwing around with the player using simple scripts. The mechanics create the emotional palette and the various bits of evocative feedback multiply and accent the results. Steambirds Survival (for all its short comings) is a depressing, heroic game. When was the last time you played such a thing?

    So...anyone who reads my essays as some simple 'games vs story' isn't reading deeply enough. There is a systematic understanding being built that enables someone to make emotional and meaningful games without falling back on Hollywood tropes. :-)

    In the end I don't ask you accept what I say. I ask that you think about it. Point out flaws in an intelligent fashion and if you can, create better tools and models.

    All the best,