What I mean by “storygame”

Changeful Tales

“Changeful Tales” is a blog series where I rework my dissertation into more bite-sized, readable, and visible ideas.

A changeful tale is a dream of a particular aesthetic for interactive stories: one where with each traversal — each unique pathway through the work — the player can exhibit enough agency to craft something that feels meaningfully their own.

To discuss this dream, we need a term for the space in which that aesthetic might be found. Games is too broad. Interactive is a vague and not particularly useful word; interactive fiction means a specific thing to some people and is unhelpfully broad to others. My preferred term these days for works that might allow narrative changefulness is storygames.

The first use of this term (that I know of, at least!) was in one of the earliest academic works about textual computer games, a 1985 dissertation by Mary Ann Buckles called “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame ‘Adventure.’” Highly influential on later generations of games scholars, Buckles’ work discusses the classic Crowther/Woods game as a “new form of ‘literature’ in which the reader, for the first time, takes part in writing the story as (s)he reads it.” While acknowledging other terms like interactive fiction, Buckles prefers storygame — “my own term” — in part because it also includes interactive stories told without words. She places Adventure and its kin within a long tradition of playful texts that embed stories in games or games in stories, from detective fiction to riddles to word games to make-believe.

From Buckles’ dissertation.

The term has since been used in various ways and contexts. Janet Murray, whose 1997 Hamlet on the Holodeck is another foundational work of narrative game studies, writes about the awkwardness of storygame (and its evil twin gamestory) as words indicative of evolving technology for which unique vocabulary has not yet emerged, as in the early use of photoplay to refer to films. In Holodeck she “reluctantly” offered the term cyberdrama, itself an awkward portmanteau (and dated in the decades since as the cyber- prefix has waned in popularity).

Outside of academia, the term has been used inconsistently. Game historian Jimmy Maher once proposed using storygame to refer specifically to games which feature both a simulated world and a guarantee of generating a compelling story, but later decided he preferred the term ludic narrative. Other communities have used storygame to mean tabletop roleplaying games that put more of a stress on narrative than mechanics (these are also sometimes called Narrativist games or storytelling games); to refer to specific styles of narrative game; and often just as a catch-all term for any game with narrative content.

While storygame is certainly overloaded, it has the virtue of being short, catchy, and immediately understandable in broad strokes. Using it without a hyphen suggests a close entanglement between its two halves, which is also a key point in my own understanding of the term. When I say storygame, what I mean is:

  • a playable system, with
  • units of narrative, where
  • the understanding of both system and narrative, and the relationship between them, enables a traversal through the work.

Consider, for instance, Adventure. It’s clearly a playable system: the user inputs commands, like GO NORTH, GET BOTTLE, and WATER PLANT, which change the state of an underlying simulation (which among other things awards points for retrieving treasures and tracks the number of turns remaining before a light source expires). Adventure also clearly contains elements of narrative: the discovery and exploration of a magical underground cavern, dragons, angry dwarves and so on.

Adventure, running on a PDP-11/34 (photo courtesy User:Autopilot / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

What makes Adventure a storygame is the way the game and story enable each other to continue moving forward. As you play you encounter many fragments of stories, such as a thirsty plant literally begging for water. Only through understanding this as a story can you make effective plans to continue it: perhaps the plant would like to be watered. A classic trap for interactive fiction authors is making puzzles that rely on cultural or age-specific references: as a nine-year-old playing Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance, I had no idea that to cure a hangover you should swallow a buffered analgesic. These terms did not signify to me (and the latter may still not to many Americans) and I was therefore stuck in the opening room of the game for weeks, because I didn’t understand the narrative context.

In turn, it is only through understanding the playable systems of Adventure that one can execute any narrative plan. To water the plant, one must understand that water exists at several locations in the game; that none of these are near the plant; that navigating via compass directions allows one to move in discrete steps to new locations; that certain objects are portable but water is not; that there is an object called a bottle in the simulated world which can contain liquids; that this provides a means to transport water; and that you probably left the bottle somewhere and need to find a way to get back there. So: if you can’t comprehend the narrative fragment about the thirsty plant, you are unlikely to have a satisfying traversal of Adventure; and nor will you do so if you can’t come to understand and manipulate its simulation of containers holding liquid. In a storygame, neither of these are optional: both are necessary.

The lost art of the text adventure map stemmed in part from a need to understand story and system elements together. Image from the blog of Stan James.

Compare this to a game like the original Super Mario Bros., which presents story content in the form of recognizable items such as mushrooms, turtles, castles, and princesses, as well as occasional in-game messages like THANK YOU MARIO! BUT OUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE! While this narrative content might contextualize, motivate, or comment on the gameplay, actually understanding it is not required for a satisfying traversal. This is in part because Mario’s small range of possible inputs and simulated entities (and reusing those elements consistently across the game) means a player can quickly discover the ludic consequences of all possible interactions, and even without narrative assistance figure out what’s required to advance. Even a player who’d never seen a mushroom could appreciate how colliding with one increases Mario’s power; and though a goomba was not a recognizable object before the game’s release, through observing its effects when collided with in various ways players could intuit its ludic role: an enemy to be defeated. A version of Mario with all graphical elements replaced by random images might be more initially disorienting, but still perfectly playable after a few minutes of experimentation.

This is not to say that all parser games are storygames, nor that platformers cannot be. But certain design decisions can increase or decrease the interdependence of stories and systems, and expressive input (about which more soon) is one way to increase it.

So this tight dependence is what defines a storygame for me, the loam from which changeful tales might grow. Within this structure we can discuss playable experiences as varied as Myst, Dungeons & Dragons, Coffee: A Misunderstanding, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Firewatch, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, Long Live the Queen, Bad News, and Limbo. Similarly, it suggests that other kinds of things are more helpfully understood through other frameworks, including

  • novels
  • pure strategy games like Threes
  • games like SpaceChem where the story doesn’t affect the gameplay
  • hypertexts or Twines without choices, or games like Dear Esther, where gameplay decisions have no impact on story
  • interactive works that don’t require understanding of a narrative (such as some digital poetry or postmodernist e-lit works)

All these other kinds of works are certainly interesting, but are best understood through different paradigms.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the different ways players can interact with storygames, and what that means for their potential as changeful systems.