Narramblings #6: Careful, (anti)fragile!

How bite-sized stories create powerful narratives

Wojtek Borowicz
6 min readMay 7, 2024


Sometimes you come across an idea that wedges itself so deep in your head, you can’t stop thinking about it. Couple of months ago, I was attending Susan O’Connor’s class at The Narrative Department. When she brought up the concept of antifragile storytelling to a Zoom call full of game writers, you could almost see the bulbs lighting up above everyone’s heads. For the rest of the class, it was all we wanted to talk about. Then in the next class. And the one after. Clearly, it’s still all I want to talk about.

Spoilers ahead! For: Papers, Please and A Highland Song

This is the opposite of what I want to talk about but nobody makes ‘antifragile’ stickers.

The idea comes from a book called Antifragile that sparked a lot of business-y philosophising by MBA types with strong LinkedIn presence. Snark aside, it boils down to this. Fragile things respond to unpredictability and disorder by breaking apart. Robust things don’t respond at all — unpredictability bounces right off them. And antifragile things benefit from it. You can probably already see how it translates to storytelling. Cinematic, linear narratives in Metal Gear Solid or Uncharted are fragile. They don’t leave space for disorder. You go from A to B with minimal variance and enjoy the story. Hitman games, on the other hand, are robust. There is a thousand ways you can approach each mission but the narrative doesn’t respond to playing a silent assassin any different than to going in guns blazing. It’s similar for many non-RPG open world games — think later installments of God of War and Tomb Raider. There’s a lot to do and many ways to do it, but all based in gameplay and not in the story.

When we discussed antifragility in class, Baldur’s Gate 3 came up immediately. You will not find anarrative more antifragile than that. But I’m more interested in how you can spin a story that responds well to chaos at a smaller scale. Because as incredible as Baldur’s Gate is, it’s also one of the biggest productions in the history of the industry. Most narrative designers will never work on a project of this scope.

So, let’s turn to a bite-sized classic: Papers, Please.

Glory to Arstotzka!

In the game you work as an immigration officer for the authoritarian regime of Arstotzka. Each level is a new day at the passport control booth. You process documents for the neverending queue of travellers and decide whether to grant them entry into the country. On the surface, the cases are binary. The person arriving into Arstotzka either has valid documents or they don’t. But underneath every clear-cut, bureaucratic choice is a whole other one. People trying to get past border control have their own stories, motivations, and political allegiances. It’s a game of weighing conflicting interests. Are you willing to risk your job (and the security of Arstotzkan border) to help a poor immigrant? Will you detain more people than necessary if the bonus lets you buy medicine for your sick son? Will you support an organisation trying to violently overthrow the regime?

Rather than making you the main character of a large, central plot, Papers, Please puts you at the periphery of several smaller stories. You can divert them in various directions and then face the consequences in the form of 20 possible endings. It’s not the number of outcomes that makes the story antifragile, though. It’s that all of them are considered actual endings, even the ones most games would treat as simple fail states. Whether you run out of money and get arrested for delinquency or change the course of history by helping stage a coup, the game concludes. It’s a wonderful touch of narrative design that validates each choice you made as a step towards creating a complete story. And if that means you go to jail and your family has to live in squalor… Papers, Please makes you own that. As a player, you’re in command of the story.

Another game that nails antifragile storytelling without exploding in scope is A Highland Song. The premise is simple. Teenage Moira gets a letter from her uncle Hamish and sets out on a journey across the Scottish highlands to find him and his lighthouse. If one had to assign A Highland Song to a genre, it would be a 2D platformer, but that doesn’t give it justice. First and foremost, it’s an exploration game. It’s also a love letter to folk stories and to the actual highlands.

Wherever you find yourself in A Highland Song, it feels like there are multiple paths to take. You can try to methodically map out the optimal way forward or just go wherever Moira’s feet take you. You might get lost, but you’re never stuck because there’s always somewhere to go. As one reviewer on Steam put it: Getting lost in this wilderness is part of the fun of the game and the ending is just a cherry on top.

The game’s brilliant level design is an expression of its antifragile storytelling. In the words of uncle H himself: These hills are awash with stories. Some forgotten, some true. Some beautiful and some cruel. Each peak and valley you cross on your journey has something to tell you, either through Moira’s memories or objects and strangers you stumble upon. While superficially A Highland Song is about going from A to B, the actual narrative is the messy inbetween that you’re free to explore however you see fit.

The thread connecting Papers, Please and A Highland Song is modularity. In the standard approach to storytelling, the plot is a single unit. It can be divided into chapters or acts, but they are all integral to the whole. If you want to allow choice and disorder in a story structured this way, you can’t just rejig the pieces. There is another whole plot you need to write. That’s why majority of games choose either fragile (they won’t let you change anything) or robust (they will let you do a lot but it won’t affect the plot) storytelling. These methods fit linear stories perfectly.

Modular structure, in turn, enables antifragile storytelling. In Papers, Please each day in the passport booth has its own small story, that in turn consists of even smaller stories of the individual travellers coming into Arstotzka. In A Highland Song, the modules are the locations Moira visits on her way, criss-crossed with paths, shortcuts, and secrets. At first glance this might not sound all that different from how levels work in all video games. There is a difference, though. In fragile and robust storytelling, levels are another word for chapters. They fit together but only in a specific structure. They can’t exist on their own and they don’t respond to the player’s choices. Modularity does away with this rigidity. In both Papers, Please and A Highland Song your actions in one narrative module can ripple through the background of the larger plot and affect the others but primarily, they are self-contained little stories. They turn the narrative into a playground, encouraging chaos but not threatening the whole.

Modularity isn’t the only way to make a story antifragile. Baldur’s Gate and Pentiment deal with choice and chaos exceptionally well despite using a three-act structure. But it allows for constructing an antifragile narrative on a smaller scale. Mapping out consequences of every player action across a 100-hour campaign is spectacular but few writers will ever have the resources to do that. Dealing with unpredictability in small modules can create results that are just as satisfying but infinitely less time consuming to achieve.

Thanks to Susan O’Connor and The Narrative Department community for wonderful discussions about antifragility.

If you liked this post, read my other Narramblings.