Changeful Tales: An Introduction

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

Stories in games are still largely static. Depending on when and how choices are given to the player, we might visualize routes through a particular narrative game as an unbroken line, a forked path, or a graph of nodes.

But these structures are rigid, unresponsive. Players might occupy discrete positions within them, but they can rarely alter the structures themselves, nor often even move very freely. Compare this to the fluid possibility space of a physics engine, a good set of strategic mechanics, a simulation of a city. Imagine reducing an e-sports star’s frenetic performance to a single decision: left branch or right. Other aspects of games are playable; narrative, by and large, still is not.

Some have excused this by saying games are still a maturing art form, pointing to early film and its slow struggle to invent now-basic concepts like cutting, close-ups, and camera movement. Early books from before conventions evolved for binding, margins, and printing are called incunabula, a term stemming from the Latin word for swaddling clothes. Perhaps, the argument goes, it’s still early days for games.

Early film and game stills: lost Vim Comedy Company film (1916; left) and King’s Quest IV (1988; right), both exhibiting stage-like framing and static camera setups.

But this argument may be growing hoary. Games are entering their fifth or sixth decade, depending on where you start counting, a point by which both films and books had stabilized into forms recognizable to us today.

There are deeper problems than timing. Some — many — have argued that story cannot or should not be mutable: that it is the fixity, the inevitability of good stories which gives them meaning. Others have claimed that the technical challenges in making stories more dynamic won’t be solved any time soon, if ever.

As a programmer and designer, I feel it’s specious to say stories cannot be made more dynamic, because they already have been. True, this work is often not being done in the mainstream: it’s being pushed forward by indies, academics, and hobbyists, found in experimental theater troupes and in the continuing evolution of tabletop roleplaying. But it is happening. And as a writer, I would argue that a meaningfully playable story should not be just a partial book — as one reads when following a path through a branching narrative — but something new and unique. Reading about the math of fluid dynamics and playing with an interactive simulation of it are two different ways of understanding the same phenomenon. In what new ways might we understand people, relationships, and stories if we could devise more playful ways of exploring them?

There are many obstacles to pushing this work forward, among them the murky way we talk and think about stories that can change. We still say “interactive” to distinguish a game story from a static story, as if this word has any remaining meaning in the twenty-first century. New games and new narrative technologies are rarely placed in historical context. We form genres based on UI conventions (like “visual novel” or “text adventure”) rather than the affordances of their narrative systems. We guess at what effect a story choice will have and often have no way of knowing if our guess was right, even after the fact; and with the decline of save games, we may have no easy way to explore another path except starting over from the beginning.

Over the past decade I’ve been working towards a framework — of language, but also technology — for deeply understanding the narrative mechanics used in games, with the goal of evolving a new way of thinking: a changeful aesthetic for playable stories. This work comes from considering many kinds of games alongside each other: old and new, indies and blockbusters, analog and digital, conventional and experimental. It also goes hand in hand with making my own games to explore these ideas (and of course, with the thinking of countless other game scholars and designers).

So what does it mean for a narrative game to be changeful?

Game scholar Noah Wardrip-Fruin (who oversaw my dissertation work) has drawn a distinction between playable works in which the reader mostly chooses between alternatives and those in which the reader can genuinely make creative contributions. He calls the latter sort of thing a “textual instrument,” making an analogy to musical instruments. When one “plays” an instrument, one is limited by its affordances — what its designers have made possible through its structure, shape, and points of control — but one may also be expressive with it, creating something genuinely new and surprising that the instrument’s designer might never have thought of. Instruments may require skill to operate, but they might also include design features to help operators play them more effectively, such as the frets on a guitar. In this light we might call Dwarf Fortress a textual instrument for playing stories about doomed explorers in a wild frontier, or my own 18 Cadence one for performing meaning with pieces of a century.

The practical problem of how to create such instruments for narrative games is one that greatly interests me.

Another of my dissertation advisors, theater historian Michael Chemers, has written about how each performance of a play creates a living work of art, informed by the script but also by the director, the actors, the dramaturg, the technicians, and the mood of the crowd. “A play,” he writes, “is a machine that manufactures meaning.”

Three different productions of the unfinished 1836 play “Woyzeck,” from left to right: in London, 2017 (photo by Manuel Harlan); in Reykjavik, 2005 (photo by Eddi); and in Sydney, 2016 (photo by Jamie Williams).

The twentieth century produced technology with the promise of making literal such machines, but even more importantly birthed the ideas that allowed us to imagine them. Conceptual art, one of the first formal schools of artistic thinking engaging with interactivity, began to grapple in the middle of the century with art that, in the words of philosopher Brian Holmes, “doesn’t produce works, but only virtualities, which can then be actualised, at each time and in each place, as unique performances.” Myron Krueger, an early digital artist, wrote this in 1977:

“For the artist the [interactive] environment augurs new relationships with his audience and his art. . . . The computer acts much as an orchestra conductor controlling the broad relationships while the artist provides the score to which both performer and conductor are bound. . . . But the artist’s responsibilities here become even broader than those of a composer who typically defines a detailed sequence of events. He is composing a sequence of possibilities . . . ”

Sam Barlow’s design work on Her Story was certainly about composing a sequence of possibilities; so too do the designers of Fallen London or Dungeons & Dragons work, in different ways, to conduct you through a space of potential fictions.

There are other ways to think about playful stories. My dissertation (which this blog series will rework and expand on) explored three new and more dynamic structures for story in games, but three is just the beginning. “Changeful tales” is a scaffold for many new ways of thinking about how to make game narratives fundamentally pliant, reflective, meaningful and playful: instruments with which a player can perform genuine collaborations with a designer, and machines for making highly personal meanings.

The remainder of this series will explore how I arrived at this aesthetic and where I think it can take us. In the next post, I’ll discuss the term storygame and why I think it’s a useful framework.