Sunday, 2 March 2014

Escaping the Heliosheath: Story Vs Game

I have been following a debate that is raging within video game circles currently that is interesting because it does not have an analog in tabletop games. Specifically: Game Vs Story.
Greg Costikyan wrote about the competitive tensions between Game and Story. This is a must read for anyone interested in game design. During his time at West End Games Greg wrote the Star Wars RPG and co-authored Paranoia. Both of these games are significant waypoints in the history/ evolution of tabletop RPG design. His argument is that (video) games are not inherently a story telling medium. He posits that Story and Game are repellent objectives so that the more of one, the less of the other. Any attempt to reconcile this results in discordance in the play experience and a poor design. He writes that "story is the antithesis of game".
My first reaction to this is to reject his thesis because it denies the core goals of my design brain that wants to reconcile the Art Brain and the Play Brain. I don't want it to be so. But I think he makes a compelling point and the fact that I have no counter argument instructs me that he illuminates a key tension in game design. I have fielded a question raised by Greg's article to a games theorist who I greatly respect and hope to publish his reply soon.
A reply to the Game Vs Story issue can be found here stating that games are about participating in a story, not producing a story. It also points to story being irrespective of quality or scope, meaning that the shell story of Mario rescuing the Lady from Donkey Kong is as much a story as the tale of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. They are both Stories and they are both Games. This is a neat reply and it chips away at the inconvenient and jarring points that Greg makes but it doesn't address the core tension.
What does all of this mean for tabletop RPGs? Is it a thing to think about when designing or writing for RPGs? Is it just an identity crisis for video games, growing pains that will be surpassed as they shift from being a discrete activity to an incorporated experience in day to day life? One of the frequent comments about my recent game Acceptance: A Game about Winning, Losing and why it Matters is to question whether it is actually a game or a group story sharing activity. It is basically all story and no game. Of course, my plan is to build game elements into it as I iterate but the point is valid. 
I feel that Story Vs Game is a compelling tension in Game design. It is as important for tabletop games because otherwise the responsibility for dealing with it is shifted to the GM. Maybe that is for the best? I plan to write more about this in the future.