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Are we Game Designers or Game Definers?
by Jennifer Canada on 03/27/13 05:38:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This past week, one of the most striking posts I read online concerned an interesting fact noticed by the poster:  aspiring authors often appear more interested in creating the history, culture, and character backstories of a narrative’s setting than telling affective and moving stories within that world.

“It’s like people really want to write a wiki, and have to come up with the pesky “moving, powerful, imaginative literature” stuff out of obligation.”
        original here by Sean T. Collins via Vorpalizer

I will confess that I may have starting reading his post because it frames its argument using as a contrast The NeverEnding Story, one of my most cherished and formative childhood movies.  He argues that the opposite approach, a world such as NES’s Fantasia, brimming with crazy, beautiful, terrible, astonishing, and above all—disparate—elements seems more real and more moving to its audience because any real world contains both huge variety and a lack of connection and cohesion by the very fact of its size. And as every element of Fantasia showcased within the movie exists for a narrative purpose, not simply to fill out a history, so is every scene and character moving and memorable. (Luck Dragons, anyone?) This is a movie that started with a story to tell, not as a ‘wiki’ to compile, file, and organize the facts of a world.

So, why am I, a game designer, so interested in this article? … I would argue this ‘wiki first’ approach also runs rampant in the world of game design and not to our benefit as an industry. Like novels that put classification and backstory first, games that focus on an organized and justified world ironically feel less real even though likely more time has gone into finding that ‘real’ feeling.

Since I don’t want to throw stones at games where I don’t have first-hand knowledge of how they were developed, I’ll just say, I’m sure we can all think of some tremendously detailed game worlds that felt like they were missing a soul. By contrast, games that have gone in the opposite direction have brought us living and emotional experiences likeBraidFezLimbo, and last year’s episodic The Walking Dead.

Anyone who’s worked with me or been in one of my classes knows I would never advocate that time spent on backstory is a waste. Indeed, all of the above games contain references to and are infused by backstory, and in the case of Braid, the entire game is based around working through a problematic past, versus Limbo which leaves the player to puzzle out what the present implies about the past. However, where these games stand out, at least to me, is that the backstory serves the narrative and emotional needs of the gameplay first and foremost. The classification and set up of the game’s world was never an end of itself. Nor can I imagine any of those designers was most excited by the prospect of enumerating facts about the world in a list.

As game designers, anytime we lose site of the experience as the main goal, our work and our games suffer for it. Fundamentally, we aren’t purveyors of bulleted lists and definitions, spreadsheets and algorithms. I think because a game idea often starts in that medium, it can be easy to lose sight of that. I will finish up with a slightly reworked quote from the original article:

“I submit that the drive to classify everything, to treat [a game world] of whatever stripe as a code to be cracked rather than a [game] to be [played] and [experienced] and [felt], is, like the great black wolf-thing Gmork, a servant of the power behind the Nothing. It leaves you with a single grain of sand. Imagine that grain in your hand. The imaginations we need to rebuild Fantasia are wild and unafraid. We need Love, not Law. “The more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”

Also, confessions  …yes, I did dress as the Childlike Empress for Halloween 1989 …and I almost bought a necklace at Kohl’s two months ago because it looked the Auryn  …and yes, I did like The NeverEnding Story 2, but not 3. I’m not crazy.

Now let’s all enjoy the song together—and try to ignore the mullet…


P.S. What games do you think may have originated ‘wiki first’? And what games do you think likely originated ‘story first’? Any thoughts on which way is better?

(You can also see this post on my blog here:

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James Morgan
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Great article, thanks for sharing it. I feel like every MMO ever made has suffered from this wiki story based approach. I can't imagine what type of game could be created without out it. Do you think that, in the case of mmo's, a background story gives the player a sense of scope? Big bad guys vrs the big good guys in a big giant world that the player can explore. Part of MMO's is simply exploring the world. If World of Warcraft had been made as a 'story first' game I wonder if it would have had the same impact.

Maybe the development of the story should be based on the mechanics of the game. What is the goal for the player? If you want them to explore the world don't sell them a personal love story. If you want to give focus to that exploration maybe that love story isent such a bad idea.

Hope I didn't ramble on to much and made some semblance of sense. Enjoyed the article. Gives me a lot to think about for my games story.

Steven Christian
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You can explore the world and have a love story.
What if the adventurer rescues a damsel in distress and something develops from there;
or maybe it's a fellow adventurer that he meets and develops something whilst questing..

I should know, I met my wife-to-be on WoW ;)

Jennifer Canada
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Thanks, James! And you make a great point about MMOs. They are definitely a special case when it comes to story creation. I think it's spot on to say that stories in games need to relate to the mechanics and gameplay in the world in order to propel the player's actions.

If I was trying to apply this specifically to MMOs, hmm... I feel like most MMOs (and this is all conjecture, btw) originate by trying to create a scenario for an overarching conflict and then a general reason for each side to care about the conflict. Then, the races and main NPCs, main quests, and locations are spun off as justifications for/ tie-ins to that conflict. And it's not like that doesn't work at all; there does need to be a conflict. However, I do think MMOs with just 'conflict' as a theme, have trouble capturing player's emotional investment in the story content. It gives an encounter flavor to have some kind of story behind it, but is the player emotionally desperate to win because they care about the world, or because it's not fun to respawn?

If I were trying to create an MMO using an anti-wiki approach, I would still have to define all of that backstory. That's not really avoidable! But I would try to start from a different place. Instead of 'what is the conflict', I would start with the 'why of the conflict'.

So just to have a super well-known example: if James Cameron's Avatar movie was the setup for an MMO, the 'why of the conflict' could become the theme of the game world: the preservation of nature and tradition vs. technological progress and profit. Then, the conflict of the game would exist to explore that theme, instead of just conflict for conflict's sake. All the other facets of the world could also center around that theme. And, in a battle within the game, assuming players choose races based on which of those ideals they prefer, they'd also be heavily invested in whether this sacred grove became a field of factories or not.

Anyway, those are some of my initial thoughts on how this idea might apply to creating an MMO. There'd definitely still be a 'define the world and it's content' step, but I'd insert finding the theme into the process as the very first step, so that all of the stories in the world have a unifying core and reason for existing.

Love to hear other people's thoughts!