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All Games are Stories
by Kevin Maxon on 10/18/13 04:46:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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.


The word ‘story’ can commonly refer to (among other things):

  • A written work of fiction, or
  • The plot of such a work.

To show that these are separate meanings, consider the term ‘novel,’ which refers to a written story of a certain approximate length. Now consider the phrase ‘the novel had a good story’—meaning that the plot, the series of events and characterizations of the story, the story of the story, was good.


Similarly, the word ‘game’ can commonly refer to (among other things):

  • A set of rules and pieces meant to be played, or
  • A single playing of such a thing.

Again, let’s show that these meanings are separate. Chess is a game. Consider the phrase ‘that was a good game of chess’—meaning that the specific play-through of the game, the game of the game, was good.


This is going to be a blog post about how all games are stories.

Make-Believe Theory

The popular aesthetic theory, presented by Kendall Walton and known as ‘make-believe theory,’ proposes that a work of fiction is a kind of game, a game of make-believe. To properly engage with a work of fiction, according to this theory, is to play with it a game of make-believe in which you address each sentence as a mandate to pretend something or other. The sentence, “The morning had dawned clear and cold,” is a direction to the reader to imagine such a morning. This theory is most exciting to aestheticians because it solves many metaphysical problems around fiction and the emotional responses audiences have to them, but it’s exciting to me as a game designer for different reasons.


Because the worlds imagined by readers differ somewhat, make-believe theory also proposes a separation between the ‘game world’ of a specific reading and the more general ‘work world.’ What a reader experiences when encountering a work of fiction is their own imaginings of a story, albeit imaginings largely directed by the written word. The word ‘bear’ might bring to mind a black bear to you and a grizzly to me—these details are experienced by us, are part of our own game worlds, but are not part of the work itself.


This separation might begin to make obvious how this theory can apply to games. Although for simplicity I’ve been talking only about written fiction, Walton actually means by ‘fiction’ any even somewhat representational piece of art, including significantly abstracted paintings, so long as they still represent some sort of idea. Surely games are representational works of art as well, by this definition. And the game-speak makes understanding games in this framework not too difficult.


MBT and Games

Chris Bateman, in his application of make-believe theory to games, delineates that the work world of a game is the rules and pieces, the parts that are always there for each player and do not differ. The game world, then, must be the events of a play-through of the game (a game of the game)—or the imaginings that the players experience in relation to these events, to be specific. Put in the vaguest of summaries, the game world of a single playing of chess might be recalled as, “She got first blood, but I took her queen early on, then the game dragged out as I blindly pursued her king; eventually she surprised me with a checkmate I hadn’t seen coming.” These game worlds are going to vary immensely from one play-through to the next, much more-so than the black/grizzly bear, and that’s part of what makes games so incredible.


To be clear, I am proposing that games are certain kinds of stories. Game designers author these stories in a removed way, by giving the players rules that they must follow when determining the next event in the story. Instead of mandating that the reader imagine a certain kind of morning, game rules mandate that (for example) players imagine their pieces can only move in certain ways. This gives less strict guidelines for what kind of thing might actually happen, but still gives rise to events that are structured in a certain way (for example, the early-, mid-, and late-game periods of chess are distinctly recognizable and share certain qualities, although they vary wildly from game to game and arise only from the rules).


While authors of fiction get to have a very tight hold on how their readers’ game worlds might unfold, game designers instead create systems that generate an extremely broad array of possible game worlds. When we redesign our systems, we are constraining or expanding this array, changing what kinds of game worlds might emerge from our systems, attempting to find a better set of possibilities.



Practical Applications

This relation between games and more traditional stories also presents at least one practical approach for the designer: analyze your game from a traditional storytelling perspective! Does your game reliably generate game worlds that feature a slow increase of drama to an exciting climax? What about a satisfying period of resolution? Chess features both of these, its dramatic arc composed of an expanding-then-contracting array of possible decisions, and an increase in the weightiness/significance of these decisions. What sorts of emotions is your game meant to embody, and how does it generate the sorts of ordered events which might embody these emotions? How, for instance, do films create suspense, and how might you write rules for a game which generate the same kinds of ordered events used in films for such a purpose?


These are the sorts of questions we’re already asking when we use frameworks like MDA, but asking them in this way may give us greater insight and creative power, allowing us to analyze and draw from other media to more directly influence our own work.

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Kujel s
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I really enjoy reading these philosphical pieces, thanks for posting.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem with the OP, is that its definitions of story and game are inaccurate. This is not the fault of the Author (Kevin Maxon), but is a symptom of our understanding of the English language, which is itself a symptom of our perception, recognition, understanding, teaching and description of language itself in - (starting with its actual definition).

Although the current version of my blog (click my name) details the problems we have with understanding game and story (and how story can be used to describe what a game is) - and is consistent in itself for this particular subject, without any real problems - since the foundation these are built upon, (the first couple of posts), is currently problematic, I am currently in the process of re-writing my entire blog, though the first part is most important, (On The Functionality And Identity of Language), and is being written for a friend at Cambridge University - (he's a/the? Professor of Education, which is where the problems we have truly lie, and must be changed - how we perceive language affects its study, that then affects how it is taught and described, that then affects its use - all of which is affecting our perception and understanding of what we use game and story to represent in an inconsistent manner, resulting in the inaccuracies in the OP).

Kevin Maxon
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Thanks, Darren. I'd be excited to hear what specific problems you're referring to, the points on which you disagree. I wrote this almost just as a scrawl one morning, and plan to revise it into an actual, functional theory.

I didn't intend my partial unwrapping of the words 'story' and 'game' to be definitions, although I can see where that might be confusing. I merely meant to show the similarities in the ways we use the two words, and to suggest thereby that the two are more similar than we usually think.

Darren Tomlyn
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Well, I don't want to get into a really long explanation, or I'd be here all day, repeating most of what I'm busy trying to write atm., but the reason these two words have problems, is that the definitions you are basing them on, are not truly consistent with the basic concepts they belong to and how such a thing exists separately from being applied.

For example: what happens during a game, that the word itself represents, is separate from the act of taking part in such a thing - (playing a game). This is why play has nothing to do with what game represents, merely how it is applied, and therefore has no place in its description/definition.

Thinking otherwise, is why we confuse the act of taking part in a game (playing a game), with it being play (non-productive), even though the two definitions of play are completely unrelated.

Game != play

(This is easy to understand if you recognise that games can be played (taken part in) for work (productive reasons)).

Since we don't recognise the type of thing game itself represents, however, understanding how best to describe them based upon such a distinction is not happening.

Likewise, the concept the word story belongs to, isn't recognised either, and so it's description and definition is inconsistent, too.

Since game and story belong to two completely different concepts, they are not similar at all.

And so the only reason you think they are similar, is because of how they are currently perceived and described, which is inconsistent with what they must be, because of how the English language functions - what concepts each piece of information must belong to that then determines how and why their representation is used.

Such functionality isn't currently being recognised and understood.

So, the main reason none of this has happened, and is why your post is problematic, is that no-one has approached such problems in a correct and consistent manner: As a matter of linguistics.

This is what I'm doing, and is what my blog is for - (so read it before you think about creating your own theories. ;) (Start with part 1A, though the first few parts (until story) do have problems)) - but I've realised that the problems we have with the words game, art, competition, puzzle, work, play and story, and even the English language itself, are, in fact, all symptoms of a bigger and far more fundamental problem with our perception, recognition, understanding and description of language, in general - (if not even (potentially) communication as a whole) - though, as I said, the current version of my blog doesn't quite reach such problems, and still suffers because of this). Therefore, trying to solve such individual problems without fixing the foundations they need to be based and built upon, isn't really possible.

Such is the nature of the problems we have, that I have recognised, however, that even the basic post I'm writing needs to cover an awful lot of ground, and makes it very hard to write... (I've been working on it for over a year, and still don't think I've got it organised properly, yet.)

Tom Battey
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Which is where all the arguments between the 'games must be fun' crowd and the 'games can be art/narrative' crowd probably stem from - the word 'game' carries certain connotations that are not necessarily relevant to what games are now.

But we're not going to get people to stop calling games games...especially when the English language doesn't provide a better alternative. 'Interactive Fiction' is just...yuck, and already applies to a subgenre that it fits much more naturally. Interactive Entertainment? Lame. And entertainment is too subjective. Interested to hear your thoughts on a suitable alternative, actually.

Darren, I have bookmarked your blog for some evening reading, because theories on the use of the English language in relation to games sound like something I could totally get into.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem - (indeed, the reason why it even IS a problem in the first place) - is that we're not using the words we ALREADY HAVE and USE to represent such things, (activities in particular), because we're not perceiving what they represent correctly in relation to each other, purely for what they are, instead of how they are (subjectively) applied - especially when it comes to the use of computers.

The words game, art, puzzle and competition, work and play/toy and tool, are ALL we need, to describe the different activities we're looking at - we just don't realise it.

Basic interactive fiction, (e.g choose-your-own-adventure), is a puzzle - a maze in literary form. But we don't recognise that, because we don't fully understand what puzzles are - because we confuse how puzzles are applied - (e.g. jigsaw puzzles etc.) - with what it is they are an application of - (specific behaviour/things that happen.) But puzzles don't have to take any particular form in order to exist - only the behaviour they represent an application of, needs to exist, and so can also use computers (e.g. video instead of words) for their application as needs be.

The (applications of) things that happen, that game, art, puzzle, competition, work and play represent, are all DIFFERENT, and though some may be compatible - (any such activity can usually exist for either work or play) - that doesn't mean they all are, and recognising and understanding the differences matter - especially when they involve such different fundamental behaviour as things someone does and things that happen to someone - things that can NEVER be the same.

When people perceive things they DO, as and by things that happen TO them - you know there are very fundamental problems affecting things.

Kevin Maxon
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I read a few of your pieces, and I think I just am going to have to disagree fundamentally with the perspective you're arguing from. I think defining language prescriptively, rejecting common usage, is a mistake in general. I did reply to your definition of games in particular, but I now see that my reply was a bit ill-informed (it was rejecting the definition based on common usage examples, which I don't see as being at all convincing to you).

I appreciate some of your insights, for example that one can engage with a game without playing, but in general I think you're mistaken.

As to my correlation of 'game' and 'story,' I really do still think that they are the same sort of thing. This is what my early unwrapping of the words was meant to indicate. Consider especially the second usage examples I gave for each word (e.g. famous 'games' of chess, the 'story' of a given film). Each is a chronological series of interrelated, fictional events imagined by players as the primary experience of the medium, constructed into a singular, isolated history.

But really, this is the gist of our disagreement: I think that common usage defines the words, whereas you think that linguistic analysis ought to define the words, which ought to then dictate common usage. 'Oughts' aside, I don't think that's how language works, at its core. Language is organic and messy.

I do appreciate the feedback, though. Thanks.

Darren Tomlyn
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Your perception of language, at this time, is extremely common - and is, in itself, a direct symptom of the basic problem my current blog is almost based upon, but not directly, in its most fundamental form, at its most fundamental level.

Either language has rules, or it does not - there can BE no exception - and if it does NOT, then it DOES NOT EXIST, for there is nothing left that can be used to distinguish language from communication itself.

(Indeed, even communication can only exist if there are rules, though they are not the direct problem here.)

The problem we have with language, as I said in my blog - (that may even affect our perception, recognition and understanding of communication itself!) - is that we perceive it based on its effects, not its cause.

Unfortunately, without its cause, the effects do not matter, or can exist at all.

The problem we have, is that people do NOT understand and recognise that language has rules governing WHAT the information is, that it is used to represent, only how the representations of such information are used - which is only ever an effect of what they represent, never the cause.

And it's because that we do not understand the difference and relationship between the content of a language, and its rules of grammar - that people do not understand that language even HAS rules governing what (types of) information it is used to represent - hence your opinion. (It's also why people class the rules governing WHAT a representation and piece of information is, as being the same as those that govern how it's used - (mistake rules of content for rules of grammar) - even though the content can and does exist independently, and is part of communication in general, not language).

But it's only BECAUSE language is used to represent specific types of information, that enables its rules of grammar - to determine how and WHY the representations of such information are used in combination with each other. To perceive the content of a language as and by how it is used, ONLY, is define its effects as and by its cause, which is a very big mistake, and one we are currently making.

Yes - some of the content of a language can change and evolve over time - as you'd expect, want and need it to - but if you think its basic rules can change by the same amount and remain the same language - think again. Even Old English is still pretty compatible with the basic rules of grammar we have today, (though a lot of the content has changed - (spelling etc.) - this is not important if it's consistent).

All of the problems we have with language, stem from not understanding what language is, and therefore how and why it functions, especially in relation to communication, itself. To then turn round and say such functionality doesn't matter, and therefore does not exist, is to deny its very existence - and you can only do that because you do not fully know and understand what language is, yourself, not just in isolation, but especially in relation to communication.

The basic rules of grammar for the English language are FAR stricter than you, (and many other people), realise, when it comes to what particular concepts the language uses to group its content within, to then determine how and why such content is used in combination.

If you accept that language has rules governing how it is used, then you have to accept there are rules governing WHY, for without that, how is of no importance at all, because it has nothing to do with WHAT it's used to represent, which is the entire reason for its existence - communication itself.

Kevin Maxon
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There's a lot of stuff that I disagree with here, but I don't know that this is the time or place for a discussion of linguistics, especially because I'm not trying to define any words in my article. I'll set some time aside to read through your pieces and respond to them if I have anything worth saying. Thanks.

Darren Tomlyn
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No - but your post IS based upon definitions which are problematic, and therefore suffers (and isn't entirely consistent) because of it.

The fact is, is that the perception of language such current definitions are based upon, that your post is therefore also based upon, is inaccurate and inconsistent purely in itself - and has been for probably as long as what we call language has existed. Because such a perception feels entirely natural, however - (we learn about language by perceiving it - what the representations are and how they are used - long before we're able to use it, ourselves) - recognising that it IS a problem, is a very big and important realisation to make - one that we have YET to make, (apart from myself), and one which you obviously have problems with.

None of which is your fault, of course, but it is, unfortunately, EVERYBODY'S problem.

So I'm not too surprised you disagree with things - but I know for certain that your perception will just get you tied up in knots if we go any further.

(The moment you state anything that can only be true if language does not exist, you have real problems - which is what is usually happens - but you also need to recognise and understand how language and communication itself are related to understand why, which is a big problem at this time.)

I guess you'll have to wait for what I'm working on at the minute for everything to finally make sense in relation to each other, just like everyone else.

Roger Tober
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I think where games fail in that respect is resolution. Very important in a story, but kind of forgotten in games. You died, too bad, end of game.

Kevin Maxon
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Yes! Absolutely.

Actually, most of the time, I'd say that death (in single-player video games at least) is probably not meant to be imagined as a proper end, but instead as a weird mistake that should be separated by the player from the context of the story. These games aren't really seen as having ended their stories until the player 'finishes' the game.

This makes me wonder if those games might tell better stories if they incorporated failure/death better somehow, either by contextualizing it as part of the continuous story or by valuing it as a legitimate end to the story, for example. As is, death stands as an awkward aside that breaks up the stories being experienced.

Tom Battey
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This is the first I've heard of make believe theory, and it sounds super interesting. It also makes sense of how I play games; whether I'm playing Skyrim or Halo, I'm always effectively roleplaying a story centred around the action. What's more, when this internal narrative stops being interesting, I stop being interested in the game.

Sure, I can get invested in a game's written narrative - but I get invested it it because it's ME that's interacting with that story. Few games (no games?) have a linear written narrative that's compelling enough to absorb on its own as I would a film or a novel - it's how I interact with these stories that my game-brain finds interesting,