I like history. I can spend hours reading it on Wikipedia, I burned through the 173-part History of Rome podcast, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln brought me to tears multiple times. I’m no scholar, but I consider myself a casual fan.
Most people seem to view history as dry and boring. And hey, if you compare works of history to works of fiction, it’s usually true! The pacing is uneven, major characters will get sick and die for no dramatic purpose, and large portions of the story are sometimes missing entirely. So if these stories are so deficient, why am I such a fan? There’s a simple reason:
It actually happened.
History is rooted in reality in a way that most entertainment is not. From grand speeches to personal letters, pivotal elections to life-or-death combat: it all actually took place. It’s a “greatest hits” album of all human events; I can’t help but be fascinated!
When I read history, I’m always imagining myself in the story, trying to see what I can learn from it. I read about a Caesar or a Roosevelt or a Napoleon, putting myself in their shoes, wondering if the triumphs and blunders of the past can teach me something about the present. And yes, surely they can.
But this idea, though gratifying, is easy to take too far. When Caesar prepared for a battle (or, for that matter, when he went to the Senate on a typical spring day), he didn’t have the advantages of historical hindsight; he had to make his decisions with imperfect information and under the pressures of his own time. When I read his story, it feels so easy to see how all the pieces fit together, but that’s very different from how it feels to navigate events in the present. History doesn’t train that kind of skill. So what does?
Games, like history, are rooted in reality in a way that fiction is not. When we play a game, we’re writing a new story, but it’s one that’s actually happening. And unlike history, it isn’t trapped in the past. Playing a game is the experience of navigating events and making decisions in the present.
Games can include a fictional story, and it’s sometimes vitally important, but those stories have never been what fascinated me about games. For me, the magic of games is in the thoughts, emotions, and decisions of the players. But I think that this made-in-real-time reality is often overlooked. Frank Lantz, during a debate on formalism, described this disconnect:
“A: When will there be games about humans and emotions?
B: You mean fictional humans and emotions.
A: Yes, obviously.”
This frustrates me because, like Frank, I’m interested in the actual, true events that games can generate: not the story of the characters, but the story of the players. Subterfuge, one of my favorite games of 2015, tells a fictional tale, but it’s a game about real diplomacy and tactics. Yes, the alliances and betrayals take place within the safe context of a game, where a friend’s treachery has less sting, but they’re still the product of genuine human decisions. The choices and actions of the players are true. Like history, they’re immune to the criticism of being unrealistic.
So, why should a game designer care?
I think we can take a lesson from the comparison to history. History’s appeal is not primarily its entertaining content, but rather its basis in reality. We forgive aesthetic “flaws” in the narrative because we know that a responsible author is constrained by real events. (Compare how video games make poor movies.)
When history plays fast-and-loose with the facts in hopes of becoming more entertaining, it backfires. Once the reader discovers that the story is untrue, it has lost its most important quality. Similarly, if a game presents us with rules and then bends them, even in hopes of improving the experience, the game is undercutting itself. When a game “cheats” to make the experience more entertaining, it renders itself hollow.
When we complain about ludonarrative dissonance, or auto-scaling difficulty, or false choices in narrative, I think we’re ultimately complaining about the betrayal of a game’s core appeal. Our interaction with the game systems was producing an experience that, whatever its dramatic faults, was true. And then that truth was made suspect: was this a result of my decisions, or was it all the designer’s will?
It’s natural to want gameplay and story to flow smoothly, following a well-crafted curve of highs and lows. But, as with writing history, there’s a danger in trying to smooth out your material too much. We can create gameplay from rules, and we can control how that gameplay is presented, but there’s danger in trying to fit it into the wrong mold. As with history, we’re bound by the truth.