The Gamemasters

The Gamemasters
The Contrarian: Roll the Dice

John Scott Tynes | 6 Sep 2005 12:01
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Even so, story has come a long way in games, given its albino, blind-eyed beginnings in the Colossal Cave. Look at the evolution of Doom. The first game had no story at all, just a premise: Space marine fights demons on Mars. A decade later, Doom 3 had a seemingly endless series of audio journals left by dead scientists spilling out their grim portents. You couldn't go five minutes without somebody downloading their life story to your datapad. Half-Life and its sequel showed us how to tell stories without cut scenes, by having events unfold right there in front of the player in the game. They're simple steps, but important ones.

It's pleasant to contemplate these simple steps, but the sad truth is that this sort of storytelling doesn't particularly need tabletop game designers like me or Mitch. It's mostly straight-up writing, in the style of movies or novels. Like movies, in fact, games can achieve that sense of texture through visuals as well as exposition. The unresolved mysteries of the Combine in Half-Life 2 had little narrative presence, but visually they were subtle and intriguing.

So what is there for tabletop designers like us to do? What makes us genuinely valuable and different from the latest twitch punk promoted out of QA?

The good news is convergence. Thirty years ago, some bearded grognards on a college campus drew some dungeons, rolled some dice, and realized they had entire worlds in their heads for players to explore. Sitting around a table, the gamemaster was omniscient and omnipresent, able to conjure up characters, dialogue, plots, and settings out of the very air and weave them into a coherent experience. The players could, quite literally, go anywhere and do anything, and the gamemaster would keep expanding the bazaar around them. They created a place bigger than any one person's imagination, a bazaar big enough to encompass all of them.

Videogames haven't caught up. They aren't even close. But on a clear day you can look out from the windows of development studios around the world and see a distant glimmer of what might be. Unlike the bazaar, the cathedral is constrained by technology; indeed, by architecture. As technology improves, the possibilities do, too, not just for prettier graphics, but for smarter games and extensible, dynamic worlds. When I finished playing the first KOTOR, I was baffled that the game simply ended; momentarily, I expected the final cinematic to fade out and then return me to wandering around the universe having adventures. It would have felt so natural. That was a glimpse of the future of videogames, just a tease, but there's more to come. Another ten years and we may start having some real fun.

Those of us from the tabletop world, the hardcore gamers camping out in parking garages at GenCon, have been living in the future that videogames are now starting to comprehend. We may be slow to learn about magnetic bullets, and our cherished storytelling may sometimes prevent us from seeing when the gameplay is what's really good. But the truth is that we've mostly just been waiting for you to catch up.

We've got lots to talk about.

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for fifteen years, and is a columnist for the Stranger, X360 UK, and the Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

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