Back Story

I was in the third grade when I created my first and last videogame fan fiction. It plumbed the hidden motivations of the nameless driver from Excitebike who, it just so happens, was actually Mario, transported from the Mushroom Kingdom into other NES games through a secret warp pipe. The page-long story ended on a dramatic cliffhanger, as the final jump of the Excitebike course hurls Mario into another secret warp pipe, setting up an entire series of Mario-in-other-games stories that, to this day, remains unconcluded.

It’s been said that videogames, like pornography, need some sort of thin, disbelief-suspending story on which to rest before getting to the hardcore action. How true this statement is depends on the story and the game, but there is a class of games it undoubtedly does not apply to – those without any story. These pure games might have an implied back story (“A bunch of guys get together for a motorcycle race … “) but by and large, they eschew mythos for pure man vs. other competition, leaving the motivations of the competitors purely to the player’s imagination.

These story-free games, unsurprisingly, are not the most popular subjects in the realm of user-created videogame fan fiction (whose stories are often called “fanfics” or “fics”). That title goes to back story-filled epic roleplaying games like Kingdom Hearts, Pokémon and Final Fantasy, each of which have thousands of individual stories archived in’s extensive games section. The site even contains a few hundred fan-created stories pasted on top of the paper-thin official offerings for games like Doom, Street Fighter or Kirby’s Dream Land.

But that doesn’t mean fan fiction for story-free games doesn’t exist. Indeed, includes dozens of stories that have been created from whole cloth to describe games that have absolutely no existing back story, including some that would theoretically discourage fictionalizing altogether.

Take, for example, the adventures of Fred, a Minesweeper flag who thinks longingly of his family just before his destruction, or the story of the Queen of Spades, who is freed from her Solitaire-based prison, when she magically changes places with the person controlling her. Even the games themselves can take on human characteristics, as in the story of Windows Solitaire giving birth to a baby Spider Solitaire (complete with a pacing Bill Gates just outside the maternity ward).

While many of the stories are obviously just thrown up on a lark, pigeonholing fics as tongue-in-cheek parodies does a disservice to many more serious offerings. While fan fiction about epic games is often constrained by the existing back story, writers use the relatively blank slates of story-free games to create everything from thought experiments on a Lemming’s existential crisis, to examinations of Tetris as a metaphor for communism, to politically-charged treatises on the nature of war, such as this one from “Asteroids: Where the Stone Falls” by Luke Rounda:

“The militia ‘divide and conquer’ propaganda always makes sure to include something about ‘defending your home’ against the beasts, who are always committing some horrible crime against humanity. A Super Saucer takes out a transit tug, and now no one in Orion’s Belt gets fresh cheese in for another month. Kill them! Herd them like cattle away from the supply lines! In effect, military propaganda is saying, ‘Grab a can of pesticide and meet me outside.’ The thing is, there’s a clear difference between quelling a plague of locusts and smashing a hornet’s nest.”

If the whole idea of creating a story for a game that has none sounds like an English-class writing prompt, that’s because sometimes it is. “This was originally an English project of mine” writes “The Almighty God of Paper” in an author’s note for his Iliad-inspired Pong fanfic “Taken to Epic Proportions.” (“Legend has it that the crisp ashen orb holds great destructive power.”)

The motivations for other tale-spinners of story-free games should be familiar to anyone who was ever an angst-ridden teenager: a cry for attention (“I live for [reviews], even if they are ‘flames.'”), a response to boredom (“I have no idea where this came from. I was very, very bored one day.”), a need to be part of a group (“Odd, but when I saw that there were fics for solitaire, I had to write something along those lines.”), a need to challenge oneself (“I told myself: hey. Tetris. You can write a story about Tetris.”), or even as a way to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence (“This may very well be the world’s first Freecell fanfiction. It may be my only contribution to the human race, as well.”).

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Some stories weave tales of love and loss for in-game characters that are little more than window-dressing, such as the silent dancers in Dance Dance Revolution, or the near-silent stars of games like SSX Tricky and Crazy Taxi. Think about what this means: These hundreds of people aren’t simply expanding the stories for well-developed characters, but crafting fully-formed stories to fill in the empty, stereotypical shells whose most compelling in-game dialogue amounts to yelling “Atomically supercool” when pulling off a massive jump. If there’s a better testament to strong visual character design in games, I can’t think of it.

Other times, the stories focus on the players rather than the games themselves, as is the case with many of the DDR fics available. Often, these are simple descriptions of the writer’s experience with the game, but sometimes they expand into full-blown fantasies about drawing crowds and receiving the acclaim of passing arcade throngs. Addiction is a common theme to many of these player-focused tales – writers sharing real or imagined inabilities to draw themselves away from a particularly compelling game (“She felt so cheap, like some sort of Freecell whore!”). Even when the stories aren’t ostensibly about the player, they can often offer a disturbing window into the inner life of the author (“But here I am, forgotten, like a silent whisper in the wind on a cold winter night surrounded only by ocean. … Where did I come from?”).

Many fanfic authors use story-free games as a jumping-off point to wax poetic on the Zen nature of play; the futility of playing an un-winnable game is a common thread, as are the limitations of games that continuously repeat (“Humans have created a concept/But, in truth, even infinity ends,” writes one Tetris-inspired poet). A writer going by the handle K Project seems to be the form’s standard-bearer, writing strictly metered sonnets about five separate story-free games so far.

And it’s a poetic ideal that seems to be running through the heart of all these story-free fanfics – a need to assign meaning to what are essentially meaningless games. Most videogames and pieces of art, even the awful ones, continue a storytelling tradition nearly as old as man himself. There seems to be a strong desire among these writers to add these story-free games to this tradition.

These are games that were never meant to be more than simple entertainment – games that never even made a slight pretense towards being more than they are – and yet these stories are attempting to do just that. In a way, they could be seen as an effort to justify the hours and hours spent sitting in front of a screen, transforming a consumptive waste of time into a creative and artistic outlet. Alternatively, many of the lighter-hearted stories could be read as a challenge to the idea that games need to be something more than a set of rules and an interface for exerting control over them.

However you look at it, it’s apparent that these stories fill a hole that at least a small segment of the internet felt needed filling. Without some sort of story or mythos backing them up, these games fade to nothingness at the edge of the screen. But in the realm of fan fiction, the game only ends when your imagination does, and what happens when you go through the warp pipe is yet to be determined.

Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.

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