The process of imagination drives our culture’s most compelling narratives. Be it Lost, The Wheel of Time, or Star Wars, these stories convey enough information to be interesting and entertaining but hide enough information to encourage fans try to fill in the missing parts. This can take the form of theories on message boards causing lively debates; fan-fiction, which deliberately fills in those gaps; or another story, later released, which answers those questions. These stories are generally fantasy and science fiction, which makes sense, in that these genres are the closest thing we have to modern mythology.
Videogames, due to their scope of creating an entire universe within a single storyline or narrative structure, have the ability to provide both the information required to move the direct narrative forward and to populate the game-world with back stories. The player’s story is the most overtly important story, but the game universe contains its own implicit stories and histories. A roleplaying game follows the main character on her path, but the antagonist has her own history, part of which is generally revealed, but not as directly as the player character’s. In Final Fantasy X, we see Tidus’ pilgrimage from start to finish, but only have brief glimpses of Braska and Jecht’s. In a sports game, we play our team’s games, but the other teams play their own games, which have their own results just as much as the player’s games do. They must be imagined, however: Perhaps that Atlanta 9-0 start in the 2008 season means Michael Vick has finally reached his potential? – I wouldn’t know; I’m playing as Denver.
A select few games reach the level where they demand the player to use her imagination. I tried to narrow down what games these were; what qualities made them special. What videogames have I played that made me imagine the story of the game? What qualities drove me to do the gaming equivalent of writing fan-fic? I knew the games – they were the ones where I muttered to myself while playing; writing the history, imagining conversations between characters, acting as pundit. In one memorable case, Rome: Total War, I wrote e-mails to a friend on the rise of Pontus as a Mediterranean power. A more complete list of these games turns into a murderer’s row of all-time classics: Rome, Diablo, Civilization, Jedi Knight, Championship Manager, God of War, Jagged Alliance 2, Dynasty Warriors, Wizardry VIII, The Sims.
I found some interesting similarities between all these games. They are, by genre and platform, very different games. The traits most commonly assigned to videogames – genre, platform, marketing clout – vary widely within the list, so clearly the answer cannot be found within conventional boundaries. God of War was a very recent console-based big-budget, high-tech, hyper-violent, heavily-marketed hit. Championship Manager is a strategic soccer simulation series in which the player acts as club manager. There’s virtually nothing in the way of graphics or sound, and the games are not well-known in the U.S. – quite the opposite of God of War.
So what, then, is the commonality making these games similarly great? These games are all missing a chunk of the story! A game narrative takes place on multiple levels, upper-level, mid-level and low-level. The upper level is the plot, the overarching story. In Diablo, it is the story of the assault on the town of Tristram; in Dynasty Warriors, the tale of the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the machinations of various warlords replacing it. The lower level is the precise detail of what is happening; the click that causes the character to attack a skeleton, or to sell a shield in order to buy a bow. The missing level of narrative in these games is the middle level, that of narration. Dynasty Warriors is based off the popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, and while it uses the same plot, characters and a few events from the novel, it does little to provide the larger context of the story. However, there was something there, a story I was missing, and I quickly sought out the novel from a library.
Paradoxically, as in the case of my experience with Dynasty Warriors, the games are technically weaker because they are missing mid-level narrative. Even though I consider Diablo II to be a better game than the original Diablo, the original captured my imagination, and my playing time, far better than its technically superior sequel. Diablo II‘s storyline was so much more significant to the gameplay, the goal of the game was to finish and see what would happen next, whereas in the original, the gameplay itself was the goal. In Championship Manager, I would find myself wishing for more historical background, or announcers to describe what was happening. However, since I didn’t have that context, I would invent it myself, murmuring in an English accent about the astounding turnaround at Aston Villa since I took over – my imagination was filling in the gaps to create a more fulfilling and personal experience.
Here, then, is a challenge for game designers: Don’t give everything to the player. Take away parts, important parts, of your games. Take away the protagonist’s speech telling squadmates what to do, so the player mutters orders and the squad moves from cover to cover.
But in order for these cards to be taken away without the house falling, there must be a strong foundation: the lower level. The player must receive consistent, strong feedback for every action taken. In Civilization, every possible choice is explained in detail. Specific information, such as the amount of production available from any piece of land, or the specific bonuses of any building choice, is readily available to the player. When the details of the lowest level are clear like this, frustrations and guesswork are eliminated, and the player’s mental energy can be spent constructing a personal narrative within the game’s setting, instead of a narrative about how the game isn’t working right, doesn’t make sense or is too difficult.
Having a strong overarching story at the highest level is equally important for mentally preparing players to create their own story. The game universe must be compelling enough for the player to want to fill in the gaps herself. The strongest universes are in the real world, which is why sports games or historical games have an instant advantage – we already know the characters, the styles and the music. Games with strong licenses have an intrinsic advantage, as well. We know Star Wars for its characters and styles, as much or even more than any historical game. A more fictional game can succeed, but the pump is primed more for historical or license games, because we as a player already want to be part of that universe, and do not require as much convincing.
In the end, the removal of the game’s narration follows one of the oldest tenets of creative writing: “Show, don’t tell.” When the player is in a game that makes sense at the lowest level, and motivates her at the highest level, then she will tell their own story. Game designers who aspire to create games that become obsessions for their players can use these concepts as a guideline. Creating gaps, for the player to fill in with her own imagination, is the key to having a game they’ll be telling stories about for a long time.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer for The Escapist.