I recently re-read one of my favorite books, Walter Jon William’s Hardwired. It’s a cyberpunk story centered around a war on the black market, fought by the last free smugglers against the space based corporations that have taken over Earth (by dumping asteroids on the planet until it surrendered). It has two main characters: Cowboy, the greatest smuggler of all, running his hover-panzer across state lines, and Sarah, a dirtgirl killer for hire.
In one pivotal moment, as the war rages at its worst and Cowboy is off blowing things up, the story switches entirely to Sarah and her temptation to betray the resistance in order to fulfill her longtime dream of safety for her brother.
Ok, that doesn’t sound all that exciting but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Read the book, you won’t regret it.
However, it got me thinking about what makes a book memorable and what makes a game memorable and my conclusion is this: stories. Stories make both games and books memorable.
Of course, you say, books are all about story. A book without a story is like a car without wheels. Sure, you’re right. It is obvious. But it’s not the story inherent in the book that makes it memorable. It’s the story that you tell yourself after reading it that makes it memorable.
The thing is that if you read the greatest book of all time, dozens of characters, loads of plot, twists, mysteries and action galore, it still won’t be worth spit if it doesn’t leave you with an internal tale. It’s that internal tale that makes books worth reading. It’s what you remember of them, and how those memories mix with your emotions, that makes you want to read them again. Without your story the book isn’t worth a second read. Without engaging you in the narrative you will put it down at the end, perhaps satisfied, perhaps not, but you won’t remember it for long and you won’t pick it up again.
You can read a book that doesn’t engage your internal storyteller. You may want to finish it, to find out who the killer is, how the heroine gets her hero or who blows up the Deathstar, but you won’t pick it up again. There won’t be a reason, just like there isn’t a reason to read yesterdays newspaper.
But if a book causes you to tell yourself a story it will stay with you for all times (or as long as you keep telling yourself the story). You can see this if you try to review a book to a friend. The books that tell you stories will be easier to convey. The others will be boiled down to pitches: “you know, it’s about this detective who’ve got to solve a murder and the murderer is his best friend’s wife who he’s cheating with”.
The same is valid for games. We like the games that let us tell ourselves stories about our plays. Wait, you say. What about abstracts?
That goes for abstracts as well. Just listen to two devoted Chess players discussing. Or Bridge players. Or Go or any of the other types of devoted players. Yes, from an outside view there isn’t much of a story in Chess (who believes in that whole “battle of medieval courts”-theme anyway?) but once you get into the game you see that the stories form. And that’s a very big lesson: the stories we tell ourselves don’t have much to do with the stories available in the theme of the game. Instead they’re based on the choices we as players make while playing.
No one will tell themselves a story about the game “where I rolled 2 000 dice and then you rolled 2 000 dice and then I had a higher total”. But they might very well tell themselves a story about “where we were rolling and rolling and then it came down to that last roll and I was down to my last pawn and I rolled higher than you”. Check the difference: that one last roll mattered. Sure, it wouldn’t have mattered without all those previous rolls but on that one last roll the whole game was decided.
Would it have mattered if it was just one die roll? No. That’s a silly game: I roll a die, you roll a die and whomever has a higher roll wins. That game needs outside pressure to be story-worthy: I roll a die, you roll a die and whomever has a higher roll wins a million dollars. Now that’s something you’ll tell stories about (especially if you lose).
So what makes for stories worth telling? Excitement. Drama. Tension. And here’s where we go back to the world of books: in order to build drama and tension the writer needs to insert three things: characters that the reader cares about, dangers that the reader cares about and outcomes that the reader cares about. If any one of those three is missing the reader won’t care. Two is not enough: caring for characters and danger, but not the outcome? The readers will lose interest the first time the danger lifts. Or when they figure out that it doesn’t matter what ultimately happens, they don’t care. We love Amy and Bob and they’re in danger of splitting up but look here, they’ve got a lovable jock and a cute cheerleader available if they do so it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re going to end up happy anyhow and look, there goes the danger as well. Same for the danger and the characters. If the reader doesn’t care for one of them they won’t care for the book. Not on that deep, emotional level that’s necessary to create your own stories about it.
The components necessary to create tension in a game are different. Characters don’t work since they’re weak alter-egos for the player (as contrasted with role-playing games where the characters are strong alter-egos). Danger works but it can’t be danger to the characters since the players aren’t that engaged with them. And the outcomes have to be outcomes modified for the dangers that the players do care about.
Books are based on their characters and their dangers center on them. Games are based around their outcomes. No outcome or a random outcome means no goal, no tension. It gets boring real fast. So we work backwards from that. We want an outcome that matters to the player. So we’ll have to set up dangers that matter to the player with regards to the outcome. How? We need to create dangers that hinge on choices the player makes.
And that’s our game: start out with the danger of making the wrong choice. Obfuscate the danger if you must but let it be there. Then force the player to make a choice. There are games where the choice doesn’t have to be made, where you can have the cake and eat it too, and those games grow pretty boring pretty fast – but if you force the player to commit, you’ll give them an emotional tension: not only is there danger but I’ve possibly made it worse with my actions. Then hold the outcomes in doubt for as long as possible, cramming as much danger and as many choices as you can in between.
And then you’ll have a game worthy of a story.