I fear games compromise too much of their setting integrity in favor of gameplay. Thankfully with pen & paper role-playing games, the game master can alter the details of his game as he sees fit, something I do with each and every game I run. The truth is those game settings on their own allow the telling of game stories...and game stories are limited by game mechanics and thus are incapable of narratives on the scale of movies or novels. At the very least, these settings have to be heavily worked over and altered for them to be palatable for mass consumption. And let’s be honest, as gamers, we excuse a lot in our games. I’ll make an inflammatory comment by saying that many games think good settings are all that matters and that a solid setting equates a good story, while in truth, they are exclusive. Too often, I’ve seen people praise titles with good settings but no story to speak of. Let’s break down these types of stories so I can explain my point better.
Firstly, we have real stories, actual events that occur to real people. They have many characters that move in and out of the story. The stories can be long, even dull, and often resolve themselves over several events rather than one dramatic climax.
Then we have book stories, which will often create singular climaxes but can still have many characters and plot threads that can run too long with tangents going nowhere.
Film stories have to keep things tight. They have limited time to introduce characters and get the story going towards its singular climax. So, it’s no surprise when a book is translated into a movie, events are condensed with characters completely cut. There have been books that read like movies and movies which feel like books, but there has never been a game that has felt adequately like a movie. Sure, some have tried...but they’ve all failed it, often coming off as melodramatic and campy.
I’m sure many game masters have thought and even attempted to write their campaign as a novel. Wasn’t easy, was it? The smart ones realized that compromises are expected; you can’t have a story about a party of magic-wielding heroes bordering on beautification fighting with sword and staff against a dragon. When translating from tabletop to word processor, suddenly, it all reads as a little cheesy. There was a good reason why Jackson limited the use of magic in his Middle Earth films. Who remembers the D&D movie where fireball spewing wizards squared off against armies of red dragons? Sure, it sounds cool, but it looked stupid. This extends from storytelling to the visuals of a game as well.
My problem is that I can’t differentiate these various types of stories--I rate them all on equal terms. I believe tabletop games that attempt a story should be rated equally with the other formats and should be called out if the setting is sacrificed in favor of gameplay. It doesn’t need to be Pulitzer material—it just can’t insult me, but I’m also a real miser when it comes to my opinion on story. I’ve never been in a pen & paper game as a player where the GM attempted an actual story. It was always “go here, kill that.” I’ve seen the same issues brought up with board games. It’s not what I would call gripping fiction.
I have yet to read a manual or module where I thought there was an actual story worth telling. Most of the time, it was all excuses for encounters and map exploration. If I control a gung-ho warmonger through waves of nameless, faceless foes, having him pause and reflect on the insanity of war before moving onto the boss fight is not what I would consider an arc. Yes, I’ll say it, most games are horribly written. Even the good ones, the ones you willingly invest time into, are still kind of bad. Until they break out of the mold of only telling game stories, they may continue to be dismissed.
Next time, I’ll go into detail on board games and the stories they tell.