Quit rolling your eyes.
I know a number of you have no interest in the story or setting presented in a tabletop game, and I know a number of you live for those particular qualities. If you’ve been reading my stuff for the past few years or even weeks, you likely know where I fall. It’s no secret that nothin twists my nethers like an unfolding dramatic narrative.
So we’re doing something a little different this week at Player Elimination. I’m almost ready to write about a not-so-little box called The City of Kings, but not quite. Instead I wanted to scratch on something that’s rarely examined – hopefully you’ll indulge me.
Gordon Calleja, designer of Posthuman and Vengeance, recently penned a fantastic article deconstructing narrative. This is good stuff and I’d recommend the read. I’m going to talk about something a little different. I’m going to talk about how I experience story and theme in gaming. Maybe you experience these things differently, which would be fascinating, but we don’t really know because this is a subject whose naked existence hasn’t been broached. I wish I knew why as it’s one of the most important elements of how I interact with the hobby.
For us to proceed we need to be on the same page. Gordon perfectly describes narrative as having “two elements to it: story, or the sequence of events that ‘actually’ happened – and discourse, the structure and means of presenting the story.” Let’s start with narrative.
When I’m playing a game with a strong sense of setting and one that presents a narrative to chew on, I often become blissfully engaged in the proceedings. The mechanical inclinations of the game can range widely, from Battlestar Galactica to something like Twilight Struggle. The experience and emotions encountered will vary and take different forms depending on the game and its particular structure. But there are common ties threaded deep within my brain, common ties which I’m going to attempt to break down.
The primary way I engage those non-physical atoms is through isolated narrative imagery. While the overall story is indeed of significance, my fundamental interaction is in particles of the whole. Many times throughout a game I won’t be putting the entire picture together, but I’ll be mentally framing those die rolls and card flips through the lens of a scene. I’m an untapped director at heart and every turn of every round I’m toiling away with the spirit of Akira Kurosawa and eye of Sam Peckinpah.
This mental cinematography is important because it provides a visceral context to abstract actions. Remove that story attachment and the way in which I experience the game is divorced from the emotional portion of my brain. Instead of focusing inward on feeling I’m focused outward on raw numbers and cold components. The inner-workings are subtle but the expression is extremely important in building gameplay as an experience as opposed to a joyless task.
What’s interesting as well is that it’s not always about specific imagery floating around behind my eyes. Sometimes the mere association of setting elements – whether that’s science fiction, fantasy, or a historical backdrop – can impart emotion in an abstract way. This utilization of genre ties is wrapped up in nostalgia and a thousand different pieces of media, forging subtle and unconscious connections via colorful cardboard and molded plastic. I see a game that nails the atmosphere of a derelict ship on its dying breath and Ridley Scott’s in the shadows poking my heart. Throw down some beautifully painted Spitfires and Me 109s and I’m in that cockpit with Tom Hardy flying to Dunkirk.
The final narrative product, its consistency, and the strength of its arc are elements that I do not concern myself with in the midst of play. Is this normal? I have no idea. We all speak about these nebulous feel-good qualities and their significance to the table top experience, but we don’t really express just how we experience them. So I have no idea if our adventures run in parallel.
Perhaps surprisingly, that macro level story and its finality are indeed important to me. Their role is in defining my wide-angled view of play once the final die has been tossed and unit has been killed. It’s once we’ve totaled up the victory points and are sitting around in awe and raw excitement that I reflect and place significance on the narrative arc of play. That doesn’t mean this facet is less significant within the overall experience, but it does mean it’s framed in a more analytical light as my mind is racing and the sun has long departed.
Theme is an altogether different beast. By theme, I’m talking about what the design says about a particular subject. This term is often applied to a game’s setting which I believe is detrimental to progressing the maturity of our hobby. It serves a stronger purpose in discourse when we use it to cut to the work’s conclusions and statements about a particular subject.
When a game like The Grizzled conveys a resolute declaration on friendship and brotherhood as a buoy to rise above the terror of war – I get chills. Games can approach a level of art and grace that we often don’t give them credit for. This moves my soul and gets me going in ways you can’t imagine.
Theme is something that I experience as a bridge between specific narrative events (escaping narrowly from an oncoming tank) and the overall story arc of play (escaping the war with our lives still intact). It’s a greater context underpinning those events and functions as the author of the work giving me a huge grin or a vicious punch to the gut, depending on the thematic particulars.
Often, meaningful thematic expression will provide me with a greater sense of attachment. It will offer a new vector to appreciate the game when detached from play. Typically this results in a fervor or excitement to table the design again and experience those momentary narrative slices within a new context of thematic resonance.
My heart flutters
Isolated narrative events provide momentary joy and can have me digging my nose deeper into a design. The story arc of the entire session provides reflection and context for the resolution. Thematic statements provide a deeper way to engage the design as an emotional and cognitive work of art.
And this is where games ultimately intersect with culture in meaningful ways. There’s a degree of importance and weight to this angle as it has the potential to offer a more fulfilling experience. It leads to discussion and perhaps a greater understanding of the human condition.
So theme over mechanics?
No. Hell no.
One incorrigible argument that often enters this discussion is the binary choice between theme (they mean setting) or mechanisms. This is simply bullshit. I’m involved in the hobby to experience wild settings, unpredictable narratives, and emotionally involved themes, but these need to function as the blood and tissue wrapped around a skeleton of stellar mechanical process. This is primarily why those popular hybrid designs – Blood Rage, Cyclades, Kemet – have achieved fame as they can hack it on both sides of the aisle. This isn’t a bonus or nice surprise, it’s a bare necessity. Fight the good fight and don’t let this nonsensical division stand.
Where does this leave us?
Good question. Do you experience narrative, setting, or theme in a different way? How does it impact your gaming? Why is no one talking about the specifics?
Don’t worry, next week I’ll be back discussing an actual game. And it’s narrative emotional impact of course.