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.
If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.
Great article! I think designers (mostly) agree on the importance of narrative, but their pursuits tend to diverge based on the audience. For example, the way that a wargame constructs a narrative can feel rigid when it’s dictated by rules instead of mechanics (if that makes sense). Naomi Clark and Anna Anthropy have a great book called Game Design Vocabulary that touches on the way that narrative is shaped by whether a game is a conversation between players or a dialog between the designer and player. Many old school wargames feel like a conversation (or monologue) from designer to player. In most other games, it seems like the level of interaction between players is the first indication of with whom the dialog is being shared, right. A fairly solitaire euro is more likely to emphasize narrative by having a designer dictate to the player.
Great stuff. Very good points and I now have a new book to add to my list.
I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Theme is important to me but it has to be wrapped around a real game. Like there is a Parker Brothers Dune game and also an Avalon Hill Dune game. I love how the theme and mechanics integrate with each other in the AH version, but I’m assuming the PB version doesn’t do that due to me having never heard anyone talk about playing that version in all my years of gaming.
Also – when you talk about isolated narrative imagery, how does that relate to flavor text. I personally enjoy flavor text, but when I am playing Battlestar or Eldritch Horror, sometimes the group forces me to skip reading the flavor text just so we can get a 6 player game finished in under 5 hours or whatever. I would rather read the flavor text out loud on every card, every time I play, but even I sometimes ignore it when its a game I’ve played more than a dozen times. I ask because I am currently putting some flavor text onto cards in the game I am currently designing, so I am getting to see this part of the theme from both the designer/publisher side as well as the player side. It seems essential to me to keep it because it adds to the spirit/understanding of what the card does, at least in my game. I think, while a lot of people might skip reading it with its smaller font and italics, the game would just seem some percentage less rich to me if I didn’t include it.
Flavor text is tough. I personally agree with you and I’m including it on many cards for a game I’m currently working on as well, but I also tend to skip it after repeat plays.
Much of it depends on how the card itself is utilized. If it’s an event, I would think most people would read it. If it’s an action card that you repeatedly play (such as those in Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game), then most people would skip past it.
I think a large degree of this is taste and people could argue either way.
Nice article Charlie!
I must admit I’m growing to be more and more of a mechanicist. In the end, I think that games that are really thematic are thematic almost purely based on what you actually do when you play them. So I
I think that’s definitely true. For a game to encompass a theme it needs to convey that through the player’s actions. Story I think can be offered regardless of your actions (flavor text, long passages in a story book, etc.), but that’s a less engaging premise.
I generally find myself to be really good at creating a narrative or thematic arc out of even the most soulless Euro game. But I feel like the ingredients to make said arc have to be present somehow. One of the guys in our game design group has brought a lot of prototypes with good mechanics and interesting themes, but they always leave me wondering “What story is trying to be told here?”.
Yeah that’s always a bummer when it doesn’t come together. On the bright side, there are a lot of people there who don’t care about narrative or board games telling stories.