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Of Armchairs And Generals – Do We Tell Our Own Stories Through The Games We Play?

by Ádám Gerencsér

Imagine you and a friend (or significant other) playing a game. Let it be a simulation of grand strategy, animating the destinies of realms and peoples as they clash, compete, and cooperate over resources and territories. In your previous moves, you might have successfully united the Hungarian-speaking realm into the “Carpathian Empire” and feel ready to set out on a Crusade to the Holy Land. You may thus turn to your companion and ask her to join you, or at least send assistance but, alas, find her tied up further west across the sprawling map, gradually reconquering the Hispanic peninsula at the helm of her Aragonese troops. You discuss (outside of the game but staying in character, if you wish) and finally settle on arranging a useful marriage between your in-game heir and one of her Mediterranean vassals, thus ensuring that your next incarnation would gain access to more combat-ready levies.

If you know the game in question, no doubt your mind is already racing with possibilities – but do read on before rushing to your laptop. If you don’t, picture a vast scalable map of the Middle Ages residing on your computer screen, where one of the fiefdoms represents your lands, the attached family tree the characters of your family, and the world around them an almost endless possibility of interactions with other domains, noble houses, religions and trading partners. You are not a country, per se, neither just an individual, but rather a whole dynasty – and the game continues as long as your bloodline does (even in exile).

Thus, you are playing in (and with) a virtual world. But you are also doing something else, something more engaging and arguably more rewarding – you and your fellow gamer are weaving a common narrative: a story emerges.

The extent to which this happens depends largely on the nature of the game, rather than merely on the intent of the player. Thus, computer games may arguably be classified along a continuum defining their level of narrative involvement, stretching from story-driven to story-neutral. Doing so, one may group them roughly into the following three categories:

A.      Some depend on telling a story as their essence. These include role-playing games, in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons and its many re-implementations, as well as so-called “point-and-click” adventures (games essentially designed as interactive animations where player intervention is mediated by clicking with a mouse on items to manipulate or characters to converse with). You play because you want to know what happens next.

B.      Another category of games presents a hybrid experience more focussed on dexterity or tactics, but still offering a backstory that informs the fictional universe, even if with limited bearing on the player’s individual moves. These range from grand strategy titles (where the aim is the governance of states and macro-economies, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization) to squad-based situational simulations (where the player manages a small group of characters and their day-to-day struggle for resources, as in the emotionally impactful This War of Mine). You play for the experience.

C.      Meanwhile, some are almost void of story-telling elements, and rely instead on nifty mechanics through which the player competes with others, or overcomes procedural obstacles and achieves a sense of progression. Lore, if any, is mostly cosmetic. These span the breadth from casual entries (such as “brawlers”, i.e. fighting games, and racing titles, which can be picked up for a few minutes of entertainment) to highly time-intensive and complex “virtual toys” (incl. accurate flight simulators and detailed city builders, which demand a high learning curve and a large time investment). You play for sheer exhilaration.

Yet now let us add a second axis, representing the amount of freedom accorded to the person immersed in the game: in the language of design, this is often referred to as player agency. Here games range from complete linearity (traversing a pre-ordained path to complete a quest) to an open-world setting (where the main plot or purpose of the game can be postponed almost indefinitely in order to inhabit its fictional environment). These can map perpendicularly onto any of the three categories mentioned above, as per Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Narrative agency in computer games

But which of these best lend themselves for player-led story-generation?

According to our analogy, the axes of both intersecting spectra meet somewhere in the middle. Depending on the player’s willingness to enrich the gaming experience by spinning their own tale, both by interacting with the game itself and by the added means of auto-suggestion, one could argue that the optimum requires a balance between “sand-box” (i.e. open world) liberty and realistic feedback, i.e. the manner in which the in-game environment reacts to the player’s actions. Thus, the less linear and more complex a setting is, the better opportunities it offers for user-led narrative building.

For a case in point, take the Creative Assembly’s Total War series, a succession of empire-building games blending the turn-based rhythm of board games for the political layer with real-time command and control for the battles that ensure when opposing armies come to occupy the same spot on the map. Each game covers a different historical period, from the Roman Empire to the Napoleonic era, with the most recent instalment (dubbed Attila) bridging the transition from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages. When immersed in this title’s grand campaign (i.e. leading a specific realm through the entire timespan of the game), the objectives for each faction delineate their choices to some extent, but player-agency is only constrained if one is preoccupied with the attainment of pre-set victory conditions.

To give an illustrative example, during the present author’s most recent session, he chose to impersonate a fictional Hunnic faction that acted as faithful guardians of Constantinople, hammering the enemies of the Byzantines at every turn. Since the algorithm governing the actions of the Eastern Romans did not initially foresee such a turn of events, the player had to sack their capital in the early game, in order to force them to make peace with his barbarian horde. This regrettable-but-necessary bloodshed, however, turned out to mark the beginning of a long, mutually beneficial alliance, as subsequent positive interactions eventually came to overshadow past frictions.

Another well-known example of a game that pushes the limits of player agency is Paradox Studio’s Europa Universalis franchise (and its cousins, incl. the Crusader Kings series alluded to at the outset). Co-operative campaigns played with human companions may be (and often are) entirely devoted to self-chosen objectives, such as uniting the Catholic world as an expansionist Papal State. These meta-game objectives blend the player’s personal interests or pet historical fantasies with the flexibility provided by the artificial intelligence underlying the software (the so-called Clausewitz engine). Narrative retellings of what had transpired during such lengthy session have become a staple of online forum discussions dedicated to these games, thus often completing the leap from ‘playing’ to ‘story-telling’.

The intense sense of creative potential is most evident in the “modding” culture that has sprung up around such games: some have communities of thousands of users who develop additional content (such as maps, historical events, military units, 3D models of buildings, artwork, etc.) and share it freely with others to download and integrate into their local copy of the software in question. Exposure to the “mods” thus created has shaped user expectations towards the features and flexibility subsequent titles ought to have.

There have even been attempts by “modders” to radically alter the nature of games that were conceived as linear by their original publishers. One of the most ambitious examples to date is the ongoing effort by enthusiast of Slitherine’s Panzer Corps to take the wealth of military units and map terrain tiles available from the base game (and its many official expansions) and create a giant scale map of Europe complete with railways, roads, cities and the disposition of forces reflecting the geostrategic situation in mid-1942. The massive scenario attempts, in effect, to turn a static digital board game emulating individual battles of World War 2 into an experimental device for alternate history world-building.

If these trends continue apace, those interested in crafting their own narratives through non-linear games have a lot to look forward to. With the advent of more powerful home computers and the emergent combinatory skills of artificial intelligence, we may see the advent of privately accessible grand strategy and simulation games that rival the professional software hitherto reserved to military academies and corporate research laboratories. Such development would unleash narrative potential on an unprecedented scale, particularly in the genres of speculative geopolitics and alternate history.

Far more revolutionarily, and with an impact that is hard to foresee, fledgeling virtual reality technologies will break the immersion barrier whereby procedurally generated worlds with realistic (incl. haptic) feedback will likely redefine what it means to require for audiences to ‘suspend disbelief’. As audiences will be plunged directly into the midst of fictional multi-sensory worlds, the very notion of linear story-telling is likely to be challenged by expectations of ubiquitous interactivity – and at greater lengths of immersion.

While there was an observable trend already in the 2010s for longer games, the revenues of both digital as well as analogue (board game) publishers focussing on complex titles increased markedly during the Covid pandemic, and held up firmly ever since. With ludophiles apparently having heeded the call for “social distancing” by retreating to their bunkers to play, the estimated 40 hours needed to complete a single campaign of the above-mentioned mega-games are certainly starting to look a lot less unreasonable. Particularly when judged alongside the time investment required for the (decidedly narrative) video game rated highest by worldwide critics in 2023, Belgium-based Larian Studio’s high-fantasy epic, Baldur’s Gate 3 – 100 to 150 hours by median estimates.

The question now remains – will people still take the time to read analogue literature in an age of hyper-immersive, personally tailored gaming experiences? As we head into 2024, we are perhaps closer to finding out than we could imagine.



by Todd Sullivan

Gerald’s wife lay sprawled on the bed, a packer of sleeping pills on the nightstand next to her. He picked up the orange cylinder and read the label. She’d bought the popular brand, LoGof, guaranteed to end a life peacefully. Pharmacies advertised LoGof throughout the silent city, the slogan, “Escape into the real you”, written beneath smiling faces of families. His wife must have swallowed dozens of the tablets and died while she slept beside him.

Caressing her cheek one last time, he called the 24-hour crematorium. When the technicians arrived, they wrapped her body in a burial shroud and informed him that a Counselor would be along soon.

In no mood for that conversation, Gerald grabbed his basketball and stepped outside. In the distance, orbital antennas spraying out purple micro-particles rose seventy miles into the air to pierce the atmosphere. The Counselors had originally built them to amplify the extra-planetary telescopes launched five years ago by private enterprises. Only recently had the antennas started rotating on their axises and emitting a dust that was slowly coating the world.

Gerald reached the court, stretched, and dribbled the ball. Purple dust puffed up around his sneakers as he went in for a lay up, all net. He chased after the ball, but the sudden exertion sent him into a coughing fit. For moments, he simply hunched over trying to catch his breath.

When the spasm passed, he turned back to the free throw line. Across the street, he saw a Counselor making its way to him. Tall and thin with a golden exterior, the Counselor moved on spindly tentacles that unfolded out from its lower half. It stepped into the center of the court and began to walk in a tight circle. The Counselors never stood still, rotating much like the antennas towering above the earth.

“Do you enjoy playing this game by yourself?” Its gentle voice emanated from no discernible source, its melodic tone closer to singing than speaking. The innocuous question brought tears to Gerald’s eyes that he immediately blinked away.

He shot the ball, and it thudded against the backboard and bounced away. Before he could reach it, a tendril extended from the golden body and wrapped around the ball. Gerald considered leaving, but if he went back home, there would probably be another Counselor waiting to engage him in a conversation he had no desire in having.

Gerald held out his hands. “Can I get my ball back?”

The Counselor threw it to him. Gerald caught it, dribbled in the fine carpet of dust, and shot another brick. He already knew what the Counselor wanted to say. He’d had this discussion many times, though he never knew if it was with the same Counselor, or with a different one, since they all appeared the same to him.

“Why do you not want to join your wife and family?”

Gerald swallowed a lump that formed in his throat. “I’m not going to kill myself.”

“They are not dead. As we have explained to you, this reality is not real.”

Gerald shot the ball. It ricocheted off the rim, and he ran after it, his lungs burning from the purple dust. “It certainly feels real.”

“You cannot trust your senses. What you see is a construct. The avatar of your body is just a manifestation, not your true embodiment.”

Gerald had heard this before. When cosmologists discovered structures emitting infrared fourteen million light-years away, Counselors landed on Earth shortly afterwards. Meeting the different heads of state from around the world, they explained to the top scientists of the most powerful nations that what those were actually data streams giving shape to a cosmos that human consciousness had become trapped in.

“So I actually look like you, right?” Gerald asked.

“My native appearance, yes. You and I are the same species, but Counselors manifested in this form because we thought it would help you believe us.” The Counselor approached Gerald, who dribbled away, keeping his distance. “The glitch to this matrix keeps your mind imprisoned. The only way to break the cycle is to kill yourself, for a non-forced death will recycle your mind back through this system to take up a new role in the simulation.”

Gerald pointed to the antennas shooting out purple micro-particles. “So if this reality isn’t real, what are those structures doing? And why are there more Counselors appearing even as there are less humans that need convincing to commit suicide?”

“What you perceive as antennas are simply key-commands meant to reconfigure the malfunction of this reality. This dust is a byproduct of mathematical computations in higher dimensions of the program. If you do not detach from this reality, your consciousness will be overwritten, and your mind will be lost. There is little time left.”

Gerald’s parents had taken their lives in the first wave of suicides. He had managed to convince his wife to hold off until today. She had now joined billions of other humans who had killed themselves over the last five years.

The Counselors had argued their case well, convincing physicists that reality was a simulation. Scientists convinced the world’s governments, who eventually encouraged their citizens to disconnect from their artificial lives. As the population dwindled, a terrifying possibility had formed in Gerald’s mind. What if the Counselors were lying? What if they wanted Earth, and after studying humans, had figured out a way to obtain it without firing a single shot.

When you’re dealing with a technologically inferior mind, convincing them of self-destruction could be a perfect bloodless coup of the native species.

Gerald laid up the ball. He wasn’t alone in his suspicions, and he wasn’t going to kill himself. If enough humans continued to resist the Counselors’ suggestion, maybe they could discover the truth and defeat this most quiet of alien invasions.

 “If it’s all the same,” Gerald told the Counselor, “I think I’ll play this virtual game a little while longer.”



Todd Sullivan currently lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he teaches English as a Second Language. He has had more than two dozen short stories, poems, essays, and novelettes published across five countries. He currently has two book series through indie publishers in America. He writes for a Taipei web and play series that focuses upon black and African narratives. He founded the online magazine, Samjoko, in 2021, and hosts a YouTube Channel that interviews writers across the publishing spectrum.

Philosophy Note:

Words don’t die once uttered, but float in the wind, like seeds, with the power to change landscapes.

Pinning The Egg

by Larry Hodges

“It’s over,” I said, over 2200 years ago. Poor Emperor Qin may have united and conquered all of China, began the Great Wall of China, and created the life-sized Terracotta Army (for God’s sake, why?), but he could only glare at the Go board. I was nice enough to only beat him in private. When there were spectators I always let him win.

“Someday I will beat you,” he said. “For real.” When he’d ordered all the scholarly books burned, they’d also mistakenly burned the only good one on Go tactics.

I was about to politely explain to the black-clad Emperor why my losing to a primitive barbarian like him was about as likely as a giant egg falling out of the sky, that he didn’t have to wear black all of the time, even if water, represented by black, was his “birth element,” and for that matter why his hunt for the “elixir of life” would also fail, when the sensor alarm beeped. I raced to the viewscreen, an anachronism here at the Qin Palace, where astrology was the height of science.

Flaming out of the sky was a giant egg. A Murt Egg. Oh God.

Believe me, you do not want one of these on your world. Once hatched, out comes a Murt, with flaming hair and laser eyes that rip everything in its path like a tornado in a black hole. It could take out half a continent in one pleasant afternoon. I know; I was trained to fight them. The Chinese were the most advanced civilization on Earth back then, and so I’d made Xian my home base as their guardian against the Murt. It was time to go to work.

I used the transporter to leave China and the Qin Dynasty–I would never return–beaming myself to the egg’s estimated landing spot on a large island halfway around the world. Did I mention that in the 46,136 known cases of a Murt egg hatching on a planet with intelligent life, exactly zero of those intelligent races survived? That’s why the Galactic Federation created the Anti-Murt Patrol (AMP)–not to save intelligent race number 46,137, but to save their own sorry little tushies. And that’s why I’d been assigned to Earth, to stop any such infiltration, which would lead to more Murts as they expanded through the galaxy.

The egg smacked into the ground like an irritated meteor, just missing me. And then it was just the two of us, mano-a-mano, Colonel Cag, the lone agent assigned to Earth, versus the egg from Hell. You’re probably thinking of chicken eggs, twelve innocent, defenseless ovals in a carton smiling up at you, just looking for a nice home. Now imagine them screaming in agony as you toss them on the fryer. That’s you if I don’t stop this rhino-sized egg from hatching. Its pure whiteness was a trick; inside was the demon spawn of, well, demons.

“Back off or get pinked!” came a high-pitched voice in Galactic Standard from within the egg, giving a pink warning flash. Great; a girl Murt. They were the worst. I shuddered, remembering what I’d heard about this most evil of beings.

“Are you shuddering?” asked the egg.

Great Dragon’s Breath! These things can practically smell fear, even from the egg. A little bravado was needed if I wanted to get the upper hand. “Why don’t you take your frilly dolls and go back into orbit, and hatch and die in the vacuum of space? I’d hate to have to pin a little girl.”

Being an ignorant isolationist species, you probably don’t know that I’m one of the Zinh, a shapeshifting and transmuting species. I transformed from my Asian human guise into a solid sword of quantum quasar-tempered metallic hydrogen–a Zinh secret–and shot into the air. Only an incredibly sharp point made from an incredibly strong metal shooting at an incredible speed can pierce and pin a Murt egg to the ground.

Kapow! I barely dodged the pink ray that shot from the egg. A nearby oak exploded in flame. More rays shot out, and I dodged, left and right, keeping the blade–me–edge-on to the egg to minimize its target. One mistake, and I’d get pinked. This was what I’d lived and trained my whole life for! I swerved left, then right, saw an opening, and dived.

But the egg was too quick as it spun away. Imagine a rhino flitting about like a dragonfly. Fortunately, we Zinh train with the rhino-sized dragonfly-like beings of Krong. Only–when sparring with the Krong, I didn’t have to dodge death rays that made me want to go back to mommy. We did put laser flashlights on their collars and practiced avoiding them, but that’s like training with lightning bugs to prepare for a fire-breathing dragon.

I found another opening, and another, and each time the egg barely avoided me, and each time I barely avoided its barrage of pink light. But one mistake, and it would all be over. I thought back to my years of training, trying to find that one bit of high-level technique that would allow me to prevail. There had to be something. And then I remembered the last piece of advice my master had told me before I graduated, a tactic so advanced, so unexpected, that none could withstand it.

“You fight like a boy!” I cried.

“Oh yeah? And you–“

I only needed like a hundredth of a second of hesitation, and that’s what I got as I followed my words by swooping in, willing myself to go faster than even its beams of light. My point sank into it and pinned it to the ground as it screamed. Success!!!

Well, sort of. Did I mention that defeating a Murt egg is basically a sentence of life imprisonment to the winner? Stabbing a Murt egg doesn’t kill it–almost nothing does, including a nuclear blast–so all I could do was keep it pinned there, for all eternity.

“Can’t we talk this over?” asked the egg, helplessly flashing pink and burning a nearby innocent elm tree. “I’m not even a baby!”

“Sorry,” I said. The egg bucked back and forth for a couple of centuries (I won’t bore you with the details, but there was a lot of insulting repartee–the Zinh are good, but the Murt have us beat there), but eventually it sighed and gave up. Finally! “Would you like to learn to play mental Go?” I asked.

Eternity is rather boring when all you have to pass the time is playing Go with a large egg while staring at its innards. As the centuries passed, my sword body solidified; I’d never be able to shapeshift or transmute again. The egg also aged, gradually looking more and more like an ugly rock, as I helpfully pointed out every chance.

You’d think the humans would be grateful for my saving them from utter destruction, but no. Minions of evil kept trying to pull me out, not realizing the malevolence they’d release. And then one day, as I was about to beat the egg in Go for the 1,284,265th boring time in a row (yeah, I’m proud of beating a baby), an old man with a long staff and tall, pointy hat stopped by. After looking about to make sure there were no witnesses, he sprinkled hydrochloric acid all over where I entered the egg.

“What are you doing!” I cried as parts of me began to painfully dissolve, but he only giggled and left.

“It’s so warm and sizzly!” cried the egg, faintly flashing pink.

A few minutes later a gangly teenager came by. He stared at me for a moment, then grabbed me by the handle.

Don’t do it!” I screamed, but it was too late. With the acid eating away at me, he easily pulled me from the egg.

“Yes!” cried the egg. “And I only let you win at Go.” As the teenager held me up in triumph and declared himself king of England, I could only watch as the egg sank beneath the surface, where it would incubate and then hatch in about 1500 years.

I spent a few short years with this so-called king, where he used me to kill rivals to his throne, then he too was killed, and then I was lost for 1400 years, helplessly buried in the rubble of his ancient fortress as my energy slowly drained away. A hundred years ago I was found, cleaned, and spent years in various private collections as I was sold from back and forth, and finally put on display in a museum, though none know who or what I am. I’ve mutely watched as humanity advanced in so many ways, never knowing the danger below. But 1500 years have passed, and it’s about to hatch. My days are past, so humanity is on its own. Anyone for a last game of Go?



Larry Hodges is an active member of SFWA with 114 short story sales, 35 of them “pro” sales, including ones to Analog, Amazing Stories, Escape Pod, and 18 to Galaxy’s Edge. He also has four SF novels, including When Parallel Lines Meet in 2017, which he co-wrote with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, and Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions in 2016, from World Weaver Press. He’s a member of Codexwriters, and a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writers Workshop and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Writers Workshop. In the world of non-fiction, he’s a full-time writer with 17 books and over 1900 published articles in over 170 different publications. Visit him at