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.