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Monthly game profile for July: Role-playing and story games, and other co-created games

Posted on July 21, 2013

Hi folks! Sorry for the delay in posting this - it's been a hectic week here. Your humble author participated in a panel on games in libraries with a selection of other library folks from here in Melbourne, Australia; it was pretty inspiring, but created a lot of follow-up. And then... but enough about yours truly, let's get to the games! 

As we discussed earlier this month, one of the chief characteristics of games is that you need to co-create the experience with others. In this, games are almost a performative artform, like theatre or music - except that instead of a tightly predefined script or score, the creator gives the players (and the fact that the same word is equally apt for all three media is not a coincidence!) a framework for interaction and sets them loose.

(Indeed, for a game, predictability and predefinition is anathema: there is no longer any scope for play. A game where there is a single optimal strategy which will guarantee victory or stalemate - such as tic-tac-toe - is called "solved", and that is usually a term of disparagment for precisely this reason. Even though the players are still just as free to play however they choose as they were before the game was solved, the script is known to be clearly implicit in the rules and the victory condition, and therefore the game is flawed. Perhaps no other artform has the concept of free will and choice so deeply embedded in its heart - and ironically, necessarily, it is the form that is ultimately constituted in rules!)

(But a side note to the side note - a relatively simple extra layer of interactivity can - at least temporarily - redeem even tic-tac-toe.)

So rather than traditional symphonic music or classical drama, multiplayer games are perhaps more like extemporised forms like jazz or improv theatre. There is a predefined endgame, or at best a small range of endgames, but the discovery of who will get there, and precisely how, and the characters of the specific players on that specific occasion, all combine to create a tremendous variety of experiences. And the process of creating each of those experiences, even if it is fuelled by intense competition, is also an intense collaboration.

It's no surprise, then, that games have evolved from one-against-one (or all-against-all) traditional battles of chance or wits to more collaborative experiences. We'll be talking about outright co-operative games next month - this month, we're looking at games where the collaboration is focused more on the narrative or creative end.

For those who've never played a role-playing game, the name is the key. Rather than more abstract manipulations of a game state, playing such a game involves means playing a specific (usually heroic) character, a "role" in the theatrical sense. The rules of the game are not a comprehensive, well-defined list of all allowable actions, as in a traditional game like chess or go - they are instead a series of outer limits of possibility (things that can't be done, things that can automatically be done) and mechanisms for resolving anything uncertain or contested. For instance, in an espionage role-playing game, depending on your selection of spy abilities, you might automatically be able to pick a standard lock, unable to hack a computer, and possibly able to fly a barrel roll in a plane (and you'd roll dice to decide whether you succeed).

There is also no fixed victory condition. You are playing to achieve your character's goals, but those are defined in narrative terms much like any fictional character's goals. The genre of the game may suggest standard objectives, such as discovering hidden temples or defeating Nazis in a pulp adventure game, but these are always subject to modification in character creation or play. And while the person moderating the game, commonly (but by no means always) called the Game Master or GM, is playing all the non-protagonist characters and providing the overarching plot that provides your protagonist character with opposition and conflict, they are generally not your opponent themselves, so much as a collaborator in the construction of challenges for your character to overcome.

Story games take this a step further. Typically a story game has no singular authoritative adjudicator like the GM; rather all the players are equal participants in creating the world and story their characters inhabit. The level of detachment is much greater; whereas in a role-playing game, players are encouraged to invest in helping their character achieve their goals, story game players may take considerable pleasure in seeing their characters fail horribly. (In fact at least one game, Fiasco, is expressly designed to facilitate the creation of stories like the Coen Brothers' Fargo, where people get stupid and greedy, overreach, and get in dangerously over their heads.) While players still usually take responsibility for playing one particular character, it's in more a custodial than authorial capacity, and they're usually much more open to other players' input into the outcomes and even decisions of their character.

These types of games have produced several new literary forms - the campaign setting, like a travel guide for the fictional world; the rules expansion, which gives additional mechanical elements to support the inclusion of new fictional elements within the game, such as introducing rules for time travel into a space opera game; and the adventure or module, something like a cross between a short story and a set of pre-written challenges for the players to have their characters participate in. Games are already sharing authorship between the creator of the game and the players; these allow even more people to contribute creativity to the outcome of the game. It's no coincidence, I think, that role-playing games and fan fiction arose around the same time in overlapping geeky subsections of the community.

Videogames have fostered the same co-creative sensibilities. From very early on, fans of games were breaking into the code to fix bugs and typos, and then to add things into the design, and then to change things they didn't like about the design, and eventually to replace content wholesale... and some of those people went on to make their own games, and to share the tools with which they did so, so that a game might include a level editor to allow you to create your own areas for people to play through, and insert your own art in addition to the artwork already in the game, and eventually even tools to edit the way the game worked at quite a basic level. This is now extremely common: so much so that the Steam Marketplace, one of the major places to buy and download electronic games, has a whole other side to it supporting user-created content for the big-name games on the service.

Several major games have been the result of a dedicated mod: Counterstrike, now a very famous multi-player first-person shooter in its own right, started as a mod of Half-Life that became so popular its creators were hired by Half-Life's authors, Valve. (Note the plural: creators. Quite often the people who create these mods do so in spontaneously-formed volunteer teams, some of which get so big that they have to start creating internal management and administration structures and positions!) Defense of the Ancients, a mod for the real-time strategy (RTS) game Warcraft III, so drastically changed the way the game played that it spawned an entire new sub-genre of RTS: MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Recently one young man won himself the attention of his favourite computer RPG studio by spending thousands of hours creating a mod for their game Skyrim. And, of course, a massive part of the appeal of Minecraft is the ability to create all kinds of crazy things out of, well, the closest analogy is an infinite supply of virtual Lego.

And the same is true of third-party content creation for story games and role-playing games. In fact, the 3rd edition of the famous tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons took this so far that they created a whole new Open Game License which was something like a Creative Commons license for the rules, to make it easy for people to adapt the game in precisely this way. So many people took advantage of this opportunity that there was in fact a miniature bubble in RPG publishing! Many of those companies collapsed with the bubble, but some of those which started as a result of the Open Game License are now doing so well that their games now appear to be outselling the current 4th edition of D&D!

In other words, modding is not one, but two things libraries should be keen to support: not only a chance to engage with your favourite creative works in a new way, but also an entry point to a creative career.

So much for games being essentially passive and pointless!

Help spread the word!
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