Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
This VGG thread got me pondering the idea of narrative in games. Is there always one? Can we distinguish between story-based games and games that are not story-based?
My mind immediately goes to the year 1973, the year I graduated from high school. I was an avid wargamer then (mostly board wargames, but I dabbled at miniatures) and was in a wargaming club. And at one of our get-togethers I played a few turns of a medieval miniatures game using the Chainmail rules. During the game, someone flipped to the back of the rulebook and pointed out the Fantasy Supplement to me. "Wouldn't it be cool to have knights fighting dragons and stuff like that?" he said.
I smiled politely and turned away. To me, that wouldn't have been very cool at all. I was busy trying to understand how medieval warfare worked, and the fellow running the game had just told me the difference between light cavalry and heavy cavalry--how the latter was slow but packed a big punch. I wanted to learn more about medieval warfare and military strategy and tactics in all eras. For me, make-believe fights between elves and orcs would have been a silly distraction.
But it turned out I was in a minority. Within a year, Dungeons & Dragons came out, and pretty soon a whole big group of wargamers, along with lots of other gamers, were having fun leading parties of adventurers against mythical creatures.
The way I remember it, a rift developed between historical wargamers and those who were more accepting of fantasy and science fiction games. They ended up having separate conventions, and it seemed like two very different hobbies, even though they arose from the same place. Lots of gamers easily straddled or crossed the line, though. And after a while, the line blurred. Then along came computer games, and everybody's attention shifted again.
Personally, I resisted RPGs. I didn't mind seeing the occasional science-fiction wargame, though I don't think I ever bought one. I didn't mind that SPI published a few wargames based on fantasy literature either--but I had never read the literature, and I never bought those games. To me, there was something juvenile about fantasy and science fiction, and I was at an age where I wanted to be grown up. I had just gotten old enough to vote or be drafted, so I felt like an adult who should be giving up childish things.
When I caught wind of what RPGs were, I gathered that it was quite different from what we wargamers had been doing--or at least what I had been doing with wargames. The RPG experience seemed to be some kind of structured storytelling exercise, or an improvisational-acting session with a few pencil-and-paper or miniature props.
In sharp contrast, I, for one, had never connected wargames with stories at all. To my mind--and I think to the minds of most of my fellow wargamers--wargames were basically just scaled-down battlefields with rules to govern movement and combat. In the early years, they were advertised as "military chess," and that term seemed perfectly fitting: this was chess expanded in a way that simulated warfare. When SPI came along, the favorite descriptive term for wargames became "conflict simulations."
Now, of course history itself is a story, and any battle or campaign has a "narrative arc"--a beginning, middle, and end. And chess (like any other game) has such a "narrative arc" too, if you look for it. But in those days I never knew anyone who spoke of military campaigns or of chess as a story. If anyone used the word "story" in that context, it was used loosely, as a figure of speech. When you have a chess set in front of you, or an army deployed on a sand table or mapboard, you're commanding a force and guiding it toward an objective. It's a present-moment event, not a story. Maybe after the game is over, and you're recapping what happened, you'll end up telling a story about the game. But the game itself is not a story.
Even if a wargame was based on a historical battle or campaign, it was not telling the story of that event. The map and unit deployment was based on the event, but once the game began, players were doing just what chess players do--playing a game, not participating in a story.
In my view, the early, short-lived wargame Nieuchess is a perfect example of what Charles S. Roberts and other pioneer wargamers had in mind. It's an elaborate chess variant meant to simulate the basic elements of military strategy and tactics. That's very close to what I always had in mind too, in those early years.
But even then, the idea of "military chess" was being subtly undermined. Avalon Hill started publishing history-based games, and the ads said, "YOU are there; YOU are in command." That was suggestive of storytelling and even of role-playing. In actuality, though, it turned out the game was not what the ads suggested. The map and unit deployment might have been based on history, and it might have been possible for players to duplicate the historical moves, making the game tell the story of the battle or campaign, but hardly anybody ever did that. What players did, basically, was just play chess--move their units toward their objectives, clearing out enemy units on the way.
Then Dungeons & Dragons appeared on the scene and seemed to transform everything. Hardcore wargamers rejected D&D, but wargames ended up being heavily influenced by RPGs anyway. Squad Leader is often called a wargame-RPG hybrid. And within a decade we also had games like Firepower, B-17: Queen of the Skies, and Gunslinger. Even Magic Realm was presented as a sort of alternative to D&D for wargamers.
In the 1990s, card-driven games (CDGs) came into being, starting with We the People. And most wargamers accepted this as a big progressive step. No one seemed to notice that wargames had now become entirely story-based. Nieuchess was deeply buried in the dust of history, and wargames had joined the fold of RPGs and computerized adventure games.
Today, no one under 45 or 50 years old even remembers when games were not story-based. Most of us grew up playing games that had back stories or that told stories or presented us with stories we could participate in. If someone mentions a game that's not story-based, abstracts like Tetris (1984) and Blokus come to mind--but most gamers regard those as oddities for occasional play, not something to get immersed in or spend hours, days, or weeks with.
In fact, we've grown so accustomed to story-based games that if I say Waterloo and The Battle of the Bulge are not story-based, many will argue that they have a "narrative arc" and are designed to sort of tell the story of famous military clashes. If, in fact, they don't explicitly tell those stories--or tell any story at all--some will shrug and say the art of game design just hadn't yet evolved enough to make them into the story-based games they should have been. If command control and fog of war were added, and maybe a card-driven system incorporated, then they'd tell the stories of Waterloo and the Bulge respectively, and they'd be good, modern wargames (i.e., story-based wargames).
Frankly, I've heard this sort of thing so often that I'm just not sure anymore. I'm beginning to doubt my own take on reality. I'm half convinced that even chess and checkers are story-based in some sense.
Are they? Is every game in the world some kind of story? Or connected in some way with storytelling? Has it been that way all along, even though I didn't start to realize it until I saw D&D back in 1974 or so?
Or have I been right all these years in believing that the transition from Nieuchess and Tactics II to Squad Leader and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage represents a paradigm shift (or a sell-out, depending on your point of view)?