People take it for granted that games are a storytelling medium. But until quite recently, games didn’t tell stories. Before the 70’s, there weren’t really any narrative games. In 1978, games scholar, Bernard Suits, said storytelling “only belonged in the unstructured make-believe games of children”. Even into the 2000’s, game scholars denied that games even could tell stories effectively. In 2004, Raph Koster wrote “games melded with stories tend to be Frankenstein monsters. Players tend to either skip the story or skip the game.”
Since then, narrative has become an essential part of games. It’d be hard to even imagine a game with no story at all, so that asks the question:
when did games start telling stories?
Narrative games are quite a recent thing, with one exception. Hundreds of years before all the others, in the 13th century, in the court of Renaissance Italy, there was a game that the nobles played called Ariosto’s Maze, based on the internationally bestselling poem The Frenzy of Orlando by Ludovico Ariosto. See, life in Italian courts were pretty dull— none of them worked, they had few responsibilities, and incresingly ellaborate games became the go-to to spend their time.
Unfortunately, no copies of the game have survived, but the mechanics of it were described in the journal of a poet.
It was a simple roll and move game. Each player’s marker on the board represented a character in the poem and each space on the board represented a location in the poem. And the players would create a narrative to fit what was going on in the game. If you landed on a space that told your character to move backwards, you must come up with a narrative reason for it. Maybe your character ruined their social standing by falling in love with a peasant.
It seems like this type of gaming didn’t catch on with anyone but nobles, who had extrodinary amounts of free time, so it doesn’t seem to have had much influence outside those small social circles.
Hundreds of years later, we hit the next big innovation in gaming, and it’s a romance novel.
This might be controversial, but the first modern narrative game was the 1930 novel called Consider the Consequences! By Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins. It was a choose your own adventure novel, nearly 50 years before they became popularized by the “Choose your own Adventure” brand. The book boasted more than a dozen different endings, each catering to your personal taste.
As you read, you were asked to make decisions: “The reader who thinks she should give up Paul completely turns to paragraphs H-25. He who thinks she should encourage him to get a divorce and marry her turns to paragraphs H-26.”
The book quite simply aimed to be the perfect romance novel for everyone. It was as scandalous or not as you wanted to be.
It really is hard to appreciate the leap of creativity these women needed, since the idea of dialogue trees is so familiar to modern gamers, but consider that people had been writing novels for over 800 years prior, and no one had never published anything like this before.
Only 1000 copies of this book were ever printed, and like Ariosto’s Maze, it has also been largely forgotten.
Now, let’s rewind back to the the 1800’s, when wargaming began growing popular.
Now, I have an entire video about wargaming and how it all ties into the history of board games, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but the short of it is that wargaming was the first time in gaming’s history that a game attempted to capture and represent the real world with the game’s rules. The theme and mechanics worked together to paint a picture, to simulate details that games had always abstracted over entirely.
Now, these games aren’t narrative, but they set the stage for games that are. After all, abstract games can’t tell stories, and virtually all games before wargaming came around were abstract. In order to tell a story, you need setting, and the ability to portray events, and wargames set the stage for how games could do that.
Another essential element that wargaming had introduced into the sphere of gaming was worldbuilding.
Wargamers had been building increasingly elaborate settings for their games, modeling more and more minute details, creating towns beyond the battle field, and larger and larger terrains for their battles to take place. But they did not stop at that. Eventually, they began to add maps, histories, politics, and languages to their worlds. Units could be differentiated by the culture of the soldiers as well as their stats. There was finally a useful outlet for this kind of creative tinkering for those who do not wish to write fiction.
The Revolution — D&D
Now, that wargaming set the stage, let’s fast forward to the 1960’s. At the same time that wargaming had been growing massively popular in the USA, so had Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy. His books had finally become widely circulated in the US after its paperback printing, and they were huge. Notably, Tolkien had a growing audience within the wargaming community.
One wargame designer, Gary Gygax, had published a game called Chainmail, about Medieval warfare. Like the typical war game, two players would take turns to control their battling armies, with a third player acting as the referee.
But Chainmail’s most unique feature wasn’t found in its main rules, but in the appendix. Gygax had written a fantasy supplement, so you could have wizards and clerics in your army, battling against trolls and dragons. Basically, he took a lot of Tolkien’s mythology and threw it into his game.
At the same time, Dave Arneson was experimenting with some new ideas in wargaming. What if a wargame could have more than just the typical two players and a referee? What if they could support any number of players? He arrived at letting the players who didn’t control armies, control individual characters.
Arneson eventually took this idea of taking on the role of a single character, and transplanted it into Gygax’s Chainmail. He reached out to Gynax, and the two collaborated on this idea, creating Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and dragons was revolutionary, and it marked the birth of true narrative games. This new genre of game provided a framework for storytelling in a way that no game before had attempted, and debatably, no game since has matched.
But the innovation wasn’t even intentional. Narrative can be defined as a “character in a situation with a goal.” And in the culture of gaming, up to this point, had never combined all of these elements. War games had come the closest, finding ways to depict situations and goals. It wasn’t until roleplaying had come about, that the last part of the narrative question had been answered.
But D&D was only the first spark. The idea that a game could tell stories was revolutionary, and it directly inspired so many games that came after.
One of the biggest responses to D&D was the burgeoning game design community’s desire to capture it’s spirit in a new game, but simpler, quicker, with fewer inconsistencies, no prepwork and especially without a dungeon master.
Fantasy games started popping up everywhere, and they defined a new genre of story-focused, fantasy-based games.
Tunnels and Trolls was the first. It is considered the second RPG game, but it came with a module for solitaire play. This system included a book full of numbered passages, and which passage you’d read would depend on the outcome of fights, negotiations, and gameplay elements, like rolling dice and winning or losing battles. Later on, this type of game would become known as a paragraph game.
But, surprisingly enough, most games directly inspired by D&D were not RPGs at all.
Some games, like Talisman, just wanted to capture the feel of a fantasy game without focusing on the narrative element as much, while others, like Barbarian Prince, wanted to find a way to tell an everchanging story.
At this point, roleplaying games and narrative board games were still very similar. Board games might assume the players would roleplay, and roleplaying games had more in common with war games than what people think of RPG’s being today.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Tales of the Arabian Nights are two games from this era that have managed to get recent reprints, and are both well known games in their own rights today. If you’ve never played it, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a brilliant game. Chef’s kiss. I also have a video about this game. Click in the corner for it.
Video games were invented in 1958, but none of them had attempted to do any type of narrative until 1975, when Colossal Cave Adventure was published. This is still before computers were widespread, and long before video game consoles had managed to come around. The genre of “adventure games” were named after this game.
To set the stage: Will Crowther was a computer programmer by day, but by night he was an avid cave explorer and D&D player. It occurred to him that he could combine his three passions, to capture the joy of D&D in a text based computer game about exploring a cave system.
The game would display a few lines of text, and a user would type out a command, such as “west” to move your character, or “enter” or open a door. Inside the cave were monsters, mazes, and items. The titual adventures.
“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forrest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. What next?”
Inside the building you find keys which unlock a grate at the end of the stream. Before long, you’ll learn a spell, a magic word that you’re just type out to cast. Then you might encounter a dragon or an angry dwarf.
Now, the game was mostly about collecting items and fighting monsters. It tells a very classic quest story.
At roughly the same time video games started doing prewritten branching narrative, tabletop games began to do the same.
A few years later, the popular line of Choose your Own Adventure Books came out, telling scifi and fantasy stories aimed at children. The same format that Consider the Consequences had arrived at decades earlier was rediscovered, but to much larger fanfare this time.
Is it fair That Doris and Mary never got credit for it? No, Doris and Mary deserve better.
But why stop at text? Why can’t games be fully cinematic?
Donkey Kong was the first game to use cutscenes to tell a story. Well, a single cutscene. Video games had never felt the need to explain the premise of the game, in-game.
Although it was absolutely nonsensical, it’s also pretty a familiar story: a plumber’s girlfriend was kidnapped by his pet gorilla, and now he must go save her. The classic damsel in distress story … meets angry pet gorilla story?
Shortly after Donkey’s kong release, Dragon’s Lair came out, featuring another damsel in distress story, but more, uh… scandalous? This game was comprised entirely of hand drawn cut scenes, with quick time events thrown in. Even today, this video game has more in common with a Saturday morning cartoon than with any game that’s come before or after, but for a lot of developers, it highlighted the storytelling potential of video gaming as a platform, long before the industry had the tools to apply those lessons.
In Japanese video games, storytelling became an important differentiator. Soon after, the first jRPGs would come about, with big and elaborately built stories in fiercely original worlds. The most popular among those titles today is Final Fantasy. At this point, all the elements used in most modern games were in place. Dialogue trees, cut scenes, and world building becoming a major factor of level design.
But the time we get to the late 80s, most major video game titles began to rely on storytelling. See, games were starting to feel very similar. Sidescrolling platformers, topdown RPG’s. There wasn’t actually a lot of variety in gameplay or graphics at this point. Games at that time were limited by the limited hardware of systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, and innovation was considered risky because no one had experience building any other kind of games. And the cheapest, safest place to innovate was in the story of the game. So that’s what they did.
But as hardware got better and better, developers began to see more cinematic potential. The better the graphics looked, the more developers wanted to create cinematic experiences to show those graphics off, the longer cutscenes became.
This trend is even continuing today. Death’s Stranding is a 2019 game that ends with a totally reasonable 2 hour cutscene. Think of it as your reward for sitting through the previous 9 hours of cut scenes.
To this day, after triple A game design has started to become repetitive again, big game developers still see story as the chief place to innovate, and often design their games around stories, rather than the other way around. And this is for two reasons. The first is price of course. Writing a compelling story is cheap. Secondly, narrative is the best way to keep player retention up when you’re making a 200 hour long game. The mechanics might get old, but you always want to know what happens next.
It’s this attitude that lead stories to become such a central part of AAA video games in the last 20 years. And because of this push from the biggest companies working in a 200 billion dollar industry, games finally got a reputation for being a storytelling medium.
But where video games have truly cemented themself as a unique form of narrative, is through environmental storytelling. Half-life was one of the early games to create a world that focused as much on gameplay as it did on conveying the story of its world. And later, Bioshock took that formula to a new level, leaving so much story to be told through the environmental cues.
But, let’s jump backwards for a second, to discuss where board games landed.
Back in the early 90’s, analog gaming seemed to be dying off. Video games were growing in popularity, and as they became more accessible, the interest in creating and buying analog games started to dwindle. Who would want a board game if you could hook a console into your TV?
But that changed when German style board games were exported to the rest of the world, starting with the international hit The Settlers of Catan. Although German style board games were also based on the ideas formed in wargaming, these games weren’t influenced by the American fantasy storytelling trend. While the hobby of board gaming began growing faster than it ever had, the American designer’s focus on capturing narrative never took a back seat.
But storytelling in board games, even to this day, is a distinct feature of American style board games.
Board gaming didn’t really have any narrative leaps until after the turn of the century.
It seemed like designers had found the limits of how baord games can tell stories.
See board games had a big problem videos games didn’t. Board games are entirely transparent. In order to play, you need to know all the rules before you start, meaning the game can’t surprise you with gameplay elements you didn’t expect. Any sort of plot twist that would have an effect on the game would be spoiled before the game started.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill, published in 2004, was the first game to earnestly try to include plot twists. The result was a fantastically cinematic game, that without the use of a paragraph system, captures the feeling and mood of a horror b movie.
The plot twists themselves were accomplished by splitting the game into two acts. The first act, the players explore the mansion blindly. Just like the horror films, the players know its a bad idea, but they do it anyways. Eventually, dice will trigger one of the 50 midgame scenarios, known as the haunt, where it is revealed that a semi-random player is betraying the others. Both sides are given a new rule book, explaining the flavor and the new goal of the game, which can narratively be anything, from vampires to a mad bomber. The players might have to escape the mansion, or kill the betrayer, find the keys or disable a doomsday device.
Essentially, the game’s innovation was to hide the endgame rules from the players until those rule become relevant.
But the art of board games changing their rules to match narrative events in the game’s story was taken much further. Rob Daviau, a board game designer, once joked about why the dinner guests of Clue kept getting invited back to dinner. Ultimately, that joke sparked the idea for a game that didn’t reset after being played, and lead to the design and publication of Risk Legacy in 2011. That became the first game known as a Legacy game, a genre of board games that are designed to permanently change as you play them.
Stickers get placed on the board, the rules can be permanently changed at any time if by telling you to place a sticker over the old rule. It opens up a new realm of storytelling, since now the changing rules themself can convey plot. If you fail to save someone, they will be dead forever. The game might ask you to rip up their player card to make it truly final.
But whether you’re ripping cards, or putting stickers on the board or in the rulebook, the game evolves as you play it.
Not only do legacy style games allow for plot twists, but they allow for a new kind of persistence: character growth, lasting consequences, genuinely shocking changes. This genre is still new, and relatively unexplored. Barely more than a dozen games exist in the legacy genre today, leaving the design space for them wide open.
But narrative innovation is still happening everywhere in gaming.
Legacy games are just a start. Before your Eyes is a game that jumps forward in time every time you blink, putting the narrative in conflict with your own body. Gone Home is a game that nearly has more in common with interactive theatre pieces than like anything else in its genre.
While story seems nearly omnipresent in video gaming, it seems to have found its saturation point in board gaming, as its own niche of game. Even the way board games tell stories haven’t changed much since the 80’s.
In the grand scope of things, narrative games are still new. After the last 50 years of innovation, storytelling has transformed the way we play, bit by bit. And yet, there is still so much more innovation yet to happen, and so many more ways to create storyworlds and narratives.