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Turning Points

May 26th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · Design, Me

Though I love RPGs, one reason I can’t really get into a lot of the current story/action genres that top the charts is narrative related. I love a well-told story with well-realized characters as much as the next guy raised on library cards and soap operas. But so few game stories are able to walk that ever so weird line between telling me a tale I am already comfortable with and surprising me with new language or new shocking betrayals.

I often return to the idea of strategy game as story telling, as one of a handful of genres where the outcome is not known and where, even if you are very good a game, you can spin a yarn about the struggles that got you to the top.

The more I think on it, the more I think that it often comes down to turning points. All us amateur historians love the idea of turning of points in history. These are those moments on which the destinies of nations and men and women turn, where if the outcome had gone another way the entire course of history would have been different. Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles and all that rubbish.

I often remember and talk about a wargame I was playing with my friend Kevin (who reviewed Star Ruler on this site.) We used to play a lot of wargames against each other, and at this time Sid Meier’s Gettysburg was our poison of choice. In one very hard fought battle, my mostly green Union troops were being battered by his Rebel forces, with only our strong position and the fact he had to advance slowly through a forest keeping me in the game. As the time started ticking down, I was pushed from the hill. And then I got notice of reinforcements. I force marched them out of his line site and hit his now tired troops in the back, reclaiming victory at the last second.

The reinforcements were only a turning point because I made them one. I force marched along the stream. I turned them into battle lines at just the right point to cause maximum panic in his troops. It wasn’t scripted beyond the scenario generator saying “You now have more men.”

Some games have turning points you can see building hours in advance. Civilization II, in all its simplicity, made clear who hated you and would be your rival. While the game added a full year to my PhD, I suspect, it also gave the game where long tension between my Babylonians and the neighboring Carthaginians led to a heavily fortified border. Carthage had its main cities on my continent and six more on a large island to the west. As I saw Carthage build tank after tank, I built forts right along the border area and manned them. Remember that in Civ 2, entire stacks were eliminated once the strongest defending unit in that stack was killed – unless the stack was in a fort. So I built forts, and Carthage had forts and before long it looked like the 38th parallel waiting for someone to snap.

Ultimately, it was my navy that won me that war since I could intercept any reinforcements from the other continent. But it was the war that everyone saw coming and that secured victory in the game for me. Sure, Japan would be trouble and I ended up planting nukes in all of their cities. (I am much nicer now than I was.)

It’s not simply that the drama is not scripted; there is a certain amount of improv to all great strategy and wargames, but they always have pretty firm limits on what can and cannot be done. It’s that the drama has a genuine arc to it.

In high school, we were always taught that stories had a climax and then a denouement. We were often asked to identify what the climax was, which sometimes felt a little silly since the stories we read were generally pretty crappy and even when they weren’t, there would be multiple climaxes. The way action games and RPGs are structured, with mission after mission and boss fight after boss fight, it often feels like there are multiple climaxes.

When I talk about stories in game with some of my former colleagues, we sometimes wonder if a game that has a great and well scripted ending, like Red Dead Redemption, for example, earned the ending. Is it a denouement that makes sense in light of everything the player controlled Marston had seen and done? For some of my friends, the ending justifies itself; for others any ending that wants to be considered part of a good story has to fit within that story.

That’s never an issue for strategy games. Nine times out of ten you get the story and the ending you deserve because you were the author. In a great session of Civ or Operational Art of War or Rise of Nations, you can often pin point when victory was achieved and when you made the change from general to god-king, controlling events instead of simply reacting to them. There may still be multiple climaxes, but that’s not because the story is a bad one, it’s because the story is constantly being rewritten according to your whims and your priorities.

No action game has ever made me want to be a writer. Some strategy games have.


14 Comments so far ↓

  • Wolfox

    “No action game has ever made me want to be a writer. Some strategy games have.”

    What a great way to finish a great article. I salute you, sir.

  • Roke

    In my experience if you tell non-strategy gamers the reason you play strategy games is mainly for the story they give some funny looks (until you can explain yourself). That is not to say that along the way I don’t employ min/max strategies, but the story and the progression of the game is what keeps me going.

    The beginning of strategy gaming for me was walking to school with a friend talking about his Civ 2 game and how he had built some cities, discovered the Egyptians across a body of water, and was now building a fleet to go and invade and capture those cities. I had to have that game.

    Similarly, in the past couple of years I could not get through the information overload of Europa Universalis III or Hearts of Iron 3 until I had a friend regale me with his campaign as England against France, or invading and defeating Italy as Canada. Having my own stories to experience and share was the impetus to give the games another shot.

    Of all the games I have played over the years the most immersive, tension-filled moments were in a Football Manager (FM) 2007 file managing Canada in the World Cup. I literally was jumping out of my seat, had my hands to my face. There hasn’t been another game that has come close to that for me, scripted or not, though it may be the Canadian soccer fan in me that is driving that.

    When I look at my memorable narrative experiences and think about how the games manage to provide the narrative, two factors come to mind. First there is the luck/randomness that is often present in the genre and was discussed in Episode 105 in Rob and Laura Crigger’s game of Hold the Line and the rest of the episode. The edge cases and the string of bad or good results can really shape how a game develops and progresses. Though not intended, my memorable Football Manager file was only possible because there was a bug in the player generation system which caused the smaller footballing nations to develop a higher calibre of player as the scouting knowledge of my manager (read: character) increased.

    I may be looking too narrowly at sports management games, but the second factor is the player not having full control at what is going on in the game. Returning again to my cherished FM file, after making my three substitutions in a key game all I could do was sit back and watch while making small tactical changes. Watching my little dudes run around screen while the match played out was like cheering for a sports team.

    Now, I don’t play a lot of games so I have to acknowledge that the lack of control thing may only work in sports games where sports fans can relate their fan experience to the game they’re playing. In a non-sports strategy game I could see players getting frustrated as their carefully made plans don’t work out when the supply truck drivers decided to head out to the beach rather than refuel the tanks on a sunny day. A wiser head can disavow me of the notion of my second point, but it might make for some interesting stories.

  • Gormongous

    I think I’ll just be echoing Troy and most of the commentators here, but I also tend to frame my strategy gaming experiences as dramatic arcs. Particularly, since warfare is an essentially social interaction (politics by other means, perhaps), it’s pretty easy to anthropomorphize combatants at the macro as well as micro level.

    To explain my latest online triumph in Total War: Shogun 2 to someone who is neither a gamer nor a historian, I often cast the armies as characters and present the battle as a barebones plot. The setting: a stream dividing woodlands. The hero: a quiet, conservative fellow trading in combined arms. His antagonist: a brash young force of swords and elite shock troops. They feel each other out, almost coyly, but finally clash when the hero unexpectedly leaves favorable ground to cross the river! The struggle is hard, but traditional tactics win the day, and the hero tucks into his well-earned experience points as the villain exits with a rueful call of “Hax!”

    That was a bit self-indulgent, but as a budding history professor, it’s important to be aware that the imposed division between “story” and “history” isn’t universal, and that the best way to peddle the latter is to present it as the former. Perhaps that’s a major reason why the strategy genre’s been so resistant to overt storytelling, like how some people resent Geralt or the Nameless One for imposing a foreign character on their roleplaying experience.

  • Michael A.

    I totally agree, but then I am pretty much into some of the same ideas in this old blog post: http://blog.micabyte.com/2009/03/22/narrative-games-is-less-actually-more/

    I think most non-abstract strategy games have firm roots in the narrative idea; though a lot of this is also individual, I think. As I comment on that post, for some strategy games, the narrative side of me switches off in favor of completely merciless min-maxing, while for others I am much more into the story. One of the reasons I enjoyed Civ IV less than I had expected, was because my play experience leaned more toward the former than the latter – while Civ II remains my favorite precisely due to this element. I suspect part of the appeal of Alpha Centauri to many players was also in this aspect.

    Particularly the early Civilization games strongly encouraged the narrative aspect of the game by adding the “replay” option at the end of the game which allowed you to see the rise (or fall) of your Civilization. It is a feature that I miss in most of these type of games today.

    King of Dragon Pass remains one of my favorite strategy games of all time (and one of the few 10+ year old games that I still come back to), simply due to the incredible narrative framework it builds into and around the strategic gameplay. I’ve had plans for a similar game for many years but being only one person, though, I need to carefully pick and chose between the many projects that I’d like to do.

  • MFToast

    I’ve gotta say, I’ll always love the story that unfolds before you in x-com. Especially when things start getting really heavy and countries sell out to the aliens. Something that’s never really the same over many, many play throughs.

  • Josho

    Some action games write their own story on top of whatever story the game developer tries to write. Open world shooters can often times be the best to write their own story – whether it unsuspectingly walking into an enemy camp and the firefight that follows in Far Cry 2, or the travels of a highly intelligent human escaping from a vault after nuclear armageddon.

    The examples I listed are of the same flavour as what can be told in strategy games; provided the player isn’t effectively slotted into a corridor and told that the win game door is in such a direction, any game, no matter the genre can write its own story. It all depends on how the player wants to replay their experiences.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    I like Troy’s characterisation of storytelling in strategy and I pretty much agree with the comments above. The reason I’m so mediocre at strategy games (despite how many I play) is because I fundamentally approach them as storytelling exercises rather than as a set of rules to be mastered; hence I don’t put too much effort into trying to play ‘optimally’.

    That said, as Josho pointed out, this is not unique to strategy games. For example, you can treat an individual battle in an RPG as a story in itself, just as you would for a round of Civ. Then, especially with a deeper battle system (I’m thinking in particular of the TRPGs such as FFT), the battle will have its fair share of turning points as you de-buff the more dangerous opponents to take them out of the fight or as an ally rushes over from the far side of the map; a climax as you wear down the boss; and the denouement as you finish him off.

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  • Hell-Mikey

    Dr. Geryk’s bedrock criticism for strategy games is not to mistake a pile of numbers for reality. His skepticism leads him to mistrust highly detailed unit breakouts, elaborate production schemes, and elves modeled without due consideration of terrain modifiers. I find the good doctor’s arguments persuasive.

    Except inasmuch as ludicrous detail supports Mr. Goodfellow’s observation that strategy games are storytelling machines. Consider – my 8 combat factor counter makes a desperation assault against 30 entrenched combat factors, I roll a six, and win the hex. Contrast this with my HQ unit of pixeltruppen assaults the Tigers amidst pillboxes on a hill, and I’m stunned when my monitor shows me taking the flag. I dive four menus deep and examine the crazy level of breakout, and see that, indeed, on this one rare occasion, my bazookas are out of ammo, someone had attached a recoiless rifle to one of the jeeps, and it has a shocking number of kills and immobilizations. Formally the two results are the same. I took a misguided or desperate action. In the second case, however, the detail provides convenient hooks for me to hang the narrative on. Because the narrative is so important, I’m willing to indulge the piles of specious details, and ignore the whinging of rivet-counters who miss the point entirely. Were I otherwise inclined, I’d simply join Mr. Murdoch at the abstract games table.

    A post or so ago, Mr. Goodfellow asked which strategy games had been transformed by patches. I’d suggest a very early patch to Civ IV helped cement it in the strategy game pantheon. The original release of Civ IV wouldn’t tell you combat odds. Strange for a game that was otherwise so open with information (but perhaps understandable given Mr. Johnson’s deep understanding of humans’ deep misunderstanding of probability). Combat odds got patched in; once they were I could rage at how much better Montezuma’s troops were than mine, but I could also celebrate the incredible luck of one lone pikeman, or damn the dismal and unexpected failure of “invincible” modern armor. I had one more detail to hang my narrative on, and that made much more difference.

    I want the detail of cotton production, alcohol consumption, shirts-vs-skins combat factors, armor thickness, and so much else not because it makes the game better, but because it makes my story better. After all, we can let the computer do the bookkeeping for us, and audit only when there is something interesting to uncover.

  • Bruce

    Hell-Mikey, I agree with you about detail being able to tell you a different kind of story, except that the scenario you described never happens. TOAW (or War in the East, or any other wargame of this type) doesn’t track data that specifically, or at least it doesn’t disclose it in that way, so you won’t find a jeep with a recoilless rifle buried four menus down, and know that it took that hill for you. In fact, you’ll likely have to infer the reasons for the outcome rather than know exactly why it happened. Like I said in my War in the East review, I understand why people like detail for the sake of immersion, but I don’t think it advances the storytelling very much. Combat Mission does this much better by letting you watch exactly what happens, so that each one of your units becomes a character.

    I think that no matter how compelling the detail may be, it tends to bury the story. The most memorable gaming story I can recall is very much along the lines of your “8 factors attack 30 entrenched factors.” I was playing ASL years and years ago (15?) and was trying to exit some US airborne squads off the map (it was in Zon with the Wind – I still remember the scenario). I needed to exit one more squad (my last squad) off the map at the end of the last turn in order to win, otherwise I’d lose. The German player had a machine gun put down a firelane along something like five or six hexes of the path I had to take, all the way to the map edge. I was taking FFNAMO -2 rolls the whole way, and passed every morale check. My opponent couldn’t believe it. People from other tables walked over to see if the US squad would make it. The whole place erupted when he passed the final morale check and walked (ran) off the map. The simple, clear decision points made it that much more interesting, not less.

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  • Hell-Mikey

    Bruce, you’re right, my detail love exists more in the breach than in fact. I have the option of playing a small subset of games (without professional obligation or personal compulsion), and Combat Mission is among those. In fact, in playing the new demo, I’m disappointed that so many details have been elided, both because I need that crutch (“what’s the diff between a 75 mm and 76 mm cannon? It’s one lousy millimeter?”) and because I fear that I’m not going to know precisely how unlike that shot was.
    Yes, we have to play the games in front of us, but I do want to leave us all an out for a brighter future, clogged with narratively interesting detail.

  • zipdrive

    Here’s an interesting analysis of “Story vs. Narrative”.

  • Krupo

    Reminds of the semiotics paper I wrote back in uni, arguing why the narrative is what gives Civ its power… the TA had played Civ and she didn’t see the narrative, but if one of you were the TA, I think you’d understand.

    Also, funny thing to consider given the addition of stats in Civ 4 -> the outright 100% prediction of what’ll happen in Civ 5. What’s up with that? There’s still an unknown – what’ll happen to your weakened unit following a suicidal charge on an entrenched position, but I wonder how much this immediate information block affected peoples’ play styles.