Literary Game Design 1: Games as Stories

I’ve always wanted to talk about the relationship between games and literature, an idea that will probably make all but the geekiest of game design nerds roll their eyes. But for those of you who haven’t left yet, literature provides a great lens through which to examine game design. Each game played is like its own story, that the designer and players craft together. And if I learned anything from high school English class, there are five basic elements of any story: character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme. And if a game tells a story, these elements must be present as well.  But there are sometimes two different levels of story. The first is the story being told within the game. And the second is the story being told about the game. This second level is the one I’m interested in examining.Many times, the story in the game is the story about the game. This is role playing. Sort of by definition, players take the roles of the characters in the story. The only real difference is that players are pretending (to one extent or another) to do the things they do in the game. But in the majority of boardgames, the stories do not overlap completely, and the second level becomes visible. When telling the story of the game, the five basic elements—character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme—take on different senses. Instead of characters, there are players. The setting is carried by what is commonly called the “theme” of the game—both art and gameplay elements that establish what the game is representing. Plot is the events of the game: winning, losing, great plays, big mistakes, and anything that players do during the game. Story theme tends to be overlooked as a story element both within and outside the game. In stories, it is similar to a moral. I wrote about something similar when I talked about the Big Idea. It’s what I was looking for when I wrote “It’s just a game“. What lesson are players coming away from the game? And then there’s Conflict. I feel like I rarely hear about it discussed as its own thing. I, myself, have talked about how to make choices interesting, but didn’t think about it in overall terms. But I believe Conflict is at the heart of making good games, because conflict makes choices interesting.

Returning to lessons from high school English class, there are either four or five forms of Literary conflict [depending on what source you use]: Character versus character, character versus nature, character versus society, and character versus self. The possible fifth is character versus technology/machine. Versus character is pretty simple. Versus nature is against some outside uncontrollable events. Versus society is against a set of social norms. Versus self is an internal character struggle. And versus technology/machine is against some agent with no conscious action, frequently induced by the character himself.

These have direct parallels in games. But in games, players are the characters, and we can identify other forms of conflict and name them. Character versus character obviously becomes player versus player. The other modes of literary conflict take a little more work to recognize. Nature represents the uncontrollable outside events, that are independent of the players. This sounds a lot like the effect that randomness has on the game, so we can call it player versus randomness. Society doesn’t simply translate into social or meta gaming. Character versus society is about trying to overcome established standards that everyone else follows. That’s really just the rules of the game. So this conflict is just running up against the barriers of what the game allows you to do. It is player versus rules.

Player versus self gets even more difficult to define. There is a temptation to only consider the idea of solo gaming or high score type play, but that’s too simple. Self includes the character trying to change who they are, and overcome their own faults. As a player, you can make a lot of decisions that can come back to bite you later unless you keep working at it. So it really represents something closer to player versus their own decisions. Finally, character versus technology is difficult to pin down, but I think this represents the mechanical opposition provided by the game. This differs from player versus rules because the rules are fixed, while the “machine” reacts to the player’s choices. Perhaps player versus feedback is a better way of putting it.

This gives five distinct categories of game conflict: Player versus player, Player versus randomness (nature), Player versus rules (society), Player versus Decisions (self), and Player versus feedback (technology).

Let’s break it down with an example. In Agricola, Player versus player is competition for resource and action spaces. Versus randomness is dealing with the timing of round cards and the Improvement and Occupation cards. Versus rules is having to take actions in a specific order, such as wood+reed→build rooms→family growth, or field→grain/veg→plant→harvest. You can’t just skip to the actions you want. Versus decisions is deciding whether to use wood to build rooms or fences, whether to pursue an animal or farming strategy. You have to give up some goods or opportunity to do something else. Finally, versus feedback is choosing when to grow family, and whether you can wait to plant fields. Unlike the choices for player versus decisions, these choices change requirements and availability later, increasing the food cost, or granting resources at a later time. Whereas deciding to raise animals doesn’t change how many animals will be available in the game.

Or we can examine Catan. Versus player includes competition to build spaces, longest road, moving the robber. Versus randomness includes using the resources you get from dice rolls and losing resources on a 7. Versus rules is everything from resource costs, having to build 2 spaces from another settlement, and trading rates. Versus decisions includes things like holding resources to build a city or using them now to build development card. And finally, versus feedback is that cities and settlements give more resources in different ways on future rolls, and harbors makes trading easier but give fewer resources in the future.

Of course, I have to turn an eye to New Bedford. Versus player is competition to own buildings, gain bonuses and use action spaces, and whales. Versus randomness is what whales are drawn. Versus rules is the multi-step process for launching ships, collecting money to pay for whales. Versus decisions is which buildings you choose to build, and when to build or go whaling. Versus feedback is the collection of whales and eventual returning of ships.

As I said before, I think conflict is at the heart of what makes decisions interesting. Without conflict, there is no need to worry about how to compete with other players; there is no difference in how you prepare for and deal with randomness (see Candyland); there is no worry about what you can and can’t do; there is no chance of missing out on anything by making a bad decision; and there is no worry that what you do will come back to get you later. Without conflict, anything you want to do can be done at any time. But a mix of these types of conflict helps make a game come alive by making the choices interesting.

This started out as a single article encompassing two ideas: what conflict is in game design, and how I’m trying to work with it. But this article kept growing and growing, so next time, I’ll look at some of the considerations for including these forms of conflict, and examine how I was actually already thinking about conflict without knowing it.




  1. Great article, I’m looking forward to part two!

    I’ve been thinking about this myself for a bit as well: boardgames tell a (simple) story – how to make that story more interesting (or perhaps more prominent)?

  2. The topic of story and games is one I have focused on for years. Your insights are similar to the two pillars of my philology pertaining to story and games.

    The player is the protagonist.
    Game do not tell stories they create them.

    We compare authored works to games an often expect the same experience but games are co-authored with the player. Many times people don’t consider this relationship and how it fundamentally changes how a story is expressed so I’m glad you have. If 4 people play a game you’ll have 4 very different stories.

  3. That would be! Hard to have that level of “hidden information” though!

    Or it could simply be that the winner must be the good guy and the loser(s) the bad guy(s) (m/f of course)

    You would need something to do that could well be deemed highly noble and very evil at the same time? “Starting the war against the friendly aliens / saving the earth from the alien onslaught”?

    And it would require each player to have a different objective?

    Probably would be easiest in a 2-player game? Though of course the superhero sometimes defeats multiple bad-girls in the same movie…?

    A game where you are all working on the same thing (Deathstar, Stark Tower, etc), but you “find out” that the other players want to use it for something that you consider to be vile and evil (whilst your intentions are purely noble of course)!

    Good food for thought! 🙂

  4. Netrunner does this up to a point: You’re either the noble hacker, trying to bring low an obviously corrupt corporation, or you’re a corporation trying to make an honest buck, defending yourself against someone with no respect for the rule of law…

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