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All games are stories, specific kinds of stories which generate their events largely through rules rather than written descriptions. Aesthetic theory helps us understand why this might be true: not only are all games stories, but all stories are games.

Game Developer, Staff

October 18, 2013

7 Min Read

The word ‘story’ can commonly refer to (among other things):

  • A written work of fiction, or

  • The plot of such a work.

To show that these are separate meanings, consider the term ‘novel,’ which refers to a written story of a certain approximate length. Now consider the phrase ‘the novel had a good story’—meaning that the plot, the series of events and characterizations of the story, the story of the story, was good.


Similarly, the word ‘game’ can commonly refer to (among other things):

  • A set of rules and pieces meant to be played, or

  • A single playing of such a thing.

Again, let’s show that these meanings are separate. Chess is a game. Consider the phrase ‘that was a good game of chess’—meaning that the specific play-through of the game, the game of the game, was good.


This is going to be a blog post about how all games are stories.

Make-Believe Theory

The popular aesthetic theory, presented by Kendall Walton and known as ‘make-believe theory,’ proposes that a work of fiction is a kind of game, a game of make-believe. To properly engage with a work of fiction, according to this theory, is to play with it a game of make-believe in which you address each sentence as a mandate to pretend something or other. The sentence, “The morning had dawned clear and cold,” is a direction to the reader to imagine such a morning. This theory is most exciting to aestheticians because it solves many metaphysical problems around fiction and the emotional responses audiences have to them, but it’s exciting to me as a game designer for different reasons.


Because the worlds imagined by readers differ somewhat, make-believe theory also proposes a separation between the ‘game world’ of a specific reading and the more general ‘work world.’ What a reader experiences when encountering a work of fiction is their own imaginings of a story, albeit imaginings largely directed by the written word. The word ‘bear’ might bring to mind a black bear to you and a grizzly to me—these details are experienced by us, are part of our own game worlds, but are not part of the work itself.


This separation might begin to make obvious how this theory can apply to games. Although for simplicity I’ve been talking only about written fiction, Walton actually means by ‘fiction’ any even somewhat representational piece of art, including significantly abstracted paintings, so long as they still represent some sort of idea. Surely games are representational works of art as well, by this definition. And the game-speak makes understanding games in this framework not too difficult.


MBT and Games

Chris Bateman, in his application of make-believe theory to games, delineates that the work world of a game is the rules and pieces, the parts that are always there for each player and do not differ. The game world, then, must be the events of a play-through of the game (a game of the game)—or the imaginings that the players experience in relation to these events, to be specific. Put in the vaguest of summaries, the game world of a single playing of chess might be recalled as, “She got first blood, but I took her queen early on, then the game dragged out as I blindly pursued her king; eventually she surprised me with a checkmate I hadn’t seen coming.” These game worlds are going to vary immensely from one play-through to the next, much more-so than the black/grizzly bear, and that’s part of what makes games so incredible.


To be clear, I am proposing that games are certain kinds of stories. Game designers author these stories in a removed way, by giving the players rules that they must follow when determining the next event in the story. Instead of mandating that the reader imagine a certain kind of morning, game rules mandate that (for example) players imagine their pieces can only move in certain ways. This gives less strict guidelines for what kind of thing might actually happen, but still gives rise to events that are structured in a certain way (for example, the early-, mid-, and late-game periods of chess are distinctly recognizable and share certain qualities, although they vary wildly from game to game and arise only from the rules).


While authors of fiction get to have a very tight hold on how their readers’ game worlds might unfold, game designers instead create systems that generate an extremely broad array of possible game worlds. When we redesign our systems, we are constraining or expanding this array, changing what kinds of game worlds might emerge from our systems, attempting to find a better set of possibilities.



Practical Applications

This relation between games and more traditional stories also presents at least one practical approach for the designer: analyze your game from a traditional storytelling perspective! Does your game reliably generate game worlds that feature a slow increase of drama to an exciting climax? What about a satisfying period of resolution? Chess features both of these, its dramatic arc composed of an expanding-then-contracting array of possible decisions, and an increase in the weightiness/significance of these decisions. What sorts of emotions is your game meant to embody, and how does it generate the sorts of ordered events which might embody these emotions? How, for instance, do films create suspense, and how might you write rules for a game which generate the same kinds of ordered events used in films for such a purpose?


These are the sorts of questions we’re already asking when we use frameworks like MDA, but asking them in this way may give us greater insight and creative power, allowing us to analyze and draw from other media to more directly influence our own work.

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