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  • Storytelling In Games: Setting And Tools

    - Robert Renke

  • Governance

    An iterated game is one that is replayed several times(Shor, 2005). Reciprocity is a term coined by Robert Cialdini(1984), describing the tendency of giving back after receiving.

    Based on those two terms, Daniel Cook (2014) evokes "governance", which can be seen as a type of emergent narrative, describing the concept as the political and social structures that emerge beyond the mechanical rules, as seen in Realm of the Mad God and Eve.

    Realm of the Mad God is a non-zero-sum game, therein encouraging co-operative play. "Loot stealing" and "free riding" is not an issue here, and in any case the group will be more effective than the individual, thanks to that non-zero-sum nature.(Cook, 2014)

    According to Cook, for governance to emerge, the group needs to be more efficient than the individual.

    Furthermore, the speaker describes relationships as an iterated game based on reciprocity loops. According to Cook, we can recognize four main factors that contribute to the building of reciprocity loops: proximity, similarity, repeated encounters, and the share of feelings and ideas.

    Proximity can be translated as the likeliness of "bumping into each other". Games do this by providing social spaces, where no combat happens and players gather. An example would be in Stormwind's Trade District and Orgrimmar's Valley of Strength in World of Warcraft, or Nosville in Nostale, to name a purer socialite-oriented MMORPG.

    Similarity describes the phenomena of friendships emerging from similar groups, which according to the speaker has excessively been researched in children of different social or racial groups. According to the speaker, similarity is an interesting aspect, as we want to force groups to "cross-pollinate", but at the same time, one of the strongest ways of getting people to form groups in the first place is to create similarities.

    Cook uses "mafia-esque" to describe the organizations of power that tend to emerge in MMOs. He gives the example of World of Tanks, where players created a huge Skype "Counsel" to sort out issues between clans. According to Cook, we can seed the physics for players to create their societies, but we can continuously tweak this reality to guide society. As Richard Bartle(2006) puts it, designers create the physical reality for players to operate in; "designers need to be considered gods, not governments". Cook concludes his talk recalling his statement from the beginning: "the utopia of the empowered individual is a negative one if we want to create this kind of [autonomous] system."

    Following this line of thought, "We can also consider emergent narrative as a technology for generating stories because it creates original content. The designer authors the boundaries and tendencies of the game mechanics, but it's the interplay among mechanics, player choices, and chance that determines the actual plot of each emergent story." (Sylvester, 2013)

    Figure 5: Cook, D. (2014). Governance in F2P Multiplayer Games. [Screenshot from Knights Online]. Game Developers Conference.


    is the human tendency to see imaginary patterns in complex data. We see patterns everywhere, even when there are none. (Sylvester, 2013)

    The term Apophenia was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad in the book Beginning schizophrenia as the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things, referencing Skinner's(1947) term of accidental association.

    Matt Brown(2018) talks about projection methods in The Sims. Sims communicate through speechbubbles with mostly random icons and the fictional language "simlish", both of which are abstract enough for players to project any meaning onto it. Another (experimental, not shipped) method he discusses is the placement of censor grids. All those techniques boil down to ambiguity as a capacitor for projected narrative in the spectators mind.

    Figure 6:Mullen, L. (year unknown). Simlish: When language and music transcend translation [Screenshot from Stephanie Rose, Youtube]. The California Aggie.

    Suspension of Disbelief

    According to Tynan Sylvester(2013), designers can strengthen emergent stories by labeling existing game mechanics with fiction.

    In Medieval: Total War, Every playable character is named and endowed with a unique characterization. Instead of tracking numerical stats, Medieval assigns personality characteristics to nobles and generals. After events such as getting married or winning a battle, nobles can get labels like "Drunkard," "Fearless," or "Coward," which give special bonuses and weaknesses. In another game, a player might lose a battle because his general has a low Leadership stat. In Medieval, he loses because his general had a daughter and decided that he loves his family too much to die in battle. Labeling works because of apophenia. In each example, the emergent story in the player's mind did not actually happen in the game systems. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Abstraction is a higher order type of thinking in which common features are identified (or abstracted) (, retrieved 2022). Words in a novel can create images in the mind more powerful than any photograph because they only suggest an image, leaving the mind to fill in the details. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Abstraction furthermore helps reduce development cost, as in the example of Civilization: Revolution's dancing bears: The player doesn't need to see the bear dancing, the label alone is enough to imagine it, and probably the imagined dance is by far better than anything animated as it is the player's own representation. This way, resources can be better allocated into content that the player is less willing to believe (Meier, 2010)

    Jurie Hornemann(2015) borrows the musical term of "diegesis" to describe the balancing of the fictional and mechanical side. According to the speaker, world building is responsible to explain how the fictional world works, physically.

    Recordkeeping is a way for games to emphasize emergent stories by keeping records of game events for the player to review afterwards. Civilization IV records borders of each nation at the end of every turn, and when the game ends, the player gets to watch a time-lapsed world map of shifting political boundaries from prehistory to the end of the game. As the map retells world history, it reminds the player of the faced challenges and earned victories. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Another prominent example of recordkeeping that at the same time serves a strategical use as diegesis can be seen in many first-person shooter, such as Call of Duty, when after being killed the last seconds replay from the opponents camera perspective.

    It's also important to remember it's not about the setting, anyway -

    it's about the story, and it's always about the story.

    -Stephen King


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