Story, context, theme


The city skyline at night, under curfew.
A grid of laser beams frames the dark shapes.
Lightning and thunder rock the heavens.
Then it's quiet again... but only for a moment.
Your solitary fight begins anew.

Games don't need stories. People need stories, because that's how we make sense of the world. Games are part of the world, so we want to make sense of them.

Games don't have purpose. They only have goals for players to achieve. We find purpose in games by giving meaning to the goals we are offered. And meaning falls out of stories (by way of context, but that's another story).

We do need stories in games, but we don't need games to spoon-feed us stories. The best game stories are those we give birth to in the course of playing. What we need from games is to know why we should bother. And that's a hard question to answer.

When the aliens first attacked, we bravely met them head-on. Soon our pilots were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. They got separated and taken down one by one. Still we kept sending the best we had. What else could we do?

Stories mean nothing by themselves. Stories are how we tell each other what things mean. What they do is create a shared context. All cultures have a body of stories everyone knows. Of trickster forest gods with orange fur. Of plucky little heroes outsmarting ogres.

Juliet in the balcony. Shaka, when the walls fell.

Games have a hard time creating context, because you never know where the player comes from. Did they visit place X before meeting character Y? No two players will experience the same game. It's bad enough with books or movies, that at least stay put.

At least we can all agree that hitting or shooting baddies to make them go away is a good idea.

In the end, we found the aliens first. It was a backward civilization, so we tried to teach them our modern ways. Our gift was met with violent rejection, and after much fighting we were forced to retreat. That wasn't the whole story though. They followed us, you see, to get their revenge. Now we fight for our world.

A string of random events doesn't make a story. A logical chain of events doesn't make a story yet either. A story needs to have a point. Not a moral, but a reason to be told. Why should the audience bother to pay attention? It's a valuable commodity nowadays.

What is your game really about?

It's easy to say what happens: a space fighter pilot is battling the evil robots. The evil aliens. The evil empire. A space marine is hunting demons. Or maybe giant space bugs. These are all details.

It is about defending the innocent?

Does it ask questions about survival?

What can change the nature of a man?

It doesn't have to be philosophical. Some of the best games are all about the thrill of combat and nothing else. They're classics now because they were designed with that in mind from beginning to end.