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Games As Interactive Storytelling | Journey to the Sea

Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Games As Interactive Storytelling

Posted by Alana Joli Abbott • Dec 1st, 2008

I grew up with a long tradition of storytelling through games. When I was a kid, we called collaborative acts of imagination simply, “Let’s pretend.” My parents, and many others whom I’ve observed, encourage this behavior of learning to tell stories through play, watching the world as it appears to the child translated into games of playing house, pioneers, astronauts, or spy vs. spy. Translating the real world into a game of imagination might mean making the boulder in my back yard into the wagon in which my sister and next-door neighbor would journey into the West. It might mean collecting “samples” of dried grass clippings and loading them onto our “spaceship,” pumping our legs on the swing-set so that we’d fly steadily home.

Many children leave behind this type of adventurous work of imagination for the world of romance and relationships to be found in Barbie dolls (or Bratz dolls, these days) or the epic battles enacted by G.I. Joes (still the top listed action figures in a Google search). Then, when they are told that playing with toys is an act, not of imagination, but of childishness, they leave these things behind. Those who are lucky enough discover they can tell the same kinds of stories sitting around a table with some dice, or using a video-game controller and console, their customizable hero appearing on screen, moving as they specify. The world of role-playing games, both the table-top and computer or console versions, is a continuation of the need for acts of imagination, for storytelling, which, according to writers from Joss Whedon to J. R. R. Tolkien,  is a  “basic human need” (Whedon) or even a spiritual exercise (Tolkien 79). Interactive storytelling, which comes so naturally to children, could be considered an expression of the mythic impulse — the movement of a modern human toward a more sacred or mythic understanding of the universe.

This is not to say, of course, that playing HALO is akin to a divine experience (though some truly devout gamers would surely disagree with me). An article from the International Game Developers Association certainly claims that computer games solve the problem of storytelling being a static medium:

Computer games promise the potential to move beyond this strictly linear form by offering stories that interact with the player, allowing them to participate in the decisions or actions that shape the narrative. (Source)

But while there is some argument that computer games have greater potential to immerse the player in a storytelling environment, this type of storytelling is limited by its programming. There are certainly more options in the story than offered by a movie, but given the number of visual and auditory elements provided for the player, the game might have only the same level of imaginative interactivity as a novel: in a novel the story doesn’t change, but the details of how scenes are imagined might. In an interactive computer game, the player brings a certain set of instructions — inside the boundaries of the program — for how the story is told. In a novel, though the story doesn’t change, the reader brings the setting, the smells, the colors, and the sounds of voices, creating all of the visual and audio in their heads.

Table-top role playing games, on the other hand, require little more than rule books and dice before they say, “Go. Be the hero.” From the instant you choose to interact, to take part in the story, you and your peers around the table are creating a shared reality that you gleefully inhabit for the next several hours. Many of the elements of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” pattern find their way into the tale from the start. Characters often fit Jungian archetypes, have had unusual births, or have already left home and begun their journey into a mythical realm. The themes of fantasy are all wrapped up in mythology and the language of the fantastic, and it’s easy to intentionally embrace those elements.

I’ve just begun a game that takes the mythic connection of group storytelling and mythic elements quite literally. The setting is mythic Greece, during the era just before the Trojan War. Mythic time moves differently than more linear storytelling, which makes it hard to pin down which heroes are active when, as their stories tend to intersect the chronology of other tales. The players in the tale are all children of the gods, and they have already received their first quest from the Oracle at Delphi. They have encountered pirates and nereids, have competed in contests of strength, and have poured libations on herms to ensure that their journeys will go well. Over the course of the tale we create together, they will meet many of the well-known heroes and participate in or derail some of the traditional stories. They’ve told me they’d like to take over Egypt. It could happen.

But while I’ve played in games where I’ve sought out the Holy Grail in Edwardian England and run games where people of the bloodline of the Tuatha de Danaan of Irish mythology teamed up with urban-fantasy-styled demon slayers to stop an invasion of the human world, not all games have to have a mythic element to maintain that feeling of enacting creation. The real magic (to use the term loosely) in a table-top role playing game is that the story incarnates: the tale being created takes place in the people sitting around a table, sharing the telling while they share pizza and Doritos. I won’t go so far as to say that the ritual of storytelling echoes religious rituals or coming of age ceremonies where the participants are said to become the mythic personages they represent. But in a modern world where there aren’t too many coming of age ceremonies left, where stories are often told to us by boxes that carry all of the sounds and images with them, where we so rarely have the chance to be a part of a larger story than the one we act out in our everyday lives, sometimes connecting to that mythic spirit of storytelling is as simple as sitting down with some dice, some paper, and some friends, and seeing where the story takes you.


  • Whedon, Joss. “More Joss Strike Talk.” Whedonesque. 7 Nov 2007. Online article.
  • Flieger, Verlyn and Douglas A. Anderson. Tolkien On Fairy-stories. HarperCollins: 2008.
  • International Game Developers Association. “Foundations of Interactive Storytelling.” 13 Nov 2001. Online article.

3 Responses »

  1. Thanx for your remarks on games as creating shared realities by participation in a grand story from our mythic past. While a story seems to be the basic unit of meaning it is in the ritual of dramatizing together that we enter immediately into the consciousness of homo ludens to find we are most ourselves at play.

  2. A propos of this post, have you read John Rateliff’s four-part post on the history of Tolkien-inspired RPG’s? You can find it here (you’ll want to read it from the bottom up).

    I would ask you, though, does one actually need rule books and dice? Or if so, is the rolling of the dice meant to mimic the intervention of the gods? And how about Magic: The Gathering cards? There, the random (i.e., “divine”) element come in the shuffling of the deck. To what degree are random elements like this necessary for mature creation-by-storytelling? (And is it more mature?) These elements aren’t usually found in children’s games, are they? It seems to me that there’s less active imagination going on in RPG’s than there is in children’s games. Do the dice (or cards) take away some imaginative or creative freedom?

  3. Salishan–I love that you brought in the idea of the ritual of dramatizing. When I was in Greece as a teaching assistant on a study tour this summer, we talked quite a bit about the difference between the dramatic arts in rituals of Dionysus (chaos) and Apollo (structure/civilization). It would be fun to discuss role playing games in that context!

    Jason–fun link! I’ll have to peruse it in some detail; my only real context for Tolkien and RPGs together was a Dork Tower (comic) reference to how Tolkien had obviously “ripped off” of D&D’s classes for the Lord of the Rings, from the voice of one of the characters who read Tolkien after years of gaming. (The other characters, of course, had to explain the historical context…)

    To answer your question, I don’t think books and dice are purely necessary, but they give a set of shared parameters to the story. Two of the games I mentioned in the article were actually pure storytelling games–the Grail Quest and the demon slaying game. There are sometimes stumbling blocks in pure storytelling that don’t happen when you have convenient rules. What’s to stop the characters from just succeeding at everything? If you’re the one running the game, how do you enhance the story through a character’s failure without making the player feel picked on? Dice and rule books create boundaries and agreed-upon limitations to the way the story is told, so that the act of creation is a joint effort that ends less frequently in the “Nuh uh, that’s not what I did” arguments that sometimes break up children’s games of “let’s pretend.” (At least, so one hopes! I’ve heard plenty of game tables devolve into that sort of argument, as well.)

    I actually find collectible card games to be more about strategy than role playing games, so I’m not sure I could apply them the same way. And I’m not convinced that it’s the random element of success or failure that enhances the imaginative play. But I do think that parameters that are embraced by the group involved in jointly creating a story are important–whether they take the form of dice or poker chips and cards (like the old Deadlands “Weird West” game) or rock, paper, scissors (as in some of the World of Darkness LARPs). The boundaries might take away some of the creative freedom of an individual, but they set the expectations of the community. This both enhances game play and, if everyone is coming together to create a story (rather than just hack and slash), makes the storytelling better.