Narrative Strategy Games: Is less actually more?

I enjoy games with a narrative. By that, I mean that there are games that I play where winning isn’t my only objective.

Understand me rightly; I always play to win. But there are some kinds of games where the key to my enjoyment lies in playing to the utmost of my ability and (preferably) winning. In board game terms, games like Puerto Rico, Taj Mahal and Power Grid are all in that category for me. On the other extreme, there are games where the key to my enjoyment is not so much the end result, but rather the journey to that result that provides the enjoyment. It is the narrative; the stories that we take away and are able to tell after the game, that make for the most fun. “War of the Ring” is an excellent example of such a game; the game mechanics are nothing special (in my opinion of course – YMMV) but the total package is great because it literally allows the players to narrate their own version of the Lord of the Rings saga. RoboRally is another example; it doesn’t really matter so much who wins, but rather that I managed to push your Spinbot onto the rotating conveyor belt right when you thought you were going to reach safety.

Of course, there is no hard and fast divide between objective-oriented games and narrative-oriented games; most games provide a little bit of both flavors. And personal experiences will naturally differ widely; for instance, to me Civilization IV is very much an objective-oriented game, where I end up min-maxing every aspect of my civilization. The older games, in my opinion, provided more material on which one could create a narrative. Others, no doubt, create elaborate histories of their civilizations in their imagination. Games like Spore and the Sims are, of course, quintessential games of narrative (the former in the sense that narrative is all about letting your imagination run wild).

Strategy games are usually objective-oriented, but the more “epic” a strategy game becomes, the more narrative-oriented it tends to be. I find the classic Empires in Arms boardgame to be pretty poor as a game (unless one is playing France or England), but as a narrative experience it’s pretty much unparalleled. Did I ever tell you about this time when 6000 French cavalry captured London and held it for six months? No? Well, here’s the story…

The Europa Universalis (EU) games are perhaps the best example of this phenomenon in computer strategy games. I find this interesting because I do not generally feel that the EU games have  contained a lot of useful features for creating narratives (though recent games have improved upon this). In addition, the “personality” of the factions in the various games has been quite uneven. Despite this, however, the wonderful AAR community at Paradox create the most amazing stories based on their plays of the game.

In terms of imagination, though, it may very well be true that less is more. In much the same way that a good book is superior to moving pictures (simply because the book leaves more to human imagination than a film), it may be that an open-ended sandbox with few limitations provide more basis for a narrative than a super-detailed simulation. How else can one explain that text-only interactive fiction continued to enjoy a following long after the graphical adventure game had appeared.

I see Imperium as being very much a narrative game, in that it is heavily character-based. Characters live their banal (or not so banal) lives in the game and a hundred small stories go on in the background while the player is pursuing his dreams of world conquest, or whatever rocks your boat. I hope to build in support for game narratives and AARs; e.g., by making it possible to print out “game stories” from the messages collected about the player’s dynasty, etc. Each family in the game is driven by its own little AI in its pursuit of happiness and they will act for that independently of the player’s designs (this is one of the key elements in the design; you need “minions” to assist your own dynasty in achieving their goal, but these people will only help you for as long as their own goals align with yours).I wonder sometimes, though, whether adding too many details may not in fact be counter-productive though, limiting the imagination of the players with the game mechanics. No doubt, this is as much a matter of personal preference as many others, but it is one of the places my thoughts turn to as I spend time on putting in place the information feedback mechanisms for Imperium.