Indie games aren’t all about narrative

I hear a lot of people saying that indie games are more focused on narrative or story. This is said in implicit (or explicit) contrast with traditional games, which are more… I don’t know… gamey? It often flows from the said people having read and (IMO) misunderstood GNS theory. So here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Or at least, it’s an extremely partial view of the indie market.

Let’s start with those last two words – indie market. I use them advisedly: “indie” isn’t a design school or a brand. It’s just stuff that’s independently published, meaning creator-owned. So indie games includes some stuff which is part of the OSR, or “trad” gaming. Yes, there’s some definite trends visible in the indie market that are different from those in the mainstream market, and so it’s not entirely unjustified to talk about “indie design”. The point is, #notallindiegames, let’s not pretend they’re all the same.

With that said, there is definitely a chunk of the indie games market that could be justly called “games focused on narrative”. My own game (with Becky Annison) Lovecraftesque fits into this part of the market. It aims to emulate the structure of a Lovecraftian tale, and it bakes that structure directly into the rules of the game, at the level of the scene. The rules literally require you to play through a series of scenes in which clues are gradually revealed, before playing through a rapidly accelerating scary sequence, followed by a terrifying finale. Similarly Fiasco has story structure baked into it. There’s plenty more where they came from. These games have “story” in their bones, and you know when you play them, at a high level, what kind of story you’re going to tell.

But a lot of indie games that are not at all like this still get painted with the “narrative” brush. A prime example is the Himalayan range of indie game design, PBTA, and that’s what I’m going to focus on now- though I think it’s true of wider indie design.

PBTA (well, most PBTA anyway) does not at all do anything to bake narrative structure into the game, except perhaps at the very high level of the GM’s prep. In fact PBTA is, to my eye, extremely similar in structure to more traditional games: each player focuses on one character, using their abilities and skills as the main mechanical interface with the world, but also interacting with it through straightforwardly roleplaying a character, with outcomes adjudicated in a fairly freeform way by a GM. Yes, there are differences – what is traditionally regarded as GM advice is baked into the rules, each player skill/ability has its own custom rule, and so forth – but at a structural level it isn’t really that different from (say) D&D.

The point is, “the story” is something that only exists after the fact. You play the game, you play your character, the GM describes the world and plays their NPCs, and only after you’ve done that can you look back and say what the story was. Just like traditional games. There’s no “narrative” in this narrative game, or no more than any other RPG.

So why does PBTA often get described as being a narrative game? I mean, partly it’s a branding thing. It’s part of the “story games” movement, which is strongly identified with “narrativism”. It’s probably partly because the rules of a PBTA game engage directly with the “fiction”, and are typically designed to never be more than one step away from re-engaging with “the fiction”, either.

But “the fiction” isn’t story. The fiction is just the game world, from the places in that world, through to the characters, the situations they find themselves in, the minute details of their exact position as described by the words you speak at the table. A character walks into a bar, two pistols cocked, and challenges the bartender to a duel: that’s the fiction. That character is standing next to a honky-tonk piano as she does it: that’s also the fiction. The honky-tonk is playing “baby elephant walking” and its middle C is slightly flat: also the fiction. None of this is story per se. None of it would be out of place in a traditional RPG. And probably this character will next roll to taunt or manipulate or intimidate the bartender, and possibly later to shoot at him with those pistols, and that will all be mechanically fairly similar to what happens in a traditional game. And again, not story.

I think it all comes back to the decision to describe one of the three prongs of GNS as “narrativism” or “story now”. Narrativism isn’t (as I see it) about focusing on “the story”. It’s about playing to engage with human issues, in such a way that it’s more likely to make a compelling story. But “the story” per se still arises from micro decisions that you make during the game. “Story now” is so called because you get straight to the interesting bits of a story, not because you in some sense consciously try to generate a story. I’m aware that like everyone else I’m no doubt misinterpreting goddamn GNS; but no RPG theory article is complete without that, is it? The point is, narrativism isn’t about turning roleplaying into story writing, and by the way (most) indie games are mostly not especially narrativist except to the extent that they empower you to play that way if you want to.

So what? Isn’t this just a tedious argument about semantics? Probably at some level it is. But I think probably some of the holy wars of the roleplaying community – the imagined conflict between OSR and indie and trad, for instance – are rooted in these wrongheaded ideas about indie. And I think the idea that indie games are “about story” makes them seem kind of intimidating and highfalutin to players who are used to D&D. The truth is, they are different from traditional RPGs. They do play differently – otherwise they would be the same game. But they aren’t a fundamentally different “story-focused” thing, so if you’ve heard tales of scary story games, those tales are wide of the mark. Maybe it’s worth giving them a try.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

2 thoughts on “Indie games aren’t all about narrative”

  1. Heh, one person’s [thing] is another person’s [other thing], I suppose. I’m interested specifically in games that are _about story_, and are _fundamentally different to D&D_ — and for whatever reason, these are pretty much always indie games. (Well, I guess the reason is that commercial games depend on selling a load of fluff and splatbooks and stuff alongside, which isn’t really possible with a storygame.)
    So coming from the other direction, I get excited when I see a new indie game announced, and then usually disappointed when it turns out to be ‘just’ another PbtA thing.

    1. @Mo: I suppose I’m lucky that I like both. I’m partial to a game that has baked-in story, for sure, but I also enjoy PBTA and such. I think it would be helpful to have some jargon terms that clearly distinguish the more storyish ones, though. At the moment it’s kind of ambiguous because “indie” and “storygame” are used so broadly.

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