All games are Story Games: Practical abstraction, gameplay and storytelling

Hi! This is Tyler Tinsley, just doing a little guest blogging. I’m a published game and toy designer and love the sound of my own keyboard. Grab a nice drink this article is a little long, but worth it!

Abstraction is the refuge of both the pretentious and the extremely nerdy.’s first definition of abstract is “thought – apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances: an abstract idea.” Who would waste their time with something “apart from reality, specific objects, or actual instances”? Oh right.

A nerd!

Abstract thought is surprisingly useful for a nerd. Thinking of something in the abstract is a good method to understand a form of communication or expression. Painting abstract pictures will help a painter understand what colors, patterns, and shapes will help them make appealing compositions. For a writer, studying plot structure will help them understand how to best use their format to create compelling narratives.

Practical abstraction is a process of separating form and content, or message from messenger. Abstraction helps find useful patterns and can help make new connections that are otherwise obscured by content. In certain ways most TV shows use the same abstract plot every single episode. These structures are purposely used by writers to help build compelling stories. The structure becomes a series of blanks the writers fill in. Each episode hits the same beats, has similar lengths between commercial breaks and ends in almost exactly the same amount of time. This structure, devoid of characters and specific events is a practical use of abstraction.

This article is about how gameplay creates a story, and that popular games are usually capable of generating compelling stories. I will skip the part where I define what a game and a story are. But here are a few perhaps unexpected examples of stories.

This is a story

This is also story

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Bd7 4. Bxd7+ Qxd7 5. c4 Nc6 6. Nc3 Nf6 7. O-O g6 8. d4 cxd4 9. Nxd4 Bg7 10. Nde2 Qe6 11. Nd5 Qxe4 12. Nc7+ Kd7 13. Nxa8 Qxc4 14. Nb6+ axb6 15. Nc3 Ra8 16. a4 Ne4 17. Nxe4 Qxe4 18. Qb3 f5 19. Bg5 Qb4 20. Qf7 Be5 21. h3 Rxa4 22. Rxa4 Qxa4 23. Qxh7 Bxb2 24. Qxg6 Qe4 25. Qf7 Bd4 26. Qb3 f4 27. Qf7 Be5 28. h4 b5 29. h5 Qc4 30. Qf5+ Qe6 31. Qxe6+ Kxe6 32. g3 fxg3 33. fxg3 b4 34. Bf4 Bd4+ 35. Kh1 b3 36. g4 Kd5 37. g5 e6 38. h6 Ne7 39. Rd1 e5 40. Be3 Kc4 41. Bxd4 exd4 42. Kg2 b2 43. Kf3 Kc3 44. h7 Ng6 45. Ke4 Kc2 46. Rh1 d3 47. Kf5 b1=Q 48. Rxb1 Kxb1 49. Kxg6 d2 50. h8=Q d1=Q 51. Qh7 b5 52. Kf6+ Kb2 53. Qh2+ Ka1 54. Qf4 b4 55. Qxb4 Qf3+ 56. Kg7 d5 57. Qd4+ Kb1 58. g6 Qe4 59. Qg1+ Kb2 60. Qf2+ Kc1 61. Kf6 d4 62. g7 1-0


These are rare examples of purely abstract stories. It’s amazing that with a little knowledge of how to play these games, these otherwise meaningless works can be compelling. These stories sort of defy traditional thought on what stories are, yet they are popular forms of story. Did you know across Asia records of go matches have been kept since ancient times? That currently in Korea there are TWO television stations focused on showing games of GO? What makes the stories told by GO so compelling?

Like I mentioned before, successful tv shows are written by people who understand the abstract nature of plot structure. Each episode follows rules for how the story starts, plays and ends. Games are a natural parody of this structure. Games have rules for how they start, play and end. These rules are the abstract structure that generate a story.

When I watch a professional game of GO I get a sensation of mystery, seeing distant parts of the board develop and eventually all tie together. It’s comparable to a story where seemingly unrelated plots tie into a larger narrative. It’s a combination of skilled players and the rules of GO that create these compelling stories. When I play GO the stories told are simpler and far less nuanced.

If games are capable of creating compelling stories, It’s a little strange that so few games that focus on story actually use gameplay to build that story. The common video game tells a story with cut scenes placed between segments of more traditional gameplay. Even most table top rpgs break down into story and gameplay segments.

Are there any less abstract games that use play to build a story?. Thematic board games and miniatures games can often produce stories worth retelling. Strategic war games like Axis and Allies have systems that model how countries fought in WWII, each time the game is played a new story about the WWII conflict will be told. Maybe japan can successfully invade America’s west coast or any number of non-historic scenarios can play out.

While GO and Axis and Allies can produce “stories” these lack what we commonly associate with storytelling, things like characters that speak dialog and can shoot or poke things. This kind of storytelling is demanding. With video games the challenges are clear, story usually involves assets that are hard or impossible to generate endlessly, each new branch of a story requires more art, animation, writing and voice acting. Valiant efforts have been made to give player’s more choice when it comes to a game’s story elements. Usually resulting in incredible amounts of assets being generated for each possible choice. However even these story choices are made apart from the standard gameplay, it’s rare for game play to truly drive the story.

The material challenges video games face are absent for Table top role playing games. And yet most role playing games do not have rules for how to start and stop playing. And if they do it’s usually in the form of a module that ties the gameplay to specific characters and events. So with a little abstract thought we now have a new question to ask “Can game play generated story be used in an RPG?



If you want an answer to that question check out SeedRPG uses gameplay to inspire the story, meaning there is little to no prep before the game, it also uses cards and junk to help you play the game. My goal is to help more people play rpgs more often. SeedRPG will have a public beta launching in October, I hope you will check it out!



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

4 thoughts on “All games are Story Games: Practical abstraction, gameplay and storytelling

  • September 28, 2010 at 4:24 am

    Good post. Are your design goals influenced by the independently-published story games that have come out over the last decade? Many of them are built on similar principles.

  • September 28, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    The story games movement is a heavy influence. Many of those games do quite a bit to help players make the story and some use game play to inspire the story.

    Even still some lean heavily on using story to inspire the rules in play. Something like if X happens in the narrative use Y rules to model the effect of X. In d20 you only use the surprise round attack rules if players set up an ambush in the story. Or perhaps making a scouting check in mouse guard, the reason that particular check was made in the first place is because the story called for it.

    This is something I think of as the flow of rules and story. SeedRPG almost exclusively uses rules to inspire the story. meaning there is always a clear choice and result to base the story or narration around. For more about flow check out this post.

    Story games also require quite a bit of creativity to play. While you dont have to prepare much for some story games. a portion of players need something to solid react to in order to contribute to the game. Using rules to inspire the story gives players something to react to while still enabling freedom to narrate a character’s actions.

  • November 7, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Certainly some games of chess and go and football are stories; conflict escalates, hard choices are made, the underdog comes from behind and seizes victory, or the winning team is undone by hubris to a tragic end.

    But most game sessions aren’t. Or, well, if they are, they’re *bad* stories. “I played against someone much weaker than myself and mopped the floor with him,” for example.

    I agree that the railroady sequence of cutscenes that constitute ‘story’ in most modern videogames are not worth much. But neither is 9 out of 10 games of chess. The miracle of story games is that more often than not, the stories that emerge are worth something. In the afterglow of most story games I’ve played I’m seized with the urge to write up the AP because I need to retell this awesome story we just made! The good story games have some magic that chess and Go do not have. Let’s figure out what that is.

  • November 18, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I think the magic is story games use the structure of games but are about presenting only the choices that lead to interesting stories. The choices are not about planing or strategy in the traditional sense.

    A game like chess presents many possible choices each turn, really a master chess player knows only a few are good and only a few more would be interesting. a story game should only ever present “good” or “interesting” choices. a good story game should always function like two masters playing a grand champion round. (this is how they should function mechanically, they should also do as much as possible to help inspire players to be good story tellers, something that is fairly challenging in it’s own right

    The point being that the structure of gameplay, the way each choice or result builds, is a natural parody to storytelling and a tool that can be exploited for the generation of interesting stories.

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