Tom Chick's top ten games of 2021

Dark Souls doesn’t have emergent storytelling. It has a set story that it tells (well, with a couple possible paths), it just tells it like David Lynch or Gene Wolfe. What it has, and what absolutely no one in the business does as well as From, is environmental storytelling. I’ve always felt that the item descriptions were a cheat, though. Is my character a psychometric or something? Does every item come with a little card explaining its history like some kind of Olde Darke Curiosity Shoppe?

Oh it so does. I’m not talking about the evertalked lore, but the game’s dramatic itself, and its world, with which the player can choose to interact, or not.
The story ark I experienced in Dark Souls and the motivation of its main character totally changed during it, to a 180 degree pivotal twist that the game actually acknowledge in providing an actual very rewarding ending to what began as something that didn’t seem to have much destination. Not once did I break the game while trying to break it.
No other game ever came close to what Dark Souls accomplished on that front, in my opinion.
Dark Souls is so good that if you want it to be a stupid game about murdering zombies in the back over and over, it can be that too, and the game has probably that somewhat simplistic narrative covered too. You want it to be a multiplayer fighting game? it can be that too. In my case it was a tale of loss and anger, and it was very moving until the protagonist lost her mind.
Or maybe I lost my mind. Glad I did as that was worth it!

I think you just have a good imagination.

But see, even if that’s only a case of a player’s imagination, almost every games will “break” it, by providing disappointing narrative elements, or by simply ignoring you having this imagination, leaving you with a void to fill.
It’s why I think Dark Souls is a masterpiece on that front.

Yes, it certainly gives a lot of space for the player’s imagination to roam…much like Lynch.

I do wonder if my somewhat slavish obeisance to The Author + desire for videogames to be a consumptive leisure activity I do to relax and experience joy rather than something I should put work or effort into are combining to rob me of experiences like this and what some others describe (@tomchick, I’m looking forward to reading the Planetfall and Massive Chalice stories you linked earlier while I eat today).

I have a very firmly fixed opinion that The Author Is Very Much Alive, Thank You Very Much. Basically keeps me from finding any joy whatsoever in fanfic, fan theories, etc., despite being constantly surrounded by that portion of fandom by the friends I largely associate with IRL. I don’t have any interest in imagining what Luke might have done between raucous teddybear party in Return of the Jedi and crankily milking space cows in The Last Jedi. I rely on George Lucas and now Kathleen Kennedy and her stable of uncooperative wannabe auteurs to tell me what he did. I might well think what they tell me is dumb and could plausibly imagine something better, but that isn’t what I’m supposed to do. What he did is fixed, in canon, by his puppetmasters. That might well bother me a lot or satisfy me greatly or somewhere precisely in-between, but whatever my reaction, the story provided is the only thing I’m especially interested in reacting to.

(As the first of two minor asides, I suspect my inclination not to view fictional characters as people but rather tools of the narrative also comes into play here. Luke isn’t a real person with motivations and dreams and desires that I might divine and use to predict different courses of action than he takes onscreen. He is and does precisely what the filmmaker tells me, and nothing more, a useful icon to hang the threads of narrative upon en route to the conclusion of one or more Hero’s Journeys)

If a videogame elects not to really present a constructed narrative – or even a responsive one – but merely has systems that react to me as a player and produce semi-unscripted actions on the part of the AI within the structure of its rules and mechancis, on some level, I think I treat that choice as canonical, bizarre as that might be. There’s no greater meaning at play here being handed down; this is just a set of (perhaps interesting, entertaining, enjoyable) gameplay systems interlocking and interweaving. Of course the current leader of Spain conspired against me and of course his spurned heir worked with me; my Plot for the Throne was uncovered by Spies in Turn 192, and I’ve been sending Envoys to the Heir’s prison cell for 4 years to increase our Trust stat to the maximum for non-married characters.

I could weave more meaning into than that, and heck, if someone asked me to recount the experience to them, I think my storyteller inclinations would likely step in to provide some narrative glue to the rote recitation of mechanical gears turning in their infinite majesty. But generally speaking, moment-to-moment in the experience of playing the game, that part of my brain doesn’t want to work. I came here for someone else to dump easy-to-consume entertainment on my lap, and I’ll do no more than sit down to create such a lap, thank-you-very-much.

And again, sometimes, this can lead to disappointment. Open-world games wherein the next quest is whatever challenge you give yourself to overcome, grand strategy titles that encourage you to forge your own path carving through the normal order of set history, blocky C64 space sims where my crew roster of auto-generated redshirts are slowly whittled away by the long campaign against the Vaxian menace – I frequently have a hard time connecting with these games. The systems are often a little obtuse, or have a high skill barrier, or both, so without that drive to generate a narrative to accompany my journey through them, motivation quickly bleeds away and I find that I’ve wasted $50 again, oops.

(As a minor addendum that I personally think is interesting but really diverges substantially from the ongoing conversation, I think TTRPGs short-circuit my slavish devotion to “canon” because I’ve come to see them as shared authorship experiences, not a case of a singular Word of G(od)M coming down from on high to dictate the truth of the fiction. Like a good sitcom writer’s room or improv troupe collaboratively working on a slowly forming concept, joyfully discovering unexpected connective threads between their disparate ideas, and cobbling together – sometimes awkwardly and haltingly, sometimes with great speed and fervor – a narrative from what they have found, a TTRPG table is all about the experience of making something new and unforeseen together.

I certainly can play in a heavily on-rails GM-crafted game session with but only one ending to arrive at by means decided upon before the fact, but when I do so, my engagement drops and I, basically, treat what I’m in the midst of like a videogame. An entertainment experiences being handed to me that, sigh, I must occasionally do work for with some kind of math and sigh handwriting of statistics onto paper to get to the end of. At least there are usually friends nearby to joke around with in the interim)

Amateur ;-)

Oh yes, I played that one: Master of Q-rianon.

I was trying to be concise because dive^3 had been flippant the last time I used too many words, and I didn’t like that!

The early point you make is quite interesting to me, because in probably the same way you fail to connect to your C64 pixelcrew, I can’t connect to most movies or series narrative anymore, especially blockbuster stuff like Star Wars, as I find them litterally boring me to sleep — I can’t stop yawning!
This used to not be the case, but for the past few years it has been. I also noticed it in my readings, whereas I used to enjoy books which were either discussing real world events, or had a very strong narrative, I now only delight myself in novels where hardly anything is happening, books that are more “places” than anything.

That was the case of most of my experiences with bad GMs, with a very important caveat: no “together” in this, the new and unforeseen thing was not agreed upon and was happening despite all of us!

Boy, you must love Wheel of Time!

Writing name down…

So I’m sending in Jewal Gruvich, one of the characters I’ve leveled up in previous games (I’m only picking from Planetfall’s pre-made characters; custom characters are non-canonical!).

(from the Planetfall tale)

VINDICATION

Video game designers like to rip off movies for their stories and general feeling, making games “cinematic”, but the narrative in a video game has a different function to that of a movie (or book, TV show, play, etc). A good story in a game is there to give context and purpose to player’s actions, and in that sense emergent stories can have a stronger effect than scripted ones. A XCOM soldier panicking as a comrade dies, shooting uncontrollably and taking out the enemy that killed his buddy is a better story than an NPC doing the same in a cut-scene.

Good emergent stories don’t need the elaborate descriptions or specific voiced dialog that authored game stories provide, they just need events that are connected through cause and effect in the game systems.

Death of the Author isn’t about canon or fanfiction, it’s about interpretation and meaning. Of course, you can have your own ideas about it, even if they are not what Barthes intended when he came up with it.

Nailed it!

Death of the Author isn’t "After Return of the Jedi, Luke got a magic unicorn and rode to Las Vegas for a space-party!!! :D :D "

Death of the Author is “The original Star Wars trilogy is about the fraught relationships between parents and their children.”

Yes but I want to sound academic and cool when I dismissively sniff at my friends’ Archive of Our Own accounts :P

Per usual great list regardless of my feelings towards a game. It’s the writing and reasoning behind Tom’s choices that make this list so readable…and re-readable. But I would like to know how much more fun Old World is than A-Train, so are the scores going to be given in a different article?

Regarding emergent storytelling. I see stories built even with my wargames. And often I don’t do the ‘smart’ move, but do the ‘interesting’ or ‘best storyline’ move. Maybe it comes from playing GEV by myself as a kid and the various chits were characters as much as they were GEV mk IIIs? Now, if I’m playing against someone I’m much less likely to go rogue into storytelling land. But solo, the game is a much a toy for creating stories as it is a game for testing tactics.

Exactly! Very well put. I may have to steal that as a go-to example.

Have we arrived?

Sure, a game story will provide context and purpose to a player’s actions and in that sense I really need some pre-scripted narrative elements to make a game engaging to me at all. A purely abstract situation does nothing for me whatsoever. But you can tell really great mostly linear stories in games, and still take advantage of the medium’s multimedia aspects, the immersion of being in the world that’s portrayed, do a lot of environmental storytelling for the player to seek out and interpret themselves, have narration or codex entries pop up when you encounter certain things for the more dedicated players to dig into, etc.

And I hard disagree that having an XCOM soldier who’s never been characterized mechanically go into a panic and kill the alien that killed another soldier is a better story than having a named NPC who’s had an established relationship with the dead soldier do the same thing in a cutscene. The former is just game mechanics firing off. The latter has narrative and emotional weight. I care about these fictional people because I have been introduced to them as something other than a class and a level and a gun and a morale rating. Now, you could potentially split the difference - having game mechanics like that kick in when established, named, characterized soldiers have game things happen to them could potentially be nearly as powerful as a scripted beat. But it’s tough to offer that level of narrative around units that can actually be permanently killed as you progress. (There’s a bit of this in Fire Emblem, at least.)

Those characters were pre-created NPCs and had backstories and stuff, in the manual anyway. (I also have strong memories of The Magic Candle even though I never got that far in it. My grandma got it for me to play on her computer when I visited because she knew I liked videogames and otherwise all I would have were a couple demos, a golf simulator, and Sopwith. It does a lot of interesting stuff and is widely regarded as a classic.)

And I’m with @ArmandoPenblade, I think. Maybe not quite to the same degree. But where I’m coming from is similar to how Tom feels about design things. Tom says “you’re the designer, it’s your job to make design decisions, not mine”. I say, “you’re the people making the game, it’s your job to tell the stories, not mine.”

Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy stuff that people cite as producing emergent narrative. But it’s not remotely as compelling to me so I generally am either more there for the stuff that is authored narrative, if it’s there, or I need a lot of interlocking systems that are responsive to what I’m doing, like your classic roguelikes might have. (The ur-example would be Dwarf Fortress, though I’ve never played that for UI reasons.) And I don’t see those as story engines, I just find that they have a better ability to continue to generate interesting situational challenges.

My brain responds a lot to variety and novelty as far as mechanics go, I think. With both boardgames and videogames, if all you’re giving me is pieces to mash against each other, that can be fun, but the moment I feel like I’ve seen the way each piece interacts with the larger game, I’m done, even if there’s potentially a much vaster field of possible strategy and counterstrategy and theoretically infinite replay. I’m not a chess master, not even close. But I’ve seen enough of chess to be bored with it. Did that back in grade school. RTS skirmishes, there’s more going on but I still run out of interest very quickly. Wrap stuff in an authored story and I have a lot more patience and stamina.

I guess this is where we differ, I find nothing nothing objectively better about such a thing happening in my game, but then I guess I find nothing objectively worse about it either. It’s looking for meaning in the roll of the dice, a primitive person walking along the beach and finding a coconut has fallen at his feet and deciding it must be because god loves him. If my sniper misses ten 80% likelihood shots in a row, I don’t imagine it’s because she’s an absolute asshole and someone on the team tampered with their gun in the hopes they won’t come back. But I can’t really begrudge someone for dreaming up their own story so they don’t throw their keyboard out the window.

The only story telling I find interesting in games is emergent.

But then I don’t go looking for narrative or character development in games, for me it’s the wrong wrong medium, I turn to literature and cinema.

In any case this feels like it’s own thread and kind of hijacking this one.