On Storytelling: Narratives through Teamwork

Words: 1456 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

About a year ago I played a game called Inscryption. It was designed by Daniel Mullins, who was also behind Pony Island from several years back. Both games are somewhat fascinating for how they blur to line between the player and the game. In both cases, by suggesting that the game itself is somehow alive and fighting back against you.

There’s nothing strictly new or unique about this premise. Plenty of games have done something similar. OneShot literally created files on your computer to provide directions and clues. Undertale occasionally referenced the player as a character. Omikron: The Nomad Soul begins with the idea that you as player are literally a soul within the world of Omikron. And so on and so on. It’s a premise I enjoy when done well and often helps me get hooked into games, but it’s not what I want to focus on here.

Instead I want to focus on the way that Inscrpytion (and by extension Pony Island and similar games) tells its story. Because while it has a basic narrative that you as the player follow through the normal course of playing the game and interacting with its systems, there are other details that are left to be uncovered in other ways.

This will necessarily involve spoiling some core elements of the game. Inscryption is quite interesting to experience in its own right, and so I would suggest that you try to play for yourself before reading further.

Inscryption’s Premise

So let’s cover the basics.

Inscryption is a card game. This is true of the basics of the video game itself, and also of the narrative. In the video game version, you venture through different worlds with different deckbuilding and card-playing mechanics, working on developing a deck that can defeat the various challenges thrown at you. The genres switch a bit throughout the game, and there is some additional puzzle-solving that goes on outside of the narrow card mechanics. (Indeed, one lens for understanding much of the game is as a series of puzzles with your decks of cards as your primary mechanic.)

Each switch in the gameplay is broken up by a series of videos featuring a man named Luke Carder, who makes internet videos about opening packs from various trading card games. The recordings he makes tell a story about his encounter with the game Inscryption and the mystery surrounding its existence.

But not all of the video files are of Luke. Some of them are just static with noise or other seemingly random information.

Similarly, small secrets within the game can be found pointing to a bigger and more sinister story behind what the game really is. This all combines to create an alternate reality game (ARG) that players interact with.

ARGs aren’t new. Some of the most prominent examples date back to the early/mid-2000s. I bring this all up, though, because it helps to raise an important question about how we as players relate to storytelling and the games we play.

Collaborative Games

An important aspect of ARGs is that they aren’t bound by the premise that a single player will understand everything or have the capacities needed to understand everything.

To see why this fact is relevant, imagine that a game told a story that required you to be well-versed in chemistry, machine learning, European history, contemporary Southeast Asian culture, Greek mythology, and statistics. Perhaps one or more of these subjects are something you personally know something or even a lot about…but the likelihood that you are an expert in all of these subjects is pretty low. That means that the game would be telling a story and you could be missing out on huge chunks because those chunks relate to a field you know little or nothing about.

Which is why most games try to simplify their storytelling mechanisms. Ideas and concepts are usually communicated using methods that it is safe to presume all or the vast majority of players would have access to (i.e. text, dialogue, sounds, and visuals). Such games are effectively built to be explored and understood on an individual level. You can share your experience with others, but it isn’t necessary.

ARGs ultimately rely on this sharing, though. In a game like Inscryption, you need to have a wide variety of skills, more than any one person is going to be capable of. And with so many secrets in the game – some of which depend on the game’s internal randomness – not everything will be experienced by a single player. The sharing of experience and of skills is important.

So ARGs focus on this collaborative play: a goal is for players to comb through the game for information and then share it with others, and where one player cannot provide insight, another should be able to.

The thing I wish to explore about this collaboration is precisely its necessity. The way in which you can’t get the full story without working with other players.

Because the act of playing a lot of games is solitary. Especially a game like Inscryption. You have plenty of games with multiplayer which turn the act of gaming into a social activity. But for your single-player games, the process is just between you and the game. You can transform it into a social experience in a variety of ways – streaming, recording, playing with others in the room – but all of these require adding something to the base experience.

So when the game tries to push against that solitary experience, what is it ultimately doing? Why draw people together in this process of combing through information and deciphering it?

One answer is marketing. A lot of ARGs were designed more around creating interest for an upcoming product. But I’m not exactly sure that this answer in and of itself helps us with completed games such as Inscryption. In a sense if people are continually talking about the game it might generate buzz that will draw in new customers, but that is ultimately true of any game that can get its players to recommend it.

A better answer is that it creates engagement. It is a way for a game to live on beyond the mere playtime. It may even demand that the player replay the game to find additional information, or confirm what others have said, or to experience things for themselves that they heard from others. The game stops being one singular experience from beginning to end, but an iterated experience with many beginnings and endings.

But what this all results in is not a singular story being told. Rather it is a singular story coming together. Or from the perspective of the individual player, it is a bunch of stories being told that begin to coalesce over time. Because we must take not simply the narrative supplied by the game, but the little pieces of information shared by other players, and the journeys they undertook, and then that gets folded into our journey – and then repeat all of that over and over again.

It would be easy to compare this form of storytelling to the bits of lore used in a variety of other games – spread out little morsels of information which can be brought together into a coherent story. But the nature of collaborative storytelling by way of the ARG is that it necessitates looking outside of the game. In a sense, the game ceases to be a text on its own. Instead, the text is spread across the game, the internet, and even the world itself, depending on exactly how the ARG is set up.

Concluding Remarks

When I had conceptualized this essay some months back, I was originally much harsher on the concept of collaboration and ARGs more generally. Not because I thought these stories were inherently bad, but because the barriers to understanding the story on your own cut against the ways in which I generally enjoy stories. I gravitate toward single-player experiences mostly because they are something that doesn’t depend on others. My personal distaste for collaborative storytelling is an offshoot of my general distaste for multiplayer.

But in reflecting on what I wanted to say and actually writing it down, I realized the value that such collaboration could hold, and what makes it fascinating. That my personal distaste is merely that, and shouldn’t be used to denigrate ARGs and similar forms of collaborative storytelling.

At the end of the day, the reason I still liked Inscryption is that it worked on both levels. It had a narrative that could be grasped on its own. For those like me who want a complete experience, it gave me one. And for those who want that collaborative experience, it is there.

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