Welcome to Game Stories

Game Design? In a writing class?

Game design might seem like an odd topic for a course in “Intermediate Composition,” but designing games will require you to build on all the skills you learned in English 100. Games tell stories. Games inform. Games make arguments. Game design requires collaboration, revision, and research. And all the games that we design in this class will emphasize writing. Some will be purely textual games, while others will require you to act as “narrative designers,” the video games professionals who are responsible for the storytelling content of games. In the process of writing games, you will discover that game design complicates traditional writing tasks (narrating, informing, persuading, etc) by adding a new rhetorical challenge: the player. Games are an interactive medium, which means that players make choices about how games unfold. When you write a paper, your readers can’t do much to change what you’ve said while they are reading. But when you write games, players can do all sorts of things to ignore, subvert, repurpose, or resist your design during play. Structuring meaningful experiences for these players is really an advanced writerly problem, one that industry professionals still struggle to understand, but we will try our hand at it anyway in this intermediate course.

This semester, we will study the places where “game” and “story” intersect. We will read games as texts and analyze their narrative design, and we will analyze texts about game design by critics and industry professionals. Guiding our study will be a series of questions meant to help us think critically about the design process of narrative games: Why use games to tell stories? What do games do for stories that other media can’t? Why put stories in games? What do stories do for games that other design elements can’t? What can our experience with writing teach us about game design? And what can game design teach us about the writing process? One further question will guide our approach to all the games we play and sources we read: What about this text is useful to me in my own practice of game design? In other words: How can I use this text to help me make better games?

The sequence of writing assignments this semester progresses from branching narrative games (like the Choose Your Own Adventure series) to tabletop RPG story games (like Dungeons & Dragons) and then to a genre I call “playable history,” wherein our design goal will be to immerse players in the difficult ethical decisions faced by people in a previous era. This semester, we will set our playable history games in Madison, Wisconsin, between 1965 and 1975, a period of time during which Madison experienced a great deal of social protest.

This is very much a “workshop” class. We will be working independently and in  groups to produce, play test, and iterate on our designs, all with the goal of inviting players to participate in rich and meaningful narrative experiences.