Among my friends, we have a saying, "Any game can be a roleplaying game."
We all love games that tell a good story. But as we play, we're making our own personal story in the game. And sometimes, our favorite game stories are the ones we tell ourselves.
Monopoly: Racecars, Romance, and Revenge
From Final Fantasy to Wii Sports to Monopoly, a creative player can always spin their own tale about the game they're playing and the way they're playing it, even if it has no effect on the game itself.
"My Monopoly character is Remington R. Racecar, a quick-witted, impulsive drag-racer who made his fortune betting on his own races. When his career was killed by a mysterious engine fire, he thought the world of high finances would be a safer game. He was dead wrong..."
Humans look for connections and narratives, so we tend to weave stories even out of random data. And if we weave those stories while we play, they start influencing our choices in the game, letting us reinforce those stories with our actions, and giving us new ideas to incorporate into our own ever-growing narratives.
Perhaps Remington's risk-taking lifestyle means you're more inclined to pick up risky properties, or maybe his familiarity with engines makes him particularly interested in the railroads? Or maybe you'll turn your attention to a rival player, Shawn Scottydog, the sinister manipulator who sabotaged Remy's car, trying to get revenge for some other past misdeed - perhaps because of their rivalry for the affections of the beautiful Julia Thimbleworthy?
Primary and Secondary Stories
Of course, this story isn't supported by the game. It exists outside of the game world, and it falls apart if the other players don't play along. If the player with the scotty dog refuses, you can't point at any part of the game and say it's canon. And you always have to bend your personal story around the real mechanical events that occur in the game.
If you lose all of your money, you can claim you blew it on bad bets, or lost it through Scottydog's nefarious schemes, but you can't just deny it and keep playing. The game's story is primary, and your personal story is secondary.
One place where this difference is especially clear is in MMOs. In World of Warcraft, the primary story generally revolves around you being one of hundreds of heroes engaged in an epic war on all fronts, fulfilling quests for your allies across the world, and gaining power, ranking, and increasingly shiny equipment.
But go on any roleplaying server, and you'll find thousands of different, mutually-exclusive personal, secondary stories - complicated backstories of all kinds, guilds full of stories that have no tangible representation in the game, need not be accepted by uninvolved players, and which may not even make any sense at all.
That's the heart of roleplaying in action, and it allows players to tell themselves the stories they want to hear.
The Importance of Playing Along
Even if your story is world-class, the player will always have a closer connection to their personal story, because it's the one they wrote for themselves. If story is important to your game, you want to give the player a lot of ways to make their personal story appear onscreen. You want the player's secondary story to reinforce the game's primary story.
Obviously, this is most common in the most story-intensive genre: roleplaying games. This is why good roleplaying games give you a variety of options, from character builds and equipment to cosmetic appearance and dialogue options with minimal impact on the game, even the smallest bit of player-controlled choice allows them to put their secondary story onto the game, and to weave it around the primary story.
Done right, it can make for new stories that stick with players for years to come, even when they think they know everything there is to know about the game.
A Personal Story from the Wasteland
In closing, I'd like to share my favorite personal story, which came to me when I was playing a late-beta copy of Fallout 3. Warning, there are spoilers below for anyone who hasn't gone through the main quest!
Obviously, I know exactly what's going on behind the scenes with the AIs and events (mostly...), but sometimes everything comes together and feels so alive that I forget the cogs running behind the screen.
My favorite time that happened was right after I rescued Dad from Tranquility Lane, as we were traveling back across the length of the map to Rivet City. Sure, I could have fast-traveled, but I had spent weeks, months searching for him, and I wasn't about to skip some father-son time.
We had just had a major argument about his genius plan of abandoning me underground, living a lie, and we had moved into the "quiet sulking" period of the trip as we rounded a corner to see a trio of raiders attacking a scavenger and his pack brahmin.
Dad must have been looking for a way to vent his anger as he rushed one of them with has bare fists, and I tried to draw the other two off of the scavenger by spraying them with my assault rifle. Any concerns about Dad's safety disappeared as he laid out the raider with a killer right hook. He grabbed the raider's rifle and joined in my attack.
We dropped the remaining raiders in a hurry, but apparently the scavenger thought we were enemies as well, and time seemed to slow down as I saw him pull out a missile launcher. Fearing even Dad couldn't survive that blast, I aimed three shots for the scav's hand, disarming him quickly.
Seeing he was outmatched, the scav ran and began cowering behind a rock. As he begged for mercy, Dad walked up to him and put a bullet in his head. In the wasteland, mercy is rarer than water.
I stood, stunned, as I realized that Dad had only stopped a man who had meant to murder us, but my thoughts were interrupted by a ferocious bellow. The scavenger's brahmin remained, and its mad eyes rolled our way as it began to charge at me --
Only to be stopped as Dad fired a missile into its meaty hide.
I blinked gore out of my eyes as my father-turned-murderer put away the commandeered launcher. He sighed heavily, but all he said was, "I didn't want to have to do that."
That was the first moment where I really saw Dad, not as the genial doctor who mended stubbed toes in the lie that was Vault 101, but as the grizzled survivor whose attempts to save mankind had forced him to fight and kill in order to survive and pursue his noble goals.
A lifetime of dusty resentment drained away as I realized he hadn't abandoned me underground - he had put his life's work on hold, just to find a safe home where I wouldn't have to grow up to become the sort of man he had.