Here’s a story. Once, many games were made out of wheels within wheels, tasks within tasks. Their power came from constantly achieving these small, looping goals that fed into larger goals: Getting wood to get a pickaxe to get some rock to get a better pickaxe to get iron, to get this, to get that. These wheels kept constantly turning and spawning new wheels in such a way that there was never a clear end point where someone could stop playing. Just five more minutes and you could get a this, and then you’d be able to mine that, and then meanwhile you should be growing this so you can get 50% extra efficiency on your that.
The Man and his Suits, growing jealous of the power of these games, stole these mechanics for their own and remade them into machines designed to take money. Across the land, many fell to the addictive turning of the compelling loops of these wheels within wheels.
Here’s a better story: Princess Shahrazad finds herself married to King Shahriyar, who takes one bride every night and cuts their heads off in the morning. Thinking quickly, she invents Gamification, doing in one night what would take the rest of the world thousands of years to rediscover. 1001 Arabian Nights – the collection of stories she tells to the king keep herself alive – is made of wheels within wheels. Instead of tasks, though, it’s wheels are made of stories.
Shahrazad tells the story of The porter and the three ladies of Baghdad. A porter, three dervishes (all blind in one eye), and the Caliph – pretending to be a merchant – find their way into a house with three beautiful ladies. They are welcomed, but warned “Don’t ask about that which doesn’t concern you!” After a feast, the girls bring out two black dogs and begin to beat them horribly, weeping, before finally stopping and hugging the dogs, apologizing to them. The men ask what the hell they’re doing. “You have asked about that which doesn’t concern you!” the girls cry, and forty slaves come out and surround them with swords. “Tell us the story of how you came to be here. If it is interesting, you will live.”
The first dervish explains that he wasn’t born blind in one eye, and he was once king and son of kings. One day, while venturing to a nearby kingdom, he was attacked and robbed by highwayman, and only just managed to escape to a mountain city. Here, he began to make a living as a logger. One day he struck a brass ring in the roots of a tree. Pulling it up, he found stairs down to an incredible palace where a beautiful girl lay surrounded by a feast. “How did you come to be here?” he cried out in wonder, and she began to tell him a story.
King Shahriyar has to find out why this girl is here, to find out how this guy became blind in one eye, to find out why everyone else became blind in one eye, to find out why the ladies were beating this dog – and what’s the deal with the Caliph? The poor old king is totally trapped in the endless coils of a four story thick engagement loop. He couldn’t kill her if he tried. These stories just keep turning and spawning new stories in a way that seems like it could go on forever, until the guy who transcribed this from the oral tradition apparently realizes that he’s running out of page space, marries everyone to everyone else and gives them all a palace and forty slaves each.
Here’s what you can get out of this. Modern games all take their cue from tolkien: there’s one goal, and one horrible evil thing standing in the way of it. The heroes might do some things that seem irrelevant to the main goal – or even such a massive amount of things that the goal itself gets lost- but in the end there’ll be a massive confrontation that makes it clear that everything in the game has been building to this.
I’m not going to say that’s a bad type of story (I just spent an article praising it, after all), but it’s not actually the type of story that games are best at. In RPG’s in particular, plonking you down at the start and telling you that the only really relevant bit of the game lies 50+ hours that way is terrible. Why does a game like Morrowind have to put in a battle with some puffed up god and a cutscene at the end, and pretend THAT is what the game was about? It’s almost always the short-term goals and sidequests that you remember from RPG’s, not the end sequence where you saved the world from generic evil – but these short-term goals are demeaned by the games storyline, which makes it seem like doing these sidequests is wasting time when you should be completing the main important goal.
1001 Arabian Nights suggests an alternative: take the looping goals of Minecraft or Civilization, but replace the tasks with stories. Quickly cocoon the player in sidequests within sidequests. A player might have to find the hideout of a gang of robbers to find a mountain village to find the shrine of demons to understand the summoning book to question the devil to discover why the sultan was killed – and as they do that, more sidequests appear and become important until the player is buoyed through 50+ hours on the backs of these numerous tiny achievements and discoveries.
Good RPG’s already do this, but always at the guilty behest of the main plotline. Arabian Nights suggests throwing out the “Main Goal” entirely in favor of rambling adventures. Why have a set goal from the beginning? Why force an artificial climax? Tie that stuff into the leveling system. Just give the player four palaces and forty slaves when they reach level 50 , and tell them they lived happily ever after until they were visited by the Destroyer of all earthly pleasures, the Annihilator of men.