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Dragons on a Chip: Storytelling and Electonic Games

Bugsy: While it may appear that we chose this topic to get out of talking about this year’s cancellation of Free Slurpee Day, this is actually something we’ve been meaning to cover since first starting the blog, and Andy’s finally given in to my whining agreed to go with it this week: video games. Or, if you prefer, “electronic gaming” - I know that some people go for this more inclusive term that removes implied platform limitations. We both grew up around various consoles and systems, and (unsurprisingly) have developed a few strong opinions over the years. The COVID-19 pandemic has also given us each an excuse opportunity to delve a bit more into the medium recently, and we thought this would be a good time to discuss the way electronic gaming fits into our lives as working adults and how they influence our approaches to tabletop gaming and storytelling in general.

Andy: If you asked my mother (my mom thinks I’m cool!), she’d probably inform you that my first experience with electronic games was the Atari 2600 title Circus Atari. I’d stand there while my family played and stare at the screen. Apparently, my favorite part was when the player would miss the clown coming back down and it would go splat. I’m told I would giggle like crazy whenever this happened - not sure what that says about me as a person. My earliest memories of actually playing games are Pong, Adventure, and Combat (the tank game) on that Atari. Eventually, when my dad upgraded himself to a 386 PC, I got my hands on the Atari 800 desktop computer and further expanded my gaming experience.

The Atari 800 wasn’t my only computer experience around this time, either. I remember playing (with keyboard help) the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and spending hours at my dad’s side watching him play various DOS-based games. This may have seeded my love of Dungeons and Dragons after spending hours upon hours watching Eye of the Beholder and related games. Eventually I was given the task of using the space bar to cast spells. I was hooked.

It wasn’t until the early 90s, and after much pleading, that I received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. I remember overhearing some talk about it possibly improving my motor skills and coordination. Whatever my parents’ justification used, I was now the proud owner of the NES and played hours of Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt. What an upgrade! Not only were there colorful graphics, but I slowly started receiving games based on my favorite media properties. No longer did I have to beg a trip to the local arcade to play the Simpsons or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games (though I still retain a love of skeeball). I could spend hours and far fewer quarters trying to make it past the first level at home.

At some point, I received a Game Gear and I was able to start partaking of Sega properties. However, I wouldn’t have another full-fledged system for quite some time. Not to say that I didn’t spend a lot of time on the day’s modern systems. While I almost completely skipped the Genesis and Super NES, I do remember getting a feel for them too at a friend’s house a few times. I certainly remember spending hours playing computer games with friends, as well N64 titles such as GoldenEye, Perfect Dark and a version of Gauntlet. I had access to a GameCube for quite a bit and dug into Super Monkey Ball and Spider-Man. Then came my next system: the PlayStation.

My PlayStation time was short lived, actually. I received one secondhand when a relative upgraded to the PS2 in the early 2000s. It wasn’t long before I made the upgrade myself. This was a great era of gaming for me: Star Wars: Battlefront, Guitar Hero, and the Grand Theft Auto titles. This isn’t a full list, and I know I missed some major titles, but it was memorable. Probably because I’m still playing those same games on that same system. I also knew several Xbox owners, and have been able to partake in Halo and other exclusives, and own a used Xbox now, myself. I even had a friend with a Dreamcast, but it never put to much use.

Then I became an adult. While I have a Wii, it didn’t see nearly as much use as previous systems. Responsibilities closed in, and I have kids now. For several years, the only gaming I got in was on my phone, and while that’s valid, it just doesn’t feel the same.

Until this past Christmas. My son asked for a Switch. I was excited but also a bit disappointed as I’m more of a PlayStation fan. It was Christmas, though, good deals were happening, and I splurged. I had skipped the WiiU, the Xbox360, the PS3. Now we have a Switch and a PS4. On one hand, I get to relive glory days of playing Zelda with Breath of the Wild. On the other, I sometimes get to reconnect with peers also playing modern titles. Was it stupid to not wait for PS5?

Bugsy: No. No it was not. I’ll address the social aspect first: part of adulthood (I’ll call myself an adult here because I can be legally tried as one) is the chaos and unpredictability of schedule, which is multiplied by the number of fellow “adults” taking part in any activity. If the moment comes where you can do something with people, no matter how brief, you should take it. You’ll never know when the next opportunity might arise, and if a console allows that possibility then it’s worth owning. We aren’t the type to go out drinking or bowling, or whatever people did for their social interaction in bygone days, and they certainly aren’t an option during the pandemic. But games can present an opportunity to get that social time in bits and pieces. If you’re worried about spending that much on yourself, just tell yourself it’s the modern equivalent of membership dues for a bowling league or the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo.

To address the reason I support adopting a platform towards the end of its operational lifespan, we’ll have to address my own history with electronic gaming. (I rather like this, sharing out life histories through the gaming systems we used, a Curriculum video, if you will.) I have spent most of my history with electronic gaming at the back of the curve, often a generation behind the current releases. My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was young. I didn’t get a free school lunch, but I did get a reduced price one until about fourth grade or so. But I didn’t know that we were any worse-off than anyone else because my parents were clever, my mother in particular - we’ve discussed my family’s home-taped video library in this space before. A lot of what we had was from thrift stores and yard sales, and that greatly shaped my game experience. Like Andy, I started with a second-hand Atari 2600 (there had been something prior, probably a Timex-Sinclair ZX-81, but no one in the house could figure it out) and a library of games from yard sales, thrift stores, and bargain bins. This was followed (again, as with Andy) by an Atari 800XL and its own library of games, many of them bootlegged. In second grade, I was given my uncle’s Commodore 64 and software library, and that made up the majority of my gaming (and everything else, really) time up to the end of high school. Once again, most everything coming from yard sales or blowout bins. This era, of course, is now thought of as a golden age for console gaming, but I only experienced the NES, SNES, and Genesis at the homes of family members or friends. For a while, anyway. (I wasn’t completely out of the loop, a fairly large number of NES games were ported over to the Commodore, since they were both built around the legendary 6502 processor. But they, too, were a generation old by the time I got my hands on them.)

By the time I was in high school, these systems, too, started showing up at yard sales. This was the era of the N64, the Saturn, and (of course) the original PlayStation. And here I was, snatching up old consoles and games for almost nothing. First the NES, and then the Genesis, all patched through to my Commodore monitor. And the games, of course, were just as fun as they always were - they were just older, and thus much, much cheaper. When I bought my first contemporary console in 2001, I chose the PS2 in part because it was fully backwards-compatible. There was a whole library of used PlayStation games that suddenly became available to me! I did mostly end up getting actual PS2 titles, though, including a number of former rental copies from Blockbuster. Towards the very end of its mainstream life cycle, I went a little crazy getting used games from GameStop, because I knew it was my last chance to collect all the classics with relatively little effort.

When I did finally upgrade to the PS3 (a full four years after its US release), it had its own library of cheap, used games, out there. But now there was a new option for the budget-conscious gamer: digital. If one kept on top of the PlayStation Store, there were deals to be had rivalling those of my yard sale days. With a subscription to PlayStation Plus added to the mix and the two games a month it provided (available as long as you’re subscribed), it wasn’t long before my collection was well into the triple digits. By this point, though, I had little time to actually play these games, though, and the console saw far more action as a media player than as a games platform. This ended up being the reason I finally upgraded to the PS4, in fact. The internet in that part of the house was getting increasingly sketchy with standard broadband, and it was drastically affecting what we could watch. I noticed, however, that the 5G connections on our phones and laptops were doing just fine. A quick bit of research revealed that the PS4 had 5G wireless, and I took that opportunity to go grab the Pro version in May 2019. Once again, I’ve come in at the tail end of this console’s life cycle, and I don’t mind a bit. While there aren’t nearly as many used physical copies out there, I’m patient and I have an idea of what to look for. As an added bonus, it meant that the PS3 was now freed from its media duties and could make the journey (as the PS2 before it) to my desk where I could finally start on that backlog.

Speaking of the PS2, earlier this year I bought the OSSC video interface so that I could use it on a modern display, and the results have been fantastic. That era was so bright, colorful, and energetic! So now the PS4 is competing with not one, but two of its ancestors for attention, and I couldn’t be happier to have built up the library I have over the years.

So there you have it - while video gaming might seem like an expensive passtime at first, it’s only that way if you want to stay on top of current releases. But prices drop like King Koopa before you can say “the discount is in another castle.” And getting a console at the end of its era may not get you “retrogamer” cred, but it will get you many hours of gaming for very little money.

Andy: With all of the sales of late, my collection is quickly growing as well. I don’t care if I missed the heyday of the latest GTA and Battlefront games, the gameplay and story is new to me. If there has been one benefit to the unfortunate (but necessary) lockdown, it’s that I’ve had additional time to get in some console gaming. I’ve gotten to play with friends a handful of times, and this is a win, as I still only get around to console games one night a week. If I hadn’t picked up a regular D&D game, I might be able to stretch that to two nights a week. D&D, digitally. Do we consider that a super interactive electronic game? Sure, I have the books physically, but due to the circumstances, I’m playing regularly with a number of old friends throughout the country electronically. Which is, unfortunately, part of the reason I got the PS4, but I digress. In my mind TTRPGs and electronic gaming are fairly linked. You might sarcastically think, “sure GTA is just like Dungeons and Dragons.” You my friend haven’t tried Shadowrun, d20 Modern or countless other alternative systems. (If you haven’t, look me up and we’ll plan a session.) They’re both games, just presented and processed in different ways. Sometimes, those ways are much more obvious. When you play an RPG on a console, you might see the standard stats, experience, equipment. That doesn’t mean playing Battlefront can’t feel like I’m playing a Star Wars TTRPG or vice versa. On the contrary, between the classic quotes and shared world, they can’t help but feel similar.

Electronic gaming has had a direct impact on my TTRPG experience as well. I’ve based many characters on those I’ve seen in video games, either seeking to explore the character further or test the limits of the rules of whichever system I’m in. Can I make my custom-race-mushroom-guy-named-frog double jump somehow in D&D? Even more directly, a few years ago I started a project I still occasionally fiddle with. In a homage to Wreck-It Ralph, Reboot, and other similar animation properties vaguely based on video games, I’ve slowly been converting classic game characters into characters for a TTRPG system called Risus: The Anything RPG. It’s something you’d call a rules-light system, but very versatile. My goal is to one day run and/or play a TTRPG in a Wreck-It Ralph-type world or, at the very least, make it easier for others to do so. (Yes, I’m aware there have been a few attempts at systems that do this already.) It is a means to tell our own stories in the video game world we love.

Bugsy: I think a lot of it comes from having electronic games available for almost as much of our lives as television, books, and other narrative media. It’s simply another format for storytelling, even the simplest early games. I remember being a kid and incorporating Starmaster on the Atari 2600 or Star Raiders on the 800XL into my larger imagined world of space adventures. Pac-Man and Space Invaders’ stories are simple, but they are very much present, and (as with any other medium), they’re presented in ways that are unique to the medium beyond merely dictating plot. One electronic gaming podcaster I listen to posited that one of the reasons the music in 8-bit era games (specifically those on the NES) was so distinctive is that it had to be - it did a lot of the heavy lifting at conveying mood and atmosphere when graphics and processor speed were severely limited. Mega Man and Simon Belmont’s identities are conveyed through the music, (along with color schemes, perspective, gameplay mechanics, etc.) to present story in a way suited to the medium. This isn’t to downplay other forms of electronic storytelling, of course - early text adventures like Infocom’s Enchanter and Planetfall blew my mind in how they built on the framework of the much-simpler Zork games to move beyond basic puzzle-solving into something more gripping and immersive. And some of my first experiences with RPG mechanics were through “D&D with the serial numbers filed off” games like Bard’s Tale and especially Temple of Apshai Trilogy, which very consciously attempted to recreate the feel of a TTRPG with room descriptions in the manual (along with illustrations that could have fit into any published RPG book of the day) offering clues for players to locate traps and treasure. My favorite feature, though, was an option to directly enter your character’s stats, so that you could incorporate Apshai with your ongoing tabletop game. I can’t even imagine what players were expected to tell DMs when they arrived at the next session with a pile more experience and treasure - the manual offered no suggestions. Not to mention that it was based on an honor system that you wouldn’t simply enter the max amount for every stat, and give yourself a massive amount of gold and weapons as a starting point. I certainly never did that, of course, why would you think that?!

But even with its offloaded descriptions and simple graphics, Apshai used the tools of the medium effectively, establishing tone through movement, color, and sound. There were a few moments that effectively terrified me as a kid, although I couldn’t have told you at the time why. Which is exactly what they were going for. That intangible quality is the goal of every creator, every storyteller, and it’s always helpful to explore how other works build it when you’re forming your own. For my own example, I very consciously have modelled my Paranoia games on 80s, adventure games, particularly those published by Sierra and Interplay. A big part of getting that across was using Commodore chiptune music, but also trying to convey the dark humor as well, the suggestion of a quick (and hilarious) death around every corner. My tools were different, having only my words and portrayals, but those games gave me a direction to look toward. (I’ll be expanding on this further in a post specifically about Paranoia, why I love it, and what it’s taught me.) 

Andy: Electronic games have definitely had an impact on my role as a storyteller as well. They give us not only settings and genres, but framework as well. Think back to the first few NES games you played. Which were your favorites and why? Super Mario Bros. is a likely choice. That makes sense, it’s a classic side scrolling platformer game. Or... is it actually a TTRPG built around  a railroad plot? Sure, you have your small victories beating minibosses and capturing flags, but the quest is to Save the Princess! You also get level-ups (mushrooms), equipment (fire flowers), and magic items (stars) along the way. That isn’t even mentioning the fact that you’re collecting gold coins the entire time! Think about how classic D&D that is, amassing large quantities of gold coins. Or perhaps you prefer Legend of Zelda? We’re at an easy start there, being set in a sword-and-sorcery style world. Zelda also makes a great example of a sandbox game, which is one of my favorite styles to run or play. Want to upgrade your sword first? Sure, go that way. Rather explore for relics for a while to the east? Fine! In the end though, video games and TTPRGs have one very important thing in common, something that the best ones tend to be good at: Illusion of Openness. We all know you can only go so far as your storyteller has planned for you, and you can only walk so far to the horizon in an electronic game before you hit that same invisible wall.

Bugsy: It’s appropriate that the first words you see in the original Legend of Zelda are “it’s dangerous to go alone,” because that’s very much what the game is, in comparison to most tabletop experiences. And trading the expansive (if often twisted) imagination of a gamemaster in for however much scenario that particular electronic game can handle can make one feel alone as well. But in both situations, it can work if the player’s imagination will let it, and provided the creator has kept their players in mind. An electronic game will have thousands of hours of playtesting before release, whereas a tabletop GM has to read player feedback and incorporate it into their story on the fly. But there’s a lot to be learned from those thousand hours, too. Next time you play an electronic game of any kind, think about the form that interaction takes and how it affects your thought process and immersion in the game’s world. It might just give you something new to bring to the table.

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