The Brimbank Writers & Readers Festival ran from 1-11 September this year. I’ve been to my fair share of writers festival as both a guest and an attendee, but I wanted to go to this one for a particular reason: on Saturday 10 September the organizers were holding a panel discussion at the Sydenham Library on Participatory Storytelling.
This in itself isn’t perhaps groundbreaking. I mean, PAX hosts panels like this every year. But according to the research of panel moderator Phil Minchin, this was the first time that a mainstream literary festival had included such a topic in its line up. Like, in the whole world.
My own Internet searches appeared to back up Phil’s claim, so of course Games vs Play had to be there. For anyone interested in games and storytelling, this was like seeing the Beatles’ first show in the Kaiserkeller, or being in the audience at the Sex Pistols’ gig in the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 that included future members of Joy Division, the Buzzcocks and the Smiths (minus the spitting on the audience, or so I hoped).
The panel consisted of Felicity Banks, an Interactive Fiction writer and newly published novelist; Wade Dyer, creator of the Fragged Empire roleplaying game (pictured left); and Phill Krins, co-founder of Swordcraft, Australia’s largest live action roleplaying game or LARP. The moderator Phil Minchin – who I’ll refer to as ‘Phil M’ from now on to differentiate from ‘Phill K’ from Swordcraft, who made an entrance in the library arriving in a full suit of plate armour – had no less a distinguished record. A librarian in the Brimbank Library services by day, among other things Phil M is also a games blogger, a consultant for running games in libraries, a writer for the Pathfinder RPG, and a driving force behind the International Games Day @ Your Library. This panel promised to be very interesting indeed.
Phil M opened the discussion by giving a brief history of storytelling. Stories, he argued, began as interactive narratives told by our distant ancestors around the communal fire to recount a successful hunting expedition or explain the actions of the gods. As time went on, stories became codified through oral histories that were passed on from generation to generation. Then, with the invention(s) of writing, narratives became fixed, increasing the power of the word but also restricting its freedom. With the emergence of printing presses from the fifteenth century onwards, mass readerships slowly became the norm across the world, and then finally in the twentieth century the new media of film and television rose to global preeminence.
But Phil M argued that in all this time participatory storytelling never really went away. Quite the contrary – in the last fifty years especially, participatory forms of entertainment have been staging a comeback through roleplaying games, boardgames, computer games and interactive fiction. “Participatory storytelling has the potential to be the storytelling medium of the 21st century,” Phil M concluded. The only thing stopping it from doing so was an entrenched lack of recognition as a legitimate artform by mainstream critics and audiences.
With Phil M’s intro done, it was over the panelists. Felicity, Wade and Phill K spoke about how they’d started in their chosen medium. I think the common theme here was that each had “fallen into” their craft through a combination of pursuing their personal interests while being willing to venture into unknown territory.
Phill K told us how Swordcraft was inspired by a LARP he attended in an abandoned chalk mine in the UK. “I got back to Melbourne and thought, we do could something like that here!” What initially began as a bit of mucking around with his brother Jeff and a few friends soon grew into Swordcraft, Australia’s largest and most regularly staged LARP community. With over 400 regular players, Phill said their next step was to begin building their own sets to make the experience even more immersive.
Wade explained that his first published game Fragged Empire – a science fiction RPG set in a post-post-apocalyptic future where there are no human character classes – similarly began as an improvised group project with a few friends. But as the game world grew Wade began to consider the possibility that it could have a life outside his immediate circle of players, a possibility that was proven correct with a highly successful Kickstarter that resulted in the first edition of the game being released in 2015 to critical and popular success. Wade is now a full-time games designer working on the follow-ups to Fragged Empire: Fragged Seas (a pirate-themed RPG) and Fragged Aeternum (a Gothic horror/dark fantasy RPG set in an endless city).
Using much self-deprecating humour, Felicity admitted that becoming an award-winning author of Interactive Fiction was something she fell into accidentally. Felicity had written around 14 or so novels by her own estimate, but as many emerging writers discover (myself included) getting published by a bricks and mortar publishing house is becoming increasingly difficult – not that it was ever easy to start with! But after trying her hand at writing the “Choices” series of Interactive Fiction designed to be read/played on an app, she realised that she’d found an alternative medium for her stories that not only had a large and eager audience, but actually paid quite well. Since then Felicity has become a fulltime writer with Melbourne-based studio Tin Man Games, and she’s also realised her goal of writing a physical 3-D book, Heart of Brass, a steampunk novel set in Australia in 1854 and published by Odyssey Books. Heart of Brass also includes Felicity’s Choose Your Own Adventure-style story After the Flag Fell, winner of the 2015 Windhammer prize. Who needs the Man Booker when you’ve got the Tin Man?!?
The panelists spoke a lot about the interactivity of their stories, which place their “audience,” “readers” or “players” (the terms for interactive participants vary) in a central, creative role in the narrative. Wade, for instance, said that his original design for Fragged Empire included an encyclopedia-level detailed description of the fictional galaxy in which the game was set. But then he went through his own private universe and “tore great chunks out of it,” leaving gaping holes in the setting. “When people ask me, ‘What happens on this planet?’” he told us, “my usual answer is, ‘That’s a good question Why don’t you tell me?’” Wade emphasized that his role as a games designer was to provide the rules and enough background to allow players to create their own epic stories.
Phill K had a similar take on Swordcraft. He said that as a founder and in-game Guildmaster he was associated with creating major storylines, but that when it came to actually resolving those storylines the power passed out of his hands and into the players. He went on to say that there was nothing more exciting to see Swordcraft players take a germ of a story and turn it into something completely unexpected. Phill K and I had been talking on Facebook earlier in the week, and I’d jokingly made a reference to the so-called “death of the author” in LARPs (thus revealing my background in literary studies – don’t ask me what I’ve seen, I cannot, nay, must not speak of it!). “Everyone’s the author,” he’d countered, which I think is a good way of thinking about LARPs, where even the role of a gamesmaster – the traditional referee and authority figure of tabletop RPGs – takes a backseat role in the unfolding of the narrative.
Felicity was perhaps the only contrary voice in this part of the panel discussion. “I’m still the author,” she asserted. “I like omniscience!” In Interactive Fiction, both printable Choose Your Own Adventure-style books and computer-based stories, there’s still a writer who plots out the many branches of the narrative and ties it into a whole. “The words are all mine, the choices are all mine,” Felicity said. But she did point out that the experience of reading/playing Interactive Fiction is unique for each person, in ways that reading a traditional unilinear novel isn’t it. What’s more, with the app-based stories that Felicity writes the main character of the story is not fixed by the author but is instead generated by the reader/player from a set of different attributes, much in the way players create their characters in roleplaying games.
One thing that all three panelists agreed upon was the sheer power of experience that participatory storytelling can offer. As Felicity put it vividly, “Reading in a book about being chased through a forest by someone wielding a sword is not the same thing as actually being chased by someone wielding a sword, which if they hit you with it can hurt quite a bit.”
Phil M had wanted to steer the conversation towards the question, “Is Participatory Storytelling Art?”, but with the hour and a half allotted to the panel coming swiftly to a close he opened the session up to questions from the audience. Naturally I was itching to get a question in, and managed to shoot my hand up so fast that I’m pretty sure I gave myself tendonitis in the process.
I’d been interested in Phil M’s observation at the start of the panel, that Participatory Storytelling still hadn’t gained acceptance as a mainstream entertainment in the way that movies or even the Internet had. “The major strengths of traditional linear, one-to-many forms of media like television and books is that they’re highly durable and portable,” I said. “Audiences can take part in the same shared experience, which leads to the creation of a canon, of fan communities, and of a feeling of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. One of the things we’ve been talking about today is the immediacy of people’s experiences in Participatory Storytelling, which makes it feel so real. But if everybody has their own unique experiences, what is it then that they’re sharing?”
Wade’s answer focused on the creation of “perfect moments” in roleplaying games where an unexpected combination of the scenario’s storyling, player interaction and lucky dice rolls can create narrative surprises that live on in player memory for years after the adventure. Talking about Interactive Fiction, Felicity highlighted the “meta-narrative” elements (my term, not hers – there’s that lit theory background rearing its head again) that are shared by readers/players outside of the story experience itself, things like shared in-jokes or memes that make the rounds on online forums, and which only people who have taken part interactively will properly understand.
Phill K’s response to my question was more meta-narrative still. He pointed out that it wasn’t the stories themselves that are shared, but instead the platforms on which those stories are played out. For LARPs and RPGs this would be the rules and campaign settings; for Interactive Fiction it’s the text with all its different branching plotlines and endings. This made a lot of sense to me. I think Dungeons & Dragons is a prime example of the platform of the game becoming the shared space that millions of people around the world can identify with, regardless of whether they only played the game back in 1986 or had just survived their first encounter with Count Strahd von Zarovich in 2016.
I’m really glad that Phil M decided to set up this panel. If it really is true, that this panel was the first time that Participatory Storytelling included in a mainstream writers convention, then I think it’s well overdue – although to be fair, part of me would hate to see the grassroots, egalitarian feel of participatory storytelling taken over by mass media and big business. Can you imagine something like an unholy cross between Big Brother and Call of Cthulhu? Actually, that would be kinda interesting to watch …
So I want to close this blog by reflecting on what I think might be the three big reasons that have so far stopped participatory storytelling from gaining greater legitimacy and acceptance. Here we go:
1) It’s difficult
I think there’s an awful lot of people out there who would be interested in giving an RPG or a LARP a go, but are put off by the perceived complexity of the rules they would need to learn. Boardgames have shown that this barrier can be overcome with the huge surge of popularity they’ve experienced since The Settlers of Catan opened up strategy games to a mainstream audience in the mid-90s. But even here we talk about “gateway games” and “gamer games” – and I can’t think of any “gateway RPGs” that fill quite the same shoes as Catan.
2) It’s different
And by “different”, I think I mean “geeky”. I personally don’t agree with this myself – and besides, in the last thirty years or so a lot of formerly “geeky” hobbies or pursuits are now hugely popular and cool, like comic book heroes and computer games. Which is awesome! But many forms of Participatory Storytelling, and in particular anything to do with roleplaying, still suffer from an underserved social stigma that goes right back to the infamous D&D moral panic of the ’80s. I don’t know if there’s a magic bullet to change these perceptions, but putting Participatory Storytelling out there for everybody to see – such as this panel in the Brimbank Writers and Readers Festival, or the Swordcraft guys playing in public in Princes Park every Friday – is definitely a good start.
3) It’s threatening
“Threatening” to mainstream storytelling, that is. You could also say “It’s new” or “It’s strange.” Anything that’s ever been called “different” is always the subject of kickback from more established institutions. The same thing happened when television became big in the 1950s, when it was feared that the new medium would completely kill off cinemas and feature films. That of course didn’t happen – far from it – and I can’t help but feel that Participatory Storytelling will likewise be able to live peacefully alongside and perhaps even enhance our traditional platforms for storytelling in this still-new century.
If you don’t agree with these reasons, or think that I’ve overlooked something important, let me know on the Games vs Play contact page. In the meantime I just want to thank the panellists for giving a very engaging look into their chosen artforms, and also everybody at the Brimbank Libaries who was involved in organising the festival. I’ll look forward to seeing more of this type of discussion at other festivals. Let’s lobby the Melbourne Writers Festival for next year – who’s with me?!?
Games vs Play wishes to acknowledge Brimbank Libraries, Odyssey Books and Design Ministries as the owners of images used in this post. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, you can like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!