Gunna have to go to the tank for this one. It’s more than one answer.
First of all I have to unpack that me because my model of games and stories is intertwined. To me, games all tell stories, the question is just whether or not those stories are memorable or interesting or cool. Basically, everything can tell a story, the issue is up to the interpreter as to what makes that story interesting or good. I have a model of the universe that has room for crap stories, something that’s apparently resisted.
Another thing that’s strange is that we’re heavily informed by videogames these days which have lately taken to making it so that storytelling is done primarily in the form of unsolicited interruptions. The typical way to handle videogame storytelling is to segregate story elements in safer spaces, away from places that players can mess them up by interacting with them.
This isn’t to say that removing control from a player to tell them a story is a thing per se – I mean, look at games like Undertale (spit), which deliberately tracks a lot of things you do or don’t do and is willing to trust you to represent how and what you do. This sort of storytelling is a little bit like getting a report card at the end of the semester, but that isn’t to say it’s fundamentally bad. It’s a little primitive, but that’s okay.
Let’s say you’re making a storytelling kind of game – those are sort of inherently biased towards it. Some games, like Funemployed, Dear Leader or Once Upon A Time make it the job of the players to tell story in an effort to get from where they are to where they’re going (and hi, check out The Suits while we’re at it). Let’s set those aside, because in those cases, the mechanism of storytelling is what the players are induced to do by the mechanics. The game is presenting you wit hstory beats to move between and telling a story to other players is literally all the players are there to do. Those games create inspiration and sort of dose players with it, hard.
There’s also games that use ‘story’ as their framework, games like Dead of Winter where your storytelling is literally mechanised: Where in amongst the mechanically-generated story, there’s a chunk of systems designed to pull players sideways into a story that’s sort of structured and framed and bolts itself into the story.
This can sound like a criticism, but please, trust me it’s not. It’s just that this kind of system is easier with bigger games, where you can dedicate a component of the systems of the game towards Telling Stories. This system is wonderful, but to keep it from being boring, it needs a game of a particular scope. You can’t make a game that’s just a crossroad deck (well, you can) without players running it out with only a certain number of plays. You want some sort of mystery for people when these story elements jump out at them.
There’s narrative created by interplay of objects. Even abstract games do this – look at how people talk about the story of matches of Chess and Go, the narrative of how a game unfolds. Like I said, it’s not necessarily an interesting story to anyone in particular, but it’s still a story.
That’s our framework: There are lots of ways to tell stories with games, in games and around games, and there are some sort of ‘easy’ places to design. We’re going to talk a little bit more about methods for designing mechanics that tell stories next time and using mechanics to make players think of stories.