Excitement and Adventure
League of Legends is the main reason this article exists at all. I was thinking about unique experiences, and most of my examples were from League. I also thought of Eve Online, World of Warcraft, and Rainbow Six Siege. Each of these games, and the stories I could tell, involve fighting other people.
It was a strange thing to consciously realize, but I’m mostly a solo player. I like single-player games, and I love RPGs. Things like Final Fantasy, Stardew Valley, or Octopath Traveler are my jam. I love stories, and I love these games. So to realize that most of my gaming stories come from multiplayer games was interesting.
Having realized this, I tried to think of any single-player games that I had any stories to tell about. I could only think of one example: Dwarf Fortress. I also tried to think of any multiplayer, non-PvP, games that would fit with this. And yes, there was one: Dungeons and Dragons.
So I started outlining this article. I wanted to figure out what I would tell stories about, why, and what the connection was between them. The place to start was League of Legends.
Legends of the Lunchroom
We were being destroyed. The score was 15 to 43. Our opponents had an undeniable advantage over us. We had only a few towers remaining to defend our nexus. All seemed hopeless.
But one among us hadn’t given up. “Follow me. Let’s go top!” he urged us. We knew we didn’t stand a chance alone. We had each been soundly beaten when we stood alone. We felt that what we were doing was a desperate gamble, but we knew we couldn’t keep fighting the way we were.
He took us up to the top lane. He charged at the tower, absorbing the damage so everyone else could try to take it down. I healed them as best I could, trying to keep our weak assault alive. One by one, the towers fell. Our minions forced their way through the opposition to back us up, and we soon had a swarm of them to aid our efforts.
The enemy had finally realized they were in danger. They had pushed into our nexus, but were forced to retreat to try and save themselves. They seemed to think it would be easy.
But we hadn’t fought as a team before. They could beat us one on one. Could they do the same when we worked as a team?
We unleashed everything we had. Our leader called the enemy out, one by one. There were ten people in the battle, but each enemy that fell was defeated by all five of us simultaneously.
The fight ended swiftly. We had a handful of seconds before enemy forces would return. We turned on the nexus, and crushed it.
It was an impossible game. We were so far behind in gold, experience, and items. It shouldn’t have worked. But we joined together, and won the most incredible victory I’ve ever experienced.
In college, this was all anyone talked about. We’d sit in the dining hall and regale each other with stories of our most recent conquests -- how we’d evaded a hunter, or taken down an enemy. Our cleverest plays, most incredible moments, or a new discovery on how to best the enemy.
It’s amazing to think just how many stories came out of that game. It was the same kind of game every time. Twenty to forty minutes per match, on the same map, with five players on each side. And yet, it spawned twenty new experiences a day for all of us.
Even if you played with the same team, against the same enemy team, and everyone played the same champions, you’d still end each game with a new story to tell.
And why is that? It comes down to the choices each person makes. Every choice inspires a reaction from someone else. That, in turn, causes others to make new choices. This chain of events is unpredictable, and that’s what generates our unique experiences.
The stories we tell are about the choices we made, and how those choices affected the outcome of the game. This can be seen in most multiplayer games, and it's why most of the examples I could think of came from those kinds of games.
But there is at least one single-player game that creates unique experiences: Dwarf Fortress.
Into Dungeons Deep
In a forge deep within the mountain, a young dwarf worked. The strike of the hammer against adamantine echoed through the vast network of tunnels. Every dwarf knew of the wondrous item being forged in the heart of the mountain. It would be an artifact to define the age.
The hammer fell still. The young dwarf emerged, bearing his wondrous creation. It was a spear of adamantine, encircled with bands of electrum, the head menacing with spikes of obsidian. It was more valuable than anything else within a thousand miles of the fortress.
The story flew through the fortress, and out into the world. Travelers and traders carried the story for hundreds of miles. All that heard it were amazed. Many claimed to have seen it, even touched it. But the stories found their way to a goblin warlord, and he wanted that spear for himself.
Hardly a season had passed before the warlord arrived at the fortress. The alarm was raised and every dwarf took up arms against the invaders. They took to the walls with bows and arrows. Siege engineers fired gargantuan arrows from the ballistae, mounted high in the towers.
But the defense was not enough. Soon the outer wall was overrun with goblins. The defenders were forced underground. They retreated into a secluded safe house, deep within the fortress. The only way to reach it was over a bridge spanning a wide chasm.
Then, from the depths came a horrible sound: a roar like shattering glass that cut through dwarves and goblins alike. An ancient beast of twisted coral pulled itself through the twisting caverns. The stench of its breath was enough to paralyze anything it touched.
It cut a path through the goblins, throwing them from the bridge into the depths. It was a blessing for the dwarves, but only for a moment.
As the last of the goblins were cast into the pit, the young dwarf took up the spear he had crafted from the strongest metal, and fought the wretched beast. He pierced its skull and the beast fell, screaming into the pit.
Unfortunately for the young dwarf, he too was pulled down with the beast. He, the beast, and the spear, fell away from the bridge, and into legend.
There are many, many stories that come out of Dwarf Fortress. Each one unique, each with its own heroes. That’s not something most games can claim to have.
In other games, the path is decided for you. The beginning, middle and end of each journey is already known. It’s fate. While that creates interesting stories, it doesn’t create unique ones.
Everyone who's played through Final Fantasy VIII has experienced the exact same story. But no one who has played Dwarf Fortress has experienced exactly the same thing as another player. There are just too many variables. The starting location, the kinds of metals and minerals that are available, the professions of the dwarves, what you build, what you trade, and on and on.
There’s no point in telling a story to someone when they already know the ending. But in Dwarf Fortress, as in League of Legends, the ending is uncertain.
In our quest to understand what makes unique experiences, we know two things. The first, that player choices have to affect the ending. The second, that the ending can’t be predicted. There’s no way to know how exactly things will turn out with Dwarf Fortress. You have to play through to the end to find out.
Team sports also fulfil these requirements. You know one of the teams will end up winning, but you don’t know which one. The actions of the players are vital to the outcome.
There’s another game that fulfils these requirements: Dungeons and Dragons.
Don’t Touch my Turtle
This time I won’t be telling one of my own stories. I haven’t been able to find where this story came from, but I believe it was a story posted around 2007 on the Dungeons and Dragons website. It’s one of my favorite stories and illustrates just how much freedom this game offers its players.
The party is riding on a colossal flying, metal turtle. The owner, an Elf wizard, is helping them to escape a storm that was about to wipe out an island. As the partly flies over the land, they spot a group of refugees. They convince the wizard to land the turtle so they can try and rescue the refugees.
But the wizard changes her mind once she see the pitiful state the refugees are in. She refuses to allow such filthy peasants to board her nice, shiny turtle. The party tries to convince her, but due to several bad diplomacy rolls, it seems her mind is made up.
Then one of the players, a druid, comes up with a plan.
“I transform into a lion,” she tells the dungeon master.
“Ok,” responds the DM, confused, “Now you’re a lion.”
The druid smiles. “I cast Purify Food and Drink on the refugees.”
“You WHAT?! You can’t do that!”
“I’m sorry, what part of ‘I turn myself into a lion’ did you miss? Do I need to eat one of them first?”
And so the refugees were cleaned up by the spell, and the wizard was forced to let them board the turtle.
This is our third insight into what creates unique experiences: flexibility. For most video games, this degree of flexibility is unrealistic. But for a tabletop game like D&D, all it takes is for one other person to roll with it.
What we can do is try and build systems that allow players to come up with strange and unusual ways to accomplish things. We achieve this by focusing on possibilities, rather than solutions. Focus on how things interact with each other, instead of how things act on other things.
Imagine a locked box. If we create a system that dictates how the box can only be opened with a key, then we force the player to find the key to open the box. If instead, we create a system where materials like wood can be destroyed, the player could simply smash the box open instead. We then can apply that system to wooden weapons, doors, walls, trees, and everything else. If wood can be destroyed, so can stone or metal.
And if metal can be broken, we can focus on just breaking the lock instead of the whole box.
What if we create a spell that lets the player see through things? We could use that to look through doors and spy on people. Or we could use it to see what’s inside the box. And what if we have another spell that lets us transport an object from one location to another. The only thing is, we have to see the object. So first, we look inside the box, then we teleport its contents.
Let the player worry about the solution. When we decide what the solution is, we remove any agency from the player. When the player’s actions don’t matter, and the ending is already known, there’s no possibility for them to have a unique experience.
But if we focus on possibilities, we’re allowing the player to discover their own path to the end.
These are our three pillars of the unique experience. The first, that the players actions must affect the outcome. The second, that the ending must be unknown. And the third, that the system must be flexible.