How can I learn to see the micro-narratives in a game?

I love the way the Waypoint Radio crew sees and creates little micro-narratives happening within a game. For example: in the Best of 2018 episode about Into The Breach, Cado sees a little moment when pushing your own mech into a Vek to cause damage as a dramatic micro action scene between the two pilots saying “Just do it!! I’ll be okay!”. Austin has talked countless times about how his favorite games are the ones that lets him get into the heads of the characters and create those little micro-narratives readily.

When I play games, I just don’t see that kind of stuff. The experience I have is the one being presented on the surface. If a game isn’t heavily narrative, often the only thing I see are the mechanics and the ways I can engage with them in a very straightforward puzzle-solving kind of way. I would love to dig deeper into a game and see those narrative micro-moments because it seems like a vastly more fun and interesting way to play games, but I don’t know how to teach my brain to do that.

Does anyone have advice or suggestions on how to engage more deeply with a game and see below the gameplay to all its little micro-dramas?

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I’m curious what ideas other people have but one thing that might help you notice or develop micro narratives is keeping a gaming journal. The more you note what’s happening in the game or how you are reacting to a game the easier it will become to notice details or structure details into extra narratives.

But that is just one idea if you really want to start seeing micro narratives in the games you play. I like creating micro narratives in games in part I think because I didn’t like the main narratives so much - but appreciating a game purely for its mechanics or puzzles can be just as deep and rewarding as looking beyond its surface presentation.

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Interesting - could you give me an example of something you would/have written down? Just curious how that works for you.

I wonder if it might help to start with an incredibly sandbox game like The Sims, or an immersive sim. In The Sims, I create the narrative, and this allows me to start writing smaller micro moments in my head. Immersive sims, on the other hand, have content in them specifically designed to make you think about the world and the people in it, which lets you take baby steps into imagining micro-narrative. I sometimes have trouble getting into the micro of immersive sims though because so much of what is in them feels like “this skeleton is on the toilet - that means the bombs dropped while they were pooing!”

I haven’t played it yet, but from the way they talk about Obra Dinn, I get the impression that that game will really push you to pay attention to smaller-level narratives because they’re the puzzles the game is built around. Overall, I think playing something where either the explicit goal or the only way to make fun out of something is to create a subtle narrative would be the ways to start training your brain to make up stories like that for games that don’t demand it.

Another thing might just be to play tabletop RPGs. Those games give you skeletons of games in their mechanics, and it’s up to you to build stories around the crunchy stuff. It’s not surprising that Austin, the person who I think plays RPGs the most of the staff, seems to have the most stories about making up narratives to fit random mechanics or procedurally-generated content that actually had no ‘thoughtful design or intent’ (in the way we traditionally think about these things).

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If you’re into watching LPs, I’ve found Austin and Rob’s playthrough of XCOM 2 to be pretty inspiring in that regard and it gave me some insight as to how to incorporate and make sense of the random aspects of this game into a larger narrative.

For me, games with random elements and some degree of customization are usually the ones where I find myself creating these narratives to myself, as a way to sorta justify what is happening. The same is true for sandbox games, where I often don’t care about the main story and prefer to kinda roleplay the main character to make sense of the world they are living in and the other caracters around them.

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Interestingly, although not surprising, I’ve played a lot of and have never been able to get into immersive sims or other sandbox games specifically because I have never really understood how to “make my own fun” in them. Games like The Sims aren’t meant to be minmaxed or “beaten” they’re designed to be played with, like a toy, and I guess that’s really the thing I never learned how to do.

I’m dying to play Obra Dinn, I’m just looking for a nice solid time chunk that I can bang it out in a few days. I played the demo though and never thought of it that way - you’re right, it’s an entire game about constructing your own micro-narratives. Now I’m looking forward to it even more!

Good point about tabletop RPGs. I guess again, similarly, I’ve found myself bouncing off of the more crunchy games like Pathfinder and D&D in favor of more narrative games like Dungeon World specifically because they make it easier for me to let go of the gaminess of them and think of all aspects of it like a story. Maybe I need to let go of the gaminess of video games a little bit too…

Thanks for the comment/advice! I appreciate it!

Something that worked for me, was investing attention in parts of the game that I’d otherwise start to look past. It’s easy when playing a game for a long time to start looking past the aesthetic elements and only engage your brain with what’s mechanically happening.

To be more clear about it, when I first played XCOM I was just playing a complicated chess game where I moved around pieces and tried to not lose to the aliens. But I heard of other people giving their characters names of their friends or sports teams, and I decided to give it a try.

And it started to click. When I put in some time up front to go through my squad and decide who each person was (I named them after fictional characters), it meant that I had begun thinking about them as characters before the mission even started. That opened me up to notice when parts of the game lined up with my story. Even though it was just random, of course that red head is named Merida. Then in the mission, of course she has to bravely charge into alien territory to rescue Waluigi who went and got his ass shot.

I didn’t finish that playthrough, but it started me looking at games in that way more and more. It requires some buy in up front, but then really it’s just about making connections in the randmoness and deciding to make them meaningful and build on them.

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Thanks for the reminder - they’ve talked about that playthrough so much on the podcast and I’ve been meaning to watch it. Will bump it up my list.

When you roleplay in a sandbox game like that, do you ever run into the frustration that the game won’t let you RP your character the way you want? I’ve tried to approach some RPGs that way (Skyrim comes to mind which I realize isn’t super sandboxy) and ended up getting frustrated that combat is often your main interaction with the world and it doesn’t allow a lot of freedom of expression.

That’s such a great suggestion, thank you! I’ll make a point to try and do that next time.

I actually thing a good game type to flex these muscles are 4X games, and especially Crusader Kings 2. When I first played CK 2 I had never really seen any micro narratives in games, but that game in particular forces the player to RP to some extent. I found it easier at the time I was doing it to start with the ASoIaF mod (It was 2013) and work with characters that I was familiar with from the series in new situations.

My favorite micro narrative in this game that happened to me is a fairly normal one, but really shapes how I view the game. I had started as a small Duke in Ireland (probably the best starting place for new players) and on my third duke I had secured enough power and influence to create the Kingdom of Ireland, but there was one issue. I was in my 50’s and my only heir was a 13 year old girl that I still had yet to betroth because I was waiting out for a son (and so she would not have to lead or be married to a man that was beneath her so that there family would not have claims on my lands) and who was being trained by the court Spymaster so that if she did have to lead she would at least be a cunning and smart one. Well a few years pass in game and two things happen, the first is that my daughter turns 16 (in game becomes an adult character) and I end up finally with a son. My daughter though, she was smart as I said. Only a month went by before I got the notification that my son was suffocated in his bed and before I could pause the game the game paused itself as my character had been poisoned. When I hit okay informing me that my character had died and my game unpauses and moves to my heir it says “Congratulations! Your plot against the King was successful.”

I played as The Spider Queen of Ireland until she was killed by her one and only daughter who too took the throne.

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Wow, that is an INCREDIBLE little story.

I know being able to make your own fun and write your own little stories is an essential piece of enjoying 4X games which is why I’ve always had such a hard time getting into them. Maybe I’ll have to slow down and really get invested in roleplaying the individuals rather than looking at the macro 4X view that the game encourages. The issue I always have is that there are often so many resources and game mechanics and things you have to manage that they stop me from really getting into the story and turn it into a minmaxing numbers game.

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I don’t play many sandbox games these days but especifically for Skyrim I remember using a lot of mods to help mold the game to my style of play. At the time I was all about the mods that added survival-ish stakes to the gameplay, so I had fun roaming around, exploring and running away from combat when necessary, while having something to keep in mind when things got too monotonous. It helped that I knew nothing about the TES lore beforehand, so I could just discover stuff and fill in the gaps with my own headcanons as I went along.

I think sandbox games are better for these micro-narratives when you’re already the kind of player who’s used to coming up with that kind of stuff, as the aimlessness/“how do I start?” of it can be definitely off-putting. From this thread I think the XCOM games and CK2 are two great recommendations if you’re into these types of games, and I’ll add: the Nuzlocke Challenge in the Pokémon games (a player-driven challenge that adds permadeath to the game), This War of Mine (a harrowing and pessimistic game about surviving in a war-ridden city where you play as different pre-determined characters) and Sunless Sea (exploration driven adventure game with survival elements and tons of little stories to discover).

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I can see how most 4X games can do that which is why I specified CK2. You are not your demesne as much as you may want to play that way. The physical traits and attributes of your ruler feed into not only how good you may be at war or religion or espionage but also what you are allowed to do within the game. You may want to buddy up with the pope, but you’ve got no faith and are possessed by the devil so unless the pope also ends up being an agent of satan it’ll be hard to get close to them. Or you taught your next ruler under the clergy so that the next generation could be as religious as you wanted well now your ruler is an unathletic bookworm and not as many people will come when you call for arms for the crusades.

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I’m reminded of whichever year end podcast Rob talked about Armored Brigade in, as most of the games I’ve gotten invested in like this have been simulation-heavy tactical wargames. Something about the chaos of the battlefield causes me to empathize with these virtual people I’m trying to lead and imagine the kind of fear or relief or whatever they’re feeling very vividly. I’ll never forget the time in Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star when all that was preventing the right flank of my defense from collapsing was a single man, the sole survivor of a machine gun team, holed up in a house and desperately hurling molotov cocktails as a German platoon surrounded him. You do have to zoom in, but in any game of this sort these stories are there.

CK2 is the best for this sort of thing though, without question. The mechanical stuff is aimed at pushing you that way and offers enough structure that you can see what’s going on and fill in the rest. I can’t do that sort of Austin Walker RP thing in most other games, but in CK2 it’s pretty hard not to.

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I may have to check that game out - I’ve heard a lot of great things but got so overwhelmed by EU4 that I ran away from Paradox games and never looked back. If nothing else it seems like really good story generator practice which is exactly what I’m looking for. Thanks!

These are exactly the little details I’m trying to find! That’s such a great and poignant memory that you made because you saw him as more than just a unit on the board.

I’ll definitely check out CK2 since it seems to easily do exactly what I’m looking for. Thanks!

Would it be rude of me to go with the Twitter style response and just throw out the Spongebob IMAGINATION gif?

Sure! Personally, my journalling is pretty loosey goosey. It’s something I want to formalize or separate a bit more this year. I have a catchall notebook that I have on me all the time that I am sure to write something down in if I have an idea or experience. Most of my game related notes are just impressions. The last one just “Simon and Pit - buddy boys” after I found both of the characters in the same location in the World of Light section of the latest Smash Bros… it’s a silly note but taking notes like this makes me more conscious of the games I’m playing and more likely to form extra narratives to create a richer experience. After coming back to themselves I like to think Simon and Pit find some common ground to connect on as they make their way out of the temple they were placed in. I don’t know much about either character and they are an unlikely pair but they’ve both fought Medusa at least.
It would be fun to do more formal journalling for the games I play but even this bare minimum note taking seems to work for me.

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Paradox games can be intimidating, I still don’t really get EU4. For me the trick with CK2 was realizing that I didn’t need to fully understand the game to have a really good time. I’ve played it for 221 hours and I still have a pretty limited understanding of it, but I’ve gotten a lot of good stories out of it despite that.

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Oh that’s really interesting, thank you. That seems like an easy thing I can try to start doing. I’ll give it a shot!

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