As an avid proponent of games as media for all sorts of narratives and storytelling in general, I was recently intrigued by a rather successful attempt in this field. My interest was based on surprise, as the game in question is Magic 2014 - Duels of the Planeswalkers, the most recent digital installment of the Magic the Gathering franchise. I've played Magic for a number of years now (mostly casual, Commander and cube), and I've never considered it a game suitable for conveying any sort of story or a plot, other than its basic premise of ”you are a planeswalking wizard, who fights other planeswalking wizards”. I suspect that most Magic players see the game merely as a test of strategical and tactical skill, which is just as well: fast paced, short duels are not the best possible way of telling a story. Still, DotP does try, and the result is interesting.

I'm very much aware that the whole question of how games convey stories is a bit of a mine field of academic argument. My generalised point of view is that even the most abstract game concept can be built around a story of some sort, and most games use some sort of a story element as a premise to motivate otherwise fantastic or inane challenges. Even a game of chess can be understood as the story of a conflict between two warring factions, unfolding in real time as the players choose their moves. This discussion is not to be confused with the debacle of whether digital games are in any way an interactive medium for story telling, or should they be viewed more as a sort of a book or a movie which just forces the audience to complete menial tasks before the plot advances. For today's discussion, it is only relevant that games are often based on stories, and attempt to convey plot development through gameplay and cutscenes (which can be seen as rewards for the player for advancing in the game).

In DotP, as is the case with most digital multiplayer games, the story is found in the single player campaign, which also acts as a tutorial and a challenge ladder, the goal of which is to train the player to play against other people later on, as well as unveil the content of the game incrementally as the player progresses forward. The campaign is the first thing most players encounter as they start out with the game, since most of the content (i.e. new decks, and cards to make these decks able to compete) is unlocked through it. The plot is fairly inane, consisting of the player teaming up with Chandra Nalaar (an iconic planeswalker hero of the Magic multiverse) on a chase through various worlds representative of the franchise. The story itself is not the point here, but rather how it is told, and what it accomplishes.

The different planes the player visits are represented as a set of challenges to face, plus an end encounter with a boss. The bossfights are much like any game of Magic, except with a silicon system piloting the pile of cards opposite to you. The challenges are effectively pre-planned gamestates without an attempt to simulate the randomness of an actual game. In a challenge, the computer draws the same cards, and plays them in the same order, every time (not taking into account slight variety produced by for example the lack of suitable targets for removal spells). The effect is similar to what you'd get if you set the order of cards in your deck before every game, instead of shuffling them. As such they showcase various boardstates that would otherwise be odd or unlikely to come up.

Designwise the campaign mode accomplishes many things for the game: it familiarises the player with the lore and locations of the Magic multiverse, shows how very different strategies can be applied successfully in deck design, and above all, teaches the player how to play the game, at least well enough to enjoy the multiplayer aspect of it. It seems like a successful example of how to teach a complicated game through a long tutorial, while keeping things interesting with the help of plot elements. What's unusual about it is that it does this through a game of duels, some of which have bent the rules to accomplish a narrative effect. It is this bending of the rules which was the most interesting aspect of the campaign, as it got me thinking about the possibilities it opens for storytelling in a gameform otherwise unsuitable for producing a narrative experience. For example, this sort of an approach to the game facilitates using Magic as a system for tabletop roleplaying, with one person building and running the decks representative of the challenges the player-characters have to conquer by use of their decks (representative of their characters' skillsets, respectively).

On a more general design level though, from this analysis we can draw the possibility of exploring any story as a series of challenges to be concretely overcome by the player(s): stories are comprised of events, which can be interpreted as situations where the protagonists attempt to use any means at their disposal to force the outcome to be favourable to them. Accordingly, any story can be divided into challenges, which the players-as-protagonists attempt to successfully solve.

As Magic is (for me at least) above all else a game played with physical cards instead of digital ones, distilling this approach to storytelling and game/story design from such an unlikely source got me thinking about the possibility of experimenting with more serious narratives through card games. Couldn't a story about overcoming, say, depression be presented as a series of challenges? And isn't the whole process of meeting someone, dating them, eventually pairing up with them, and so on, already thought of as a process of challenges to overcome? I'd also imagine many parents would agree that raising a child is nothing if not an endless series of challenges. To approach stories as chains of challenges obviously raises the question of making failure interesting, but my instinct is that because of their inherently social basis board and card games are better equipped to solve this narrative dilemma than their digital counterparts. For example, failing spectacularly together is often more fun than winning in a co-operative board game. Oddly, Magic 2014 – Duels of the Planeswalkers was an eye-opening narrative experience for me. I guess it's true what they say: it's not the shape of the ship, it's the motion of the ocean.