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Can you have a game without state?
I just finished playing a few hours of Taboo—we meant to play for an hour at most. Apples to Apples has a similar feel, where you just keep playing, until the game sortof peters out into everyone doing something else.
Both games do, ostensibly, keep state. But in both games the state is essentially external; at no point does what you’re doing—or even what you should be doing, from the standpoint of optimal tactics—change.
That is, perhaps, a bit interesting. And it offers a nice explanation for why we played three hours when we meant to play one: we enjoyed the game when we started, and it never changed, so why should we stop enjoying it? We’re goldfish like that.
Initially, I thought that maybe MMOs were also stateless, despite the illusion they present of keeping of an enormous amount of state. It seemed like a pleasing way to explain their “infinite treadmill” nature. There’s some truth in that, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. MMOs do retain state, and some of that state does change the player’s experience, for a time. The feature that MMOs and Taboo share is that both games have closed state graphs (state digraphs, to be specific). At no point do you reach an “end state”; you just keep playing until you decide to stop.
Is that good? Or less normatively, what does that do?
It makes for pretty anti-climactic endings, for one. None of these games offer anything like resolution. They can’t. They never end.
For party games like Taboo and A2A, ease of entrance and exit is almost a necessary sort of inducement to play. The assumption is that they take place within a larger social context—people have other things to be doing, other people at the party to see, and ultimately, the whole night is going to wind down. In that sort of space, it’s extremely helpful to have something that can be picked up and dropped very, very quickly. If a game ropes you in and takes a while, necessarily, to wind down, you might pick it up at the first party, but probably won’t at the second.
But if you’re interested in narrative? Narrative without emotional resolution is a fringe form; narrative without structural resolution might just fail to exist.
Interestingly, most role-playing games are designed to be cyclic.
Not all RPGs fit that pattern, of course. Specifically, indie games often have explicit end points, for (I think, now) basically this reason. My Life With Master and The Mountain Witch both have very explicit beginnings and endings, and play is heterogeneous across the intervening time. Dogs in the Vineyard can conceivably run for many happy sessions, but it explicitly identifies towns as single units of play.
I don’t think that makes these games good party games, necessarily (that isn’t even particularly a goal). But it does support narrative in a way that open-ended gaming doesn’t. The vast majority of traditional games are explicitly designed to run “forever! …or as long as you want to play.” Which is why, in my experience, very few recurring games conclude so much as they reach a point where people stop showing up.
I can actually imagine an open-ended game focused on nanofiction, where each turn amounts to stating a single very short story. It would be interesting, could potentially be played as a party game, and it could easily be designed to let you unfold larger narratives over multiple sessions while retaining narrative structure on the small scale. On reflection, it sounds like terrific fun, in the way that having a secret club when you were eight was fun, only now you can drink.
But that isn’t the structure of any game that I know of. Which makes me really tempted to suggest another question for game writers, in the style of the Power
5 26 30 e2: How does the game end?