Opportunities for collaboration: building storyworlds

Wine & Cheese by Jordan Johnson. Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

So, I’m not in Iceland as I’d planned to be. A cracked cockpit windshield, several hours of waiting, and a determinedly cheerful, “Flight cancelled! Come back tomorrow, and we’ll have it fixed!” were one way to spend a Wednesday night. Finishing up this post seemed like another way to make lemonade out of a real lemon of a night. So, let’s wind this series up with a look at a few of the ways that heritage and gaming complement each other, like a nice pairing of wine and cheese, two great tastes that taste great together!

UPDATE: So, after spending several posts problematizing and defining and reframing the question of how cultural heritage professionals and game designers could work together, I’m finally to the good part; exploring avenues for collaboration. This was going to be one elegant wrap up and call to action, but I’m tired, and there’s too much out there to squeeze into one post. So stay tuned as I look at storyworlds, community building, transgression and gardening! First up, storyworlds!

Creating storyworlds

One kind of game that has become very popular in the past few years has been games that feature large, persistent worlds that are inhabited by thousands or millions of players. These games have large overarching narratives that propel the action, and serve as the background for individual players to have their own stories play out.

Chris Crawford’s definition of a game as “a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc”, has clear parallels to what museums do, and could do better. A good storyworld is by nature immersive. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be. It is narrative, without being proscriptive. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there continuously throughout the experience.

Exploring a storyworld is also a deeply constructivist endeavor. You put together elements as you navigate the storyspace, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. A big part of the fun of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on while we were playing.

Most of all, the new kinds of game storyworlds allow visitors to have both a social experience, and a personal experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” experiences. Sleep No More is a great theatre example. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story.

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New games have moved straight into history as their storyworlds. Kingdom Come: Deliverance seems to squarely be aiming at the question “What must it have been like to be alive at a particular point in history?”  that motivates so much of the interpretation that cultural heritage sites try to provide.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Assassin’s Creed: Origins uses Ptolemaic Egypt as more of a backdrop for the fantasy of the game narrative, but what a backdrop! And in an interesting development, after building all these detailed set pieces, requiring the hiring of actual historians to advise Ubisoft, they decided the some players might just want to explore the world, without the fighting and undead mayhem of the main game, so they built 75 (!) tours of different parts of ancient Egypt.

Assassin’s Creed: Origin Discovery Tours

But, wait! There’s more! Daniel Pett (formerly of the British Museum) raised an interesting point on Twitter. What might Ubisoft have been able to make if they had access to the assets of museums that hold Egyptian collections, like the kinds of 3D models Pett had been creating at the BM.

It’s only a matter of time, because Assassin’s Creed: Origins already includes museum assets, thanks to the Met’s Open Access policy.

When I get back from Iceland, we’ll look at community building. Unless the plane still isn’t fixed…



  1. Thanks for this great series Ed. I’m wrestling with what my museum calls our ‘master narratives’ to develop new ‘permanent’ galleries that rather ambitiously begin with deep time. There’s some great synergy here as I’m trying to develop these through ‘storylines’, very much influenced by songlines (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songline). Immersive, gaming related concepts keep surfacing here whether I like it or not!


  2. Ten years ago we imagined (and worked on) bringing our museum’s content in the large open world games of the day. Never materialized. So excited to see this is happening!

    A story like Kingdom Come: Deliverance could be based entirely on museum and archival content. If I think about some of the ‘open worlds’ in depots and archives, and the stories hidden in the heads of curators, which go far beyond another round of predictable story quests and side missions, I can’t wait to see what happens if a proper game studio and a couple of great cultural thinkers come together.

    If I only had the budget…


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