Games That Remember - A Brief History of Legacy Elements in Gaming (Part 1)

Idan Rooze | January 2022

Lately I became reinterested in player choice and agency in games, and especially what became known as “Legacy Games” in the board gaming world. This aims to be a short review of how story elements and decision-making evolved in games, and how designers can use these ideas to immerse players in their worlds.

Leaving a Legacy

I was in fourth grade and it was reading time. I was skimming through a shiny, silvery book that had a monstrous crocodile painted on its cover. It was called Give Yourself Goosebumps: Escape the Carnival of Horrors, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-type interactive novel by R. L. Stine, known as the Stephen King of children’s literature. I was deeply immersed in trying to escape a creepy carnival but was eventually launched into space, only to be dismissed by NASA as a tiny speck on their radar. I tried escaping over and over but kept facing horrors and meeting terrible fates. With over 22 written bad endings, I never managed to do it. This was at the same time one of the coolest and most frustrating experiences I had with a book. I was enchanted by the novelty of being an active actor in a story, one of many experiences that led me down the path of becoming a game developer.*SOCUBx22u6KZGnRUTLM1pw.jpeg 
The first book in the Choose Your Own Adventure/Dice-Rolling series Fighting Fantasy, 1982

Story-Driven Games

It was 1969, and a lawyer named Edward Packard was telling his kids bedtime stories when he came up with the idea of a storybook where the reader could choose what happens next, a groundbreaking invention later became the basis of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

The early 1970s saw the rise of interactive fiction: Choose Your Own AdventureDungeons and Dragons, and the first digital text adventure games like Colossal Cave Adventure are all major cornerstones in the history of player-driven storytelling. Those ancestors gave birth to Point-and-Click adventure games like the rudimentary Mystery House, and digital Role-Playing games such as Ultima. Those early experiments laid the foundations for a collection of game design and storytelling ideas that are being used, improved, and debated to this day.

Legacy Elements in Video Games

In 1982, the game Wizardry II required players to import their adventuring party from Wizardry I, and allowed players to continue the thread of their characters’ story into a new world, keeping their legacy alive. Since Wizardry we saw legacy elements introduced into more video games, usually story-heavy, character-centric ones. In those games, player decisions could have an effect even after the game was over, by being carried over to the following chapters of the story. Some examples are game series like Mass EffectDragon Age, and The Witcher. A whole subgenre of episodic, decision-centric games spawned games like those in the Telltale series and Life is Strange. The exceptional Undertale, developed by Toby Fox, played around with the concept by rewarding returning players with a meta-narrative that ties the player and the fate of the game world together even more tightly.*_FafHvkdzZamRgd08YGmNQ.jpeg

Making decisions in Life is Strange, 2015

The Rise of Legacy Board Games

For board games, albeit being around for longer, the concept of Legacy came later, probably because of the physical nature of the medium.

In 2011, Rob Daviau’s Risk Legacy subverted board gamers’ expectations around the world by directing them to vandalize the copies of their games, tearing down game components, and applying non-removable stickers to them. Instead of resetting the state of the game between sessions, Daviau wanted players to have a real sense of stake and ownership over the game story. In legacy board games decisions manifest in a physical way through numerous sessions of a campaign — sometimes altering the very essence of the game with no way back.

Risk Legacy was followed by a wave of new legacy board games, with Pandemic Legacy quickly climbing to the #1 spot on in 2015, and plenty more campaign-driven games that captured the hearts of people around the world, like GloomhavenClank! LegacyThe King’s Dilemma, and more. Those games proved that players like leaving their marks on the game world even at the price of sacrificing the wholeness and replayability of a game.*8G0QeVALaqnRI7-yk9-Vvw.png*6L1SnsfLy1mmnvVe-hL1gA.png*1HVJ3CszgbrljIaTCPy-Ow.png
In Arkham Horror: The Card Game, after encountering a werewolf you can turn into one forever!

Meta-Narratives In Gaming Culture

What if there was a way to extend a game’s magic circle beyond the experience of a secluded gaming group? In 1995, a card game called Legend of the Five Rings was published by Alderac Entertainment Group. The game was played by a devout community for 20 years, during which competitive tournaments were hosted by the creators. Those events offered players a way to get involved in the fiction of the world — by playing you got a chance to affect the future of the L5R story. The results of those tournaments often had massive consequences for the lore, characters, artifacts, and clans in the world. The novel approach of the game development team, and their direct interaction with tournament winners, as well as the involvement of the community via a voting system, was a way to keep the community engaged in the long run, beyond just playing the game.

A Connection to the Past

By creating a thread that connects the player experience to their past decisions, game designers can create an unmatched sense of player ownership. Ownership is psychologically tied to our need for efficiency, our self-identity, and our desire to belong. By allowing players to own their past decisions, we create a deeper sense of agency in our players and immerse them in our creations in a meaningful way.

If you are working on a piece of interactive fiction or a game, I encourage you — let your players tear it down. They will thank you for that.

For Further Inquiry

Totem Game Development Network 2022