Game Design: The Inside/Outside Story

Credit: Steve Mishos, creative commons, some rights reserved.

Credit: Steve Mishos. CC license, some rights reserved.

Whether I’m writing or designing a game, for me, to create is to look critically at my own work. Different ways of looking yield different effects in the finished product; when a thing looks good through many critical lenses, then I know it will hold up as a piece of art.

Last week, I talked about one such lens–the idea of premises. This week, I am going to talk about perhaps the most powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal: the inside-outside story.

I learned about the inside-outside story from writer and legendary writing teacher Pamela Painter, who said, in an interview with Superstition Review she picked up the concept from writer and teacher Ron Carlson. For writers and game designers of all stripes, I heartily recommend the book What If? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. And I write this with some apologies to Painter, as my copy of her book is somewhere in storage, so I don’t have her words at my fingertips, just my memory of them.

What Are Inside and Outside Stories?

The inside story is the internal struggle that the characters undergo. The outside story is typically the plot or action that takes place.

Some examples:

  • Harry Potter Series. The inside story is about a young boy growing into himself and figuring out who he is. The outside story revolves around the trials and tribulations of battling Voldemort.
  • Pride and Prejudice. The inside story is about Lizzie Bennet overcoming her prejudiced nature. In the outside story she undergoes a series of romantic mishaps and falls in love with Mr. Darcy.
  • Anna Karenina. Has several inside stories to go with its several point of view characters. In Anna’s inside story she comes to terms with herself as a sexual being. In the outside story she has an extramarital affair and ruins the lives of herself and those around her.

You can use the concept of inside stories and outside stories to talk about many narratives–the inside story is the transformation of a character or characters, while the outside story constitutes the actions that happen.

The Relationship Between Inside Stories and Outside Stories

When making a story, the inside story and the outside story should be related. In the above examples you can note that it is through fighting Voldemort that Harry Potter discovers who he is. Lizzie Bennet is able to fall in love with Mr. Darcy only because she overcomes her prejudice. It is the extramarital affair that brings about both Anna Karenina’s sexual awakening and her suicide.

It is also possible to create a work in which the inside and outside stories correspond more closely, which creates an aesthetically satisfying thematic unity. Pamela Painter calls this an inside/outside story. For example, in Chip Cheek’s short short “Hickey,” the protagonist tortures herself by thinking about torturing the boy who has a crush on her. The inside/outside story is present in some of the most classical literature and short stories. For example, in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ search for self  (inside story) corresponds to his search for a way home (outside story).

How This Relates to Roleplaying Games

Oh boy. I see the concept of inside and outside stories every time I sit down to play a game. The concepts of inside and outside stories seem endemic to the format. As a player in a roleplaying game, my character necessarily has her own inside story, which happens inside my head. The outside story is what happens between me and other characters and the framework of the game.

As organizers and game designers it is possible to shape both a character’s inside story as well as the outside story of the experience, and I think it can provide a useful way of talking about game design.

As always, I’m more acquainted with larp and freeform games than tabletop, so while this may be more broadly applicable to roleplaying games, I can only speak from my own experience.Your mileage may vary.

The Inside Story and Gaming

One cool thing about inside stories is that every player in your larp will have one, so the inside story is very inclusive of participants. When some Nordic game designers wrote in the Dogma ’99 manifesto, “There shall be no main plot,” preferring instead plot for all characters, I feel they were effectively making an aesthetic move toward designing inside stories. Only five people can solve a given puzzle at a time, and only ten can go to the secret meeting, but 100 people can fall in love or betray each other, etc. during the course of a game.

The inside story represents a democratization of the larp plot. And with the emphasis on inclusion in Nordic larp and freeform, I think it is no accident that so many of these games turn inward.

This is not to say that traditional games don’t have an inside story–they absolutely do. But often, framing this inside story is left up to player choice. When I’m thrown into an indie game or story game, quite often it’s the game master who frames the situation and leaves it up to me to react. Of course the plot of the game influences my internal state, but it’s up to me to string those reactions together into a meaningful whole. Sometimes I’m able to, and sometimes it just feels like a picaresque–a string of experiences united not by theme, but because I’m the one doing them.

Controlling the Inside Story

It is possible to dictate inside stories to players and still leave them some choice. I am reminded of the game In Fair Verona by Jesper Bruun and Tue Beck Saarie, about life in the Little Italy ghetto in Manhattan in the 1920s. The core mechanic of this game was tango dancing–that is how the characters along this street expressed themselves, and the theme of the game was love.

During the workshop, we each received a character dilemma. Mine was something like, “always thinks she’s right and can be preachy.” Tue and Jesper told us that if we overcame this dilemma during the larp we would find love. If we did not overcome this dilemma, we would not find love. At the beginning of the game we were to take a dance with the person with whom we had a negative relationship, and this would catapult us into our character dilemma.

In practice, this was a very effective way of giving us each the same plot with different sensibilities. This story is something writers call a “last chance to change” story. Either our characters would take the last chance, or they wouldn’t. How we handled the dilemma was up to us, our dancing, and the conversations we had along the way.

It’s also possible to have a scenario in which players experience different inside stories around the same themes. The larp Play the Cards by Tyra Larsdatter Grasmo, Frida Sofie Jansen and Trine Lise Lindahl (with Katrin Førde) revolves around themes of status within a close-knit high school. Characters are assigned playing cards–each suit represents a different high school clique, and the value of the card represents a character’s standing in that clique. The head of each group can change the cards of its members at will, rendering the painful status jockeying of high school visible and transparent.

In Play the Cards, the pre-written characters are quite different, but the mechanics of the game support status play and the high school setting supports anxiety around that status play. That tight thematic focus creates strong inside stories, though the story of the clique queen who gets dethroned may be quite different from that of the low-status player who ends the game as the head of a clique.

There are many, many more ways to manage the inside stories of players.

The Outside Story and Gaming

In roleplaying, the outside story often takes the format of traditional plot. There is a dragon we must kill, a bomb to diffuse, a robbery to botch, and so on. This outside story is usually in the hands of the organizer or game master, though sometimes it is also in the hands of the game designer. It can provide adventure and entertainment.

While I like adventure and entertainment quite well for their own sakes, I’m really impressed by games that reach beyond toward thematic resonance and enlightenment.

A well-constructed outside story can enhance an inside story, or help the players form a coherent experience of their own. One way to create a resonant story is to work backwards. If I’m sending the players on a quest to kill a dragon, is there a way to help them experience a metaphorical quest for self as well? If this is a game about the era of McCarthyism, what kind of internal story might have resonance with the themes of inquisition and rooting out the non-conformists? What kind of mechanics or situations would really bring these themes out?

Inside/Outside Story

We can talk about inside stories and outside stories in gaming, but I also wanted to point out that there are some wonderful classic games that accomplish the challenge of lining up inside and outside stories.

One such game is Emily Care Boss’s The Remodel, which is about four women who have just had major midlife changes, such as marriage, losing a business shared with a friend, meeting a daughter put up for adoption 20 years ago, and divorce from an abuser. The woman who is recently divorced is remodeling her house, and the other characters in the game have pledged to help her. Game play switches between scenes in which these women remodel their lives and scenes in which they remodel that house, creating resonance between inside and outside stories. In my run, at least, this thematic unity created a powerful sense of kinship among the characters, and to a certain extent, the players, during the game. We were all accessing the same core story through our individual plot lines.

Another take on the inside/outside story duality comes from classic jeepform game Doubt by Tobias Wrigstad and Fredrik Axelzon. Doubt is about Tom and Julia, two actors in a relationship together. Presently, they are performing together in a play about a marriage on the rocks; they are playing Peter and Nicole on stage. During the course of the game, Tom and Julia will be tempted to cheat, revealing larger issues within their relationship. To make things more confusing, two players portray Tom and Julia, and two portray Peter and Nicole (as played by Tom and Julia on stage).

Doubt is a clever game because it functions like a mirror facing another mirror–the relationships reflect one another on numerous levels. On one level, we might consider the inside story to be Tom and Julia’s crumbling relationship, and the outside story to be Peter and Nicole’s crumbling relationship performed on stage, and those two are in unity. On another level, we might consider the inside story to be the internal doubt that the characters in both couples feel, which mirrors external doubts about their relationships. The relationships of Tom and Julia mirror those of Peter and Nicole. The doubt the characters feel mirror the problems inherent in the relationship.

So those are two methods of creating an inside/outside story with a roleplaying game. In The Remodel, the players all have the same inside story couched with different outside stories, and united thematically by the framing story in which they remodel a house. In Doubt, the inside story is given to two characters, and the outside story is given to two other characters (though on another level, all characters have the same inside story), and the game depends to a certain extent on the two sets of players watching each other to understand the mirroring. 

Making the external and internal struggles match each other creates powerfully resonant aesthetic experience.

The Place of Metatechniques

Metatechniques can be used as a portal between inside and outside stories to enhance play.

Metatechniques are ways of breaking the flow of narrative to heighten the drama. They are also a way of letting players communicate information about their characters to one another without letting their characters in on the drama.

For example, monologuing metatechniques allow a character to open a window into their internal thoughts. Different games have different ways of initiating monologues–sometimes the players control the tool and sometimes the organizers do.

Let’s say the character of Sally is at a dull dinner party and is asked to monologue and she says something like, “Those two look so happy with their children. It makes me feel inadequate because I’m not able to have children.” The players of this game all hear her, but presumably the characters themselves are unaware of Sally’s infertility. Now the other players have the opportunity to help Sally’s inside story along by repeatedly bringing up the topic of kids or referring to this in some other way. By necessity, the character of Sally will now have to deal with her fears, which forces her inside story to develop.

Another example is the metatechnique of bird-in-ear, used in some small freeform games. Bird-in-ear allows the game master or another player to whisper internal thoughts into a character’s head during a scene without stopping play. When I use this as a game master, I use it pretty much exclusively because I can see an inside story developing during a scene that the players might not be catching because they are busy being in scene. By underscoring that theme in their ears, one can help players develop this internal conflict.

Go Get ‘Em Tiger

I think the concept of inside stories and outside stories is useful for game designers and organizers who want to create thematic resonance in their games. And I think it’s an interesting lens for looking at stuff like plot, metatechniques, and mechanics. I’ve undoubtedly only scratched the surface of its applications here, so I invite you to come up with more uses and analysis. Feel free to post ideas in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Game Design: The Inside/Outside Story

  1. My very favourite intersection of inside and outside story in gaming has come to be what can be summed up as “we are what we do, so let’s apply lots of pressure and see what we end up doing.” Which will in turn tell us who these ficticious people are, inside.

    This is the most precious gem of gaming wisdom that we Nordics have snatched from the US indie tabletoppers, starting with Ron Edward’s Sorcerer. I’m using the non-existent Hell out of it in most of the games I write.

    One other version of inside/outside tension that I’ve used in game writing is the “mind-reading” mechanic in My Girl’s Sparrow, where the players exchange minute physical reactions of their characters to each other, to underscore that we only ever guess at what goes on in other people’s heads, and to really put the spotlight on the divide between inside and outside.

    • I like the idea of “we are what we do.” Pamela Painter was just reminding me that Ron Carlson calls the outside story is the “engine that drives the story,” which is a related idea, I think. This seems to suggest that in gaming we should find a way to make a character’s actions feel significant. I mean, yes, I am what I do, but unless I get real specific about exactly how I drink my coffee using metaphors, the fact that I drink coffee is way less significant to my identity than that I write. In other words, some actions are more important to characterization than others, so makes sense to focus on those.

      I like the idea of focusing on external actions as a way to spotlight the inherent unknowability of people. And I like the idea that it’s possible to design to spotlight the division between internal and external states.

      One idea I danced around in talking about metatechniques, but could have said more clearly, is that inside stories are often hidden inside a character’s head, and that many metatechniques function to make that hidden story visible and accessible to everyone. This is good for both the player making this visible, as then others will play on it. But it’s also good for me as a co-player to know what’s up in your story, because sometimes in larp you are a spectator, and it benefits me to be able to be entertained by your plotline.

  2. I’m finding this fascinating. I’ve never thought about it in these terms, but I’ve definitely used the dichotomy in writing games. For me it always came back to giving individual characters space for their own dilemmas and growth. And I always find it super interesting how different players take that growth in different directions.

  3. Lizzie’s comment also reminds me of the article I read recently on transformative play. Sometimes what’s going on inside your character is also rooted in what’s going on inside of you and that can lead to both not entirely understanding why you’re doing or feeling things, and coming to epiphanies of transformative understanding during play.

  4. I think it is quite interesting how differently the game designers treat the ideas of inside and outside story.

    One thing I’ve noticed about playing Nordic larp and freeform is that there is more design attention given to controlling the inside story than in American roleplaying games I’ve played. (And yes, these are grossly broad generalizations that have many exceptions).

    I think there is something about how Americans view the concept of freedom that leaves the inside story–and sometimes the direction of the outside story as well–up to the players. For me, that is a sandboxy (and perfectly valid) view of game design. As a player, though, it can leave me overwhelmed with choices. I like knowing more directly where the story of the player and of the collective of players is going, and I think it’s possible to get a more intentional resonance out of that.

    Of course, no game designer has absolute control over what will happen in a roleplaying game–players can take the stories, both internal and external, in many different directions. But I think a well-designed game that scripts or otherwise controls the inside story hits on its key themes and intentions with a high degree of success. The trick, of course, is to do this without sitting on player initiatives like a ton of bricks.

    And of course, there are many ways to do this, from writing great characters that each have different dilemmas and arcs, to using a common shared inside story, to developing things in workshop.

  5. The ‘inside-story sandbox’ you describe is pretty common in UK larp as well. I think it might emerge from a feeling that it’s not the designer’s place to tell players what their inside story should be: rather, that players should find their own personal inside-story thread within the framework of the (usually well-defined) outside story.

    • I get the impulse to not control the inside story of players–that makes a lot of sense to me.

      But I also think it inhibits my favorite sort of art experience, which comes from an inside and outside story that are resonant with one another; giving players ultimate freedom over their inside stories leaves one of those two points unmoored.

      In other words, if you leave the inside story completely up to the players, you can’t be sure that they will experience an inside story that resonates. Giving players total freedom with the inside story has its good points, but to me, it lessens the likelihood of achieving what I think of as “that good art experience.” (Note: I realize that “good art experience” means different things to different people–here I’m only talking about what produces what I like.)

      If the outside story is sandboxy, this causes a similar issue–the themes of the game often end up poorly defined, and it’s harder to match them to the inside story on the fly. This is part of why I favor games with strong design toward both inside and outside stories–the game designer has clarified the themes ahead of time and arranged inside and outside stories to provide that resonance.

      The trick, I think, is to manipulate the inside story of the game with a light hand, so that the players don’t notice you doing it–or to constrain the choices of players so that they fit within the frame of the game’s themes. This can still leave plenty of room for player choice, as in Doubt, for example–I’ve seen different runs revolve around quite different relationship issues, depending on the players–but all of the games deal with the core themes of monogamy, doubt, and gender roles.

      Anyway, this isn’t the only way to do it, and plenty of people enjoy other styles–but I think this is what I like about the games that I like.

  6. Useful vocabulary!
    I’ve been criticized at times for designing games with too little outside story (too simple, unsatisfying, etc.). That’s because in those designs I was laser-focused on building an inside story (which I used to call “the inside play” or “inner play”, thinking of the player rather than the character). I designed a couple games where all pieces are actually supposed to work toward building the inside story of one single main character (and one player), everything else being incidental — these are short games, of course, and supposedly replayable, so that a player not having the spotlight this time can try it again in the spotlight role.

  7. “to constrain the choices of players so that they fit within the frame of the game’s themes”

    Mm, this is my preference as a designer: it can be the best of both worlds. The players buy into the thematic constraint when they sign up to play the game, so they understand that the inside-story ‘sandbox’ is firmly bounded. But they still feel they have permission to explore personal directions within those themes.

    • Mo, I agree with you, and I think that’s what I mean when I talk about constraining the choice of the players, but having a light hand with it–I wouldn’t want to completely railroad the players into having a particular inside story, because then they’ll rebel and won’t feel like they have agency, and the game will fall flat. But by tweaking things a bit further off–the way I write the characters, the type of setting I choose, the themes imbued into scenes (if those are scripted) or into the instructions given to the players about how to play–I think those things constrain the choices more narrowly, so that instead of choosing from any inside story, they’re constrained to one that fits the game.

      Rafu–that’s interesting. I think sometimes inside and outside stories can be the same–are there not great novels about feelings?

  8. Minds Eye Theater used a similar concept in character creation; Nature and Demeanor. Describing the inside nature of the character and the outside demeanor. It made for a handy tool to stay in character. When faced with a choice where you’re tempted to metagame or answer in a way you personally would respond you could apply either nature or demeanor to find a solution true to the character.