When The Yawhg released in 2013, I brought a copy of it with me everywhere on a small USB drive. If you invited me to a party, I was there with The Yawhg, the perfect after-dinner entertainment. My friends and I would place a laptop on a table, plug in the USB drive, grab some drinks, and play. It was reminiscent of the casual board games you can bring to get-togethers, where the discussions and interactions happening outside the board are as important as what happens in-game.
But the focus on stories and characters was much bigger here — The Yawhg is essentially a multiplayer choose-your-own-adventure. I would explain its simple rules in one minute, and then we’d take turns deciding how to spend six weeks of our in-game lives in a medieval town on the verge of destruction by a catastrophe called “the Yawhg.” By doing so, we shaped what both the city and our characters would become after the cataclysm. Misfortune and laughter ensued. The Yawhg’s slow pace and short length encouraged a relaxed playstyle suitable for cozy evenings in which a game was really an excuse to be with each other.
At the time, The Yawhg — a storytelling party-game for up to four players — was like nothing else. I wished to find similar experiences, and in recent years, I’ve been quite happy to see an increasing number of Yawhg-like games finally emulating its formula.
The history of story-driven party games actually begins before The Yawhg itself: most of its elements were already present in 2010’s Dungeons of Fayte, developed by Brent Ellison and Tanya X. Short (now known as Kitfox’s co-founder). Dungeons of Fayte is a co-op hack ‘n’ slash dungeon crawler where you and a group of friends have a limited period of in-game time (four months) to become strong enough to defeat the final boss, the Bone Lord. Every month, you collectively explore one of four dungeons for treasure. But, before venturing there, each player can visit four different places in the town of Fayte, one a week, where they can increase their stats and their wealth, buy new equipment, change classes, and stumble upon random events. At the end of the fourth month, you fight against the Bone Lord and, whether you defeat the final boss or not, you watch epilogues for both the general plot and each of the players’ characters. Every player receives a unique ending based on their final class and stats in a series of American Graffiti-style end cards.
“Brent and I were living in Norway, fairly new out of game design school and although we enjoyed working at Funcom for our dayjob on MMOs […] we had a lot of creative energy leftover,” Short tells Fanbyte in an email interview. “One thing Brent had been thinking about was how ephemeral [Dungeons & Dragons] was, and how few games really captured that feeling of a small, contained story experienced together with your friends. So the original concept was really ‘like a campaign of D&D, but in one sitting.’ We wanted to weave in the narrative component as part of the co-op experience, and I think that’s what made it unique.”
“[Dungeons of Fayte] was one of my favorites, and I wanted to riff on it a little,” says Damian Sommer, who partnered with comics author and illustrator Emily Carroll and developed The Yawhg for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in 2012.
The Yawhg is basically Dungeons of Fayte without its hack ‘n’ slash and dungeon crawling elements, giving every player the power to create their own story within the game. Each turn/week, you pick which location of the city and its surroundings you want to visit. There, you choose what you want to in order to increase character stats and discover random events. For example, you can earn money and improve your strength and hand-eye coordination by chopping trees or hunting in the woods. Then you can meet a community of talking rats and get asked to appoint their next leader. Or maybe you befriend a golem, fight a werewolf, or hide from a group of orcs.
After the arrival of the Yawhg and the destruction of the town, you steer the story by designating your role in the reconstruction, choosing the most appropriate task for your stats — an ultimately collective effort that you can even sabotage by becoming looters. After the reconstruction is done, you watch a series of epilogues about the fate of the town and the individual characters. While your choices during random events in Dungeons of Fayte can lead to various outcomes and long-term consequences, they are just a small part of the game. The Yawhg puts them in the foreground: finding new events and seeing how they can influence the town, the story, and the characters’ endings becomes the core of the experience.
Even though The Yawhg is a small game that can become quite repetitive in subsequent playthroughs, it has succeeded enough to inspire a sub-genre of games that, despite changes and tweaks, still follow its structure. The interest shown by both developers and audiences towards these games can be ascribed to two different reasons: their uniqueness as multiplayer narrative games and their approachability. Storytelling party games are opportunities to create stories with our friends. They are usually neither completely cooperative nor competitive games; they are, as Sommer puts it, “a shared story generator” where successes and failures are just part of a larger narrative.
“I played The Yawhg and I wanted to play more multiplayer narrative games that felt like soft RPGs with a bigger weight on narrative rather than complex mechanics,” recalls Julián Quijano, creative director and project manager for Beautiful Glitch’s Monster Prom and Monster Prom 2: Monster Camp, which mix The Yawhg format with dating-sim mechanics. “I found nothing. It baffled me. The idea of multiplayer narrative games seemed so obvious and appealing! So I decided I was creating the second game within the subgenre.”
Monster Prom and Design Imp’s Lovecraftian Yawhg-like Fhtagn! – Tales of the Creeping Madness, where you play as a group of cultists trying to summon an eldritch god, even have their own modding tools.
“We loved The Yawhg and one of the most important gaps we saw was the need for modding,” says Design Imp’s Janke van Jaarsveld. “We always felt that there should be room for players to create their own stories and even campaigns, so the first step was to create a modding tool so that anyone with a story idea could implement it in the game.”
Storytelling party games don’t usually feature complex in-game interactions between player characters, but their wacky situations invite players to comment on what’s happening on the screen with friends. In addition, their unexpected and unique events make them highly replayable and even rewarding to stream. Quijano likens it to “watching an interactive TV show with friends.”
Plus, The Yawhg is easily playable by almost everyone. Like many small games of its time, it doesn’t have proper accessibility features. But it doesn’t require complex control devices and, since it’s turn-based, you can even play it with a single keyboard. The Yawhg’s approachability offers developers the unique opportunity to create story-driven party games that can be enjoyed by anyone, even those who don’t usually play video games.
“We wanted to make something that could be played with family as well as friends, particularly those coming together for the holidays,” says The Worst of Friends’ Galen Frese, writer and designer on the Christmas-themed storytelling party game Yuligans: Christmas is Coming!, where you play as Santa Claus’ little helpers.
Another example is Eric Bernier, Karen Teixeira, Dave Coughlin, and Fat Bard’s The Wolf’s Bite, a Yawhg-like that significantly strays from The Yawhg by simplifying its stats and turning it into a competitive game for two players: one plays as the Big Bad Wolf, who wants to open a restaurant, and the other one controls the Three Little Pigs, who plan to sabotage the grand opening. “Dave, the writer, and I wanted to make a game that was easy enough to play with our small children as they begin to learn to read,” Bernier says.
Something that no storytelling party game has yet emulated from The Yawhg is its unique tone. Dungeons of Fayte and the existing Yawhg-likes, even Fhtagn! – Tales of the Creeping Madness, are light-hearted and humorous while The Yawhg is a game made of dark forests and forgotten, forbidden magic; of melancholy and secrets we can’t completely unveil. It’s filled with funny and weird situations, contrasted by Emily Carroll’s illustrations and Ryan Roth and Halina Heron’s soundtrack, which create a mysterious and sometimes eerie atmosphere. Perhaps the game that most resembles the tone of The Yawhg is Kitfox’s procedural myth generator and hack ‘n’ slash dungeon crawler Moon Hunters. While a spiritual successor to Dungeons of Fayte, its influences from The Yawhg are clear — particularly in its soundtrack, which is also scored by Ryan Roth and Halina Heron.
“When we played [The Yawhg], we saw how even a bit of a more serious, narrative-heavy approach could be appealing, and I’m sure that in turn influenced the development of Moon Hunters,” says Short.
Playing these games is like standing on the threshold of a sacred space, peeking inside and coming back with extraordinary, incoherent tales. Both The Yawhg and Moon Hunters are not only party games focused on creating shared and individual stories with the help of algorithms, but also game rituals that are performed around a computer-campfire. Both acknowledge that we create these collective stories in order to grasp — or at least try to grasp — the meanings of a world too big to be fully known and understood.