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Giving Your Player True Authorial Control...
by Anthony Hart-Jones on 12/17/09 05:35:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This is a response to a blog post by Steve Mallory, who makes some good points about narrative design; read the original post here...

True authorial control... Now there is a scary phrase to use in front of your producer...

True authorial control is like taking your player and asking them what they want to do today, rather than telling them what they are allowed to do.  Is that wise?

I do love freedom and control as a player. I still remember setting out across a random (and very dangerous) continent in Everquest just because I could. There was no mechanical reason for it, but they let you do it. It was not story-related, but it is one aspect of the quest for freedom, the desire to forge one's own path.

As a designer, I kind of agree with the terrified producers that it is scary and yet I love the idea of that challenge. Sandbox game-play is great, it really gives the player some sense of agency, but I agree that sandbox storyline is almost one of the Holy Grails of narrative design. As a designer, as a narrative designer (well, kind of), I am always haunted by one little game...

Dungeons and Dragons.

I am not talking about any of the SSI gold box games, nor Bioware's amazing contributions, but the original game with the books and the dice. As a player, sitting at a table with a DM and some friends, drinking Mountain Dew that we imported from the USA just to capture the true experience, I was playing in a game with sandbox storyline. We could (and, Gygax help us, often did) completely derail the dungeon master's stories simply with one little idea that he had not considered, and he would come back the next week with the story completely tailored to our new needs.

Later on, I was the dungeon master. I learned to adapt on the fly, to make new stories, even if I did frantically re-use all of the content I could.  I was also briefly a Guide in Everquest, back when they still had UK servers, and I saw first-hand how a computer game could offer authorial control, but manpower is not cheap and we could only work with small groups. 

Despite this, we had a chance to tell free-form stories and make non-linear experiences.  In short, any time I have seen it done, there was a human at the helm and usually one who was struggling a little while thy made the game up on the fly.

I have a background in theatre, including some improvisational theatre, so I could just about do it, but could I teach it to a computer?  Could I actually give the computer enough data to be able to do that, even if the coders could keep up? I honestly don't know, but I really want to try now...

Left 4 Dead gave us the idea of The Director as an NPC almost; there are individual zombies, but there is also a simulated intelligence that creates the tension and the drama.  Could that be a hint that my dream is possible?  After Christmas, I should ask the technical manager...  He would probably know how to bring me down to earth...

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Eric Carr
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I'm all about the *illusion* of choice. Every time there is the ability to do something, be it to derail the game's story or otherwise, those choices need an appropriate output. However, it would be impossible to create gameplay or continued story for every possible outcome, it would simply be too much work. The outcomes quickly become exponential.

So, the illusion of choice is better. In your D&D example you said that you would re-use stuff when players went off the line. The choice that you gave them was a non-choice - no matter what they did, they were going to end up in that same set of dungeons or towns. The context is the only thing that was changed. Context, like words, are cheap and easy to come by.

But to offer a fully open world to a player I think is something that only a good DM/Storyteller/Game Master will ever be able to do well.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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You make a good point, but I would settle for illusion of choice if I knew that the player would not see the same dialogue and story unless they made identical / similar choices. I mean, I could write four different options in and let the player choose their own path to the four 'nodes' of the story which direct them onwards.

The re-use of dialogue in D&D though... that is entirely down to my own laziness and maybe a little to the fact that there will never be a second play-through. At least as a CRPG designer, I can expect the player to try once through as a paragon of good and once as an evil bringer of doom...

Steve Mallory
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Great post Anthony (and thanks for the link back)!

Hopefully, we can reach a nice balance; enough content that the player feels like they are truly altering the flow of the story and providing the illusion of a greater amount of authorial control than the player really has. If they believe they can control more than they really do, I think we'll be halfway there...

Eric Carr
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KoTOR has something like what I mean at the end. Regardless if you were a Jedi or a Sith, the Star Forge is the same (basically). The heavy development lifting was done when they built the levels. Writing the context that goes around that is the easy part, provided you can keep the Sliders-esque multiple outcomes/realities all straight in your head.

Replays do make things difficult. I admit that when I was a DM the content could be re-used because it's not like the players were going to encounter it again. Maybe, just maybe you could get away with giving the player true control if the scope was very limited. I'm talking maybe a few hours total. Then a Designer could implement outcomes for most possible choices.

Luis Guimaraes
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I seems to be about how big the change in the story is. Since the beggining of video games, player already could change what's gonna happen in the near future of small things. In today's games players can change what's gonna happen to the future of medium things. In the near future players will surely do what you dream about, changing the distant future of big things.

Then developers will want more and make games where player are Gods (with capital G), where players can change the whole reality, i.e., make their own games within a second, with their own themes and everything customized, with Heaven and Angels.

Of course from this point no other game is gonna be made, ever. Or maybe the Gods make men they choose not having full control over...

I wonder why people buy books if everyone can write :/

PS.: Apologies if I sound sarcartic I don't want to. I'm just leaving room for authoring...

Kevin Fee
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I really don't think it's possible without some kind of true, creative intelligence that can create changes to the story on the fly. But a well known fictional example of what you want is the Holodeck in Star Trek. From what's seen in the shows the holodeck computer is able to be completely freeform in its scenarios. An example of this is the Voyager Mutiny, there were a dozen different methods of playing out that scenario on screen.

But when I was thinking about the holodeck I was wondering just HOW someone like Lt. Paris programmed those scenarios in his spare time. It's hard enough for full time developers to create games where they can more-or-less tightly control what the player can do. How do you create a scenario where the player could completely derail your intentions? The Federation computers must be able to extrapolate the designer's intentions in order to handle decisions that the designer could not have forseen.

I love sandbox games, I love choices, and I long for the day that the computer could be my DM. I just don't see it happening any time soon. Granted, I'd love to be proven wrong.

Tim Carter
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Yep. True authorial control = paper-based roleplaying game. The zenith of the RPG experience.

Once I was gamemastering a roleplaying game and, through pre-arranged agreement with a player, I introduced a plot event - a key player character disappeared (the player), and another player character was introduced (mine) - at which time I was able to become a player and said player became the gamemaster.

Ever see this happen in a computer game? Suddenly the player is the designer, and you are the player?

Alexander McClelland
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Apparently this is the ultimate goal of Tarn Adams for Dwarf Fortress - a program that will be able to generate fantasy "Stories" on the fly, by randomly generating an entire world and just being a really, really detailed simulation. It's not quite there yet, but it's an interesting idea. I guess that's one of the advantages of being an independent rather than a working for a major developer - working on your own nobody is going to tell you how crazy your idea really is, and you end up with some pretty incredible stuff that you'd never see from a professional developer (Not to slight the professionals - it's not that they aren't ambitious, it's just that when game development is your job rather than a hobby, you can't really afford spend the time developing completely insane ideas that might not even work).

Something that comes to mind with relation to sandbox games is a game like the Sims. It's an interesting phenomenon because a lot of players will generate their own little mental continuity for a Sim's actions until, in their mind, that particular Sim has a personality that's much more detailed than the one actually defined in-game. People have a habit of believing there's more going on under the hood than there really is, because it makes the little computer AIs who follow algorithms so simple they're mentally less complex than a paramecium seem a lot more real than they are. I think that's an important thing to consider if one was to attempt to make a game that really spun a story on the fly for the player - it doesn't actually HAVE to be as good as a professionally written story, because so long as it's at least passable, the player will fill in the blanks for themselves.

Jonathon Walsh
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DF is definitely heading in that direction and doing quite a good job of it to boot. There have already been some great player stories but my favorites are the ones that emerge without the players really trying. For example "The Fable of Catten and Eagle":

In this case the events unfolded organically but provided a truly unique experience that's unlikely to be experienced by any other player.