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Using Details to Craft a Coherent Game World
by Craig Stern on 03/19/13 10:26:00 am   Expert Blogs   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 piece was originally posted on SinisterDesign.com. It is reposted here with the author's permission.

The RPG is an inherently inelegant creature. It is something of a Frankenstein monster, a suite of different gameplay systems stitched together into a shambling chimera. Character creation, simulated markets, item management, navigation, combat, stealth, dialog, puzzles, class and skill trees–as a developer, it is difficult enough simply to make all of these systems, let alone integrate them and balance them so they work well together.

By the time one gets to the point of having to credibly present a believable, coherent world, things can start slipping through the cracks. Monster races get developed only in flavor text; NPCs each get a single line of dialog (or worse, share the same generic dialog tree); allegiance to vague notions like “light” and “darkness” comes to substitute for actual characterization; and so on.

Much of this, undeniably, is a matter of limited developer resources. It is very time-consuming to produce RPG content. But it is also a failure of imagination on the part of developers.  It’s the details that really make a world come alive, and a little goes a long way. Here are a few areas where RPG developers could stand to focus some effort making those details come alive.

 

Enemies

RPGs are almost universally centered around conflicts with hostile characters. Given that fact, you might think that enemies would be the most carefully thought-out part of the whole game, story-wise.

Sadly, they aren’t. In most RPGs, we see dozens (if not hundreds) of different monsters with varying temperaments and varying levels of mental sophistication actively cooperating, oftentimes in completely nonsensical combinations, to attack the heroes at every single opportunity as they wander the world. Monsters and human enemies alike are uniformly, suicidally aggressive.

Here, three cockatrices and Petey Piranha want to fight you to the death. Of course they do.

 

To explain this curious state of affairs, developers tend to rely the same old hand wave: “the evil wizard/demon king/dark god  has released a plague of monsters upon the land.” Oh. Well, okay. That tells us almost nothing.

Developers really need to ask themselves more questions to suss out details here. How did the Big Bad get access to all of those monsters? Is he paying them? If so, with what income? What about the low-intelligence monsters that don’t need or understand money? Is he breeding them? Why are all of the monsters so perfectly loyal? What about their self-preservation instincts? With so many different species of monsters, aren’t there any conflicts, natural predator-prey relationships, or factional disagreements among them?

Consider the time-honored tendency of RPG developers to throw demons and dragons into the same end-game dungeons together. That makes some sense from a design perspective: you’re at the end of the game. End-game encounters should be the most challenging, and demons and dragons are perennially the most powerful monsters in RPG worlds.

But from a narrative perspective, this is actually quite problematic. In cultural and literary tradition, dragons tend to spend their time hoarding material wealth, and demons are notorious for tricking others into signing unfavorable contracts. It would probably occur to a developer who had done his homework that, sooner or later, a demon would trick a dragon into signing away his hoard, leading to an explosion of racial animosity within the antagonist’s ranks.

I want to see RPGs where where hatred between different monsters under the antagonist’s command leads to internecine fighting, or even a segregated dungeon. (A few RPGs–Fallout, Din’s Curse and Planescape Torment, for instance–have attempted something like this.) I want to see RPGs where the differences between different monsters and groups extend beyond elementary combat considerations. In short: I want to see RPGs where enemies feel like they are unique living creatures inhabiting the game world, and not just cannon fodder to pad out the total play time.

NPCs and Plot

Games in general (not just RPGs) have an unfortunate tendency to rely on event-driven plots. This leads to a handful of bad outcomes. First, event-driven plots tend to be formulaic and difficult to relate to. Because they are driven by events rather than characters, characters in event-driven plots inevitably end up doing things that make no sense in the service of hitting every bullet point on the game’s list of plot events. Worst of all, tying the plot to particular events forces the game onto rails, damaging the player’s capacity to role-play and the game’s capacity to respond convincingly to player choices.

Luckily, there is a viable alternative to event-driven plots: character-driven plots. As I’ve argued before, fleshed-out and consistent NPCs can drive plot in a way that both makes internal sense and supports nonlinear gameplay.

Let’s compare a familiar premise approached from an event-driven perspective, and then from a character-driven perspective. “An evil wizard plagues the land with monsters” is a prime example of an event driving the plot. All we know is that the wizard is plaguing the land with monsters. We don’t know who he is, or why he’s doing it, or how. It’s just something that happens. Evil is evil, and as a player, there’s really not much you can do with that beyond trying to kill the wizard.

But hold on a moment. What if the wizard is not just a cardboard cut-out inserted into the “evil antagonist” slot? What if he is a real character? Suppose, for instance, that he is charismatic, but that he has some unfortunate paranoid tendencies that have driven away anyone he’s ever tried to become close with. Suppose that his inability to maintain a good relationship with others has resulted in his alliances collapsing. Perhaps his troops are running low on food, and his generals are starting to lose faith in him. Perhaps he’s feeling his campaign crumbling around him, and he can’t see any viable exit.

Suddenly, certain things begin to make sense. Those roving bands of aggressive enemies are hungry former soldiers of the wizard’s who have mutinied and turned to banditry out of sheer desperation.

Moreover, there are now some real role-playing possibilities. Perhaps the player can engineer a revolt among the wizard’s ranks. Or perhaps the players can play on the wizard’s increasing insecurity and paranoia and convince him that he must flee to avoid an attempted assassination by his own generals. Or maybe the players can arrange a marriage for the wizard and broker an armistice. (There’s an ending you never see in RPGs.) There are all kinds of different ways the plot can go if there are characters driving it; the players can then actively influence the plot by interacting with those characters.

The key to getting started with this is to imagine who lives in the world, character by character, and to keep asking yourself detailed questions about each of them. For instance: where does this character’s income come from, and how does that affect this character’s views of his or her place in the world? (A character born into great wealth might feel guilty and undeserving; he might view it as a sign of his innate superiority; or he might just take it for granted that everyone lives like him.)

Other things to know: What has this character experienced during his/her life? What resources does this character have? Does this character have anyone that he/she trusts? Does this character have anyone that he/she distrusts? What does he/she want? What other characters have what this character wants, and how does this character feel about them? How would he/she go about trying to get what he/she wants from those other characters?

Once you get a sense of what this character is all about, move on to the next. Figure out a web of relationships; plot it all out (no pun intended) on paper if it helps. You will eventually start to see the strands of a multitude of different plots emerging out of the tangle. That’s the power of characters, and it’s a power that RPGs are uniquely situated to take advantage of.

Puzzles

Generally speaking, there are two broad categories of puzzle in RPGs. First are lateral thinking puzzles: getting past a locked door, for instance, or getting an item from an uncooperative NPC. Second are single-solution arbitrary puzzles, the sort you find littering dungeons (find the pressure plate, hit the buttons in the correct sequence, put the correct inventory item in the circle, play some variation of Tower of Hanoi, and so on).

Lateral thinking puzzles are challenging to pull off well simply because a developer needs to account for all of the ways a player might sensibly try to solve them, given their character’s ordinary suite of in-game abilities. Forcing the player to use the one way you thought of shatters the coherence of your game world in a small but significant way. If you really must give the puzzle only a single solution, at least let the player try alternatives and provide a plausible explanation for why they won’t work.

Beyond that difficulty, however, these kinds of puzzles are generally pretty easy to reconcile with the game world, especially when they involve NPCs (see the last few paragraphs of the previous section).

Arbitrary puzzles are another matter. These are commonly used to add a new type of challenge to RPGs, forcing the player to employ spatial or logical reasoning and recall in order to progress. By their very nature, these kinds of puzzles are difficult to justify in any sort of locale outside of a horrifying death trap, such as a dungeon (the RPG kind, not the real kind).

Still, one can use even purely arbitrary puzzles to flesh out the world and its characters, making them feel more real in the process. Above, you can see a portion of an otherwise arbitrary puzzle that accomplishes both of these things. In short order, the player learns more about the world of the game, as well as learning more about her character’s backstory. Just a few small details help the puzzle feel like a real feature of the game world, and not purely something the developer arbitrarily tossed in to challenge the player.

Another example from Telepath RPG: Servants of God occurs in the crypt of the ancient poet-king Azur, when the party is confronted by a door with a riddle about one of the dead king’s poems. In order to successfully answer the riddle, the player will either need to learn more about the author or ask his companions for help, possibly both.

Depending on whom the player asks (and how much they like him), the other characters will offer information and suggestions of varying usefulness. In any event, the player learns more about how the other characters think and what they know about the game world. The upshot: in addition to overcoming the challenge, the player learns more about the world he’s in, the characters he’s with, or both. The puzzle is not just a challenge–it also becomes a tool for fleshing out the world and enriching the role-playing experience.

Conclusion

According to the old proverb, the devil’s in the details. But so is role-playing. The developer who pays attention to those details can forge herself a hell of a game world.

Author Craig Stern is an indie game developer working on the strategy RPG Telepath Tactics, currently on Kickstarter. He can be found on Twitter.


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Comments


Chris Clogg
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"But hold on a moment. What if the wizard is not just a cardboard cut-out inserted into the “evil antagonist” slot? What if he is a real character? Suppose, for instance, that he is charismatic, but that he has some unfortunate paranoid tendencies that have driven away anyone he’s ever tried to become close with. Suppose that his inability to maintain a good relationship with others has resulted in his alliances collapsing. Perhaps his troops are running low on food, and his generals are starting to lose faith in him. Perhaps he’s feeling his campaign crumbling around him, and he can’t see any viable exit."

--> I really like this point! I think the challenge, once you have a decent story like this, is to then convey it to the player. Because, you don't want dialogue boxes to be popping up every minute explaining paragraphs of character emotions, but at the same time you don't just want "the wizard was evil". My guess is that you'd have to pepper little bits of it along the way so it develops while the player is playing (though hopefully they don't completely ignore it!).

Ramon Carroll
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Yeah, that's a good point, Chris. I think it comes down to the "show, don't tell" principle. I see this same problem in many books that I read. Writers will spend BLOCKS of text at the beginning of a book, trying to tell me everything they think I need to know about one of the main characters, instead of giving me little hints and clues along the way. There is a certain joy in putting the pieces together and figuring out why a character is the way he/she is. I think it has to do wit the fact that I'm more intrigued with the character, and thus, further engaged with the story overall.

I think Dark Souls is a good example of this. The game takes a minimalistic approach to its storytelling, allowing you to figure out things about people by little hints placed throughout the game (and even in item descriptions). If you play the game without paying any attention, you will think its just another straightforward "hero's journey" where the good guy gets powerful, kills the bad guy, and saves the world. Dark Souls story turns the hero's journey upside down, allowing you to decide why you are there, draw your own conclusions about the story (based on the little that you are told), and interpret the motives/agendas of those whom you encounter. There are some characters that you will never know much about, but will be left wondering...

Bart Stewart
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Craig, thanks for this piece on the value putting all the pieces together in a way that's both intellectually and emotionally coherent.

Evan Shimizu's blog post on "Thematic Unity," also posted today, seems to be saying something very similar :
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EvanShimizu/20130318/188743/Themat
ic_Unity.php

As I mentioned in a comment to Evan, Eric Schwarz wrote a couple of articles here on Gamasutra on this subject, which I recommend:
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EricSchwarz/20120127/90967/Immersi
on_A_Matter_of_Scale.php
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/EricSchwarz/20120202/91002/RAGE_an
d_the_Circular_Design_Dilemma.php

I'm glad to see developers thinking about this.

Mike Higbee
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God write up Craig!

Joshua Darlington
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Nice post!

Novels, Cinema, Poetry, Comedy, Comics and other genres are stews of weird elements. I think reality and our brains are organized in similar fashion so it seems normal.

I think there are a couple reasons why character motivated plots are not used in game design.

One reason is: most people with a casual understanding of story over emphasize plot. It's like a heliocentric vs geocentric cosmology shift. Intuitively, geocentrism (or plot based stories) makes sense. But once you have been educated in heliocentrism (or character based plots) you realize that it's a much better model, and it feels more natural. IMO it's perhaps the biggest disconnect between the professional narrative world and the game industry world.

The second reason is: rule based systems for character motivation (task selection, social psychology etc) is HARD. Human behavior is based on using hundreds of multi functional brain resources in parallel. Trying to emulate this with computers is going to be iffy at best for decades to come. IMO the near term solution is to plug live humans into NPC roles.

Robert Boyd
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I think with your enemy comments, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. I think a lot of prospective game designers like to focus on world design & backstory but the questions you really should be asking are stuff like "Does this make my game more fun?" Enemy variety is fun. You try to make all of your enemies make logical sense and you end up like your typical shooter where the entire game is spent fighting "Mercenary with Gun." This isn't to say that you can't have enemy backstory & logic at times where it makes sense to do so, but sometimes, the correct choice is to just throw in some demons with the dragons because that makes for a stronger game.

Cthulhu Saves the World is a fast-paced parody RPG. Yeah, there's no particular reason why a man-eating plant should be attacking you with some cockatrice but it gives the player interesting things to look at while they fight and lets us make a Little Shop of Horrors joke. Win, win.

Craig Stern
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Yeah, that fair: a light-hearted parody RPG like CStW largely gets a pass here. It was just the first good example of a picture prominently showing a nonsensical assortment of jRPG enemies I could find. (The reason the parody works, of course, is that it's exactly what happens in RPGs that actually take themselves seriously!)

Brian Tsukerman
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Really interesting, and as a huge fan of the RPG genre it was their chimeric nature that originally got me into video games. As a child, the breadth of systems present in them fascinated me, but as I completed more and more of them, the points you mentioned became progressively more blatant and repetitive.

Still, would you say these concerns are more about the single player JRPGs of previous generations than they are to current ones and MMORPG's? Using your points on enemies as an example, I would cite Guild Wars 2 as a game where enemies are contextually sensible, and even attack each other at times over territory disputes and such.

James Yee
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*Chuckles*

Is it just me or did this read like a guide to being a good game master in a pen & paper RPG? :)

Don't get me wrong that's a GOOD thing since for as long as I can recall I've wanted Video Game RPGs to be more like Pen & Paper in that there's MORE to it than hack and slash. :|


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