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Story Flowchart Diagrams
by Emanuel Montero on 11/06/09 07:01:00 am

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

 

I was writinga story for a 2 player horror game, and I end up with something like this:

 Linear Story Example

Figure 1: Linear story example.

It’s only a fragment. But it’s still interesting. It follows the typical linear story structure. All characters are hard-coded. There’s no variation, no choice, no interaction. Basically it’s a movie.

Of course, I can do it better. First I assume that players choose which character they play: the boy or the girl? Players also choose which character drives. Then we can add some challenges, player choices or random choices. And it looks like this:

Interactive Story Example 

Figure 2: Interactive story example.

It seems more like a game story. Players can choose their story path and the story remains always under control.

Now let’s draw some interesting conclusions.

First, we can diagram stories using flowcharts. Flowcharts are simple to diagram and easy to understand. So you can draw flowcharts in your favorite editing program and show them to your development team as a story schema. Flowcharts are useful to visualize a game story structure, so you can precisely communicate your story to the development team. Also you can find errors in the story structure from early stages of development.

Additionally, we can obtain a story Domain-Specific Language (DSL) adapting flowcharts to storytelling. In a flowchart diagram there’re some basic types of nodes: start/end nodes, process nodes and decision nodes. In a story flowchart we have: story start/end nodes, story exposition nodes and story choices.

  1. Story start/end nodes represent the beginning or the end of a story.  
  2. Story exposition nodes represent any story fragment conveyed to the players.
  3. Story choices represent any story decision. they can be of three types:
    1. Challenges are story choices that are based on player performance overcoming a conflict. Challenge choices always transition to failure or success story exposition nodes.
    2. Player choices are story choices based on the player will. The player chooses what to do.
    3. Random choices are story choices based on randomness or luck. 

 Note that figure 2 tries to illustrate all story primitives using flowchart visual notation. So we can specify a game story structure with a very simple diagram. Isn't it great?


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Comments


Bart Stewart
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I like this, Emanuel. Nice work, and I look forward to the follow-up essay.



In the meantime, here are some questions that occur to me:



1. What is the overall goal of having a system like this? I'm not suggesting there isn't one; rather, I'm trying to understand what value you believe a flowchart approach to narrative design would offer. What does a tool like a narrative flowchart give you that some other method of creating story for a game doesn't?



2. How would you tie this story structuring system into game development? Are there particular flowchart nodes that align with development requirements?



3. What kind of support does this system offer for helping to create enjoyable stories? For example, what if you flipped the idea-then-flowchart process -- what would happen if you started with a random flowchart, and then had to fill in the nodes with appropriate story points?



Just some thoughts. I hope you'll keep posting your ideas.

Emanuel Montero
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Thanks for your interesting questions, Bart. Iíll try to answer everything step by step.



Story flowcharts are just an interactive story visual notation. Just like any other notation, flowcharts give a precise and concrete visual representation of a complex system (interactive stories) in order to communicate the domain concepts (story exposition and story choices).



I know itís an old example, but flowcharts are just like music notation. You can talk about music, you can hum a melody or you can play music with an instrument. But you need music notation in order to communicate music. Music is abstract, but music notation is precise, concrete and visual. And it really helps you in the process of musical creation, as a story notation may help you in the process of creating an interactive story. Of course, thereíre non-interactive story notations such as storyboards or screenplays. But if youíre writing an interactive story you need an interactive story notation.



With non-interactive story notations is difficult to express non-linear story paths, recursion, etc. On the other hand, with a story flowchart you can see a story structure (even a complex interactive, recursive story full of choices and concurrent story paths) at first glance. The overall story structure is diagrammed so you can see the whole story flow.



And going back to a game development, story flowcharts are a high-level interactive story notation which can be used with other non-interactive story notations in order to communicate the main plot of the game. Each story exposition node of a flowchart can be translated into any non-interactive story notation. For instance, you can show a flowchart for the overall story structure and then, going into details of each story exposition node, you can use a storyboard to represent cutscenes or a screenplay to represent dialogs.



Story flowcharts are just my initial proposal for an interactive story notation. They wonít make your stories better but they will certainly help you creating better stories. Just like music notation, randomly writing notes on the pentagram doesnít make your song sound any better. But if you write your music you can share your ideas with others and improve your song. The same holds true with story notations.

Luis Guimaraes
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I always thought it was how replay stories were done for games ^^


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