Designing Interactive Story (PART SIX - FINAL PART)
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This is the 6th and final post in this series on Interactive Story.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
So far we’ve talked about things like play mechanics, story structure, and player agency. In our definition of video-games we talked about player goals and the importance of focusing on what players actually “do” in the game. We spoke a little bit about story, mainly to describe some of the challenges one faces in making story truly interactive. We also mentioned that living through a really compelling and memorable story that we affect with our actions and choices, is our ultimate goal.
One thing we haven’t really talked about is: how do you do it? Where do you start? What do you come up with first? the structure? Or the play mechanics? Or perhaps the theme? or mood? Maybe the art style? What do you do when you have pieces in place, but you don’t know where to take it?
There are really no Universal answers to these questions. One can begin from anywhere; with a concept, a story idea, a feeling you want to capture, a play mechanic that is suggestive of some theme, or perhaps it’s with overall structure and some clever idea for how to integrate players into the story-telling. That said, keeping these following 2 mystical and highly secret ideas in mind as you go, might help a bit.
Two Mystical and Highly Secret Ideas…
- A Unified Vision and a Sense of Purpose
A game is not just a collection of mechanics, or a set of rules and controls.Games designed by beginning designers, or game designed by committees, tend to be very unfocused and just a “collection of stuff”.The thing to remember is that a game is a miniature world model.It is a microcosm that needs to be learned and adapted to by new players.On the one hand, simplicity in your controls and in your game-world rules is desirable. At the same time, offering players lots of choice and freedom of action so that they can truly express themselves is also desirable.Finding the right balance between these two extremes can be tricky.Keep in mind that players may want challenge, but will only tolerate a certain amount of challenge in learning how to operate in your world, or in figuring out why they are there or what they need to do.
The driving force for all players, and the center of every design is a sense of purpose.
Making this very clear to players from the outset is essential.In most games this purpose is explicitly given to the player, in the form of goals or missions.This doesn’t need to be the case however.One might create an open ended world that allows players to start off exploring and experimenting.Even when this is the case, it is the job of the designer to lure the player into choosing a purpose by presenting them with compelling situations where they are needed and can play a part.Knowing what role the player has in your game world is key to informing all of your design decisions.
If you are creating a “living world”, i.e. trying to give the illusion that your players are immersed in a world with other characters or creatures, then the world itself needs purpose.Things should be happening around the player for a reason. If you are taking the approach of creating a barren world (with no other intelligent NPC characters) then make sure there is some back story and reason for things, and not just beautiful artwork, and puzzles that block progress. As human beings we look for patterns and meaning.It’s what we do.Your job, as a creator of Interactive-Story, is to provide a world filled with meaning, where the player can somehow make a difference.
Also be sure to allow players make connections on their own.This requires two things a) having that meaning there for them to figure out and 2) not laying everything out in the open. Discovery is an important part of game play in Interactive Story fiction.It gives players something to do.
Think in terms of story elements and characters the way you would if it were a book or a movie.Characters with deeper intention and motivation, hidden thoughts and feelings, and their own reasons for caring, become memorable characters.Great story experiences won’t happen unless you have interesting characters, a meaningful world, and a unified vision.
- Story Through Player Action
It may be, that with the advent of advanced AI and natural language processing we’ll start to see games where a players’ impact on ‘story’ is predominantly through speaking, or typing in dialogue. Even with our current “menu selection approach” to conversation, it’s conceivable that a game could be primarily dialogue driven. Still this runs counter to most player expectation and puts us into an experimental realm. As we said earlier (ok, maybe harped on), players want and expect action. Action could of course, mean fighting, but that’s not what we mean here. We’re just referring to the fact that they want and expect to be active agents in the world and “do” things.
The most common way to think about this is certainly not a bad way. Generally what we do is figure out how players will get from place to place in the game world and make the travelling fun and challenging. Perhaps it’s parkour on buildings and cliffs, perhaps it’s driving vehicles and riding on things, or flying, or hiding, or jumping from place to place. Maybe it’s all of the above. As we’ve said, players face puzzles, or enemies, and other challenges that make the journeying fun and engaging. Then at certain points in most story-games players advance story elements by making choices in conversation trees, or by choosing to do specific actions from a menu. Most often, these are fired off as one-shot actions. This adds variety to the range of what players see themselves doing and lets them be part of the story with some choice to boot.
As we said, this general method works, and there is nothing wrong with it. Still, if we want to advance the art of interactive story telling we need to think more in terms of how one answers this question:
How do you tell a story through player actions?
Basically we want the player actions themselves to be the story, as opposed to unlocking the story bits. Beyond simple movement from place to place, and getting past enemies and barriers, there is potential meaning in action. This is true when players are selecting from a set of contextual actions, and their choice of action is what matters, but it is even more true, and far more satisfying, when the action is ongoing and under player control, and when players can make meaningful choices about WHEN and HOW they do the actions. This is for 2 reasons:
1) Players are able to take more ownership, and gain more satisfaction from having actually done the thing physically, as opposed to just making an intellectual choice and then sitting back to watch a one-shot animation.
2) Actions mean more when they add up to something bigger than any one individual choice. So finding ways to make the results of player choices persistent and feed this back to the player is a great design goal to have.
Part of the goal of a successful designer is to try and match the player actions with the fiction of the story. Or, coming at it from the opposite side, build a supportive fiction once you know the player actions that you want. One action that we often see in games, aside from fighting and shooting is delivering things (messages or items). That’s because movement is a continuous action that players do that is already part of most games. This action can be made a lot more meaningful by making this delivery an important part of the player fiction in terms of the player’s role, and by giving the player some meaningful choices in how they accomplish their delivery.
Even so, this delivery is most often a simplistic, all-or-nothing action, where the significant portion happens only at the very end of the action. Generally speaking, this action boils down to a simple choice of should I deliver it or not. Really interesting player actions happen when they lend themselves to a range of player expressivity, ones that give players many opportunities for choice and expression. Going even a step further, if we arrange things so that individual player actions add up into some cumulative effect, either over the course of the game or in some more local context, and then we make this effect result in some lasting consequence, or change in the world…. BAM! That’s when the player feels like they are really making a meaningful difference in the story.
OK, this is all pretty abstract. Here’s an example. Let’s imagine for a moment that your character has the ‘Power of Life’. They can heal and grow by waving their hand, and they can weaken and drain life. Maybe they can even expose how ‘healthy and well’ something living is or isn’t with some ultra cool glow-y visual effects (I love those). In a few simple actions we just describe a range of effects the player can have on the world within some story context. Now let’s ask the question – can we imagine building an interesting world with situations and purposeful characters who need the player? A world with a story where the player might have an important role? That’s’ not too hard to imagine.
Now let’s suppose that your actions will have longer lasting effects on the characters of this world than the simple immediate ones – perhaps your healing of certain NPCs will cause a population to worship you and start behaving differently than they would have otherwise; or perhaps you’re able to tip the balance on which population of competing tribes is dominant by helping one or the other. When you use your powers to grow things, you change the look of the world around you, and this has some real and lasting effect on the inhabitants. Basically how and when you use your abilities will progress the story in different ways, and leave a lasting impression. Killing characters has a lasting impression on a story, and we have seen this in a few games, but there is much much more we can let the player do.
So… this ‘Power of Life” description is just one example, pulled out of… er… ok, well, let’s say the air, but it shows how you can have a set of simple abilities, with simple controls, that can turn into ongoing actions that can yield a wide range of personal expression, and affect the world in a wide variety of ways.
Another great way to have a cumulative and lasting effect is with long-term relationship building between the player and an AI-driven character, or community in the game. This seems like a no-brainer in storytelling, but oddly enough we don’t see much of it in games (though I can think of a few examples, and I’ll bet you can think of a few others.) In an old game called ‘Black and White’ players built a relationship with a pet monster and their ongoing actions with this creature changed the creature’s look and behavior, and consequently, changed the events and ending of the story. In another game, ICO, players played as a young boy and had a mysterious and ethereal female companion NPC character that they built a relationship with. Even though very little was done with lasting relationship states, or NPC behaviors, this was still surprisingly emotionally compelling. In the more recent game Mad Max players develop a relationship with a community of people, and their behavior in regards to helping you gradually changes. As we mentioned, this isn’t unheard of in games so far. The trick here is in deciding just how far to go with the AI. Complex AI isn’t always necessary to get the desired effect. In any given game context there is a “tipping point” for believability. It’s up to the designer(s) to determine where to focus the effort for the desired payoff.
Here is one final note on player actions. The best player actions are ones that result in visible consequences. When these consequences lead to other consequences, and are not simply isolated, that’s when they start to have meaning, and an impact on a bigger story. If you do something, say to an NPC that causes that NPC to move out of your way so you can pass – ok great. That’s not bad. Maybe you learn how to do this and can even do it again later. If, on the other hand, you do something that leads to that NPC moving out of your way by doing some new behavior that changes some relationship in the world and has some lasting consequence on the behavior of other NPCs or on the world, then what you did matters more and is more satisfying.
OK, here is what we just said:
- Think in terms of telling story through player actions
- Continuous actions are better than one-shot actions
- Actions that offer players an expressive range and can be modulated (i.e. how players do it makes a difference) are best of all
- Actions that add up to some cumulative effect on characters or the world feel more meaningful.
- Actions that have cascading consequences in the world are good
Right. Well let’s move on and try to wrap this all up shall we?
SO…WHERE IS MY HOLODECK?
So what about that Holodeck? Honestly?…. that’s not going to happen anytime in the next few years. As we’ve described, there are quite a few challenges associated with achieving the full-on interactive-movie, simulation experience. The biggest challenge lies in creating believable, human-seeming AI-driven characters, especially if these characters are going to speak, and understand language-related inputs by the player. Beyond this, there is also the challenge of creating believable simulated worlds. Then there is the aspect of making our simulations into games, with clear player-goals, and challenges, and feedback for success and failure. And lastly, there is the aspect of controlling and delivering a story that is entertaining and makes sense, and doesn’t break the bank when it comes to the number of assets needed. There is no shortage of exciting problems to tackle and solve.
In the meantime, given our current environment of pre-fabricated dialogue and story-pieces, primitive simulation and simple AI, there is still an awful lot we can do to give players the feeling of freedom and believability, and to offer fulfilling interactive story experiences. Basically we’re going to continue ‘cheating’ for some time still. But hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is often the case that the most imaginative innovation comes from people working within tight constraints. We just need to keep plugging away at it, and keep our eye on that Interactive Story ball. In recent years the indie-game movement has pumped some wonderful energy and experimentation into this arena. Now with the pending advent of VR Goggles, we may see more motivation on the part of people funding games to innovate in this area. As they say in Tibet: “The only way up the mountain is one step at a time.” (I’m pretty sure someone said this in Tibet once) So we keep on trucking.
OK, well that's it for this series of blog posts on Interactive Story. I hope you found some of the ideas intruiging and or stimulating. Thanks for reading such a lengthy essay. One last thing I might mention - while writing this I've been reading two books that I highly recommend. If you are interested in Artificial Intelligence as I am you may find these books worthwhile. I highly receommend both of them:
- The Future of the Mind: Michio Kaku
- On Intelligence: Jeff Hawkins
If you read this whole series leave me a comment. I'd love to know what you think about all this stuff.
--Greg (a.k.a Big Rappin Earl)