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If Games Were Like Game Stories...
by Nicky Case on 08/11/14 01:53:00 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.

 

...They'd suck.

Not for a lack of trying. Game developers often look to other art forms (movies, books, TV) and try to model game stories after them. However, this leads to a disjointed feeling between gameplay and narrative, and why most games stick to the old model of "cutscene-gameplay-cutscene". How can we merge systems and stories, how can we create systemic stories?

While creating my short semi-autobiographical narrative game, Coming Out Simulator 2014, I learnt three ways we can make game stories more fluid, more natural. There's one place we should seek to model our games' stories after... and that's games themselves.

1) Kill the "branching" metaphor.

Most games have a continuous playing space. The game gives you countless options in how to move your character, or manage resources, or build a world. Not all the options lead to significantly different outcomes, nor are all of them good. But you still get a broad spectrum of choices.

In contrast, most game stories only give you a few "branching points" here and there, if they give you any influence over the plot at all. But here's the core problem of "branching": as you add more branches, your game's content grows exponentially. The most common solutions to this problem aren't much better: have lots of dead ends, have all branches re-combine, have branches only at the end, or have a very short game.

But "branching" is such a core assumption of game writing nowadays, we forget that there's an alternative right under our noses. Forget about branching. Let game stories have a continuous and ever-broadening possibility space.

Player choices should flavour the later story, instead of creating entirely separate branches.

Case Study: Papers, Please.

In Papers, Please, you play an immigration officer, deciding whether to approve or reject people for entry. Each "day"/level of the game, you process around 10 people. What you choose for each person affects both the gameplay and the story. But if each approve/deny decision created a new branch in the game, each day would result in 1024 branches. And there's 30 days in the game.

The game doesn't have 1024^30 endings, obviously.

Accidentally reject someone with legit paperwork, and it won't radically change the game. But it does subtly add more stress, resulting in later incorrect or unethical decisions. The game also has multiple sub-stories. Your choices add up over time, as the game/story shifts through a continuous space of possibility.

Another Example:

Telltale's The Walking Dead games have a more-or-less linear story, but the big and small details (your reputation, how Clementine sees you, who's still alive) are flavoured by your choices.

2) The little things matter.

In game design, there's the idea of "juice". It's the particles, sound effects, and secondary animation to make the game feel like it's really responding to you. And it's not just for big gameplay actions either. It's the footsteps and inertia of walking around. It's the highlight and sound effect of hovering over a button. It's the little things that matter.

Why not have the same in game stories? Instead of every decision being a Big Moral Choice, scatter your game with lots of small choices, and actually have those choices pop up again and again. Decisions in the past coming back to surprise the player, or to haunt the player.

Have small choices flavour the game's story.

Case Study: um... Papers, Please.

My favourite moment from Papers, Please was when someone gave me a banner for a sports team named the Arstotzka Arskickers. I had a choice of whether to put it up on my wall, or not.

Compared to all the other decisions... taking bribes, separating families, conspiring to take down the Arstotzkan government... this was a small and silly decision. I put it up on my wall, of course.

But the reason this is so memorable to me, is because the game actively acknowledged this small act! A few people commented on the banner, some remarking it's tacky, some cheering "Go Arskickers!" And then, of course, this decision bites me in the ass when the inspector comes by and tells me the decoration is against protocol, and fines me.

The game also acknowledges your other choices through dialogue, the newspaper segments, and recurring characters. The point is, if your game's story is so juicy, responsive, and alive... that even a sports banner has a story arc of its own? You've done good.

Other Examples:

  • Bastion. The narrator live-commenting on you attacking enemies, getting hurt, and other actions.
  • The Walking Dead making you regret every single damn choice, ever. Even saying the word "shit" instead of "fertilizer".
  • The Stanley Parable. The narrator reacts to your every action, or inaction, no matter how silly. (Did you get the broom closet ending?)

3) Game choices = Story choices

Imagine if a platformer game made you use the arrow keys to walk, the mouse to run, and voice recognition to jump. Great idea, if you want carpal tunnel and a sore throat. Otherwise, your game's controls should be consistent, and for a few exceptions, (like menu screens) not change drastically in-game.

So why do games suddenly switch from run-and-shoot to CHOOSE A OR B when they want to include story decisions?

Actions speak louder than words. Let the gameplay actions a player takes influence the story. How the player controls the game should be the same way the player controls the story.

Case Study: yeah, you guessed it... Papers, Please.

APPROVE, or REJECT. That's the choice you have to make every time a new person comes in with paperwork. Not only do story choices and game choices have the same controls, the story choices are the game choices.

There's another game mechanic in Papers Please that also serves as a story choice mechanism. At the end of each day, you choose how much of your day's salary to go to heat, food, and medicine for your family. On the surface, it's simple resource management. But what you choose, who starves or lives or dies, heavily impacts the story.

On top of all that, the game's mechanics reflect the mood of the story. The gameplay is routine, but stressful, and forces you to obey arbitrarily changing rules. This reflects the depressing, bureaucratic world your character is trapped in. Game mechanics can convey emotions all by themselves.

Okay, Fine, Have More Examples:

  • Spec Ops: The Line. The core gameplay is shooting at things, and you make story choices the same way. (e.g. shoot at the the thief, or the murderer?... or the snipers, or the rope, or run away...)
  • No-One Has To Die. An underappreciated gem of an indie game. This is a puzzle game, where each level has multiple solutions - and which solution you pick determines who lives or dies.
  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. You use the left and right thumbsticks to control two brothers separately, and they work together to solve puzzles. They're individual, but united. It's a great mechanical metaphor.

In The End...

If games were like game stories... they'd have lots of dead-end branches, feel unresponsive, and have wildly inconsistent controls.

Games are still a very young art form. We're all still figuring this stuff out, but the several recent examples I listed give me hope. (did I mention Papers Please?) Maybe these games will lead the way in helping us figure out how to do storytelling through gameplay. Systemic stories. And we can start by asking one question, asking a simple "if"...

"If game stories were like games..."

. . .

Follow my ramblings at @ncasenmare
Originally posted on my blog


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Comments


Ken Kinnison
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I think for some the ideal would be merely setting the stage and low level systems. (Ala minecraft), but in practice there's a lot of gamers (me included) who'd feel empty in it. Dead end routes, while realistic, don't really sound very appealing in practice. While comparisons with movies are dangerous- a rambling movie that never went anywhere wouldn't be very satisfying.
There's definitely a lot to be said for making the play system the decision system, while I'm not as anti cutscene as some I can see why others have such a negative opinion. (The quick time stuff isn't really much better.)

Wendelin Reich
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I like your idea, and I wish it would catch on, but I also think there are reasons why game designers (especially in 'AAA') seem to love branching story trees rather than a continuous story space. The main reason is that our (or at least American) culture is obsessed with 'choice'. Choice is seen as something awesome, and it always has to be big and momentous ('epic'). We even believe that life is *normally* controlled by single, often small events that have huge repercussions ('butterfly effect' - aka pseudoscientific nonsense).

Whoever wants to cater to our cultural love of choices - and designers of very costly games may feel the pressure to want this - has to make sure that there is a certain amount of major choice-points in the game that players notice, that the press can write about, and so on. I think this is a bit sad because real life is often more like the more-or-less continuous choice space you describe. Many games could make so much more sense if they discarded the tree...

Christian Nutt
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The amount that people think "choice" is inherently interesting, even when it's completely false, is completely perplexing to me. In The Walking Dead you don't have much ability to affect what's going to happen, either because you simply don't or because soon afterward any choices will be reset or made irrelevant as those plot threads resolve. The choices are really pretty shallow. But this was a hugely fascinating point for people who liked the game, holding almost totemic significance.

I don't get it.

Ben Sly
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I think it's more that the players by-and-large don't replay Telltale games with alternate choices, so they don't realize that the actual consequences are far less significant than the game claims. You can make anything look deep with the proper presentation if the audience doesn't probe.

Christian Nutt
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not just the clueless who think this stuff is effective, though. I had a conversation about it with people at the UC Santa Cruz IFOG symposium on interactive storytelling, for crying out loud! It was just a lunch conversation and I have no idea who the guy I was talking to, was, but he was still totally hooked by it.

I think "choice" as a concept in games, no matter how illusory, does hold some sort of nearly mystical attraction for some people.

Ian Uniacke
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"The amount that people think "choice" is inherently interesting, even when it's completely false, is completely perplexing to me."

The complement is also true (even more extremely possibly) for some strange reason: the amount that people hate having NO choice is verging on irrational (fear of nihilism maybe?).

Just look at how people lost their s*** watching The Matrix sequels or the end of Mass Effect.

Luis Guimaraes
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It's hardly fear of Nihilism – and it couldn't be so in the case of a video-game anyway – but simply a desire for more interesting video-games. As long as everyone else is seemingly mindblown by so little we won't be getting much more than that.

Iain Howe
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That's not really some mystical psychological thing, so much as setting up someone's expectations and then knocking them down. Why was the ending of the third game more significant to the players than the ending of the other two combined? Because it was THE END, that's why.

Mass Effect was a game series built upon two conceits:

1. Even minor choices are reflected in the universe.
2. You are the protagonist who can opt to either be part of the 'Choose A or B' status quo OR use your humanity to break out of the status quo in direction C.

When you make your game a shrine to player agency, you shouldn't be shocked when they expect the end of the story to reflect this concept.

James Margaris
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A lot of that was anticipation.

When people first played TWD and saw "so and so will remember such and such" their brains filled in an underlying system in which that stuff actually mattered. It's only when they got to the end that they realized it didn't. The game was made so that minor decisions seemed to matter, when even major ones really didn't.

A trick that works once, judging by the reaction to season 2.

Luis Guimaraes
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I wouldn't put the blame on any cultural aspect of that kind. It's simply that we don't have the means yet to replace said choices with actual agency/control, and there doesn't seem to exist much of an interest to push for it.

The current meta-game favors façade choices for many reasons, ranging from how gaming media joins the side of enforcing the illusion of them in order to make video-games seem more appealing for the non initiated person, and the non initiated person that lacks experience in the area to see past the first impressions.

If the target audience can't tell the difference, what's the point in spend the effort of pursuing the real thing? That's the common line of thought – which I personally disagree with, but that's still it. It's easier to accomplish and, as mentioned before, the current meta-game favors it.

@Christian (new comment)

I don't know... I think my view of it is maybe a bit too cynical or insatisfied with the status quo, but I would say that going to a symposium on interactive storytelling doesn't make one not clueless (or the opposite, for that matter) on the matter of gamable stories. Both terms aren't even used meaning the same thing most of the time.

It's a big complex systems subject though and can't be talked about so shortly. I rather not dig deep into it right now to avoid problems for myself by being misunderstood or quoted out of context while trying to comment on some element of the system.

To quote my own profile page (I'm so lame, I know):

"We are so desperate to be part of the 'golden era' of gaming that we're willing to illude ourselves by pretending it's happening instead of actually make it happen."

But yes, I agree with you in everything, just wanted to add something but maybe I shouldn't, so lets leave it as it is.

It'll get better, though. Inevitably. I just hope it happens well into our lifetimes.

Patrick ODay
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@Christian

Choices in games can impact people differently.

At one extreme the choice is a single iteration of the "Would you rather...?" game; where two options that can't be easily compared are juxtaposed. Even if the choice has no effect on the game having the player sit and think about that decision can be engaging for some people.

Choices can also be used as nuance to a story. The result of a choice can be the same regardless but the player's interpretation of the result can vary depending upon their choice. Unfortunately games that employ these choices tend to have shallow choices that are disjointed from the result.

Then at the other extreme are the simple choices that are more power fantasies. With a single answer a player can alter a landscape and affect hundreds of virtual/imagined lives.

Jennis Kartens
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The choices in The Walking Dead and lately The Wolf Among Us do matter, because of what they reflect. That is actual caring for once for the people. They do not matter in the game progression, you will win eventually.

That is true for a lot of games, though most games do not reach the level of connection where you actually even care about who to save or who to take with you. Most games do not have an emotional depth and connections between the characters, like Telltale games tend to have.

And that is what makes it outstanding and gives the "shallow" choices more value in the end, because people act not for egocentric reasons (like in a lot of party games where you often chose your companions not because of their character, if any present, but because of what their abilities are. Like in Mass Effect) but rather emotional choices based purely on the feelings.

Personally I always valued that to be the core essence of these games, not the choices as such which I rather find a "nice to have" with a nice interactive flow to an otherwise rahter un-interactive game.

CE Sullivan
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I think this article makes some good points. Broadening possibility is definitely something that should be in a game designer's toolbox. We don't need to rely completely on branching story in order to give the player a sense of agency. However, I think there's room in that toolbox for both broadening possibility and branching story. A combination of the two might be especially effective.

I also don't think game designers who do rely on branching story are particularly lazy or that they're necessarily pandering. I mean, lighten up guys. Obviously, some people actually still enjoy branching narratives even though they understand how the illusion works. People enjoy magic tricks and special effects in movies, too. Remember that there is such a thing as "suspension of disbelief."

Alfe Clemencio
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I've already done what you suggested in 2009 in a game called Fading Hearts. It peaked top 20 on Steam too. And it works... and oh man what are the results? Quite fun and interesting actually.

1) About the branching metaphor, I'm pretty sure I destroyed it in my game. Why? Many of my story events can come in different orders. This can't properly be represented by graphs unless make it so complex you can't understand it. I could get two players give me their "story-graphs" and they would have different structures.

Edit: Well okay... I didn't do exactly what you said. I just put in a decent amount of game-changing choices.

2) About the "little things matter", I've done this too. Everyday in Fading Hearts you can choose what to do at least twice. So like maybe 2 choices per day lower bounds, and 60-90 in-game days. That makes the answer space (2 X 2)^60? Minimum? Maybe I'm fudging the math a bit but it seems about right.

This make things REALLY interesting for people writing walkthroughs and guides for the game.

Also I made the small choices matter a lot in Fading Hearts and it's more than just flavour.

3) Game choices = Story Choices: I've done this too. The interface for how you choose what to do is point-and-click at choice. Could be a daily-choice. Could be a game-changing choice.

Ian Uniacke
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Great post. I love the fact that we are starting to see narrative in games transcend traditional boundries. Papers, Please is one of the most under rated games ever, even though it was judged one of the best indy games of 2013. The depth of that game and its narrative is incredible.

You inspired me to finally set up a blog account here and repost an article I wrote from my personal blog. If you're interested it's here:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/IanUniacke/20140814/223467/To_All_
Who_Oppose_Its_The_Gulag_For_YOU_Hail_Arstotzka.php

Joel Nystrom
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Every critic loves Papers, Please, so I don't see how it's under-rated. Perhaps you really mean under-sold?

Ian Uniacke
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Well I guess I'm using the word figuratively. What I really meant was that it's even more important than the high ratings that have already been applied to it. In fact many years from now we might look back and see this like a watershed moment in gaming. There is so much depth to it that it's difficult I think, to give it enough credit. I'm not sure there's a word for it, but undersold might be a better term.

Eric Salmon
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Personally, this brings to mind Skyrim. If I hear one more guard rip on me about losing my sweetroll while I'm marching in full daedric armor with enough magical firepower to kill everyone in their city, I will lose it.

Jin Kang
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I think that's what put me off after spending good chunk of my life on Elder Scroll games.

I fall for it with each release, but after a little while--what with dialogues repeating--I realize there is a disconnect. And since the games work so hard to make them somewhat realistic, this disconnect almost feels like an uncanny valley, personal emotion wise.

Darby McDevitt
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I love the emphasis on creating more expressive possibilities for the player via the mechanics, as that is where I see the most gains happening through interactive storytelling. But I think this article jumbles too many disparate ideas to result in a fully baked argument. I count three separate theses here, but they don't quite cohere in the way the author thinks they do (although they COULD):

1) Games should tell their stories systemically.
2) Games should respond better to player actions.
3) Game stories should be told via the mechanics.

Firstly, as is typical in discussions about "game stories", the term "story" in this article seems to have been reduced to meaning "stuff that happens to the player." I think game criticism is going to flounder for a long time if we don't start speaking with a little more clarity on this topic, as we have a tendency to speak as broadly as we do loudly about these things.

In the case of systemic stories, I am more comfortable with "emergent narrative" -- a string of causally related events that emerge through the player's choices. This is very different than a traditional "story," in which all the ancient techniques of story-telling are utilized -- character development, foreshadowing, thematic development, etc. Many games have these too, but they are far different than emergent narratives. So my first question is... which of these is the author championing here? Because I see nods to both sides, without much distinction between them.

I'm fine with either, provided we understand the path we are treading. Some games play with emergent narrative, and some games play with traditional stories. Nothing wrong with both. But after arguing for "systemic stories", the examples chosen to champion this cause are, by and large, not examples of what you think they are. In three cases -- The Walking Dead, The Stanley Parable, and Brothers -- you identify features as "systemic stories" which are actually cleverly disguised examples of branching narrative, exactly the feature you decry at the article's opening.

Clementine "remembering" details about your choices, the Stanley narrator "reacting" to your actions, and the puzzles in Brothers are all branching narrative features because they are built on STATIC content. They have been designed, created, implemented, and scripted by the development team ahead of you playing the game. This is not systemic narrative in the industry's holy-grail sense of the term. It is very cleverly gussied up choose-your-own-adventure storytelling.

Games like Minecraft, Day Z, and Payday 2. Have a far greater number of possible outcomes and systemic stories than any of the examples above, precisely because they do not rely on pre-rendered content (dialog, scenarios, scenes) for their drama. The narrative tension that emerges in these games comes as a result of players making novel choices each and every second. No two games of Payday or Minecraft are ever the same. But this does not result in a traditional Story by any stretch. It's a new sort of narrative-type entirely (which we should happily embrace).

Here's where your "Papers Please" examples are a pretty good choice -- the small narrative that emerges through play is the player's own, while the stories that unfold out in the world are pre-written. "Papers Please" has a nice mix of what I have taken to calling Agency and Destiny gameplay. The player has agency over his or her own journey through the game, but there are also a number of stories the player cannot alter, stories that follow their own destiny.

And it's the smallness of "Papers Please" -- the tightness of its focus on its theme and action -- that makes this satisfying. Because the player's actions are limited to a few rudimentary mechanics all centered around the idea of working at a border checkpoint, the game does not have to worry about satisfying a million uncontrolled emergent possibilities. (What if I look for another job? What if I try to escape my country? What if I punch the next person who comes to my desk in the face? ... none of these choices are possible, so the story doesn't have to worry about providing answers for them.)

Lastly, can we please, as an industry, stop saying "Games are a young medium"? It makes us sound insecure. Games with stories have been around for almost 40 years now. By this same point cinema had Potemkin, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Intolerance, Napoleon, Metropolis ... and Citizen Kane was knocking on the door. If we're waiting for some savior to come along and justify 40 years in the wilderness, we're doing it wrong. I have a more optimistic view... games have countless masterpieces over the last few decades, but people still hung up on traditional storytelling as one of the litmus tests won't notice them. We need to stop this.

Nick Harris
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Excellent article.

However, I don't believe it is desirable for stories to have a continuous dramatic space, to have ever broadening possibilities, as that precludes a resolution. This is fine if you want to autogenerate a virtual Soap Opera, but the contrivance of a memorable narrative with a discernable character arc requires the broadening space to narrow at some point to inexorably funnel the player-character towards some unavoidable climax.

This requires three things: entanglement through emotional interrelationships with virtual dramatis personae, the periodic reassertion of an underlying theme through the subtle manipulation of cast and coincidence, and finally a form of metagame that rewards the player for staying in-character during role play by awarding them a choice of more challenging roles to select to improvise with during their next experience.

A trend exists for taciturn, or silent, protagonists - especially in FPSes like Half-Life 2 - presumably because it is easier to project oneself as a thoughtful, problem-solving entity, into your adoptive role if they don't break your immersion by saying something you wouldn't have said, or with a voice that is not your own. A deuteragonist can accompany you to perform mechanical actions unfettered by your comparatively inarticulate control scheme and can engage in dialogue with other characters mindful of your goals, proving useful in interrogative and expository ways - yet, without such an escort, every method I have encountered seems to interrupt the natural flow of action as it wrenches you out of your engagement with some activity only to endure an inescapable monologue, or a set of dialogue choices that fail to articulate what you would want to say.

Clearly, we can't have context dependent common sense aware natural language comprehension of a reliable voice recognition your in-game utterances (even though Douglas Lenat has been working for decades on building the AI required to ultimately 'know what you mean'), it is actually unnecessary and undesirable - as I don't want to have to talk to my Kinect 2.0 in order to further my progress in a game as it is often 2 a.m. and I'd wake people up.

At first, I thought the Look Stick (RS) could be used to nod and shake my character's head as virtual characters spoke to them. Nodding would dynamically make them expand on their exposition as I had shown great interest. Their questions could be resolved with a silent Yes or No and the game would be aware of my immediate subgoal so it could contrive to have a virtual character touch upon topics that I would like to have initiated were I not mute along with the many other topics that were of concern to them. I could bring an object out of my inventory for a trade by equipping it to either free hand and then look towards that hand and then to their face to get them to ask me if I wanted to give it to them, etc.

Then, partly because I had become painfully aware at how many FPSes and First-Person Adventures had you hold out some weapon wherever you went, often incongruously during conversations with friendlies who never once commented on the palpable threat, I thought that it would be a good idea to downplay weapons, not only not have them permanently equipped (or, if 'unarmed' show a pair of clenched fists in front of your character), but avoid the player obtaining a weapon for the majority of the game and thereby force them to resolve situations diplomatically or by running away. I'd greatly enjoyed my time running away in Mirror's Edge and found it laudable that it could be completed without using a gun to kill anyone should you choose to pursue that option. If dialogue drive drama then you don't really want to arm everyone at the outset even if things degenerate into all out war, because that resulting simulated battlefield would lack a foundation of empathetically meaningful interrelationships behind all of its emergent war stories - given the absence of a human scriptwriter this dynamic coauthored narrative would be the history of your squad rather than the legend of your 'band of brothers', etc.

Realising that the face buttons on a gamepad are typically dominated by actions related to the use of weapons, I decided that this common design wasn't ergonomic for an adventure grounded in diplomacy, escape, pursuit and occassional non-lethal interrogation. Even an episode of 24 isn't all guns being fired at people, it is only engaging because you've heard people talk and conspire and lie about the forces at work behind the evolving story, only a part of which you are initially privy to. This then led me to having a design where you pushed (Y) for Yes, rather than use (RS) to Nod your head up and down, with (X) for No. Rather than have to chase after a slower character and get in front of them to trigger their inescapable monologue - as in Majora's Mask - you could shout at whoever was in the centre of your field of view by pressing (A) for Hi then choose your moment to politely exit exposition early without offending them by pressing (B) for Bye. Critically, this could all work on a battlefield whilst you had to simultaneously suppress a target whilst responding to orders from HQ. There was no need to pause, or enter a mode in which you stared unflinchingly at a fixed head in a safe zone and worked your way through a dialog tree.

Should you have a weapon equipped, you could hold it across your body by holding [RB] and then tap (X) in order to Reload, or (Y) to Swap weapons, being able to Sprint as you did so until you had to slow down to Aim with [LT] or Fire your weapon with [RT] and have to reposition your forefinger.

A lot of games seem to be overly player-centric, perhaps this is for technical reasons. My hope is with increasing power more will be used to create a sophisticated simulation of largely "offstage" dramatis personae who are much more interested in each others plans than they are in your minor character's goals until they come into consonance or conflict. You need time to freely explore the sandbox and never feel railroaded by a predetermined extrinsic plot because the emergent narrative has established itself upon 'entanglements' (i.e. responsibilities you feel you have towards simulated characters), whose demands funnel you into thematically coherent plot points.

Left4Dead's "Director" already does some of this in terms of its dynamic pacing and the sequel has ambient chat.

Larry Carney
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Good blog.

Perhaps video games simply aren't a form where storytelling is suitable?

The games lauded for their stories are often ones lacking in "game" elements, as has been noted by many.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Perhaps video games simply aren't a form where storytelling is suitable?"

I'm sure that's not the case. It's just that we don't have the means to make good use of it for single player games yet.

Stephane Bura and the guys making Story Bricks are working on moving a step closer in that direction, which'll be used in EverQuest Next.

Fabian Fischer
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Indeed we don't have the means. The problem is that it's not unlikely that we will never have them, because it's an impossible talk. The problem is that we still care about and waste resources making "story games".

There have been many designers and academics pointing out the conflicts of story and game. Greg Costikyan talks about an "immediate conflict". Jonathan Blow even calls it "fundamental. The makers of Amnesia talk about how linear story "kills meaning". Even Valve's Eric Wolpaw sees the two sides "at odds". Chris Crawford in "The Art of Computer Game Design" was probably one of the first in pointing out how story is inherently static, whereas games are inherently dynamic. Linear, pre-authored visual storytelling makes use of a bunch of cinematographic tools (pacing, framing, foreshadowing etc.) that are severely hampered by the introduction of interactivity. That fact can't be disputed. Games need to find their own ways of functioning. They need to stop worrying about how they can be "as good as movies". Games are good in themselves!

One of the more in-depth pieces on the topic was written by Jesper Juul. It's a thesis called "A Clash between Game and Narrative". I think he makes many good points, but tends to transport them in a somewhat long-winded way. His conclusion is pretty concise, though. A central motivator for human behavior is the craving for mastery. Games especially allow us to satisfy this psychological need (http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2010_Przybyl
skiRigbyRyan_ROGP.pdf). Even stories are usually interesting to is, if we feel that they teach us something meaningful about life. But in the details of the forms, there's also a major difference: Games let us learn (actively), stories teach us (passively). A game is an unexplored universe that we discover one step after the other. A story is a set path whose meaning we interpret. Juul also writes in another article: “Narratives are basically interpretative, whereas games are formal.”

Games don't need to copy another art form to be meaningful for human beings. The reason for thinking something different is just that the scientific research surrounding the medium is still in its infancy. Professional game designers exist for not more than a few decades. Of course the storytellers have an edge. Of course it's better to have an "okay" story in a worthless game than no story in a worthless game. But the game-part does not become more valuable through the story-part. In fact, it's raining conflicts, compromises and reduced artistic potential. Whoever wants to make a game (as in gameplay) that's as good as possible, should not touch traditional storytelling. And vice versa!

On "story choices": Narrative choices are not game choices, and trying to forcefully make one be the other is a bad idea. It leads to very obscure design. Imagine in Chess you're asked to answer a story choice each turn ("The queen is sad today, should she eat a cookie?") and then something half-randomly happens on the board to the actual game state. Sounds ridiculous but it's what you do in FTL, Out There and the likes.

Solution: If your focus is on storytelling, eliminate strategy-game-like resource management, tactics and all that. Telltale does that pretty well, although they instead make characters behave incredibly stupid, just so that you can have a little bit of trivial puzzle gameplay as the player (Walking Dead 2-4 is a prime example of that). Even they could go much further and cut out anything resembling gameplay. It would be for the better.
And if your focus is instead on strategy, eliminate obscure story choices and make it a genuinely good strategy game with strategic decisions.

Second-level issue: In the first case, even if we got rid of any gameplay, we still have a problem. There could still be a conflict between us deciding as an author ("I choose X, because that's in line with the previous story events and general attitudes of the protagonist!"), or as if it were ourselves ("I choose Y, because that's what I personally would do!"). How do we deal with that? Probably, at first, by getting rid of any pre-written main protagonist, and instead making him merely the player's avatar - an empty sheet of a character that the player fills out with his own personality.

Now, that seems to work and it indeed does in pen & paper RPGs with a human (and ideally particularly creative) game master. Because in that case we can indeed play ourselves and the game (master) reacts. But in a story-choice entertainment product, we always have a pre-written set of possible actions. And to avoid a "state explosion", we're usually pretty rail-roaded. Either there are a lot of options that don't have much to do with each other (which is somewhat dissatisfying and doesn't feel like a coherent story we're experiencing); or there are just not too many options (or maybe they just seem like they matter, but actually don't). In any case, though, we have our "authorial" problem again. The pre-picked set of options was chosen by the story's creator with specific outcomes in mind, therefore with a somewhat specified character. So we can't quite be ourselves in the story.

Verdict: Without an AI game master of human-level creativity and intelligence, to allow for actual collaborative storytelling, there will always be fundamental problems in single-player story-choice systems. And with such an AI, there's really not a "game" left, but just a multi-author storytelling process.

Fabian Fischer
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Right. As many designers pointed out already, there is a fundamental conflict. A story needs to move on, it needs to follow its pacing, it needs to progress. Gameplay is the opposite of that. It prevents you from progressing to let you struggle against a challenge. The logical conclusion, if you want to tell a story: Get rid of the gameplay completely (nice example of Square realizing this for FF7: http://i.imgur.com/nYs7utr.png).

Luis Guimaraes
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Those a very limiting views of what story and game(play) are.

A story is not rigidly restricted to it's pacing aspects, nor is pacing an exact science with a single right answer. And gameplay does not necessarily prevent you from progressing, nor are challenges necessarily supposed to be struggled upon indefinitely with success being the only requisite for progression.

This very discussion is a game, and by discussing we're both engaged in it's gameplay. Failure from any or both of us in convincing the other side of some of our views won't prevent the game and the story of this discussion from progressing.

Fabian Fischer
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Of course there is a right answer. A good artist is good, because he manages to consistently get close to it. Suggesting that there's no right answer, is suggesting that game design or storytelling aren't disciplines.

In striving to progress an art form, we will and should transform it into a science.

Luis Guimaraes
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Well, there is a right answer of course. You can get that right answer if you have access to every data about the one single person you're designing the game for, the exact physical and mental conditions, and the mood of that single person that will be experiencing the story.

Even then, the answer you come up with is only the right answer for that exact person in that very moment under those exact isolated and controlled conditions. It won't be perfect for anybody else, nor for the same person in different circumstances.

Since we don't make games within those constraints, it's equivalent to there not being a perfect answer at all.

Evan Hill
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not if that struggle is against agents within a story.
To quote the above, Papers please does this elegantly, thought he way the government reacts and how your performance affects your family.

Another great example is Dark Souls.

Mike Engle
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The simple fact that some games are praised for their stories is evidence that they're suitable for it.

Luis Guimaraes
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@ "Indeed we don't have the means. [...]"

It seems when you say "story" you mean "plot".

You're talking about Jesper Juul, you must have read Half-Real. That's basically my stance on everything about video-game stories: "gameplay or didn't (half-)happen". If you read my articles by any change, you'll see I address Virtual, Fictional and Real events and agents all the time to make the separations clear.

A fellow, awesome developer I admire, once thought I was trolling (her words) when I challenged her with a hard question on this subject. It was supposed to make her think about it, but to my absolute surprise SHe didn't quite get it. I hope not to be offending anybody with my demanding views of the art of Game Design.

We're on the same side here about games being good on their own.

The differences are that I'm saying the task of making gamable stories (not mere plots) is not an impossible one, and that yes, in a gamable story, a story choice and a game choice are actually the same thing.

It's definitely an attainable goal, and pursuing it is a pretty neat game to play. And then games won't be just "good" on their own once we figure it out, they'll be absolutely awesome on their own.

Luis Guimaraes
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@ "Verdict: Without an AI game master of human-level creativity and intelligence, to allow for actual collaborative storytelling, there will always be fundamental problems in single-player story-choice systems. And with such an AI, there's really not a "game" left, but just a multi-author storytelling process."

Oh, you did get to the same subject I'm talking about in the very end but, as it seems, all the while without noticing that this is what I meant all along.

Seems then we have two more different views here.

First, that there's no game left to be played at that point.

I disagree, it seems mostly philosophical in nature, but I might still try to argument about it and see where it goes. Why do you say that's not a game? A game, basically, is anything you're gaming. You can game such a system.

Every game has rules, which are boundaries of what is possible and what isn't. A story might have soft boundaries and hard boundaries, which define the rules of the system.

You can't decide to throw a bowling ball on a Chess match and drop the opponents pins and call it correct, because that's outside the rules of the game. That's a hard boundary.

Similarly, there are video-games where you die, and you can't continue playing as a ghost, but have to restart the video-game and try again to accomplish your goals. The story of the game does not support that, while other games stories and mechanics do, and so do many non-game stories, told by other means. It's also a hard boundary. Does, the fact that you cannot proceed as a ghost make it less of a game or less of a story because there's a rule you can't break and, if that's the case, why is Chess allowed to have hard boundaries then?

You can't, also, simply move your pieces around over and over and beat the opponent's pieces while they passively stand still waiting for you to do so. The opponent's actions are a Force that actively works against you to impede you from achieving your goals in the game. Goals one of which is locking down his King piece in a directly threatened position, while other goals might be created by the player himself to support his strategies. An influential force like that is a soft boundary, or a soft rule, like gravity that pulls you down in a video-game where jumping is part of your action space.

If a game master in a tabletop RPG trying to channel the adventure into a certain direction, does it make it not a game? And if the player tries to achieve a goal and manipulates other players and NPCs towards that goal, is it not a story?

To game something, by definition, is to manipulate the system towards a desired outcome. A desired outcome is what we call a goal, and it doesn't have to be necessarily given to the (corretly called) player to be a desired outcome.

Systems can be gamed. Soft boundaries are systems that can be gamed as well. Hard boundaries are not part of the system and therefore not part of the game, but their existence doesn't make it not a game. Apart from our imagination, everything in life has limits in one point or another.

So, in my view, a tabletop RPG is a game. Everything with a system and a player trying to achieve a goal gaming that system is obviously a game.

Besides, a "multi-author storytelling process" – if you take away the biased "telling" semantic issue but keep the meaning of the sentence – and a "game" are basically the same thing, the difference being how the "authors" approach it, if they're competing or cooperating, and how they proceed to achieve the goals that aren't the same for all participants.

The second thing is that you imply it has to be an amazing AI with human-like intelligence and creativity to be able to apply soft and hard boundaries to what can and should happen in a gamable story. You don't need an AI for that, you just need a system. What an AI would do, which's what a human GM does, is to create and make that system up on the fly, while the game is already being played.

Such a system can be designed.

Nick Harris
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I described in my earlier post how a simulation of virtual dramatis personae who periodically asserted an underlying theme could 'funnel' a role player towards a dramatic narrative climax from an initially open world sandbox through the use of emotional entanglement. There would be no ludonarrative dissonance and the resulting story would not be predetermined.

I also described the importance of gestural and verbal communication over the sadly all too common last resort of terminal violence that is a first response. I'm working on the tools to support coauthored narrative and the main reason it has not been done before in a AAA game is most likely commercial, as once you sell a world of adventure that can write its own stories you obviate need of a sequel.

Remaking the same game again with nicer presentation is one option, but really the best way to make another coauthored narrative is to convey another theme.

Fabian Fischer
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Concerning Papers Please: Theme, story or moral choices didn't really matter to me in any way. The story mode to me is nothing but a tutorial, which step-by-step gets you accustomed with all the different elements by always introducing new requirements and rules when controlling the papers. Starting from that, there is a lot to learn, even though it might seem rather dull on first sight: adaptability (to changing rules), multi-tasking (you have to listen to immigrants and check their papers simultaneously), pattern recognition (in terms of strings of symbols and also faces), prioritization (e.g. if one papers is missing altogether, you do not need to check the rest), balancing (of accuracy versus speed), dexterity, rapid planning of the next steps, and more. Also, for every single one of these skills, the players immediately gets feedback concerning his performance or errors he made. Rarely has a game been teaching more efficiently. And that's just what good gameplay is: good learning!

Damien Ivan
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Apologies if this has already been addressed, but the comments were a bit too long for me to read right this second; and I wanted to say this before I forgot.

I think the issues of branching stories vs "continuous" stories and whether or not gameplay is at odds with a story are actually largely about the same issue. The main reason that stories are branching is that it's insanely difficult to do not do it that way! It's like pixel art vs a realistic, ray-traced 3d model. The amount of engineering and artistic resources needed to accomplish the latter is several orders of magnitude larger than the former.

To create a "continuous" story, there needs to be an underlying programming model that is able to dissect stories into little pieces and then synthesize them back into a new whole (so to speak). Every little last iota of a modern video game's graphics are is a separate little chunk of digital data — every particle, vertex, polygon, texture, pixel, light, skeleton, shader pass, compositing effect, etc etc etc is controllable AD NAUSEAM. We already have whole industries built around making 3d graphics and whatnot. 3D modelers, riggers, texture artists, lighting artists, animators, not to mention things like CAD and on and on. I'm not sure I can think of a single analogue for stories, except maybe for some rudimentary AI (But frankly, I'm hardly an expert on the matter).

Now, if someone is comparing a static (like one found in a typical book) story to a dynamically-created game, it's not really surprising to me that the two don't mesh naturally. But if the story were modeled as richly as the graphical environment, I don't see why it couldn't work. Things are constantly happening in movies, but the stories still move right along, integrated into the action. Does creating "dynamic," "continuous" stories sound easy? Hell no! But conceptually, I don't see why it couldn't work.


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