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Formal Abstract Design Tools

July 16, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 7 Next
 

Same Tools, Different Games

Perceived consequence is a tool often used in RPGs, usually with plot or character development. A plot event will happen, in which the game (through characters or narration) essentially comes out and says, "Because of X, Y has happened." This is clearly a fairly pure form of perceived consequence.

Often, however, RPGs are less direct about consequence. For example, the player may decide to stay the night at an inn, and the next morning he may be ambushed. Now, it may be that the designers built this in the code or design of the game. ("We don't want people staying in town too much, so if they start staying at the inn too often, let's ambush them.") However, that causality is not perceivable by the player. While it may be an actual consequence, to the player it appears random.

There are also cases where the consequence is perceivable, but something still seems wrong. Perhaps there's a fork in the road, where players must choose a direction. As a player travels down the chosen path, an encounter with bandits occurs, and the bandit leader proclaims, "You have entered the valley of my people; face my wrath." This is clearly a consequence, but not of a decision players thought they were making. Players bemoan situations where they are forced into a consequence by the designers, where they are going along playing a game and suddenly are told, "You had no way of knowing, but doing thing X results in horrible thing Z."

The story unfolds in Final Fantasy VIII


Here we can look at how Mario uses the perceivable consequence tool in order to gain some insight into how to make it work for us without frustrating players. In Mario, consequences are usually the direct result of a player decision. Rarely do players following a path through the game suddenly find themselves in a situation where the game basically says, "Ha ha, you had no way of knowing, but you should have gone left," or "Dead end! Now you get crushed." Instead, they see they can try a dangerous jump or a long roundabout path or maybe a fight. And if it goes wrong, they understand why.

So it should come as no surprise that, in RPGs, often the best uses of consequence come when they are attached to intentional actions. Being given a real choice to do the evil wizard's bidding or resist and face the consequences has both intention and consequence. And when these tools work together, players are left feeling in control and responsible for whatever happens. However, being told "Now you must do the evil wizard's bidding" by the designer, and then being told, "As you did the evil wizard's bidding, the following horrible consequences have occurred," is far less involving for the player. So while both examples literally have perceived consequence, they don't cause the same reactions in the player.

Same Game, Different Tool

Of course, there are reasons why RPGs often force players into a given situation, even at the cost of removing some of the player's feeling of control. The usual reason is to give the designer greater control of the narrative flow of the game. It is clear that "story" is another abstract tool, used in various ways across all game styles in our industry. But it's important to remember that, although books tell stories, when we say "story" is an abstract tool in game design, we don't necessarily mean expository, pre-written text. In our field, "story" really refers to any narrative thread that is continued throughout the game.

The most obvious uses of story in computer and video games can be found in adventure-game plot lines. In this game category, the story has been written in advance by designers, and players have it revealed to them through interactions with characters, objects, and the world. While we often try to set up things to give players a sense of control, all players end up with the same plot.

But story comes into play in NBA Live, too. There, the story is what happens in the game. Maybe it ends up in overtime for a last-second three-pointer by a star player who hasn't been hitting his shots; maybe it is a total blowout from the beginning and at the end the user gets to put in the benchwarmers for their moment of glory. In either case, the player's actions during play created the story. Clearly, the story in basketball is less involved than that of most RPGs, but on the other hand it is a story that is the player's — not the designer's — to control. And as franchise and season modes are added to sports games and team rivalries and multi-game struggles begin, story takes on a larger role in such games.

STORY: The narrative thread, whether designer-driven or player-driven, that binds events together and drives the player forward toward completion of the game.


Article Start Previous Page 5 of 7 Next

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