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The Designer's Notebook: Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers, Resolved
by  [Design]

April 8, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In February, after nearly 18 years of thinking and writing about interactive storytelling (as well as a good many other topics), I received a Ph.D. in that subject from the University of Teesside in the UK. My thesis is called Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling, and it's a retrospective and analysis of the papers and lectures I've given over the years. In this month's column, I'm going to summarize a few of my conclusions. (If you want to read the whole thing, which covers a lot more than this column does, you can download it here.)

One disclaimer before I start: my thesis only covers single-player, avatar-based stories in which the player contributes actions to the events of the story. It doesn't address multiplayer storytelling, non-avatar-based games (like The Sims), or static hypertext in which the reader's only contribution is to choose what to read next.

My work began back in 1995, when I gave a lecture at the Game Developers' Conference called "The Challenge of the Interactive Movie." Interactive movies were the latest hip concept at the time, having taken off following the invention of the CD-ROM. The title of the lecture was meant to lure in people who were excited by the idea, but I concluded that the "challenge of the interactive movie" is to make a decent video game despite the fact that the marketing department will insist on slapping this stupid label on it.

In the course of the lecture, I introduced some of the key problems that face any interactive storyteller. A few years later I described them again in "Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers," an early Designer's Notebook column. I called them the Problem of Amnesia, the Problem of Internal Consistency, and the Problem of Narrative Flow.

I concluded that these problems were fundamental to the nature of the interactive medium and couldn't be resolved, only lived with. But in the years since then, I gained a better understanding of them, and I did in fact resolve them, at least to my own satisfaction.

We'll start with the easiest one.

The Problem of Amnesia

This is the well-known fact that the player enters the game world with amnesia: she doesn't know who she is, where she is, or what she is supposed to do there. In the game industry, we deal with this rather poorly. The earliest commercial computer games required the player to to read a manual; later we devised tutorial levels, long narrative passages (Okami), or long expository speeches from mentor characters (Planescape: Torment).

In the worst case of all, we give the player an avatar who is actually said to be suffering from amnesia -- I consider this to be a Twinkie Denial Condition because it's such a cheesy solution.

Eventually I came to realize that this isn't really an intractable problem, and it isn't by any means exclusive to video games. All stories have to introduce their audience to the setting and characters. Movies sometimes use opening narration, especially if the location is unfamiliar; you can see it from Casablanca to Star Wars to The Fellowship of the Ring.

In TV shows, where time is tight, characters will find a reason to use each others' names in the early dialog. Establishing shots tell us where the show is set by including a famous landmark (the Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney Opera House) or, in less familiar places, a look at a road sign that includes the town's name.

Skilled writers can introduce the player to a place and a cast of characters subtly, in such a way that nothing that she hears or sees seems unnatural. Of course, games have an additional problem that the presentational media don't have to deal with: we have to teach the player to use the controls, too; but there are better and worse ways to do it.

Any game in which the avatar has a particular profession -- football player, soldier, dancer -- can include a training camp or practice room that both belongs in the game world and brings the player up to speed without risking anything. Take a look at my column "Eight Ways to Make a Bad Tutorial" for further discussion.

In the end I concluded that it's simply a question of craftsmanship. The Problem of Amnesia can be solved by any competent writer. Games have more time than TV or movies to introduce their world, so there's no excuse for doing it badly.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Keith Burgun
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>(If he screws up the story unintentionally, that's a different issue. That's the designer's fault. It's up to the designer to construct a world in which the player cannot accidentally violate the story.)

I feel like this deserves a lot more than a parenthetical, because to me, this is the real issue.

Let's assume for a moment that the following statement is true: "telling a good story is very, very hard." I don't mean "a story that's good - *for a videogame*", I mean a story that is good, that has a strong controlling idea, character development, and a network of well-placed dramatic arcs that leads to a satisfying climax that clearly expresses that controlling idea. Stories are carefully built machines and authors understand how fragile they are - changing one line of dialogue could completely change the meaning and effectiveness of the entire story.

So, if we assume that telling a good story is hard, AND we assume that we want to tell a good story, then actually, it's practically impossible that we can give a player ANY freedom at all to make choices and still end up with a good story.

I think that the real trade off is "well, I am OK with telling a mediocre or even bad story in exchange for giving the player some level of control". That is the way to honestly approach this problem. Once you have admitted that that's the case, then people have much better tools for figuring out whether doing this is worth their time or not.

Keith Burgun
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To add a bit more:

>"Tell stories with more than one dramatic climax."

So there are two possibilities here:

1. You do not understand how difficult it is to create even ONE good dramatic climax, OR

2. You are not being honest about the destructive effects that interactivity has on story (and vice versa).

Ernest Adams
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I disagree with your assertion that telling a good story is very, very hard, and therefore the rest of your argument is irrelevant. But thanks for patronizing me and accusing me of dishonesty; it certainly reveals a lot about your own character.

Jeroen Stout
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The matter of control is important but it is not purely control, in my view. The question is, does the player was significant consequences to his actions; if he does, then the narrative needs to branch or 'open'. If he does not require significant consequences, he can have interaction that do not threaten the flow of the narrative.

I am a great proponent of meaningless interaction in narrative games, I think it adds the 'interactive interest' to the game without making me responsible for telling a good story. I think a lot of games fell into the 'must be relevant' trap rather than subscribing to the'must add to it' idea.

(Of course games which do not tell a story but offer the possibility of one, like Minecraft or FTL, are finely in their way.)

Ernest Adams
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If you measure the success of a story by popularity, then Harlequin Romances are good stories. They are NOT hard to write; there is a formula. If you insist on being Marquez or Hemingway, then you have set your sights too high to be useful to the discussion. It isn't necessary or even particularly desirable to try to do that right now. Don't get caught up in the artistic myth of the tortured struggling writer sweating over every word. Most successful writers are hacks who bang it out. That's more than enough for me.

I know all about the trade-off; it's what most of the article is about. Did you not read it? I have provided a resolution to the trade-off.

Jeroen Stout
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"If you insist on being Marquez or Hemingway, then you have set your sights too high to be useful to the discussion."

Perhaps that is my cue to leave the discussion, as I do insist on being rather phenomenal.

Yama Habib
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The problem is that you're speaking subjectively, here. What qualities facilitate a "good" story? How does one quantify something that is "hard" much less "very, very hard"?

As it stands, I don't understand what you're trying to convey. However, if by "Telling a good story is very, very hard." you mean to say that "Telling a story with a traditional dramatic arc leaves little room for nuances," then I can potentially agree with you. However, history (as well as Ernest's 409 page thesis) has shown that the dramatic structure doesn't mesh well with interactive mediums like videogames without imparting a plethora of unnecessary limitations, and that there is actually no explicit reason as to why one would want to do so.

As for your additional comments, you are misunderstanding what it means to have "more than one dramatic climax." This does not necessarily imply that any given player will encounter multiple climaxes within a single playthrough, nor does it imply otherwise. The reason it is important not to confine oneself to the principles of dramatic structure is that, unlike in traditional storytelling mediums, in interactive mediums, players can be given the freedom to control at which point in the playthrough they will encounter a climax, if at all. It makes sense that a game with a non-linear story would have several different climaxes, or that a game that potentially spans over hundreds of hours would contain multiple high points, as otherwise there would not be much incentive to continue playing past the traditional climax (or to continue to play up to it). A good example of the former would be with games like Fallout 1, where the story can climax with an encounter with the main antagonist of the game, or similarly with the detonation of a bomb, or even with a simple conversation. On the other hand, an example of the latter would entail something along the lines of Skyrim, in which the game ebbs and flows between different high points and times of negative space, with the high points including the encounter with Mirmulnir, the culmination of the College of Winterhold storyline, the discovery of Blackreach, the storming of Whiterun, and the final questline in Sovngarde. All of these events are climactic to varying degrees, yet the player controls which of these events occur, and when.

Ernest Adams
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Mr. King was the one who offered popularity as one measure of a good story: "But until you find a large audience willing to pay you money to hear that story, you are the same as everyone else. Which is nice, but not much good."

I'm not that worried about good stories, because I doubt that any two people have the same definition of "good story." I'm interested in what makes an experience story-like, and how games may be constructed to produce such an experience.

John Smith
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First I would like to point out that how good a story is is quite subjective, and that different players will have wildly different opinions on any given story. Secondly I would like to point out that you are operating under the false assumption that players can only make a story worse.

If a player alters a story from the designers original intention it is entirely possible that the player may enjoy the resulting narrative more, given that players generally seek the maximum entertainment value from a game and often know how to achieve it. Please don't assume that all gamers are stupid, lesser beings who are incapable of generating their own narratives. All I ask is that developers give gamers the tools they need to tailor the experience to their own preferences.

Wylie Garvin
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@Yama Habib:

"It makes sense that a game with a non-linear story would have several different climaxes, or that a game that potentially spans over hundreds of hours would contain multiple high points, as otherwise there would not be much incentive to continue playing past the traditional climax (or to continue to play up to it)."

A good example is Okami: A game I admire a lot, and which I have started several times, but never finished. The reason is, about half way through the game there's a huge build-up, a major boss fight with a big denouement (complete with victory celebration in the nearby town). At least three times now I have played the game up to that point and felt completely satisfied when I had gotten past that point in the game. Within an hour or so after that climax, I usually lose interest and stop playing, feeling that I have already gotten everything that I need to out of the experience. There's probably 20 hours more adventure left in there; to me that's just icing on the cake, its like Clover finished the game with 5 months left and said "we should cram a bunch more stuff in there!" or something. They could have shipped the first half of the game alone and it still would have been outstanding, IMO.

Thomas Grip
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Good stuff! I especially like the suggestion to let the player take responsibility. It is a very common element in most story-centric games to not leave anything up to the player, and in most cases it leads a contrived and spoon fed experience. Have to check the full essay sometime later this week.

However, I think two problems are larger than the ones you outline:

1) The idea that story is plot
It is a very common belief that story is the same as the specific events that make it up. This just isn't the case, and story is a much more complex composition of characters, themes, setting, etc. The story=plot view has been used by many to argue that videogames cannot tell stories and is also very common among many in the industry. Simply changing the view of story is an important step to reach further (I know Chris Crawford has written similar thoughts, so perhaps this is in your thesis?)

2) The challenge/optimization focused gameplay
The way in which we design most games today rely on a set of core mechanics that are repeated throughout the experience. These are meant to encourage mastery, be fun, contain meaningful choices and allow intuitive learning. This severely limits the actions players can do in our stories, and is the main reason why most story games only has the player doing combat and/or movement based actions. I see this as the current biggest hindrance towards better interactive storytelling.

Ernest Adams
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Creative writing teachers will tell you that scenes in stories normally exist for one of three reasons: to set the scene, to reveal character, or to advance the plot. We tend to rely on cinematic techniques rather than narrative exposition to do the first two. I think story CAN be only plot (that's all that's in your basic action flick), and sure enough, the most successful storytelling games are interactive action flicks because that is what we do well. This ties in to your second point, too few modes of interaction. That's a problem if you want to make a game about somebody who both shoots aliens AND nurses babies. But I'm getting a whiff of the go-anywhere-and-do-anything fantasy here, and that, not too few modes of interaction, is one of the things that has held us back the most.

We're good at making interactive Schwartzenegger movies, as I have said for many years. We're not so good at interactive romantic comedies or political thrillers or weepies. But I don't think it's necessary that an interactive story have the potential to be ALL of these things in one product.

A lot of the people working in interactive storytelling set their sights on the very pinnacle of literature, and want to create a system that admits of Nobel Prize-worthy fiction; then they beat themselves up for having failed. I'm quite content to take the ladder one rung at a time. If we can make an interactive story that's as witty and entertaining as a Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies cartoon, that's good enough for me.

Adrian Chmielarz
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Ernest, I think you and Thomas are talking about two different things. I suggest you go to Frictional Games' blog and read the latest post from Thomas, his GDC 2013 lecture. I'm sure you'll find it interesting and quite in synch with what you talk about here, but more importantly you'll get more details on where Thomas is coming from.

Other than this, just wanted to thank you for the post. Fantastic stuff, and it all makes sense and we already have proofs that these ideas work. Limiting player's vocabulary to offer a tight experience that feels like freedom? Super Mario 64, Doom and The Walking Dead. Not caring about the players who break the contract on purpose? Skyrim. "Put those buckets on shopkeepers' heads all you want". Etc. etc.

Obviously, the post does not cover everything (e.g. the conflict between emotions and gameplay mechanics), and I think that there's more solutions to the problem of the narrative flow, but what's there is great. Kudos.

Thomas Grip
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Thanks for replying!

- "But I'm getting a whiff of the go-anywhere-and-do-anything fantasy here, and that"

oh definitively not! I am all for a very small set of actions and for a very straightforward experience. The problem today is not that we can't to EVERYTHING. The problem is that using common design principles, you can only select your focus from a narrow range of actions.

If you are interested in knowing more I gave a talk at GDC this year about it, called "Presence, Self and Storytelling" (should be in the vault) or check the script here:

I hate to post links, so just summed up what I am for is an approach that relies on:

* Interactivity to create a sense of presence
* To use as simple systems as possible, and let the imagination do the rest.

Normally, games do the opposite, try their damnedest to recreate reality and use interaction to add as much choice as possible (which of break sense of presence). By doing the above points instead the space of possibilities really opens up (as we have found out in our own games).

- "We're good at making interactive Schwartzenegger movies"
Well that depends which Schwartzenegger movies we are talking about ;) I think most games actually have a problem even with dear Arnold's lower quality output. Because we are so into repeating everything a million times it often lack the punch these movies have in their action scenes. I believe there is quite a bit to do in the action genre too, and that we have not replicated this as well as we might imagine.

- "pinnacle of literature, and want to create a system that admits of Nobel Prize-worthy fiction"

I totally agree here. But I do think games can have the same kind of meaning and impact as these novels. The problem is just that we cannot recreate these type of experiences. Discussing how to make hamlet into a game will only get us so far. We need to tell stories that work in our medium.

I come from a horror angle at this (been doing that for almost 15 years) and have found that games can really recreate the kind of feelings that the best horror in books and movies have and even surpass that. This be attacking it from a different angle and not trying to replicate any of books/movies directly, but by homing in on certain elements (such as the experience of being in a haunted house). I think the same approach can be used for other types of stories too, but is a lot less explored.

Nick Harris
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I agree with both of these points. I've had a quick look at Mr Adams' thesis as I was a little concerned that he hadn't mentioned that a computer could generate an emergent narrative from a simulation of dramatis personae provided that it continually reasserted an underlying theme. Thankfully, he made reference to theme, although the most innovatory mechanism cited for its delivery was Ian Bogost's 'Procedural Rhetoric' (e.g. a toy that persuades you as you explore its parameters). My notion is quite a bit more complicated than that, but I was pleased to read his work had a lot of the same ideas I had been working on for my indie game 'Universe'. I've written about this before on the Gamasutra forums, but I think I most clearly expressed my ideas here via my psuedonym Uncompetative:

"I am increasingly nauseated by the current trend towards Cinematic Videogames.

It is a phrase that I regard as something of an oxymoron.

Developers could remedy this by realising that narrative is merely a symptom of an underlying theme. If it is the intention of the artist to convey this theme, then what does it matter to hold to a particular pre-scripted narrative?

Games are systems of rules within which interesting behaviour may emerge, often with some aspect of challenge, or competition for the player to measure their performance against. The designers of Chess and Football didn't need to fret about "Story", but despite this stories still emerged from interesting games:

However, there are a great many more matches that were dull. Being a passive spectator does not really help with engagement, yet the ideal would be to 'rig' the match so that the opponent either made deliberate mistakes, or suddenly got a whole lot better (e.g. equalising just before half-time).

Once the game's rules have been modified to make it seek entertaining levels of drama rather than boring old fairness the player's psychology can be probed by offering them a choice of actions (NPC proposed procedurally-generated missions), the successful completion of which would gain you "Kudos" for your competent role play and unlock more challenging and subtle missions as the game's personality model of the player's "alter-ego" was further refined.

This would allow games to get away from the thinly disguised corridor along which revelatory narrative scenes are encountered in the correct sequence. A game may seem to then be an Open World, but on extended interaction the player would find their choices constrained by their past actions and probably be oblivious to the subtle interventions of the game shaping the set of available choices (and their consequences), throughout in order to reinforce the underlying theme - forcing irreversible character developments, then stage-managing a cathartic climax.

Players would assume roles and try to play that part as best as they could being rewarded with Kudos for remaining "in character". Counter-intuitively, this would herald a break from players avoiding character death as this would no longer mean GAME OVER.

Indeed, heroic sacrifice, or a villain getting his comeuppance, could both be terminal for the player's character, but pay a handsome reward in terms of Kudos. The player would continue with the game, selecting from a choice of new, equivalently experienced, characters - adding equipment in keeping to the new role they were adopting from a cash sum each character had been allotted. As a result, play would have a different, dramatic, motivation rather than mere, hackneyed, survival and because the story was built in response to player psychology they would more likely be drawn in to its emergent story.

So, in summary:

Randomly generate? No.

Procedurally-generate in harmony with player psychology and a coherent theme? Yes."

It is nice to think that even if I fail to implement these next-generation concepts in 'Universe', there is a trend towards innovation in the medium that embraces its capacity for simulation to captivate its participants with a medium akin to improvised theatre productions. I've seen the future and we are all actors...

Jason Withrow
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I really like the second entry, and the idea of roleplaying/adopting a character's moral structure. Graham Nelson wrote years ago, in The Craft of Adventure, that "Mr Spock can certainly be disallowed from shooting Captain Kirk in the back," and that hasn't stopped being true since!

Will definitely be reading the Template and Guide, and as much of the thesis as seems reasonable.

Jan Zheng
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"The degree of freedom and agency that an interactive storytelling experience offers should be a function of the designer's original premise for the experience"

I recently picked up a copy of Heavy Rain, a pretty well-reviewed interactive fiction game, and even from the start, many of the things you do don't have any impact or function towards the story at all. Things like brushing your teeth, going to the bathroom, etc. Many of these things are optional in the beginning, but later in the game they become a complete chore, as some you can't skip

Glenn Storm
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'Always enjoy your great contributions to the medium, both theory and practical guides, Ernest. Thank you for this well-written summary article, and congrats on your PhD.

Karin E Skoog
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Thanks for making your thesis available for download. I look forward to reading it more thoroughly. You raise some great points.

Nigel Lepianka
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From some of your concerns, it seems like MMOs have developed some sort of solution to the issue of narrative flow. First, they also inhibit maximum freedom, but do allow for a large amount of it (mobility and advancement options), but since the game is online and therefore always running (as well as with content being continually developed) there is the problem that players will 'miss' something if they are not consistently playing. However, the solution for this is that repetition is introduced (respawns, lockout resets, daily models, etc.). This could be a problem in itself (because then the gameplay borders on monotony) but provides players not only a sense of real time, but also that if they have missed something in a mechanical and developmental sense, it is not forever inaccessible to them. If this is a model non-MMO games adapt, could that work to alleviate some problems of narrative flow?

Ernest Adams
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Yes, I think you have a point there. Some non-MMO games effectively give the player a second chance if they miss something important. And of course you can always funnel them into an inevitable event (more or less gently).

I realized that it's not realistic of the player to expect to be able to avoid the dramatic climax (unless he just stops playing). It's actually OK to force them to experience it, because part of fiction involves the protagonist facing things that perhaps she would rather not face, but MUST do so. If the player is going to be Superman, the player has no choice but to rescue the baby. It's the job he signed up for when he started to play.

Kheper Crow
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What about a carrot on a stick approach to narrative flow?
Allow the player to deviate and wander a bit from your given flow and produce some sort of agent to bring the player back on path. If we can collect metrics on a players behavior to maximize profits I'm pretty sure we can collect that same data and feed it into an AI to let the creators know when and how a player is deviating. It is then up to the creator to have some hooks/tricks to pull the player back into their story.
Surely this would be easier than procedurally generating entirely new plot!

Ernest Adams
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One chapter in the book Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is called "Keeping the Player on Track," and was written by Chris Bateman. He talks about laying down a breadcrumb trail and various funnelling techniques to try to encourage the player -- more or less gently -- back to the spine of the game, the main plot line. I don't say that you HAVE to do this, nor that the game has to have exactly one spine; only that Chris has some useful ideas.

Certainly playtesting to observe player behavior in a game is always helpful as a way to identify problem areas.

Luis Guimaraes
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That reminds me of the "how do you prevent the player from saving both characters when the writer wants him to making a choice of who lives and who dies", for which the common solution is "give him only retarded options to choose from".

>You enter the dungeon room. There are two prisoners chained on the opposite wall, and two keys hanging besides the door. Both are begging you to save them before the ceiling colapses. You can't identify their faces with the dim light from the torch you carry. The ally behind you alerts you there isn't enough time to save both.

a) Throw the torch on the prisoner to the left.
b) Throw the torch on the prisoner to the right.
c) Throw the torch on your ally.
d) Grab the two keys and run away.

Rick Gush
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Uh, Ernie, have you ever actually made a computer game with a story? Madden games don't count. Ernie and Chris Crawford: two wanna-bees and always have been.

Ernest Adams
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Yes, several. And I don't use "Ernie."

Adam Bishop
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You may be surprised to discover that many political commentators have never been elected. Crazy, I know!

Michael Joseph
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Writing a good story is hard.

Writing a good story for a video game is... super easy.

Just keep it simple and execute on the actual game mechanics and game aesthetics.


I'm being a bit flippant but... seems to me, stories in games are only difficult when one's aim is to create some elaborate monstrosity with pages and pages of boring dialogue and exposition. None of that is necessary or desirable. Players want to PLAY not read. Needing to deal with plot advancements already starts to sound like the story is too complicated. IMO, a good video game story is a simple story and can even be as clichéd and full of tropes as any Hollywood action blockbuster... you just have to SELL IT. And that mostly boils down to great level design, good voice actors and having the behaviors/actions and language of any NPCs seeming appropriate (eg. character says they are scared but they don't sound, act, or look scared... Captain Obvious stuff). If the story is kept simple, the problems with players fouling up things disappears... that's because it can't be fouled up. And ultimately it is the execution of simple stories with great game mechanics and aesthetics that sells games to the masses.

Keep a story simple and suddenly everything is easy. Those alien bastards are going to pay for shooting up my ride. Psycho computer has me running around like a hamster in it's experiments. Experiment gone wrong and I have to fight aliens from another dimension to survive (oh but a cool twist, still simple, now commandos are after me too). Demons from hell have taken over and I'm all that's left to save the world.

Simple story, good acting, great level design and lots of STYLE.

Anyway, im pulling another GWB and speaking from my gut. Did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you do in your brain? :)

p.s. nobody playing Bioshock Infinite gives a darn about the story. They're just goggling at the pretty scenery and getting through the game. Nobody gives a darn about Hitman's woes. Nobody gives a darn about Batman's latest adventure (in those games anyway). Nobody cares about Mr GTAs story. Nobody really cares or remembers Lara's story. They're just playing the game.

p.s.s. I will admit that a game like Star Control 2 had an interesting story... but I think only because it was very philosophical in nature. People actually would talk about the SC2 story. But hardly any games go for that amount of meaning. Any Ayn Rand philosophy stuff going on in Bioshock is really not very interesting. Nobody talks about it. Or if they do, they can't really tell you anything they learned, they just run on at the mouth about the big daddys and the little sister and huh? They don't even know what they're talking about.

p.s.s.s I get why SOME people would want to make these great stories... good for them. I still think theyd be better off writing a short, a novel or even a graphic novel. But if selling games is the primary focus, I don't see why you'd want to make anything but a really simple story and put all the rest of your energy into mechanics and aesthetics. And if you want to make a deep SC2 story because maybe you care a little more about what you want to say than how many copies you sell... then I salute you. But we all know what's not what we're talking about here.

Interactive stories are niche for the Heavy Rain's of the world. There's a market sure, but... it's super risky. Most games, story really is tertiary. Mechanics and aesthetics are the make or break aspects. Now go and save that princess, save the world, manage that city, destroy the OPFOR, expand your empire, survive the unsurvivable, etc.

Jeanne Burch
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"Most games, story really is tertiary"

Got research data to back that up? I ask because, when I ask my students about their favorite videogames, they tell me the story. When I ask them about the game they want to design for their capstone project, they tell me the story. They don't say "the game mechanics will be really cool, the player can blow x number of things up." So my anecdotical experience would say the story is why people play games, and wanting to tell a story is why some people (at least in the beginning) want to design games.

Ian Welsh
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Planescape Torment says otherwise.

Michael Joseph
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I'm way ahead of you Jeanne. I'm speaking live from inside of GWB's colon.

To summarize, story is easy, selling it is the hard part. And I think it's an important but perhaps subtle distinction that better frames the problem for the purposes of solving it. It gets one focused on how the story is conveyed with audio and art direction and animation and less thinking about things like plot and character development.

So I think it's clearer for me to say, intricate, novel plots don't matter. A simple even clichéd plot will do very nicely.

Army of Darkness isn't a good flick because it has a good story. It's a B movie plot. It's everything else that makes it work. This is true of the vast majority of games good and bad and it illustrates I think just how relatively unimportant story is and why in games letting it be the driving force is a very bad idea.

Michael Joseph
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"So my anecdotical experience would say the story is why people play games, and wanting to tell a story is why some people (at least in the beginning) want to design games."

I wonder if you're misreading the tea leaves. I think people like role playing and players turned developers who enjoyed role playing want to create roles for people to play. But central to role playing is agency. In a heavy handed story you're shooting yourself in the foot by hamstringing player agency.

To get that wrong I think you end up with a schizophrenic design that wants to drive from Portland to Los Angeles by way of Tampa.

Heavy stories can only result in the creation of problems that you then have to fix. It's crazy imo. And these problems are magnified the bigger and more epic one tries to make the world the player exists in. It's all completely unnecessary. You make your epic world play really small. Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space

Michael Joseph
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Players can only get lost if designers are trying to force them down their designed story path. (and it's a different kind of lost trying to find a way to get a door open (puzzle solving known unknown) vs finding some character or who knows what to advance a story (an unknown unknown).

This and the subsequent need for FIXES are legacies of the New School of game design (ca 1997) which spawned the games on rails. It completely transformed level design. We're still trying to recover from it.

Manufactured problems.

Who is micromanaging your life?

Wylie Garvin
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@Michael Joseph:
Are you implying that games before 1997 were never on rails, and you could never get stuck in them? My recollection is just the opposite: back then, many games did not even ensure you could complete them. Eye of the Beholder series for example. Fall down the wrong pit without picking up a key from somewhere in the level first. Sorry, you're screwed. Or Ultima Underworld. You made yourself a magic-only character, and just reached Level 7. Sorry, you're screwed. Even Doom had you running around empty levels for 15 minutes looking for the stupid blue key you missed so you can proceed to the next batch of baddies.

In contrast, modern games are (usually) better at this. They don't let you drop quest items so you can't break the quests by losing them. They funnel you in the right direction using level design (lighting for example) or even just a big red dot on the minimap. I can't remember the last time I actually got stuck in a game made in the past decade and resorted to looking up how to proceed on the Internet. When playing classic games though, I often have to do that. There's one place in Super Metroid where I have about a 50% chance of getting stuck every time I play through it (and I can never remember the solution, damnit!). In Metroid II, I sometimes miss one of the metroids and have to spend an hour methodically searching the whole map trying to find it. On at least one occasion I remember giving up and starting the game over from the beginning, something I've never EVER had to do to get through a modern game.

Also, I agree with Jeanne: I think story is something most players crave, even if they don't think about it explicitly. I play through a lot of games to the end just to see how the story details play out, hear the voice acting and see the cutscenes, etc. I sometimes do this even when the gameplay has gotten downright monotonous. Even when I'm enjoying the gameplay, I often need to feel like I have some _reason_ to be doing the things the game is asking me to do (go fetch this object, shoot these aliens, whatever). The story provides me with those reasons and imbues me with moral indignation ("I've got to save XXX before the YYY does ZZZ bad thing to him/her!") and its just generally important to my immersion in games. Weak stories definitely lessen my immersion in/enjoyment of a game.

Nick Harris
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Your comment reminds me of this rule:,_don't_tell

This better applies to movies (e.g. avoid expository speeches and voice-overs), as novels can end up over-described when authors fail to use authorial voice to change pace and move on to the next considered scene.

However, if "show, don't tell" applies to movies, "play, don't show" should apply to games. All too often designers are so proud of their work (or paranoid about us not following the next breadcrumb in its embedded narrative), that they leave no room for the pleasures of player discovery, that "Aha!" moment when you stumble upon something hidden either in the space you can navigate, or the possibilities you can manipulate.

Alfa Etizado
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I don't think the problem of amnesia is solved by simply establishing a character, that's not dealing with the problem of amnesia.

The real problem of amnesia comes when you're asked to be somebody else that has lived an entire life and knows about the world he/she lives in, while you know nothing of it. You, the player, are supposed to be the character yet you don't have important information that this character is supposed to have, so you can't make the decisions that the character should make.

Telling the player who the character is won't solve that, no matter how well executed it is.

My opinion is that, frankly, the problem of amnesia isn't really a problem, unless the game allows it to be.

I also think that the best way to create an open story in a game is by writing a setting instead of a story. Don't give the player an end goal either.

Self set goals I believe are always more powerful, it is what drives players to complete the hardest challenges in gaming, as many speed runs will attest. Let the story be a self set goal, show the player an interesting world and let the player find his/her own way. This is what The Sims does, for an instance.

Ian Welsh
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Every novelist has to deal with amnesia and the more fantastic the setting, the more difficult. Set in a strange world, it becomes harder and harder, which is why many SF and Fantasy novels used to find some way to drop in modern day humans, so that the "who are you" question was answered "I'm a professor/doctor/cop but that doesn't matter much because everything I knew is gone" and they ask exactly the questions a modern human would ask, and it makes sense for them to do so, so you don't have the problem of characters explicating things that any idiot in the world would know.

Another solution (one I'm using right now in a project) is to start the protagonist young - the younger the child, the more they need to learn about the world.

Alfa Etizado
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I don't think someone creating a non-interactive story has to deal with the same issues as the ones you have in an interactive story. The problem of amnesia isn't even a problem if you don't have control over the character. The audience is simply told about a story, people have no reason to expect they should know about it beforehand. This problem doesn't exist in a non-interactive story, else everyone would deal with it every day when telling any story.

In video games you are part of the world, your character is usually someone who has grown in this world, yet you know nothing of it, even though you should since you are taking the role of a person who inhabits this world.

Steven Christian
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If I was a character in a game, would a player need to know my complete life story to carry out my actions today?

Probably not.

Thus amnesia is completely unnecessary.

Any additional information can be gleaned from the world and characters around me. How do characters react to me? How does the world react to me and other characters? What are people worried about? What is important to them?

Do I have a dark past that is slowly revealed throughout the game? I don't need to be upfront about this to the player as the player is me (doing so would break the 4th wall).

Alfa Etizado
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When it is a linear story driven game, most of the times is not an issue. People are acostumed to that and to the disconect. When it is a game that gives the player freedom then it is different.

The game wants you to be invested on the world through the character you control, the game wants you to roleplay. It doesn't work when the character has agency beyond you. Like, *SPOILERS FOR NEW VEGAS*

For most of the time New Vegas handles this well. You had a life before you but it is not important, you know nothing of it and it stays that way. Then you do the Lonesome Road DLC and find out that you did something in the past to huge consequences. Thing is, I never did that. It isn't drastic but at moments like this, the connection between me and my character's broken.


Like I said earlier, the problem of amnesia only exists if the game lets it exist, else it is not a real problem.

For me an actual problem is the disconnect between gameplay and story telling. Why am I controlling this character only during combat but not during the story moments? Most of the times this results in a story happening by a game while one gets in the way of the other.

In Uncharted, drake just straight murder tons of men, then during a story he is portrayed as a lovable hero who's held up by a single guy aiming a gun. During the gameplay, all of the action has to stay as close to reality as it can, instead of trying to be as fun as it could possibly be.

Problem of amnesia only exists when the disconnect is dealt with but mishandled.

Ian Welsh
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I'll pop in a bit on the narrative flow issue -- as a table top GM I used to use the "things will happen if you don't intervene" method - the world exists without you and what will happen will happen and it doesn't necessarily wait on you. Of course, a computer game can't replace an on the spot GM, but you could (in theory, resources being limited, perhaps not in practice) branch.

In one case some of my players ignored an attack on a vital resource, and their superiors decided to court martial them for it. I was told by a couple of them that the court martial was their favorite part of the campaign. A game which did something on the same scale was Witcher 2 in its second Act.

Believable consequences are one of the main things that make a world seem real - failing to deliver on them breaks immersion like few other things.

In games, saves make this an issue: fail and try again and again and again. In the old days Panzer General I had a far more interesting campaign IF you didn't get a decisive victory at Moscow than if you did (and getting one virtually required cheese - sending a lone paratrooper to a far victory point.)

Kujel Selsuru
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If you can manage to tell a good story awesome power to you but never ever sacrifice gameplay for story. This has been happening for half this generation and our medium is suffering for it. Nobody in mobile is trying to tell grand stories and they are doing just fine, in fact mobile is on the rise as more traditional platforms are losing support from gamers and developers alike.

In video games gameplay will always be the most important thing and that will never change so give up wasting resources on telling stories as that detracts from the core of video games!

Ernest Adams
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You think mobile games are going to stay the way they are forever? I don't.

Two words, dude: Mass Effect. Some people like stories. You may not, but some people do. Get used to it.

Kujel Selsuru
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@Ernest I have no problem with stories but I don't want them in my games if it means sacrificing my gameplay!
Now lets be honest the single best medium for telling a story is the written word and games are not the written word. When I want a story I pick up a book, when I want emotion I listen to music, when I want to veg I watch TV/a movie, when I want to have an experience I play a game.

I've played ME 1 - 3 and it wasn't the story that kept me coming back it was the gameplay which has improved over the games while the story has suffered!

Ernest Adams
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That's fine. But you aren't the whole market. Some people are OK with sacrificing some gameplay for story if the story is good enough.

Generally speaking, I always teach people to start with gameplay when designing a game, because people who start with story often produce terrible games like the ghastly "interactive movies" of the early 1990s. But I'm not going to sit here and tell people not to put stories in games at all -- which is what you originally said.

There is no one right way to do interactive storytelling. There are only different approaches that are better or worse at achieving your aims as a designer.

Kujel Selsuru
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@Ernest here is my first sentence again "If you can manage to tell a good story awesome power to you but never ever sacrifice gameplay for story."

I never suggested not to put stroy in games, I said don't sacrifice gameplay for story.

William Collins
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" ...never ever sacrifice gameplay for story."

I don't think this is a conscious decision on the part of the designer in most cases. They may believe their pairing of the two to be an excellent hybrid only to be accused later of the aforementioned offense.

Andy Lundell
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I feel like it's somehow rude to ask a question without reading the thesis this article is summarized from, but I'm going to anyway :

You talk about the player/designer contract. The player understands that he's playing a part and shares some of the responsibility of keeping the plot on track. The simplest form of this contract would be "Don't do anything crazy", but doesn't that limit the type of story that can be told to somewhat predictable ones?

For example, can that format handle a story where the hero is not physically exceptional, but _mentally_ exceptional? Like Sherlock Holmes, or Doctor Who? Both of those characters routinely do extraordinary things that don't seem to be "credible and coherent" until after they're explained.

Maybe this is just the Amnesia problem writ large, but sometimes it feels like the smarter a game's character is supposed to be, the clunkier the story-telling is.

Ernest Adams
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No, I don't think that's a limitation. "Coherent" really means "coherent with the inner laws of the storyworld." So Banjo is a bear who carries his friend Kazooie, a bird, around in his backpack. Pretty darn strange in real-world terms, but coherent with its own universe.

If physics of the game say the player can do exceptional things, then he can and the story should be able to deal with that. If premise of the game is that the player can exercise exceptional mental feats, it should handle that, too. The place where a problem arises is when a player insists on doing something that is outside the original premise, then complains that the story falls apart when it doesn't work. If you try to play Call of Duty as a pacifist, or Capitalism as a Communist, you'll just plain lose the game. That's not the game designer's fault; it's your fault. That was really my point. The player has some responsibility to act in accordance with the premise of the game.

Nick Harris
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Any help?

Andy Lundell
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Adams, Thank you for answering.

Nick, That Holmes game looks pretty miserable as an interactive experience. I think I'd get just as much entertainment watching the walk-through videos!

Perhaps some literary character types just don't work well in games. I wonder, is the converse true? Are there character types that wouldn't work in a book but work well in a game?

Roger Tober
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I still feel like adventure games tell the best story. So what if the NPC's give a sense of urgency but it's not there. Games are about imaginary role playing. We understand that in the story it is urgent, even though we don't have to get in a big hurry because we need to solve a puzzle. That's why everyone hates timed puzzles, because it actually forces the urgency on the player.

Leo Sandberg
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Hi everyone,
First off – SUPER CONGRATS Ernest to your PhD!
I'm really happy for you. Well done!
I've just started reading your doctoral dissertation, thank you so much for sharing it!

Secondly - great read, just this thread.

Thirdly - I'm not a game designer. I'm a film writer.
Even though I've worked on several games
like Europa Universalis, Sveakampen, Mirror's Edge, Just Cause, Battlefield 2142 and so forth.
But in artistic capacities, game play design.

As an observation to this thread:
how about putting narrative structure decisions into the hands of the player?

If (very simplified):
plot is what happens
theme is character (what we do creates ethics, between individuals)
Structure is how the plot unfolds.

If the game designer designs the plot
then the player can explore its structure (presented through game play features, events and level design)
to discover or develop its theme through change that the player provokes by being pro-active (what the story is about, on a human level, emotional level.)
All stories being about transformation.

"Dramatization is a way to get your intellectual ideas across to your audience emotionally" (McDonald, 2010, 36)
That concept would appeal to me as a game designer, if I was designing a narrative game play, or interactive storytelling as it were.

There is no storytelling without a theme.
It is because the author has something to share, ie a theme, that the piece will be written.
Novice writers will try to discover theme while writing but
the theme dictates the character because theme is character.
Characters' stories used to prove the point of the story: ie the theme.
Even the simplest joke will prove change
(theme through action. Lessons learnt through the story applied to resolve the story (game)).
Its just not the change we were expecting from the set-up of the joke.

This is were a lot of "narrative games" miss out because the game designer at hand is not a dramatic writer.
They are skilled game designers. That's why main game studios can use dramatic writers on their teams.
To create a structure that builds and accelerates, illuminating the plot and characters' transformation.

Perhaps letting the player control what changes come to the cast of PCs and NPCs alike might be interesting to try in a game.
(except any villains - they must not change because they can't learn new morals).

I love "Save the cat!" and I think its definitely applicable to game design, even if its formalistic.
But then again, when you know the form you can play with it.

Great read everyone!
Thank you :D

Ernest Adams
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Hmm, there's a lot to talk about there, Leo. Thank you for the congratulations!

In my thesis I make a distinction between the plot, which is the totality of everything the player MIGHT experience (and may be almost unlimited in a game with a procedurally-generated plot), and the plot LINE, which is the sequence of events that the player DOES experience in real-world time in a given play-through. (In linear stories these are exactly the same.) When you say "structure is how the plot unfolds," I think you may be referring to the plot line, and yes, I'm happy to give the player control over the plot line. How much control you give will determine what potential they have to create an incoherent experience for themselves, and therefore how much responsibility they must take for the quality of that experience.

Garrick Williams
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Very fascinating, Dr. Adams. Your template will be very helpful as my title's now at the stage where I need to brainstorm a narrative for it. I also recently took up Gamemastering, despite having no prior experience with tabletop RPGs, so I can develop my ability to create interactive stories. It's been a very enlightening experience.

One of the key things I found is ensuring the character motivation matches the player's motivation, similar to your Superman example. If their motivations match, it becomes much easier to create an interactive narrative because the plot has focus and the player accepts a narrower range of choices confined to the character's behavior. Of course, it is the designer's/writer's responsibility to convince the player to develop the same motivation.

On another discussion note, I think one of the worst narrative inconsistencies I seen came from Minority Report: Everybody Runs. The entire story is about a man clearing his name from being wrongfully accused of attempted murder in a future where police can foresee future murders. Yet you're forced to progress through the entire game killing people in horrible ways, all unforeseen -- yet none of this has any effect on the story.