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Stories From The Sandbox

February 14, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[In this in-depth design article, veteran game designer Sorens examines the 'sandbox game' genre, advocating - with plenty of practical examples - that "designers can and should do more to exploit... player-generated stories".] 

We know that every time someone plays a sandbox game, that person creates an original story. When a player creates a family in The Sims, the resulting game -- based on input from the player -- tells the life stories of the members of that family.

When a player takes control of a country in Europa Universalis 3, the ensuing game tells the history of the world during the game's time period. When a player constructs an outpost in (the pictured below) Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, the gameplay creates a chronicle of the outpost and its inhabitants.

Though the same could be said of other types of games, my focus will be only on sandbox games because they provide the best canvas for illustration of the main point I want to make: namely, that designers can and should do more to exploit these player-generated stories. 

The Sandbox Conundrum

What makes the stories in sandbox games special is that unlike the stories found in other types of games, these are not told primarily by the game's developer. Instead, they are created and directed largely by the player's decisions.

The large number of decision points and wide range of possible outcomes in a sandbox game, usually augmented with randomization by various game systems, make the variation in experiences from game to game and from player to player -- one of the key selling points of sandbox games -- both highly personalized and effectively limitless.


Naturally, the developer must provide some amount of structure, as well as the tools the player uses to shape the story. There must be boundaries, goals, and games system that provide decision points. However, the degree to which the player personalizes the course of the game -- and therefore, the story -- is, by the nature of a sandbox game, immense.

The problem that sandbox games have is that their stories are not obvious. The average player, when asked about the story in a sandbox game, would probably reply, "There isn't one." Since we know this to be untrue, the disconnection between player and story must be an issue of presentation. Players do not realize they are creating a story because the game does not communicate the story in a way they understand.

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Ed Lyons
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SimCity 2000 (for Mac at least) did have newspaper articles written based on how well (or badly) you did... This was lost in later versions and replaced with a news ticker - which doesn't really fulfill the same job storywise.

Chris Dodson
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Great article. I am doing thesis work involving the implementation of story structure in a sandbox environment. I will be quoting you and taking some of your advice in the development of my entertainment model.

Ben Cummings
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While I thoroughly support the desire to synthesize player generated stories in a way that supports what the players are already doing, you don't really get to the most important point until the end (5). Much of the focus of this article seems to be on spitting out textual or graphical representations of what's happened. Players are very, very good at constructing stories out of a series of events if you give them a reason to interpret the events in a social or narrative fashion, rather than in terms of the game mechanics. Giving the characters in the game human qualities is just one part of facilitating the player's generation of narratives, along with making a game which simply makes sense narratively.

You use the example of Dwarf Fortress here, and I think it's a really exemplary one. However, there are few places in Dwarf Fortress that spell the stories out in prose. The key is that the dwarves in the game generally act in accordance

with what you'd expect based on the psychological profile available to you. It's never more expedient in that game for

me to try to think about their interactions in terms of the game rules because of three things:

A) the rules are sufficiently complex and hidden that they're difficult to simulate in my head,

B) my intuitive understanding of the events provides a pretty good model for how things work, so I'm not really encouraged to try to formulate a better model, and

C) the stories that come out of that game are just really solid. Sometimes they're tragic; sometimes they're hillarious; usually they're both. This gives me positive feedback when I do think about the events in the game in a narrative fashion. Conversely, because there is no way to win Dwarf Fortress, there is little reason to optimize my gameplay except to achieve self-imposed goals, and the narratives it generates are an excellent source of inspiration.

I could write a lot more on this subject (and have), but it really comes down to making the game logic act in accordance with the laws of narrative, and making game characters act as plausible human or human-like characters.

Brandon Van Every
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One of the things that bugs me endlessly about the problem of trying to tell stories in Civ-style games, is that such games are about hexes. How optimal is my city placement? How far away are the enemies I need to smite, in hexes? Hexes hexes hexes. A unit of spatial resolution, beit hex, tile, or grid square, is not a story. It's a mathematical, algorithmic minimaxing process. At least, that is how and why I play such games for the most part. There are tons of such hexes to consider, an overwhelming number. I fear that players aren't thinking about narrative, they're thinking about math. I can't get them into narrative mode when they're in math mode studying tons of hexes; why should they be any better at post-narrative?

Text descriptions of fundamentally 2D or 3D "builder" enterprises are pretty boring. Big waste of R&D time for game developers to pursue it. 2D/3D replays of the growth of a city or empire are better. But this isn't story, this is sculpture.

Neil Sorens
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Brandon, I agree that Civ and other games like it are basically just glorified board games that revolve around solving math/logic problems instead of heuristic ones. I'd certainly like to see the Civ series, which has a conflicted personality, split into two different games like Superman in Superman 3. One game would be a fast-playing board game-like experience for multiplayer, and the other would be an epic Strategy/RPG hybrid single player game that focuses on more "human" scenarios and problems.

You are right that the more abstract the game, the harder it is to make a story out of it. The story of a chess game, for example, would not be compelling for many people. Like chess, a lot of strategy games are too abstract or too divorced from the human experience to provide the foundation for a compelling story. There are two routes to go from there: excluding story, or changing the game to make it more suitable for story. It depends on what you are trying to achieve--sometimes you just want to make a game that's fundamentally and overtly about solving complex math problems, or you don't have the resources to put a convincing facade on it.

Ben has a related point about getting away from numbers-based gameplay by having game rules and mechanics that 1) are too complex or too far under the hood to treat as math/logic problems and 2) something we can understand intuitively or learn quickly because they are analogous to systems we experience in real life.

I disagree that text descriptions are necessarily boring; if it is impossible for them to be interesting for a given game, then it's more a failing of the game itself than of the text. If you're just doing sculpture and nothing more, then sure, text is not going to add anything. But if you're creating something with a story-worthy human element, then a visual representation alone doesn't do the creation justice. That's kind of a circular argument, in that I'm saying story-worthy creations should have their stories told in text. So what makes a creation a suitable subject for a story? And what can you do to make it more suitable? The article touches briefly on those points (mostly #4 and #5), but there's material elsewhere that goes into far more depth on the subject.

In the article, I wanted to avoid getting too much into changes to core game design, instead focusing how to provide the average player with more value while using systems that are already in the game (making only superficial/organizational changes and layering new features on top). As I said, there is already quite a bit of material out there on how to approach low-level, nuts-and-bolts design to support narrative in open-ended games.

Paul Miller
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I can see two major problems with this idea. The first, as other people have commented, is that many games simply don't have a natural correspondence to narrative. And why should they? One reason that writing novels/screenplays/drama is so hard is that normal events are often chaotic and boring. Why should the result of gameplay produce a story of any interest? When people go to play football, they aren't thinking about what story it will generate, they're just playing a great game.

The other issue is that it seems to me completely inappropriate to try to automate this, as story relies on all the usual things that remaim impossible AI research goals, namely understanding meaning. I cannot imagine how much of the AI challenge would have to be solved in order for this to work.

Chris Dodson
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What I take from this article is not that we should try to force a story on the player, but that emergent stories are a natural part of a sandbox environment. The structure added by the designer is really intended to foster an environment where the conditions and circumstances are ripe for good player generated story. Then perhaps that story can be used to enhance the player's experience, or to excite other players about the game so they might want to join.

I would say that this target's only a certain type of player. Also not every designer really cares about adding in story into their game, it only adds another element of complexity. I personally love games with a solid narrative, but as someone who has studied narrative structure, its clear that there are a lot of terms that are being thrown around that have a specific meaning but are misunderstood by a lot of game designers. The most common misconception I hear when talking about story in games is people who say "I don't like all that reading in a game". Narrative structure does not equal writing. Writing is only one form of story, like painting is only one form of "art".

What I like about this article is that it recognizes this fact and looks to what forms of emergent narrative may be arising in a sandbox environment. In short, there is often going to be some sort of story in any game, the question is only whether or not we as designers want to foster it and integrate it or not. Its just a design choice, but for those of us who want to implement this integration, there are a lot of answers still to be found.

Jonathan Lindsay
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Paul, when I'm playing football on Sunday afternoons I agree that I am not thinking about any story generated. However after football, we are always talking and laughing about things that happened during the match and how we each played - this is the story of the game and without it the whole experience of playing football would be less fun.

I think just about everyone who has played Counter Strike has stories they share with friends about how they killed 5 people with 1 grenade or how they died in a particularly unflattering pose. Again, this adds to the fun factor of the game.

I agree that an unfolding and especially interactive story is very complex (Chris Crawford's books hurt my brain), but stories that players make by themselves in a sandbox environment are different and are very valid, and in my opinion often rather more compelling to the player in question than a scripted effort. So, it's a good idea to be looking at how to improve this type of game and thus make it more fun. But, great games that already foster user generated stories already exist and are very popular - GTA?

Paul Miller
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I agree wholeheartedly. The retelling is half of the fun. I'm just saying that this kind of storytelling is something that we excel at, whereas computers currently suck very badly indeed, and will for a long time to come. I just don't see the value in trying to find computational ways of doing this, when it would require solving some of the hardest problems in AI. I think it should be left to players to do the storytelling, at least until AI is way more developed than it is now. I cannot imagine how much world knowledge a system would need in order to understand why one event is more significant and interesting than another. I think it's much more useful to just create easier ways for players to share their own stories.

Neil Sorens
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The thrust of the article is as much (or more) about designing to inspire creativity as it is about providing a crutch for uninspired players. Even crude story generation can be a plus if it provides enough information and interesting tidbits to encourage the player to fill in the rest on their own or to cause the player to remember enjoyable moments in the game in the context of a story.

While certainly useful, tools provide less of an inspiration for creation than semi-finished products. If I wanted to inspire someone to make a pizza, I'd do better by giving them a crust with sauce and cheese on it and tell them to put whatever toppings they wanted on it than by giving them a dough mixer, especially if they had little or no experience making pizza to begin with.

By the way, the announcing in sports games (including football) is an attempt at software storytelling, although it's geared more to emulate a real-life presentation element than to tell the best possible story.

Joshua Herrington
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I whole-heartedly agree with you. I especially liked your article from last year entitled “Rethinking the MMO.” In both of these articles I see a simple recurring theme: How to create a more satisfying game experience. While this is an obvious goal for game designers and those in position to gain monetarily from a well developed game I, solely as a player, have another goal. I am currently one of the “untapped.” I am someone who loves to play games and have since I was old enough to hold a joystick. Unfortunately, in recent years I have been unable to find a game that can hold my interest for more than a week. I suppose this goes along with the stagnation of the online gaming industry. I am not speaking of console games since they continue to innovate and adapt. I am speaking of online pc games. My greatest problem comes not from a lack of free time (though it is much less than it used to be) to devote to games but from a lack of motivation. When I was younger games were simpler. I used my imagination as much as my eyes to view the world set before me on the computer, or TV, screen. Games like “Dragon Warrior” or the first “Final Fantasy” were revolutionary and fun! Going back now I see that they were mostly “grinding” games with a set linear story. I guess I hoped that by this time in my life games would be more different. “World of Warcraft,” the most predominant online “PEG,” has failed me. Instead, when I have time, I spent my time playing simple puzzle games and games of dexterity and searching the internet for a new online game that will finally change things. Even some browser games such as “Travian” give me more back for my time spent than “WoW”. My greatest desire in playing a game is the ability to change the world. Not just the ability to level my entity or to help others but to change the shape and structures of the world that surrounds me. If I have a shovel I want to be able to dig a hole and move dirt around. If I have a sword I want to be able to chop down someone’s front door. I want to be able to have a house and tunnel below it to create a secret base for my rebel group. I want to be able to kill a monster with one well placed head-shot instead of hacking it to pieces. I want the purpose of the game to be something other than killing monsters. And if I do kill a cave full of monsters I want that cave to be free for someone to live in or until a nomadic group of orcs decide they want to live there. I want populations of monsters good and evil instead of random “enemies” to kill. People should have the ability to run a shop or research new technologies or magics instead of killing until they spontaneously “gain” the ability to do something. If you’re a thief you should steal. If you’re a fighter you should kill. If you’re a ruler you should lead. You should gain the ability or tools to perform new actions by your previous experience or from training. Players should have the option to use their intellects in real life to change things within the game. You should be able to have your own city and a government of good rulers if you wish. Or, you should be able to live far away from the city and their laws. Players should be motivated by monsters, natural disasters, personal gain, friendships, and societies as well as new abilities and leveling. Then again I long for a place in the game just to be able to sit and watch the grass being blown by the breeze. Everyone I’ve spoken to agrees with me that a game such as this would be exciting and probably highly time consuming since it all sounds like such fun! While I have no hand in the gaming industry other than as a consumer I want for this game to be made. I have even taken it upon myself to read articles such as this and game design books in hopes that one day I might even be able to execute the start of this project by my own hands. In the end whether it comes to pass or not won’t really change my life since I have other more grand dreams to pursue. But it would be pretty amazing to play!

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I am doing thesis work involving the implementation of story structure in a sandbox environment.