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The Designer's Notebook: Sandbox Storytelling

August 25, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Back in 1995 I gave a lecture at the Computer Game Developers' Conference in which I identified several problems with interactive storytelling. I reprised those ideas a few years later in a Designer's Notebook column called Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers. At the end of both the lecture and the column, I suggested that instead of trying to tell stories, we should build worlds in which stories can happen -- worlds in which players live a story of their own creation. The industry didn't have a term for it at the time, but what I was proposing was sandbox storytelling.

In sandbox storytelling, the idea is to give the player a big open world populated with opportunities for interesting interactions. The player isn't constrained to a rail-like linear plot, but can interact with the world in any order that he chooses. If the world is constructed correctly, a story-like experience should emerge.

Not everybody thinks sandbox storytelling is a good idea. The year after I gave my lecture, Bob Bates gave his own lecture at the 1996 CGDC called "The Responsibility of the Author."

One of the things he said was, "[Open-ended environments] may be fun to explore, but they do not fulfill the obligations of a story. There is no beginning, middle, or end. There is no pathos, no human drama, no greater truth to be gleaned from the hard-fought battles that the characters wage."

Bob recommended that we use a linear series of open environments instead -- what we now call a multilinear or foldback story, in which the player is compelled to go through certain choke points in the plot line.

However, Bob was assuming that in an open-world environment the player would have to go find the plot, and all she would get is a disconnected series of events. I think Bob was expecting that the plot events would be tied to specific locations, and if the player could experience them in any order, they would have to be unrelated to each other.

I'm not surprised that he made that assumption, especially back then. We're very used to mapping plots onto physical locations -- so much so that it's our default approach, and any other system is unusual. From Zork to Half-Life to Fallout 3, movement through space equals movement through the story. But to do sandbox storytelling, we have to get rid of this notion and think instead about how to create a plot that advances -- and maintains its continuity -- by other means.

The Grand Theft Auto games famously include sandbox play, but they don't do sandbox storytelling. Instead, you get the usual linear chain of missions; complete one and you get another one, and so on. It just so happens that the missions take place in a large open world, and you can abandon the mission and just wander around wreaking mayhem (or driving a taxi) if you want to.

Grand Theft Auto IV

In a way, this was what Bob meant by a linear series of open environments, except that instead of a series of different environments, the Grand Theft Auto games just give you new missions in the same environment -- although you do unlock new areas from time to time.

The Sims offers sandbox storytelling after a fashion. It gives you a world with a lot of stuff in it, and simulated people with varying personalities. As the player, you can make them interact and generate a (somewhat) story-like experience. Because the Sims don't speak English, most of the storytelling goes on in your head, but that's all right. You can make your own machinima, caption or record voiceover for it, and upload it to YouTube.

But The Sims uses a multipresent interaction model in which you don't have a particular avatar within the game world. To get a story out of The Sims, you have to manipulate more than one of the characters, rather than role-playing a single character. This makes you more of a creator than a participant. That isn't the way most storytelling games work, and I don't think it's what most people want from a storytelling game.

Computer role-playing games give the player a big open world, but rather than providing a single story, the world is full of quests -- essentially, disconnected subplots. I love Western RPGs, but they don't have quite the same feeling as a story with one plot. They're more like the legends of Hercules, or any other ancient hero who appears in several unrelated stories.

So how do we make an open-world game in which the player can roam around, yet still feels as if he's taking part in a story? First, as I said, we have to abandon the idea that the player will experience the plot entirely through exploration.

At the same time, traveling still has to be an integral part of the story; otherwise the travel will just be tiresome. Movies usually cut out travel time -- somebody comes out of their house in the morning, gets in their car, and in the next shot they're walking into their place of work -- unless the movie is actually about travel, as in a chase movie.

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Christopher Totten
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Great article. I especially like the resistance idea. I would disagree that some jobs are "not suited" for video games. I just think we may have not found the optimal way to make that game yet.

Rajat Ojha
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Bob should be the first one to reply here. It's definitely interesting way of looking at it but I'm still wondering how it'll give me a sense of completion. I guess I still belong to the old school where sequence of events is an important aspect. This article definitely gives me a new dimension to think about. Will add one more comment if I can achieve the new dimension of thinking.

Joseph Cassano
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Excellent article. I especially like the point about the world needing to function somewhat without the player's direct intervention. If the whole world is waiting for player triggers, the experience begins to feel highly artificial, and that ruins the very purpose of having a sandbox; it's supposed to feel like a world unto itself, at least from my perspective.

Roberta Davies
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I'm just wondering whether a sandbox world that applies pressure to funnel the player toward certain goals is really a sandbox.

You could argue that Zork is a sandbox adventure under the "find the treasure" heading above. The Zork world is small in modern terms, but you can go anywhere you like at any time, and the only goal is to find all the treasures, in any order, and return them to the safety of the display case. At times you have to do task A before you can do B (e.g. find a way to cross the river before you can explore that part of the map), which you might call linear, but that sort of contingency would be true of any game.

In fact, a lot of the best adventure games are very similar. The classic Infocom game Deadline falls squarely under the "find the clues, solve the mystery" heading. Its world is restricted to one house and its grounds, but within those limits you can go anywhere and talk to anyone while trying to solve a murder within a 12-hour time limit. The NPCs have their own agendas, and move about and do things whether or not you're around to see them, and the clock ticks down relentlessly (turn by turn rather than in real time).

Ian Thomas
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Good article - very much matches my ideal game (both that I'd like to develop, and to play).

I've a fair amount of experience designing sandbox games for real-life audiences (very large-scale LARPs) and a mix of background stories-to-be-discovered, side-plots, and an overall (substantially time-driven, but flexible) main story have always worked out well, keeping a nice mix between entertainment and exploration. And yes, we have to bring in pressure factors to kick things along every so often.

Of course, there we had the advantage of a (semi-)intelligent and reactive supporting cast. :-)

I think a number of current game companies are exploring in the direction you describe - Bioware, Bethesda and (less so) Rockstar - but I haven't yet seen one which really gets it.

Incidentally, I'm not completely convinced that large environments and lots of travel are always necessary. Discovery of new facts or facets of your world, yes, but that might not need travel.

(Also, this all brings to mind the old Cinemaware titles - remember It Came From The Desert?)

Jonathan Lawn
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@Ian: "Good article - very much matches my ideal game (both that I'd like to develop, and to play)."

My feelings precisely.

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Sandbox story = management game mechanics turn into carefully laid narratives plane

Paopao Saul
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I probably sound like a broken record now but, the early XCom games are a good example of a sandbox type storytelling. The plot only progresses the more you research, but if you try to build up your troops without advancing the plot, the XTs will come up with bigger baddies to throw at you, ultimately outmatching you until you 'progress' the plot.

Some might say it falls prey to the problem of too much player-independent events happening, but a good commander spreads his bases evenly so as to get as much tabs on the XTs as possible.

I'm really looking forward to someone implementing the article's concepts in future games.

Alfe Clemencio
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I've already made a game that does a lot of what is described.

I have made a game where the world keeps going even if the player doesn't do anything but sleep.

There are two "time bombs" that exist so-to-speak and the player can take actions to slow down and/or stop them. The timing of the bombs matters in the storyline and I have had to account for the timing combinations.

The issue of the player not wanting to participate in anything isn't really that bad. They try it once to see what would happen, get bored and then start doing something.

Pressure factors are generally "bad things will eventually happen if no one does something." The player can do nothing and generally the bad thing happens.

Also the different concurrent plot-threads sometimes interact with each other. Combined with the timing issues it can get real tricky to work.

Josh Jones
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Interesting; great read. Hopefully we see a lot of this in Guild Wars 2 as a concrete example.

Chan Chun Phang
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There's another option: Instead of giving the player complete control, have the player restricted in some sense, which ties into the story itself. Say for instance, that you need to get back to the base every night due to whatever reason. (recharging batteries, zombie invasion, project report). Everything else the player does is otherwise free, the sandbox. But every night, events happen, influenced by player actions, and in-game narrative.

Pushing this line of thought further, it can be plausible to omit the "return to base" factor entirely. Perhaps you're like a spy infiltrating an organization; it doesn't matter what you do (not a good way of phrasing, I'll try to think of something better later), but sooner or later, things will happen. Maybe staying at one spot for too long will arouse suspicion. Or someone is sent to recon with you directly. Or the whole organization is undergoing a shakeup, and someone sees an opportunity to move up, with you taken along for the ride.

Another possibility to consider is to give other characters equal or greater power to the player, and have naturally conflicting goals (a common conflicting goal is existence, though some others include territory domination, wealth, or any other myriad of factors). The most obvious example of this is the Civilization series, though others like Monopoly or DEFCON also applies. Because the player is forced to interact with the NPCs (or more precisely, the NPCs interact with the player whatever they decide to do), another avenue for narrative is created.

(The "equal or greater power" is required so that the player cannot just choose to ignore them. The conflicting goals is required to ensure that the NPCs will interact with the player. Seeing that these are just avenues to allow these two situations, it is conceivable that some other avenues can create similar or sufficiently close situations to occur)

[EDIT] On an off-thought, randomization itself can also play a helpful factor in ensuring that a sandbox mentality is encouraged. If players do not know for sure which option is necessarily the best, and the best option is forced to move around, players are inherently encouraged to take chances. Also, although exploration may be a requirement, spatial exploration isn't. A plausible form of exploration hence can be with a time travel basis, though more obscure formats may also come up, like genetic exploration, organizational exploration, network exploration, and etc.[/EDIT]

Larry Rosenthal
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ignore the naysayers.. youve been correct since 1995.... the others are just now stumblingupon the truth, and of course , taking all the credit for inventing the ideas...:)


Josh Foreman
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We are taking a step in this direction in Guild Wars 2 with our events system.

I have mixed feelings about this article. On the one hand, I feel like it is good and healthy for our industry to be exploring alternate modes of story-telling. On the other hand, I think story-telling is not what we as designers ought to be aiming for. But I suppose breaking the idea that a story must be a linear, hand-crafted story arc is a good start towards dismantling our over-reliance on the pretense of story-telling.

Andrew Glisinski
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I concur with the general consensus here, great article and definitely something I've wondered about for the longest time.

Here's an interesting point that might mix with your idea: take the player out of the "spotlight" and make them a supporting character that's actions affect the "main character". Therefore the "hero" of the story continues on, but what the player does affects the path of that main character.

Thanks for the great article, I will check out the sources you've linked to.

Tadhg Kelly
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Ernest, you have some very valuable things to say on the subject of how to construct a great game world but you're rationalising those observations through a warped lens. There are certainly many valuable things to be said on the subjects of mission structure, pace, environments, extended game mechanics, etc, but wrapping it all up in "storytelling" as both explanation and eventual goal is dysfunctional.

The actual experience of playing a game is considerably more functional at an intrinsic level. There are no games in the world that really adhere to the model that you have been advocating for 15 years or more, nor ever could, because what they rest on is an imagined possible way that games and players might play in the future. And as such is unreal. This makes the premise of your argument largely faith-based rather than anything to do with anything that exists in the real world.

The core problem with this whole line of thinking is summed up neatly in this sentence of your article:

...I suggested that instead of trying to tell stories, we should build worlds in which stories can happen -- worlds in which players live a story of their own creation...

This *sounds* like something amazing but in practice it's basically flawed. The entirety of the narrative school of game design philosophy starts from this self-instantiated-story idea, an idea which does not exist in reality. Its flaw has two aspects:

1. A staggering mis-characterising of "story" in the dramatic sense as a potentially fungible structure. In reality it isn't any such thing: the experience of a story is more than the sum of its parts and is derived from the context of placement and structure more than the content. The fungible view suggests that stories are modular pieces of action and drama that can swap and inter-relate on the fly to a greater or lesser degree. Thus wide-eyed simulations that generate these modular pieces should work.

In reality, this doesn't really work out though. In terms of formal structure, a game like GTA4 has essentially the same structure as a game like Elite largely because that structure is something that is understandable and implementable in the real world.

2. An equally huge misunderstanding of the player-controller-hero relationship. In the narrative view, the player is a hero, or at least could be or wants to be a hero. The emotional connection that a hero is perceived to generate through a story is believed to be equally applicable to a game. This misrepresents "hero" in two ways:

Firstly: A "hero" is not just the person with the most face time on camera. A dramatic hero has a personal motivation and ambition that is part of what fuels the plot of the story. The story arc unfolds as much because of who that person actually is as it what they do. This is why actors spend a long time trying to "find the part", learning to walk, talk and think in the vein of the hero of the story that they will portray. Without that depth, they know that the hero will seem insincere in his role, and thus the story arc is junk.

But the game player is essentially a tabula rasa. Sure, the game can cut-scene him all about backstory and so forth in order to try and make the emotional bridge, but there is a gap between watching Max Payne speak on the death of his wife and actually controlling him. That gap is where the player goes from empathy mode into skill test mode, and in skill test mode his motivations and ambitions are purely about Win vs Lose and other primal ideas.

Secondly: A game "character" is not a character. The narrative view thinks that by picking up the joypad and wandering around the world of ancient Greece that the player becomes Kratos the hero, and thus the emotional content is, or could one day be, as valid as that of the actor finding the role.

Again, this is not real. Physically and mentally the experience of moving a videogame character, even seeing through its eyes, is no different from driving a car or piloting a remote controlled plane. We are very capable of extending ourselves through a device of some sort and projecting our perceptions of impact, movements, and so on. Those are the bases of immersion and you only have to look at an FPS player physically moving his own head in order to try and dodge blows happening on screen, or equally developing fluid skills to play the game such that he doesn't even consciously think of what buttons he is pressing. He simply does.

But through all of that the player is essentially himself. Kratos is not a "character". Kratos is a robotic doll. A doll which can do cool moves and which, if you play through enough of the game, you can get more cool moves to use against harder beasties. The essential relationship is not player-controller-hero and never has been. It's player-controller-doll.


There is no game in which this does not happen, and so no game that can build this mythical "sandbox storytelling" you speak of. What you're actually describing is not storytelling at all in any way. It's much simpler than that: You're describing the process of building game worlds or levels that flow, and the ways in which we can try and hide the fact that the entire world is oriented around the player.

The fiction of the game world is very important and hard to get right, and taken in that context I think what you say has value. Your suggestions of stories, when viewed as levels or missions, are sensible. "Find the time bomb" is one of the most common kinds of structure, with do-or-die win/lose conditions for example.

On the other hand, the assertion that every encounter needs to be unique (and that money is what stands in the way of this) is bad game design. Identikit enemies in games is a good thing because it aids in the immediate identification of threat or help. Pressure to win drives most game situations (like the time bomb scenario) and under pressure the brain needs to be able to filter bad guys vs good guys very quickly.

So if you're playing a laser tag game, or a team death match of Halo, Red vs Blue style separations greatly assist in conveying the play. Play under pressure is a reductive activity where the mind needs to know the simple fight-or-flight answer to a question quickly. In other games like The Sims, reducing the complexity of household life to basic action choices has the same effect.

Pausing for consideration and introducing social complexity is frustrating to players, and only appears story-like in your imagination because you believe in a potential story connection that is not there. Players are not heroes and story is not modular. While creative, artistic and lush, a videogame is still at root a *game* in the end of the day, and the processes of play are what govern whether it feels right or not. Controlling the doll, perceiving the landscape under pressure, simplifying encounters to red vs blue or other simple action choices leads to highly efficient - and better - game design.


Unfortunately, the kind of game that you described in 1995 is just as far away from existing as ever because it can never function. It is based on faith, not reality.

Ernest Adams
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Mr. Kelly, you base every single one of your comments on stories in games upon a collection of premises to which I do not subscribe, and as a result your deductions, while internally self-consistent, are not of any value to me. You make numerous assertions about what players want as if all players were alike, and some of your assertions run counter to my own personal experience AS a player. Remarks such as "pausing for consideration and introducing social complexity is frustrating to players" are too sweeping to be useful. I venture to claim that there is at least one player on the planet for which it is not true.

Empirical research shows that players have a wide variety of attitudes toward their avatars; these attitudes differ not only among players but within the player's own mind from moment to moment. As just a single example I refer you to Linderoth's 2005 paper "Animated Game Pieces: Avatars as Roles, Tools, and Props." Some players at some times consider themselves to be observing and assisting a character who is a third party in her own right, not merely a "doll" for the player. April Ryan is one such. As a player of The Longest Journey I was not under pressure and I distinctly felt that April was someone other than myself. April is a young woman; I am a middle-aged man; emotionally, I reacted to her as I might to a daughter or student.

You will of course continue to assert that there is no such thing as interactive storytelling; I assert that it happens because I have had it happen to me. We will then waste a lot of time arguing about the definitions of terms, and we will come back to one of your axioms: interactive storytelling cannot happen because you say it can't according to your definitions. But I don't find your definitions to be useful to my work. My goal is to give people the same kinds of experiences that I myself have enjoyed, only better; and I don't find your comments to be constructive to that end.

Finally, you really need to stop using the word "never." We're not trying to trisect the angle here.

Tadhg Kelly
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...Mr. Kelly, you base every single one of your comments on stories in games upon a collection of premises to which I do not subscribe...

Can you be more specific of which or not? As I read your essay above, these are the sorts of ideas that are coming across. It's hard to have a meaningful debate on any subject if you won't be clear. My reading of what you've written here is that you subscribe to the idea that players create their own stories, and it's the root of everything else you explain in the article.

As for block assertions of players, that is a no-true-Scotsman defence. While there is no such thing as a uniform audience in any medium, there are such things as generalised reactions and observations. When we talk about the impact of the plot of Pulp Fiction, say, we talk about it in generalised terms: There certainly are people out there who have different reactions, but those are outliers.

Which is not a problem at all except that this article is labelled "The Designer's Notebook" and as such seems to purport to have some educational value for designers re: game design.

If your argument boils down to, essentially, "I like this idea that a sandbox is telling me a story" then you should clearly say so and not dress it up as a generalised sentiment. Citeable examples of games that many readers will have played that display what you're talking about is the primary way of doing this. Your article has a lot of reference to games that don't match up, or match up a bit but not a lot. Where's the exemplary case that is your reference point?

...Empirical research shows that players have a wide variety of attitudes toward their avatars...

It would also tell you that people have a wide variety of attitudes to their cars (some functional, some ascribe persona) and you only need to go as far as watching Robot Wars to see just how far people can get invested in objects. It does not show you that people believe that they become their car's persona when they drive it, nor believe their Robot is engaged in a great tale of heroism and battle against other Robots however.

For Kratos to be a loveable toy is easy to understand and I wouldn't contend with it. Many games now have character customisation as a feature, and Mii's etc are a popular early-use aspect of the Wii. Such activities allow players to badge themselves in a game, much as placing racing stripes on a car or cartoon eyes on a Robot is something that players do with their objects.

The gap is in the assertion that this makes the player actually become Kratos, and thus a hero in a story. That has no basis whatsoever. Your own example of April Ryan doesn't meet that criteria: You have had the same object-relationship as a person with a virtual pet, or a Robot, or a favoured car.

...I assert that it happens because I have had it happen to me...

Actually what I've asserted is that what you've described as interactive storytelling is actually something else. I've not said that your gaming experiences are not real to you - that would be ludicrous - what I've said is that your interpretation of those experiences as "storytelling" is a flawed model to explain those experiences, and that the resulting conclusions (like the unique-NPC idea) are often wildly off-piste as a result. I'm not questioning your fun, I'm questioning your writings and ideas derived from that fun, and whether your generalised conclusions as lessons for designers make sense or not.

...My goal is to give people the same kinds of experiences that I myself have enjoyed, only better; and I don't find your comments to be constructive to that end...

That's your prerogative. My goal is similar, that being to help developers and designers understand what games are, and thus how to make better ones. In some respects I think we have more similar ideas than they might appear (As I said, a lot of what you've written in the article is of value) but I think that your interpretative lens has some gaping flaws which might actually counteract your ambition.

...Finally, you really need to stop using the word "never." We're not trying to trisect the angle here...

Oh I don't think I do. If only because it, and other similar language, underscores the point. I wouldn't use such language if I thought that, for example, there has been some progress toward the goal of interactive storytelling between Elite and GTA4, but I don't think there has. Production-values-wise both games are worlds apart, but modally (the intrinsic actions, structure, etc) they are the same.

We are seeing production values evolve in games since the early days with defineable, citeable examples. Modally, however, games are as they ever were. In some respects, all we're doing is discovering the boundaries of that mode and trying to understand what it does and why. Those boundaries appear to have an asymptotic nature (the further we go, the less dramatic the discoveries) so - barring a game-changing even like a dramatic evolutionary change in how the human brain interprets game data or the invention of holodecks - it is justifiable to use words like "never" in this context.

It was not so 15 years ago when you first posited the sandbox idea. 15 years is a long time however, and many discoveries have been made since then. We now can see the boundaries much more clearly and can start to say what will and will never work.

Jon Ze
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Mr Kelly...what you are basically saying is this:

"If we're to create games using the tried-and-testing storytelling methods; we'll have to create them USING THESE METHODS".

Well of course we would. If we want to continue to “tell” stories the way they’ve always been told, than yes, this sandbox point is moot. But games are more than this, no? Games are intrinsically an experience, and storytelling is evolving in games. Stories will continue to adapt to the interactive medium, and the sandbox will push the envelope. Many are working on this already.

“The emotional connection that a hero is perceived to generate through a story is believed to be equally applicable to a game.”


This is not a common belief among developers. If fact, there’s been much discussion about how *much* of a disconnect there is between the player/avatar relationship. You’re completely correct to say that this disconnect exists with a character like Kratos. We have no control over his motivations, only his actions within the sub-plots of the story (and even than, we’re forced to kill everything on screen to proceed). The character is not designed to be embodied, nor are you expected to feel that you *are* Kratos. It is simply a story wrapped around a button-mashing beat-em-up. The developers know this, and are only trying to deliver a more interesting and memorable experience to what is essentially Streets of Rage. Another example: Uncharted 2 is nothing more than an interactive movie experience.

In an open-world environment, players can hold their own personal motivation for how they fit within the myriad of parallel story lines. This is not limited to the tired HERO structure. This moves beyond any formulated approach that could ever be pre-imagined.

Let me ask you this: If a player experiences a game world over time, and shares highlights of this experience with his is this NOT storytelling? In fact, it places the art of storytelling into the players hands. As opposed to books, movies, or current-gen games, players are not outsiders of a predefined saga.

Another way to say it: Aragorn's adventures and ultimate rise to heroism is portrayed greatly by Tolkien’s account. In a sandbox world, an experience as structured and limiting as this would not exist. Freedom to chose would create many player story arcs.

We’re not reading the account of a battle; we’re experiencing the battle that naturally leads to our own accounts. We live the story.

Some would argue that this type of experience would never drive the same storytelling perfection to which we’re so accustomed. Advanced algorithms will help greatly with this. An overall mood, or a sine wave of highs and lows (as an example), could be applied while still allowing the player the freedom of choice. Heck, it is argued that the art of storytelling is already very mathematical anyways.

Players will create and define storytelling in this area of gaming. It’s also going to be very, very social. I hope you remain open enough to enjoy what is to come, Tadhg. :)

Great discussion you've created here Ernest!

Tadhg Kelly
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...If we want to continue to “tell” stories the way they’ve always been told, than yes, this sandbox point is moot. But games are more than this, no? Games are intrinsically an experience, and storytelling is evolving in games. Stories will continue to adapt to the interactive medium, and the sandbox will push the envelope...

Jon this is exactly the faith-based point that I highlighted earlier. You are buying into the fungible story model idea and then projecting into what might be based on the conclusion that storytelling must therefore be "evolving" in games. It's self-consistent and circular.

It falls apart if you pick at the fungible part though. If storytelling is not fungible but is instead delicate, then it cannot make any progress in games, and visible examples of games seem to bear that out. Thus "storytelling" in games is not evolving at all and a lot of people are barking up the wrong tree.

...In an open-world environment, players can hold their own personal motivation for how they fit within the myriad of parallel story lines. This is not limited to the tired HERO structure. This moves beyond any formulated approach that could ever be pre-imagined...

Or it doesn't. In any game-world environment, there is only one motivation: To win. Play is largely propelled forward by the instinct to achieve, to grok and to have further reward that enables further achievement and grokking. This applies as much to Nintendogs as it does to Halo.

The questions (it sounds like) you're not asking are:

1. What if games are not more?

2. What if they are less?

3. What if they are actually limited in scope?

4. What if those limits are easily understood, but impossible to overcome (due to, for example, biology)

There's nothing 'tired' about the dramatic hero by the way.

...Let me ask you this: If a player experiences a game world over time, and shares highlights of this experience with his is this NOT storytelling?...

That's easy: In any story from your life that you tell your friends, you recount those events in an edited fashion (skipping over the boring bits) and create the story at the time of telling. That is as true of games you play as any other intense experience.

The much harder question to answer is why do you think games are somehow different from those experiences such that they become a "storytelling medium"? A rollercoaster park is a fun place of thrilling rides and experiences too. Is it a storytelling medium also? And if so then where is the line between those experiences and any other experience? Is my typing a reply on this laptop also a storytelling medium? And if that is true, then eventually we end up at a place where everything is considered "storytelling" and the argument is at a dead-end, as if everything is storytelling then nothing is.

Either way, the net result is that it's impossible to demonstrate that games are a storytelling medium on the basis of experience intensity.

...Aragorn's adventures and ultimate rise to heroism is portrayed greatly by Tolkien’s account. In a sandbox world, an experience as structured and limiting as this would not exist. Freedom to chose would create many player story arcs...

This is misunderstanding what a story arc is. Story is not just random encounters. The role of Aragorn is the enabler that makes the arc function and become more than a series of fights by some nameless Joe.

...We’re not reading the account of a battle; we’re experiencing the battle that naturally leads to our own accounts...

Sometimes. As in what about all those other battles that you have in the game that are identical? You are not "living the story" by defeating trolls in a game. You are defeating trolls. If some of those troll encounters turn out to have something interesting happen in them then you might later tell a friend and create a story of your events, but the actual activity of defeating trolls is no more intrinsically living-a-story than any other activity in your day.

...Some would argue that this type of experience would never drive the same storytelling perfection to which we’re so accustomed. Advanced algorithms will help greatly with this...

This is what I call the Techthulhu defence (everything will work out one day when the tech stars are right). Advances in technology are very useful things, but invoking Techthulhu is a risky argument.

The roots of why stories work the way they do, or why games have limits, are intrinsic. They are born of biology, of our ability to understand and empathise and how we manage to do that. Techthulhu may indeed one solve that problem, who can say, but if we see no progress in tangible terms in the mean time then it is right to question whether Techthulhu is just a religious fantasy.

My position is that modally games are the same today as they were 30 years ago, and the problem is not whether they are making progress toward storytelling, but instead why it is that developers still feel the need to cling to that story crutch.

Alfe Clemencio
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Okay then Mr Kelly, let me have some retorts.

[In any game-world environment, there is only one motivation: To win.]

How about a game where a player is trying to achieve all the endings, especially the bad ones? The goal is no longer winning but experiencing all the story they can. These people keep asking me for a walk-through.

[[...Aragorn's adventures and ultimate rise to heroism is portrayed greatly by Tolkien’s account. In a sandbox world, an experience as structured and limiting as this would not exist. Freedom to chose would create many player story arcs...]

This is misunderstanding what a story arc is. Story is not just random encounters. The role of Aragorn is the enabler that makes the arc function and become more than a series of fights by some nameless Joe.]

So you can have the events not completely random encounters. The outcome of each event can alter the current state of the game world, even if by just a little. This in turn causes or prevents other events to happen.

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Alfe Clemenco

...How about a game where a player is trying to achieve all the endings, especially the bad ones? The goal is no longer winning but experiencing all the story they can. These people keep asking me for a walk-through...

That's just another form of winning. Winning might be broken down into short wins (complete a level or quest), long wins (finish a game), bonus wins (complete all possible games, earn all achievements) or something along those lines. The prospect of reward, whether an achievement, status, extension of game mechanic, revelation of exploration, and so on are all in one way or another quests for the win.

Players also clearly display cut-off points where they no longer consider a win to be worth achieving. As I said after the bit you quoted, "play is largely propelled forward by the instinct to achieve, to grok and to have further reward that enables further achievement and grokking." Grokking, the learning that enhances a player's skill and makes them play better, is vital to making the win feel worth it: If the game is failing to extend or impart significantly groks regularly enough, interest is commonly lost long before the "story" is ever completed. That's why games never get finished by most players (if they are finish-able).

There's an asymptotic long-tail style curve that determines player cut-off, so you'll get your 0.0001% who still play Street Fighter 2 in tournaments long after everyone else has ceased to have any interest.

...So you can have the events not completely random encounters. The outcome of each event can alter the current state of the game world, even if by just a little. This in turn causes or prevents other events to happen...

How can they be not apparently random encounters? Think it through for a second: If the reason Aragorn and Joe are different is that Joe is a tabula rasa while Aragorn is an invested character whose actions drive forward the plot, the meaning-attachment comes from Aragorn. Joe, however, is a blank slate. He brings no meaning to the table. Thus all encounters are just encounters.

That's what we see in God of War. Joe as Kratos basically mows his way through the population of the Greek underworld because those are fun fight encounters. They don't mean anything, they are part of the skill test of playing the game that provide the wins and advance the grokking. That's their function.

On your idea about the adjusting game world, to the player, the self adjusting game world is one of two things: Apparently random (he doesn't notice) or unfair (ham-handedly shifting his focus in one direction or another when he may want to do something else).

The first is useful (Max Payne automatic difficulty adjustment is a case in point, Left 4 Dead zombies director) because all it actually involves is tweaking some numbers to increase or decrease the skill challenge. The game remains fair and the player just plays.

The second is bad, however, because requires the player to intuit what the game was trying to tell him. In those circumstances the result is a feeling of being led by the nose, or pushed around to play. The lack of fairness that results leads to bad feeling.

The upshot is that the infinitely intelligent game engine may actually be a bad thing. If, at the point of play, it actually feels more or less like a complex version of real life (where everything does affect everything else and life is frequently not fair) then it detracts from the reason to play at all. Games ultimately profit by being abstract and fair, conveying situations in which a player might conceivably win, and that is largely why players are playing at all.

Adam Ruch
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Tadhg and Ernest et al,

This is a really fascinating debate, and I find there are footholds in both of your arguments. Mr Kelly, I wonder what your background is, in study or whatever else, as you present a pretty dogmatic (in the friendliest possible tone of the word) understanding of words like 'story' and 'character.' I wonder if you subscribe whole-heartedly to some narrative theorist or another like Genette or Chatman? About half the time I agree with you, but mostly as a matter of semantics. In spirit I agree much more with Ernest, though I agree that we are misusing words, most particularly narrative and story. I value semantics though, because they help us to communicate and can't be written off entirely or we won't be able to get anything done.

As a further matter of semantics, when you, Mr Kelly, say 'games' do you mean 'games' or 'videogames'? I find that these two things are quite different. Games are (in a theoretical sense) the set of rules that transcend their particular instantiation, and so can be moved from cards to computer, board to sports field, etc. They are something of a Platonic ideal that exists just above reality. They are something like the Proppian notion of fundamental narratives that you can build from blocks, but don't really work until they are put down in a novel, poem screenplay or whatever. Videogames, however, are something else again. They are more than their rules, because rules, alone, are completely unknowable to humans. They are abstract, mathematical, and without relationship to the lived world--meaningless. (Its worth distinguishing between single and multiplayer games here, because if we're in competition with another human, meaningless, unexplained rules don't need any justification other than competition to become meaningful. I argue that videogames instantiate those rules through various metaphors. Some are more or less abstract like the coloured gems of Bejewelled or Tetris blocks that have no further interpretable meaning other than their rule-based relationships to each other. The rules constitute the entirety of a 'semiotic domain' that really only means anything when you are standing inside it. Videogames can also use representational metaphors of varying thickness or depth. At the farthest deep end, we can use our own lived experience as a metaphor for game rules, or at least as close as we can come to simulating "objective reality" in a computer so far. That is, the farther we go down the line of explaining rules with material from a world (fictional or supposedly realistic) rather than relying on 'because that's the way the game works' the closer we get to how we understand our own world anyway. So a Firesword doesn't beat a broadsword because it has a higher attack power, but because it was imbued with the druidic fires of the Elves, which makes it stronger than a normal sword. Siege Tanks shoot farther than Dragoons because they have a big-ass cannon on top of them...

One of the facts of our lived experience is the forward progression of time, something we've been 'simulating' quite handily for thousands of years using narrative (note, not story). The structural rules of narrative implies that time goes forward and not back, characters nor readers can move backward through time (unless that's what the story is about, but then that is fictional world time, not narrative time). We are used to thinking in terms of time moving forward, because... well, that's how the world assumes everything operates. So of course, most gameworlds will suppose a forward-moving time continuum where characters actions are not immediately un-doable. Causes lead to effects. (Save files notwithstanding, usually these do not exist within the fiction of the videogame, but in a shell around it) Players nor characters are capable of both doing and not doing an action at any given moment. That is, of course, not how the videogame exists in our world. In our world, we CAN both do or not do an action, but we have to make a choice at some point in time. So, this leads to a number of things:

Player narrative. We've talked about that above: the accumulation of experiences that can be retold to a third-party AS a narrative. This does not constitute a truly authorial narrative within the videogame, as it wasn't put IN the videogame by an author. The narrative here is written at the time of telling to that third party. Otherwise it exists as:

Player Experience. I think this is the main point that needs to be explored and talked about. What is a 'fictional experience'? I think this is what Ernest wants us to have: dramatic, fictional experiences from the perspective of the played character, where we interpret meaning based on the fiction created/presented by the game world and our own complicity within its decision-making systems. We don't have clean words for this kind of packaged, authored-but-contingent, fictional experience that particularly dynamic videogames offer. They are clearly not 'real' in that I've never shot at anyone, driven a car off a ramp into a river etc etc, but I am certainly affected by them in my real life, even if that effect is mere amusement or excited arousal. I can also learn from them, the premise of flight simulator training installations. The question becomes what is the player learning? If we can accept that game rules aren't generally tangible to humans in their bare form, and we use metaphors to demonstrate those rules, what metaphors are we using and why?

This brings me to Mr Kelly's point about the objective always only ever being winning: this is TERRIBLY short-sighted to me. What about game worlds that go on after the 'end' of the missions (GTA 4 obviously)? What about FarCry2 where I can complete missions in many different ways; by choosing one method over another I am most certainly not always only influenced by the most expedient path from start to winning condition. I can certainly feel like I've failed, even if the game tells me the objective was completed, when what I really wanted was to clear the camp without anyone seeing me. Winning is an arbitrary condition set by the designer and the player variously, and sometimes ignored entirely. Haven't you ever done something in a game 'just to see what happens?' Good games are always tempting in that way, like, what happens if I shoot this barrel here? The meaning of winning can be easily subverted in games. FarCry 2 and Red Dead Redemption, for example, both kill the player/character at the end, regardless of how well they performed up to then. Where is the 'win' in that? Yes, its narrative dressing, but calling one end condition an win and the other a loss is always just arbitrary dressing. I also would venture to say that these days, winning isn't the main preoccupation, rather we are more interested in showing mastery. Videogames are designed to be won, its no great feat to 'finish' a game, but to demonstrate and (here's that word again) experience mastery is something else again. Like my FarCry goal above, I plan a course of action specifically designed to test my own mastery of the system, not just to Achieve Objective 1A.

Regarding theme parks, Henry Jenkins refers to them directly as being a kind of storytelling medium. That's exactly where the 'theme' part in the name comes from. They are more general stories, not exactly narratives, but yes, they are a lot like these fictional experiences we are talking about in games. Disneyland is one of the most 'authorially controlled' spaces ever created, all to give you a kind of 'vibe' and to guide you through this fantasy world to access certain experiences that will profoundly affect the fun centers of your brain. Again, we probably need to forge a new word for these kinds of fictional, designed experiences, because I agree that using 'story' to talk about them all is a zero-sum game.

I think that's enough for now.


Tadhg Kelly
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@ Adam,

(It's Tadhg btw. "Mr Kelly" sounds more like my father)

"Dogmatic" is an interesting interpretation. I can see how it would seem that way as I tend to use direct language. A better phrase to describe how I'm writing in this particular debate is "blunt". I am happily a bit blunt around this debate, if only because I do think that the it has been somewhat undone in the past by a tendency toward dissimulation, or certainly shrouded language, no-true-Scotsman arguments, and circular logic.

The two things it doesn't seem to want to do is to be declarative, and secondly to be rooted in the present tense (I.e. what is rather than what might be). Why? To be honest I think it makes for some better speaking and book writing gigs: Academic media departments tend to be oriented toward a more futuristic and what-might-be stance, that of the bold vision. The idea of limits, or defined boundaries, is not one with which the academic philosophe is at all comfortable. When having this debate with people, I often run into a sentiment that goes something like "I choose to believe that games can be interactive stories because I wouldn't want to work in an industry that was just mechanics".

I.e. a point of faith. Personally, I disagree with that source of faith as it seems unreal to me, but I have no qualm with anyone who holds that view: It makes for entertaining discussion. Where I do have qualms is in the area of what young designers and developers are being taught. There should be the limiting voice, the one that's talking about reality rather than fantasy. There is not a lot of that in gaming debate circles, which is why this has become a recurring interest of mine (So much so that I'm writing a book on it now).

Semantically, since you ask, I am largely only talking about videogames. There is some scope for some of these ideas to cross into other areas too, but I find that speaking so broadly is not really that productive. Every form of successful game tends to revolve around some similar structures (such as extensible game mechanics and formalised play spaces) but there's a lot of variation in terms of natural mechanics (as in sports, this means that the rules limit action but there is scope for physical invention by players), artificial mechanics (boardgames, where rules describe actions as well as limits), the role of literalism (what you see is all there is) vs imagination (tabletop rpgs) and so on.

Videogames in particular tend toward natural mechanics and literalism. You see what you see and the game proscribes limits on what you can do - but offers scope for physical invention within that framework (rocket jumps etc). They are also elemental (as are, again, most games) where everything is essentially split into types of objects, types of interactions, types of enemy and etc. This isn't the same thing as Proppian narrative elements (as I understand it from a Wikipedia read), I think. It's simply an efficient representation of conflict through objects.

So, for example, where you say "Videogames can also use representational metaphors of varying thickness or depth." I think this is actually not true. In film a representational metaphor such as a glass of water may have infinite uses depending on the context of the story and how it is shown. However it is part of the nature of game play that the brain needs to render information efficiently during periods of high tension in order to be able to play successfully. In any survival/victory sitiuation (which most games tend to boil down to) the need to simplify overrides all other concerns, so a glass of water is either "useful object" or "scenery", and we get really good really quickly at making such distinctions.

So the firesword actually does beat the broadsword because it's on fire. All the background story about druidic fire and elves is immaterial in the moment.

I think the point you're making about narrative time going forward is redundant. Just because it goes forward in a story (and I don't really buy into the idea that there is much of a separation between those two in real terms) and real time of playing a game actually goes forward doesn't mean both experiences are narrative. The conflation of the two is artificial and purely to justify follow-on arguments regarding players creating their own narrative.

That's why Ernest's argument ultimately doesn't work. We all agree that *something* is going on when you play a game that offers a hint at some kind of experience, but I think the will to interpret it as "storytelling" is fundamentally about trying to form a sense of critical legitimacy for games (in a world where most game reviewers essentially think of movies as the main kind of meaningful art) and extrapolate an exciting future for games on that basis.

There are other frames of reference and other kinds of legitimacy: While on my mini-moon in Paris this week I happened to visit the Dali gallery, for example, containing many arresting and thought-provoking pieces. Why not interpret your game experiences as a living gallery, or a moving architecture, or something along those lines. Why "story", the most ill-fitting of models, if not that because the critics in question are actually driven by agenda (the search for legitimacY) rather than analysis.

True artitsic legitimacy comes from within, not from the adopotion of values from elsewhere, nor the pushing of agendas. Key to this is the acceptance of limits.

So the reason to be blunt is because ultimately the narrative argument has descended into a great deal of waffle that is unrelated to reality - and while it continues to dominate serious thought as the main interpretative lens then there can be no evolution of a creative language native to games which celebrates them for what they actually are. Thus there can be little art within the field.

On winning: This is part of what I mean. It is a limit of the videogame form that players need clearly expressed goals and victories. Game play is simply not game play without it. It may not be a particularly popular view to maintain in relation to games because it does not sound forward-facing - and does not lead to great speaking engagements and exciting papers on the subject - but it is plainly true in the real world. No win, no game.

I described in a further post (which you may not have seen before posting yours) that there are different grades of Win, small, large, bonus etc, as well as the player willingness to keep grokking (Trying stuff to see what happens) to get those wins. I think this explains your questions about GTA or FC2 etc. Winning is a line drawn by a designer, but is also intrinsic to the activity.

Grokking and winning are also why many games never get completed. A study published in gama a few months ago of completion rates in various games showed clearly that many games never get their main mission paths completed. GTA4 had something like a 30% completion rate, which indicates that the story by itself is not considered a sufficient grok or win to keep playing for most players. It is not particularly compelling, even though it is well written, shot and conveyed by the standards of most games. So that's why the ending of RDR or FC2 actually don't matter that much: The story is not part of winning. It's just there, imposing itself at various points.

And no, theme parks are not stories. Again, that's just playing with words. They're rides. Their only objection is to scare/thrill the hell of out the rider. Arcs and depth beyond those limits and really don't matter at all.


What's missing is a frame of reference that is native to games themselves and defines their own qualities on their own. One of my objectives in writing is to help shape that because it does not exist at the moment.

Scott Berfield
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Wow - great discussion. Ernest certainly seems to have pushed a button or two here. I tend not to think too deeply about these sorts of things (my job generally being based on making sure the thing gets shipped as opposed to doing much real creative work), but as a player, I appreciate story in games primarily as a springboard for experiences. The story helps shape my reactions and motivation inteh game, but generally is not super interesting to me in its own right. For me, the less intrusive the narrative, the better since the story I tell myself in my head is generally going to be more enjoyable than what someone else presents to me.

But I would say that story is important whether imposed as a narrative structure, implied by the settings and actions allowed, or simply ignored so that the player comes up with his own. We are story-tellers and in the absence of a story, we will come up with one (see religion, myth, our internal self-images, etc...).

As to the question of using words like 'never', I agree with Ernest. Never is a big hard word and most people in history who have said that things are impossible or will 'never' happen have eventually been proved wrong.

Jon Ze
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My point (which I originally failed to deliver) is that players take part in the narrative, while falling within the authorship of the designer. While player narrative and gameplay would connect these experiences, the designer would still shape the intentional ordering of these events and deliver whatever value they deem significant.

Let’s talk about heroes.

If you look at a simple three act structure, it lends itself very well to dynamic gameplay.

In the beginning the player is introduced to the world/setting, and has an opportunity to meet key characters. Players could be guided to build/achieve some substance of perceived worth, reaching a level of contentment.

Then a surprise event happens that shifts the player’s story. You drive them towards conflict. “Life” as they know it is no longer the same. They might resist this change (perfect! although true inner conflict will be a complex problem to design). Players need to be coached to believe in a goal.

Then comes the emotional journey. Mini-crises and obstacles that challenge the player. This is about struggle. They don’t always’s better if they lose from time to time. Their conflict would come from many angles (not just fighting trolls - use your imagination here!). Tension of these events would be designed to rise and fall, with an overall slope to climax.

The player would find themselves beaten to the ground. A black moment. They’re presented with a challenge unlike anything they’ve experienced so far. As insurmountable as things might seem, the player would eventually discover how the lessons they’ve learned can bring about a conclusion. These lessons would be designed and delivered as part of the overall story.

The character succeeds. Resolution ties together anything that is left unsaid. Tension falls, the player’s hero story ends.


All of the above points can be dynamic and have an overall design at the same time. There are elements of this that could be very modular, while still delivering the same intended message.

Of course, all of this happens only if the player has the initial incline to “chose” the hero story. :)

The designer would have the opportunity to connect the player to this type of storyline for a brief moment near the beginning of play. If this fails to happen, the player is probably not the hero type (or not currently interested in that path). The player would then experience a storyline from a different angle. Even if the player exists as the steadfast main character that never learns sacrifice, this is still a powerful tool for storytelling. Outside the hero’s journey the main character and the protagonist are different people, fostering limitless storytelling opportunities.

There are many ways psychologically that a designer could test the player’s potential choices and path. For example; an early challenge could determine whether the player functions more logically or intuitively. That information could be used to change the course of the game, and to gear future challenges.

There are a couple of ways you could approach this style of game design. One example would be a single storyline, to which the player could fulfill various roles. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here though. In an open-world experience, narrated experiences could be tied to the overall spirit of the game. Different messages could be delivered with each play-through, while still commenting on a specific argument.

The players take part in the narrative, while falling within the authorship of the designer.


Notes on the Hero’s Journey.

The paradigm of the hero’s journey is myopic. The hero’s journey has no structure, in that the order of it’s design holds no consequence. Creating a narrative that matters requires structure from the beginning. Ultimately, in it’s simplest form a story is an argument. The argument becomes ‘truth’ by solving the surrounding problems. There is a huge difference in message depending on the order presented.

If you’re telling a story of transformational (spiritual?) change, than the hero’s journey is one possible approach. This axiom remains very limiting for storytelling. It has been widely misused and does nothing to present or progress an understanding of overall story theory.

Tadhg Kelly
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@ Jon

I got that that was what you were driving at, but it's not really addressing my points, which are, in very short order, these:

1. There is no such thing as player authorship. It's called a number of things, from player creating narrative to self-instantiated story. The general idea being that the storytelling in games is something that the player is generating for themselves. This whole idea is, to put it very bluntly, total bunkum.

2. Game designers do not create stories. While some (many) games have attempted to make out as though they do, the completion rate of games indicates that this role of the designer is one that only people working in games believe is real. What game designers actually create is challenging worlds which the player will drift in and out of according to how much fun (action, grokking, extension, reward, interest) is present.

On Heroes,

Firstly, the three-act structure is irrelevant to game design. An "act" in the dramatic sense is not just a segment of a story driven by surprises, as you describe. Acts are delineated by plot points that drive action and character in one direction or another. While bad writing might be quite lazy in this, the more a story structure gets this right, the clearer the acts become.

In most games what actually matters is the steady introduction of mechanics and then increasing of the challenge in a pulse like fashion. That certainly may happen in phases, but they are not "acts" in the dramatic sense. A game like God of War continually introduces new areas, bosses and mechanics that the player can use. Are they "acts"? Nope. They're extensions. They are closer, if you need an analogy, to musical movements, and they stay interesting as long as the gameplay and entertainment value from them remains so. (See again about the point about completion rates in games).

You're also misunderstanding what I mean by "hero". A Hero in a story sense is not just the guy doing the doing, as a player is in a game. Sure, a player may well feel sucess, failure, challenge and so on as a part of their playing. Those feelings are their own however. A dramatic hero is the person most identifiable in a story whose motivations are core to how the plot drives forward and whose personal development is reflected in the story's setting for good or bad. Hamlet is a hero. Elric is a hero. Michael Corleone is a hero.

The lack of real internal motivation beyond win/lose is why a player is not a hero. All they are is themselves, in the game. They are not personally a part of the game in the way that Michael Corleone is a part of the world of the Godfather, and they never will be.

Jon Ze
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I'm sorry, there is no motivation left to continue this "debate".

Simply saying something does not exist without any attempt at affirmation does not create a valid point. Where do we move with this if you're not interested in participating outside the role of Devil's Advocate?

Ronildson Palermo
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I must say I find this article fascinating. The idea of bringing story to the same level of interactivity as gameplay is simply amazing and, in my humble opinion, worth pursuing.

While it would take literally dozens of development years, millions of code lines and thousands of different models as well as hand-crafted animations, if I had a chance at participating in a development process like that, I would say yes in a heartbeat.

And while I do think most of the opinions here are valid, I do not agree with the fact that designers should not focus so much on story. I think this fact is a truth today, when narrative and gameplay are so different in which one is totally interactive and another is a lot more passive towards the player. If we can design a system in which the story is as interactive and as meaningful to the player as the gameplay itself, then I guess we can start thinking about creating emotional maps for the game to randomly elect small missions or event the player should experience out of a huge batch of events, instead of crafting set pieces, which makes our games look like books in a way all players experience the same content, when we could be adapting content and context individually to players and affecting them much more efficiently.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Once again good work, but these facts wiser of us know.

Similar articles are now published once a month, no longer a be revelation, which is certainly good, there is progress.

 However, we need the breakdown of he highlevel phrases on specific systems and mechanisms and only then comes the true hell, hundreds of pages of something very complicant, but fascinating. So what, that I work for a long time..

Erik Bye
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Haven't you guys played Day Z? It's just a game of sytems/mechanics for the player to use, no stories, all stories are "generated" or created by the players. If you talk to an average Day Z player, he will have an abundance of stories to tell.