Letting players take a role in their own narrative is often key to the game experiences they remember most. With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the development team saw the game as a platform for players to create their own stories -- they wanted to encourage an internal narrative to unfold each time they play.
Similar to its classic 1994 predecessor, the turn-based tactical game lets players manage squads against alien invasion, but offers a degree of control over the names and attributes of soldiers, who are permanently lost when they die.
"XCOM has really forced me to analyze what internal narrative is," says Firaxis producer Garth DeAngelis. "On the surface, it's simple; it's the story that emerges in the player's head over the course of a game. It's not explicitly written by a professional, so it isn't told to the player in a traditional sense."
Instead, DeAngelis conceives of "internal narrative" as an environment where the game's mechanics naturally lend themselves to personal storytelling. Multiple playthroughs of XCOM can feel very different -- "not just necessarily due to the procedural systems we coded into the game, but also because of these stories that would seemingly materialize out of nowhere," he says.
You are the story teller
Games like The Elder Scrolls series also support emergent narratives; DeAngelis remembers a moment in his experience of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind that affected him so profoundly he wrote about it in grad school: Short on cash, he was looting a regal armoire when he realized he wasn't alone in the room. He had to make quick work of the resident, but managed not to alert any guards.
"As I took his items, I discovered that he was a well-known aristocrat in the town," he describes. "I changed costumes and slowly made my way to the overworld, praying I could escape before anyone noticed. I was a dozen yards from the exit, when a guard made a beeline for me, sword still sheathed. He confronted me and whispered 'I've got my eye on you'... then he walked away."
Guards used random lines on players all the time in Morrowind. "In fact, they probably said that particular line to me before for no particular reason other than to sound dutiful, but because of the mini-narrative I was weaving in my head, that line of dialogue, at that exact moment, had an enormous impact on my experience," DeAngelis recalls.
He believes imagination is a quality toward which gamers are particularly oriented. "We, as developers, just give them the framework to go wild," DeAngelis says, recalling earlier video games where players had to be especially imaginitive to believe in game worlds and bring them to life in a time of crude and simple graphics.
"Now that we have incredibly advanced art, we're not necessarily relying on the players to fill in the blanks visually; instead, we should enable them to fill in the blanks elsewhere, perhaps emotionally," says DeAngelis. He points to friends who play Arma 2 mod DayZ and come away with stories about incredible bonds among comrades -- and the impact of treachery.
"And this game has no writers," he points out. "This is a game where the players are writing the backstory and motivations of a villain, who happens to be another player! How cool is that?"
The XCOM: Enemy Unknown team has a writer, though, and an over-arching storyline. How does the team balance the craft of that gameplay-oriented narrative with the writer's work? "It helped that our game was clearly divided in two: we have the strategy and combat layers," says DeAngelis.
"For the external narrative, we had a few writers collaborate on this exclusively, and this happened on the strategy layer," he says. "The aliens have a specific goal, and there are intense, cinematic-driven moments throughout the course of the game that the player can trigger."
"We certainly have an overarching narrative, with the traditional story points that writers have mastered," he continues. "This external narrative is generally high-level and delivered when the player is in their headquarters, conversing with different personnel. And actually, the external story is very important to the internal stuff. It's the framework for the player to conceive their own story elsewhere."
The fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set in a recognizable near-future world is "critical" to making it easy for players to empathize. "All you need to say is 'alien invasion', and this collective social consciousness will somehow be on the same page, just from two words," he points out. "But the cool part is no two people will have the same exact preconceptions of what an alien invasion entails."
"And this framework sets the stage for the player's creativity to write their own internal narrative, the story that's a bit more intimate and emotional, and this seems to emerge when the player goes onto combat missions," DeAngelis continues. "In XCOM, at least, it's so disconnected from traditional writing; there's no character-specific dialogue, or soldier backstory. In XCOM, there is no archetypal video game hero. To many gamers, that's such a foreign concept."
What's in a name?
The team's loyalty to the original XCOM (lead designer Jake Solomon is a "gigantic fan") also helped keep the mechanics that encourage internal narrative intact. That it was so possible in the original game is part of why the series still has a fanbase close to two decades later, DeAngelis suggests.
"I've done playthroughs with family and friends which were surprisingly emotional - losing my mom was heart-wrenching! But then I created more light-hearted and daft playthroughs with 80's action movie heroes," he says.
So you can name a character after a relative and customize their look. So what? "In our world, it actually means something because of the possibility of permanent death. In XCOM, your soldiers can die, for good. This possibility, this weighty consequence, is the key when shaking hands with the player," he says. "They know we'll provide them the framework for a rich, fun experience with dire consequences, and if they want to deepen their emotional connection to that experience, they can opt in with their imagination and save the world with whomever they choose to create."
However, many players today ultimately prefer to participate in designed experiences -- "emergent narratives aren't for everyone," says DeAngelis. "Obviously, I'm the type that embraces emergent narrative, even when I don't re-name my units."
The game's random name generator will choose names that suit, and that clean slate can become its own fun for players that want to imagine their own stories around these strangers. DeAngelis once had two female snipers that appeared to partner over 20 hours together, and one of them rose to incredible statistical heights after the other was killed. DeAngeli fancied her motivated by revenge.
"Ironically, before working on XCOM, I would have polarized a large segment of gamers and developers by shouting, 'tightly-crafted stories are the future!'," he says. "I mean, I'm still a huge fan of well-written video games, like Quantic Dream's work, and BioWare's of course, and I still strongly believe there is a future for those types of games."
"But now I know that's not the only way; there's a broader future in storytelling through game design, not just great writing... So why not talk more about emergent narrative as well?" he suggests. "After experiencing games like these, I would argue an internal narrative can be just as emotional, if not moreso, than a linearly-written experience."
Personally, DeAngelis thinks it'd be interesting to see someone try integrating interactive stories with the real world a little further: "Whether it's through social networks or some platform that hasn't even been built yet; but the idea of putting people in your real life, and making them this fantastical character in an alternate universe, there's a weird appeal there for me," he says.
What if a game could borrow real-world information about people in your life and use it to breathe life into characters? "Ah, saying this out loud, it is certainly a crazy idea," DeAngelis adds."But more realistically, short-term, I'm just excited to see games like XCOM, Minecraft, and FTL that have these foundations to enable the player to interact with the game's mechanics and, in the process, build their own personal story."