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GDC Online: Using The 'Hand Of Fate' In Game Design
GDC Online: Using The 'Hand Of Fate' In Game Design
October 10, 2011 | By Kris Graft

October 10, 2011 | By Kris Graft

Dave Grossman, director of design at Back to the Future and Jurassic Park developer Telltale Games, reviewed tools for game writers and designers who implement the "hand of fate" at a presentation at GDC Online in Austin today.

To Grossman, it's up to the writer and designer to decide how this "hand of fate" will direct players through a game's story.

He conveyed two extremes of authorial control: At the beginning of his lecture, a Powerpoint slide simply stated, "Let's play a game... Ready Set Go!" And that was it an example of the ultimate sandbox game in which you have no constraints. Problem is, with zero authorial direction from a game designer, there is also no fun.

"It's pretty easy for a sandbox to turn into a desert" with no direction whatsoever, said Grossman.

Grossman then had attendees draw a tic-tac-toe grid, and told them where to put the Xs and Os, until the Xs won. It's a game, technically, but the "hand of fate" in that instance takes entirely too much control away from the player. "It was like watching a movie of someone playing tic-tac-toe," he said.

Between those two extremes, games with varying degrees of authorial control and direction can successfully convey compelling stories. "Which things are meddled with is more important than to what degree," Grossman explained.

He compared two games, Portal and Secret of Monkey Island, both revered for their storytelling, but which go about it in entirely different ways. Monkey Island's hand of fate was heavy, and the writers had a strong vision of the path that they want to guide the player through. Portal gives players a tool the portal gun to experience the game's environments and "characters," and progress through the game.

Both games took different approaches, but authorial voice was implemented in such a way that both games were successful.

There are many "hand of fate" tools that game designers and writers have at their disposal, explained Grossman, with cut scenes being one of the most obvious. While that's one way to tell a story, it takes away control from the player, and that can be "dangerous" said Grossman, as video games' distinguishing feature is their interactivity.

A step away from cut scenes are what Grossman just called "scenes, which don't take control away from players, but allow them to walk around and interact with an environment while, for example, an NPC is talking. However, this may actually cause the player to miss important information while being distracted by the interactivity.

A game's architecture can be a more interactive approach to implementing authorial voice a narrow hallway or bridge that gives players little option but to forge ahead allows the game designer's intention to come through loud and clear, said Grossman.

It's an aggressive approach, but only giving the player one option for movement gives the author a strong voice without totally taking away control. Grossman said that architecture can also be used as a lure as opposed to a constraint, such as a distant tower that beckons adventuring gamers from across a landscape.

In the end, it's up to the writer and designer to decide just how heavy the "hand of fate" should be when creating a game should the designer be mostly absent? Aggressive? Omnipresent? "The hand of fate is your hand. I hope you use it wisely," said Grossman.

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Bart Stewart
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The use of brief scripted scenes that the player can see but not interact with directly (as popularized by the original Half-Life) might be a good example of a middle-ground approach.

Michael Isaacs
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Even with the Cut-scenes in HL and similar approaches, you take control away from the player, and thats never something that players enjoy. Cut-scenes are cool, but added even a lil bit of interactivity is needed. Lets say, KOTOR or even the new SWTOR or Mass Effect, You get to talk and make an option, you interact, WHILE still getting said story or key plot.

To me as a player, and a Designer, I think this is a GREAT way to bridge that gap, a cinematic or cut scene to show off some awesome rendering or movie clip, is still good in my eyes, but the majority of story and guiding needs to have some sort of interactivity, so players don't wanna just SKIP to the end.

Andrew Dobbs
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Branching dialogue adds choice and interactivity to dialogue, but even that option still slaps you in the face with a heavy hand of fate. Often the artifice is so apparent (and my choices so meaningless to the overall plot) that branching dialogue actually pulls me out of the story.

Instead of being able to immerse myself in a fictional conversation, I keep getting hit over the head with an immersion-breaking conversation UI that presents me with options I wouldn't say in that scenario. For me, adding dialogue options rarely makes me feel more invested in the story.

Instead, the fourth wall gets continuosly broken every time I speak with someone. The dialogue wheel or options list is a game mechanic we cling to at our own peril--it exists because that's how we've always done it.

James Patton
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I agree that dialogue options are a very clunky way of making conversations interactive. It does to conversations what Choose Your Own Adventure Books do to all action. Sure, it's still interactive, but it feels very pre-scripted.

But do you have a better alternative? If you're playing a character in a game and that character talks to someone, you'd feel annoyed if they said something you disagreed with. I'd be interested to know if you have a way to solve this.

Michael Isaacs
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That's true, but that's not the real issue. The issue is interactivity keeps you involved, makes you interested if you have some effect of the outcome. Hell, I even feel Mass Effect 1 and 2 was a disappointment, along with Fable. All of my choices TRULY didn't matter.

If the way we do Dialogue and or give options to the player, is an issue, we need to fix THAT. But with out complete voice recognition, Mass Effect 3, which is still gimmicky at best. I think dialogue and options gives the player a sense of choice and immersion. You care about something more, when you have helped build or shape it.

Facundo Hermida
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In Red Dead Redemption the npcs walk and ride whit u while talking, thats a cool way to tell the story.

Tim Holt
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Remind me where the cutscenes are in Half-Life (1)?