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Giving Your Player True Authorial Control...

by Anthony Hart-Jones on 12/17/09 05:35:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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This is a response to a blog post by Steve Mallory, who makes some good points about narrative design; read the original post here...

True authorial control... Now there is a scary phrase to use in front of your producer...

True authorial control is like taking your player and asking them what they want to do today, rather than telling them what they are allowed to do.  Is that wise?

I do love freedom and control as a player. I still remember setting out across a random (and very dangerous) continent in Everquest just because I could. There was no mechanical reason for it, but they let you do it. It was not story-related, but it is one aspect of the quest for freedom, the desire to forge one's own path.

As a designer, I kind of agree with the terrified producers that it is scary and yet I love the idea of that challenge. Sandbox game-play is great, it really gives the player some sense of agency, but I agree that sandbox storyline is almost one of the Holy Grails of narrative design. As a designer, as a narrative designer (well, kind of), I am always haunted by one little game...

Dungeons and Dragons.

I am not talking about any of the SSI gold box games, nor Bioware's amazing contributions, but the original game with the books and the dice. As a player, sitting at a table with a DM and some friends, drinking Mountain Dew that we imported from the USA just to capture the true experience, I was playing in a game with sandbox storyline. We could (and, Gygax help us, often did) completely derail the dungeon master's stories simply with one little idea that he had not considered, and he would come back the next week with the story completely tailored to our new needs.

Later on, I was the dungeon master. I learned to adapt on the fly, to make new stories, even if I did frantically re-use all of the content I could.  I was also briefly a Guide in Everquest, back when they still had UK servers, and I saw first-hand how a computer game could offer authorial control, but manpower is not cheap and we could only work with small groups. 

Despite this, we had a chance to tell free-form stories and make non-linear experiences.  In short, any time I have seen it done, there was a human at the helm and usually one who was struggling a little while thy made the game up on the fly.

I have a background in theatre, including some improvisational theatre, so I could just about do it, but could I teach it to a computer?  Could I actually give the computer enough data to be able to do that, even if the coders could keep up? I honestly don't know, but I really want to try now...

Left 4 Dead gave us the idea of The Director as an NPC almost; there are individual zombies, but there is also a simulated intelligence that creates the tension and the drama.  Could that be a hint that my dream is possible?  After Christmas, I should ask the technical manager...  He would probably know how to bring me down to earth...

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