Episodic design 2.0 - Gameplay and storytelling at its best (Part 2)
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In the first part of this feature on episodic design, I summarized why this narrative format can significantly improve game experience.
Today, besides a few exceptions like Hitman or Republique, episodic games are built around adventure gameplays; game experience rests largely on solving puzzles, exploring location, finding clues and … watching cut-scenes. Many titles also offer QTEs (Quick Time Events) to add action scenes but this type of gameplay is not popular among players and does not replace true action gameplay.
Unfortunately, today’s demand is largely focused on titles offering action gameplay: Shooters, action-adventure, RPGs, racing games, etc.
Is it possible to adapt effective episodic storytelling techniques to mass-market games? I believe so and to demonstrate it, I will describe the concept of two action games and show how one can improve them with episodic narration while retaining their effective core gameplays.
For my first example, I will cover shooter games like Call of Duty, Ghost Recon or Gears of War. Because storytelling and gameplay must be closely intertwined, I will describe the narrative pitch and the core gameplay for a game concept I made up for the sake of this demonstration.
In a Riddick-like world, four inmates that are total strangers escape from a deathtrap prison on a desolated planet. Their objective? To leave the Empire’s prison-planet. Their resources? A few weapons and gear grabbed during their escape. Their chances of success? None. The planet is largely hostile but the main threat to their success will come from the composition of the team itself. You play the role of a political figure exiled by the Empire dictatorship and you will have to get along with your companions of misfortune: A murderous psychopath, a crook, a mysterious woman whose true motivations remain a mystery. Will you succeed in escaping? Who will help you? Who will betray you?
My choices for the narrative components in this pitch are guided by two constraints: 1) To provide a background that could support the features that are specific to episodic storytelling and 2) to enrich the gameplay. I’ll deal with this second point latter. For now, let’s see how this background is well suited for episodic narration.
To begin with, this pitch provides a very strong main narrative arch: To escape this hell. It brings two benefits: It can support a large number of episodes and, most importantly, it will easily trigger empathy toward the main character, and maybe his companions of misfortune as well, because we can easily imagine how we would feel in their situation; think of Lost or Prison Break. Developing empathy is key to success because, without it, we cannot identify ourselves with the characters. This identification mechanism is what will drive players to buy more episodes. Remember that this is what is making TV series so effective; we mostly enjoy them, not for the action, but because we care and feel close to one of their characters.
Then, there is the choice of the location. A prison-planet is, by definition, a place that lies on the fringes of civilization. It is similar to the remote prisons that 19th century European nations set up in distant, and hostile, corners of their empires. As a result, we could easily populate this world with remote garrisons, primitive locals, grouping of former prisoners that could not return to their homeland but had to build a new life in « free » cities, mystical sects that seek solitude and the absence of laws to build their dream society, predators, ancient artifacts, etc. This great diversity can support countless mission objectives and interesting encounters. The depth of this game world will make it possible for the development team to create numerous episodes while minimizing the boredom that could spring from an overly familiar environment.
Encounters with new characters are one of the tools used to extend and renew the interest in series. We could imagine that some of the main character’s companions leave the adventure, either temporarily or permanently: Suggesting that an important character is going to die in the next episode is a great way to create a cliffhanger and its associated buzz. Furthermore, introducing a new character renews the relationships between the remaining ones.
Who would we play in that game? Several options are possible.
- Players could play the character of his choice. He or she could change characters for every episode or play over a given episode with different characters. This option could be very exciting but it would be very expensive in terms of development costs: The development team would have to multiply the number of cut-scenes and develop a complex storyline with branches.
- Each episode could focus on one character and impose it on the player. This option would allow the game designers to offer a different gameplay for each episode if each character features unique attributes (stealth, combat, climbing, etc.). However, it could lead to players frustration if they are forced to play a character they don’t like.
- The game could impose a character from the start. This is a classical solution that offers one storytelling benefit: It makes it possible to develop a character deeper and end up with a stronger relationship between the player and his character.
For this exercise, I will stick to that last option.
Relationships between characters are at the heart of effective storytelling because they are designed to antagonize each other. The player will wonder who will betray the group: the lawless criminal, the crook, the mysterious amazon?
To summarize, this narrative background features the following strong points:
- A rich, exotic and mysterious environment
- A credible main arch we can believe in
- Companions that have their own motivations and toward whom we will develop strong emotions, either positive (empathy) or negative (disgust, distrust)
- Strong potential to introduce or remove characters.
We have all the components we need to develop a strong episodic narration. Furthermore, a well written storyline could easily sport cliffhangers and secondary narrative arches. The development team could create a strong retention of players that will, eventually, lead them to buy more episodes.
Now, let’s go over the key component of games, its core gameplay. For this narrative context, I will select the gameplay of a shooter game (either first or third person camera) and I will add a layer of tactical gameplay since our storytelling focuses on a team: The levels could include pre-defined spots behind which characters could find protection from enemies, move stealthily or fire back. For the player, the tactical dimension of the gameplay would rest on sending teammates to specific spots and give them simple orders. Each member of the squad is defined by a few basic attributes such as accuracy, stealth, endurance, etc. and the player can allocate weapons to them and gear found during the adventure. Depending on the context of each combat zone, the player will allocate equipment, will position them and give them simple orders. During firefights, the player’s teammates will not be invulnerable and could fall in combat. It will be up to the player or his teammates to revive them. Once all members of the team are down, the player will experience a game over.
This gameplay is classical and effective. We have a genuine action game that is fully compatible with episodic storytelling. Could we go further? Could we use storytelling elements to enrich the gameplay? I think it is possible.
Two options are possible:
In the first option, the relationship between the characters, including the player’s, would affect how they would cooperate. The game system could force the player to organize the squad into two teams but the effectiveness and the behaviors of each AI-driven members would depend on how the player gets along his team mate. For instance, a team made up of the crook and the amazon could work well in situations where stealth is important because the crook would feel protected by the presence of an experienced fighter. But in combat-intensive situation, the crook would try to run away and let down his or her partner.
In the second option, the personalities of each member could have an impact on the player’s tactical choices, on the orders he or she gives them. For instance, in combat-intense situations, the psychopath assassin could enter into a killing spree and lose all sense of caution, the crook could refuse to fire in order not to expose himself and the amazon could refuse to obey the player if she thinks the tactics are bad.
« In the next episode, … »
In the next part of this publication on episodic design, I will present the game concept and its narrative pitch for open world games such as GTA, Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed.
Those titles are best sellers but this is not the only reason I have selected them to demonstrate how episodic storytelling can improve their players’ experience. Those games are so expensive to develop that few publishers can afford their development. Furthermore, the game experience they offer tend to be repetitive. Episodic design could solve those two issues. Read my next publication to discover my solutions.
Stay tuned ...