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Closing the Loop: Fostering Communication In Single Player Games
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Closing the Loop: Fostering Communication In Single Player Games


February 1, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

Choice

The most obvious and immediately compelling way to close the loop, from Choose Your Own Adventure books all the way to Mass Effect, is to provide a branching narrative based on the player's choices at key story moments. The player's actions have an immediate, significant effect on the course of the story.

The most obvious disadvantage to branching narratives is a purely practical one: they're expensive and time consuming. Even a simple, binary good/evil choice can double the number of key scenes that need to be produced, and more subtle options will increase development time even more. As budgets get larger, it becomes more difficult to justify spending money on content that, by design, a large part of the audience will never see.

For as long as people have been making video games, there's been the idea that the problems of branching narratives are simply limitations of the current technology.

The industry's holy grail -- or more accurately, perpetual motion engine -- has been the realization of a storytelling engine that can take a finite amount of content and intelligently and satisfyingly generate an infinite number of available choices for the player.

But if we're looking at video games as communication between developers and players, is a storytelling engine really the inevitable and most desirable end goal? The player would be receiving immediate feedback for any choice he happens to make, but would he still be engaged in a conversation with the developer?

While designing puzzles for adventure games for Sam & Max or Strong Bad episodes, my goal was to reproduce for the player the experience of planning the game in the writers' room. We often talk about "a-ha" moments when playing adventure games, but there are just as many that come up while designing them.

The process of designing a story-based adventure game is similar to the process of playing one -- the story progresses to a certain point, and everyone in the room tries to come up with the funniest, most interesting, or most satisfying way to advance to the next story moment.

That's not necessarily the best or most logical way to advance, but the one that makes everyone in the room say, "Yes! That's perfect!" Giving the player the option to come up with any solution he can think of isn't necessarily the goal. In fact, there've been several times that a player suggested a solution on the forums or during a playtest that was much more interesting or logical than the one we'd included in the game.

But the ideal wasn't simply to empower the player, but to share a moment with the player -- the exact moment when all the pieces finally fit together, the joke hits the best punch line, the attention to continuity pays off, and the story makes sense (or in the case of Sam & Max, close enough).

As developers continue to pursue the goal of building holodecks, open-ended environments that put players in complete control of the story, they need to make sure that the sense of communication isn't lost. Otherwise, they're not empowering the player, but simply locking him inside an echo chamber where he's only speaking to himself.

Agency

Player agency is even more fundamental to video games than the concept of player choice. Even when the player's actions don't directly result in changing the course of the story, the experience of driving the narrative forward can make the story resonate in a way that traditional media can't duplicate.

The Half-Life series has been built on the concept of player agency from the first moment of the tram ride through Black Mesa. Absolutely nothing happens that isn't directly witnessed by Gordon Freeman, and without his assistance, power cables across the world remain unplugged and big red launch buttons remain unpushed.

Ostensibly, the goal is complete immersion. But the player is never completely immersed in the story or role-playing as Gordon Freeman, mostly because the character is something of a cipher. Still, the player is immersed in the storytelling. He becomes more intimately familiar with the details of the environment and the spatial relationships between key locations. He's more conscious of the passage of time and the tension that results from time pressure.

In Half-Life 2 Episode 2, there's a scene in which Freeman and Alyx Vance watch through binoculars as a convoy of striders and other Combine vehicles cross a bridge. There's no player choice involved; everyone playing the game will witness this scene. But when compared to a similar scene in the recent War of the Worlds remake, the difference that comes from player agency becomes clear. There's a greater sense of presence and immediacy that doesn't come across in a film.


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