Quite a few intriguing ideas came out of the ODIN Project brainstorm today, and I thought I should share one of them.
As gamers, we often have goals or objectives given to us. But the instant that we know exactly how long it will take, and exactly where we must go to accomplish our objective, the goal becomes a chore. Often times, our goals are broken up into explicit “checklists” of things we must do to finish a quest or mission. When given the objective to travel to another city, we know point A, point B, and that it will take about 10 minutes to get from A to B. We immediately run from A to B, trying to get there as fast as possible. However, even when our goal is clear, if the way to accomplish it is a mystery, then the chore can become an adventure.
Consider the following two game stories:
- You receive a mission/quest to find your lost father, rumored to be somewhere in the city. The location of your father is placed on your mini-map, and it seems he’s located in the black market by the eastern docks, and you immediately set off. You take the shortest possible route to the other side of the city, ignoring everything else. When you arrive, some shifty-looking guards bar your way. They demand that in order to pass, you’ll need today’s password. They give you a quest to find the password, which leads you to a woman standing outside the market. She has a giant “I HAVE A QUEST” marker floating over her head. She will give you the password if you can find a certain item for her. The item’s location is marked on your minimap, and you …
- You receive a mission/quest to find your lost father, rumored to be somewhere in the city. You have only a few, dubious leads. You begin to ask around, but people seem reluctant to talk to you as soon as you mention your father’s name. It seems he’s made some powerful enemies here in the city. Finally, you get some luck, convincing a somewhat drunk bum to mention what he knows: He warns you to stay away from the eastern docks, since they’re near a notorious black market, and it seems your father got into some trouble with the crimelords who run it. Also, a dark-haired woman was similarly asking around for your father about a week prior. She had vanished somewhere around the docks a few days ago, and no one has seen her since. You decide to investigate the docks anyways, under the guise of a black market merchant. But first, you’ll need something to sell, so you…
Can you see the difference? Both scenarios have potential for a great story, but one of them is designed with the “task” mindset, and the other is designed with the “story” mindset. One is a series of “checklist” objectives, and one feels like an actual adventure. Far too often we design games exclusively in the task mindset, trying very hard to tell a story through objectives. When we tell stories through tasks, gamers feel frustrated whenever the completion of a main task is delayed by what they feel to be a “side-quest.”
I believe that in order to have better storytelling in games, we must create games that change the mindset of gamers. It’s easy to become a “checklist” gamer when the game is designed to make you think like one. The key seems to be to have clear goals with open-ended solutions and multiple approaches, as well as some uncertainty and risk about exactly what will happen.
There’s also a balance that must be kept. We need enough ambiguity to feel mysterious and adventurous, but always provide hints when absolutely needed, so that you never feel confused or frustrated at what to do next. A quick disclaimer, often times that balance is tipped differently for different players, so this line needs to be tread carefully.