I spent a good chunk of my early youth over at friends’ houses playing with Legos. We’d stay up till early hours of the morning just building and telling stories with our creations. There’s something primal in us as human beings that makes us delight in the act of participating in a story, rather than just observing one. This desire is partially sated when we play games.
But while half of the joy of creativity and imagination was in building worlds with my friends, the other half was the stories and narratives that came out of those worlds. Our creations weren’t just part of a simulation.We took hold of our airships and caused them to fly. We created characters with personality. We created secret agencies with vast armies and complex motives. We spent the better part of an evening just enjoying a collaborative epic story.
While games like Minecraft prove that sandboxes can be a wild success, they usually ignore the other half of what made playing Legos with friends so compelling. The Interactive Story. I enjoy the rush of being attacked by randomly generated monsters in a dark tunnel as much as the next gamer. But can it really compare to the narrative substance of conspiring to overthrow a kingdom, or meeting a shadowy stranger with a message, or being sucked into a greater world plot much bigger than yourself?
The sandbox philosophy finally gives us the full freedom to impact the game world. But when will we have the ability to truly impact a game’s story as well?
I came across this article on Polygon describing some of the awesome tech behind the new and improved Storybricks Engine, which purportedly can generate stories from scratch. I was intrigued. The Storybricks team (currently working with the Everquest Next folks), seem to be taking sort of a simulation approach. The rationale is that if every NPC in the world had a complex model of emotions, personality, motivations, goals, desires, and capabilities, then they’d naturally start creating conflict with one another, so quests and stories would (hopefully) write themselves. A player who takes a stroll through the world will have a different experience every time, because the NPCs are constantly fighting and changing relationships.
The Curse of Amnesia is a serious problem in interactive narratives such as pen-and-paper campaigns. If you’re playing an older character who has lived her whole life in a particular city, it doesn’t make sense that you as a player don’t know your way around the city. We want to be able to create any type of character we wish, with any background.
- Amnesia: How do we ensure that the player knows what the character is supposed to know?
- Fourth Wall: How do we prevent the player from knowing what the character isn’t supposed to know, for the purpose of dramatic tension or surprise?
- The character-player relationship in a game is different from the character-reader relationship in a book. In a book we can reveal who the bad guy is to the reader, because the character will still be in the dark, and the reader can only watch helplessly as the character stumbles into a trap. In Interactive Stories, we don’t have that luxury as storytellers.
- Identity Crisis: How do we reconcile the personality differences between how the character would act, and how the player would (or perhaps can) act? Sometimes our acting ability does not do our characters justice, even if we have good intentions.
If you have any thoughts, or even solutions, post them here.
Spectrum Stories are probably the single most popular method in modern games to solve the “Sandbox Paradox”. The basic rundown goes like this: during the entire course of the game, the player will be presented with many (sometimes hundreds) of opportunities to make choices. By far, the most common flavor is “spare bad guy” vs. “kill bad guy”. Sometimes a variant is “just kill everyone” vs. “be stealthy and try not to kill anybody”. Every time you make a choice, it nudges your standing on some greater spectrum.
Today we’re talking about a tried-and-true, predefined solution to the “Sandbox Paradox” in games — Branching Narratives. You may have heard of them in book form as choose-your-own-adventures. The plot of a traditional choose-your-own-adventure story takes the form of a branching tree with many nodes. At each node you can choose one of (typically) two or three options actions that you’d like your character to take next, and you’re taken to the next branch in the story based on what you did.
Writing stories for video games is hard. I mean, could you imagine being an Author and trying to write a novel if your main character was being controlled by someone else? What would you do if your hero just decided not to fight the villain? Even worse, what would you do if they decided to join forces with the villain?
Most game stories are not interactive, and by that, I mean that the player cannot influence the direction of the story. This makes sense, because with the exception of choose-your-own-adventures, it’s impossible to write a complete interactive story beforehand. Games simply don’t have the time or money to write an epic game story for every possible choice that a player could ever make during the course of the game.
Have you ever noticed the difference between the kinds of genres in games, and the kinds of genres in… everything else?
In fiction (books, movies, graphic novels, etc.), genres are divided up based on the kinds of stories that they tell, and the kinds of worlds those stories take place in. Sci-fi, action, fantasy, steampunk, crime, horror, mystery, urban fantasy, speculative fiction, romance, thriller…
But in games, the genres are exclusively based around the mechanics of the game. Side-scroller, platformer, RPG, first-person-shooter, action-adventure, puzzle, MOBA, turn-based tactical, real-time strategy, visual novel, text-adventure, MMORPG…