Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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I was away in London at the weekend, with my laptop but no internet, so I took a break from coding to think about how story might work in my next game.
For Gunpoint, I made a video about how fixed stories clash with interactive games, and how I was trying to avoid that:
My solution was to simply separate the two: the story is a pre-written thing that happens between the missions, and the missions are interactive playgrounds in which no plot events occur. The story is a bit interactive too, but only in certain limited ways I could easily account for.
Last week Terence Lee, of Dustforce fame, posted a huge examination of this topic on their blog, and over the weekend I finally finished reading it. It’s worth diving into if you like thinking about this stuff: its conclusions are familiar, but tracing the individual steps there lets you examine the issues in detail. I took about 800 words of notes while reading.
Adding that to my existing thoughts on the problem, here’s a summary of what the issue is, what the solutions might be, and which ones I think I’m going with for my next game.
1. Fixed story: in a game like Half-Life 2, the player has no influence on the story at all. You either do what the characters tell you to and it works out the way the writer wrote it, or you die or stop. I pick Half-Life 2 because it makes this work: I loved the game and cared about the story. It doesn’t feel ideal, though. The story doesn’t add anything to the action or vice versa, it was an extraordinary amount of work to create, and the story gets less interesting each time you replay it.
2. Chooseable story: in a game like Mass Effect, all of the story is pre-written, but you often make big decisions about how it plays out. By the end of the series, there are a huge number of possible eventualities for the characters and races that come about convincingly from your decisions. But you’re still only choosing from a discrete number of eventualities that have all been catered for by the writers, which means a lot of work for them and limited possibilities for you.
3. Generate minimal story: in Spelunky, you’re an adventurer delving into some caves. Everything else is generated by the game’s systems, which are universally consistent and create new experiences every time. The trade-off is that what it generates is rather vague in story terms.
You might do something mechanically interesting to save a damsel, but she’s just ‘a damsel’, a mindless placeholder for a person with no character or uniqueness. It does a great job of making you care about these elements for mechanical reasons, but the stories it generates read more like (good, complex) action scenes than anything with plot or character.
4. Generate rich story: a game like Galactic Civilizations 2 puts you in charge of a civilisation and gives you a lot of choice in how you deal with others: war, peace, trade, non-military rivalry, secret deals to screw over other civs, etc. From what I understand Crusader Kings 2 is even richer, letting you hatch assassination plots against particular members of particular royal families to shift the balance of power the way you want.
These games generate high-level story – ‘plot’ – through their mechanics, and express it through pre-written dialogues that may crop up multiple times. That means they might not be entirely convincing – every few turns, the Drengin in GalCiv2 threaten me with the same line of dialogue about demanding tribute. But there are at least named characters saying specific things, and in GalCiv they have a lot of personality.
These games are probably the closest we’ve got to merging interaction and story in a way where both really add something to each other. But they all tend to be about managing a civilisation, which is just one very particular kind of story.
Gunpoint mostly used solution 1. After processing this for a few days, and writing a few thousand words of possible approaches and internal argument about them, I think for GHGC I’m going to aim for a combination of solutions 2 and 3: Mass Effect and Spelunky.
I won’t go into how exactly, until I’ve had a chance to try it and see if it works. But the upshot is, I won’t be doing anything completely radical to merge game and story. Just picking the bits I like from things that already work, and finding exciting ways that they click with the concept of this particular game.
I am still interested in ‘solving’ this problem, or at least coming up with a solution that doesn’t have the same drawbacks as the ones listed. But it really takes a game concept that was built specifically to tackle this. GHGC is a specific idea hatched with a very different goal, and one that fits really well with ways we already know game and story can co-exist.
I do have a game idea that would tackle it directly, though, which I hope to make at some point. It comes from questions like these:
Unrein: Isn't it sort of inherently wrong to say no plot happens in the gameplay sections? The story would not move along if none of those gameplay sections happened. Aren't they as much a part of the story as the "storytelling" bits?
Ed Fenning: What do you think on the effect of a camera perspective has on a story? A lot is made about you 'being' the character in a game. But, just like how in a novel a first person or third person narration can change how you feel so does being 1st person, 3rd person or 2D side-view (I can't think on the proper name for this) change the story. Do you feel you could make any of your 4 solutions work for all camera perspectives? I for one feel solution 2 is incredibly difficult to pull off in a 2D game.
Ian Hetu: I think that there is another category of storytelling not listed above: a story generated by the player interacting with the game, not by the game algorithmically. One where the player creates the characters, sets up the plot, and helps to guide the outcome. These games are at their most powerful when they allow a high degree of narrative ownership and creativity for the player, but their mechanics still push back on the story such that the player isn't simply dictating events.
Some good examples of this are Storyteller by Daniel Benmergui (http://www.storytell... ...eller.html) and, of course, The Sims.
Jamie Austin: A way of answering your question about the richest story creation coming from being a manager over a group of people, rather than an individual, could be that in the first case, you can easily have a direct effect over masses of people, each with different repercussions and consequences, like in Crusader Kings or even Democracy 3, which can inspire great epics and defined, clear stories (like your GalCiv War Diary), often very different from the last, whereas in roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky, stories tend to follow the same route of "Entered a room. Killed everything in the room. Crammed some gold ingots and gems the size of my head into my back pocket. Found a crate but it was only bloody ropes and I already had a Jetpack, for Christ's sake!" before ending with "Fell off ledge to my death", "Bitten to death" or "Blown up". And at the end of all that, you've just affected the life of yourself and some 100+ monsters over the course of half an hour, compared to giant kingdoms built up over hours crumbling on the death of a key figurehead.
Jamie Austin: My first sentence could have done with being both shorter and less rambling, with fewer commas. Oops.
Abe: I responded to a post you made a long time ago, when you were thinking much on the same terms you are now: "How do you blend games with story?" Back then I advocated that gameplay decisions should affect story, and story decisions should affect gameplay. I still stand by this.
With 'Gunpoint' your initial goal was to have a web of different story paths the player could traverse from start to finish. Of course, that's too much content you have to create that many players might not even see. My suggestion takes place on a much smaller scale. Think of the way 'Deus Ex' makes mention of your actions if you barge into the woman's restroom. Or the many colorful titles you can earn in 'Hitman: Blood Money', depending on how you choose to handle the mission. In 'Papers, Please' you can choose to take pity on a family of fleeing immigrants, but doing so makes the game harder for yourself.
Simple things like this make me feel more engaged in a game. They make me care much more about the decisions I make. It's better to start with a simple idea, anyway, and then make it as fully realized as you can.
Naveen: So the Sims 3 falls into option number 4, but unlike those that you mentioned, it's not you in charge of a civilisation or a dynasty, though I guess you're managing a family. Still, though, some of the stories that the game and I created were AMAZING - think my son having trouble finding a prom date and it being revealed to me that he was gay because this vampire kid asked him to prom. Awesome procedural shit like that is why I on occasion go back and play the Sims.
You can get some crazy cool personal stories through the Sims, like with Anthony Burch he had a sim who just wrote loads and loads of novels but stayed at home all day and never got married etc.
Miguel Prada: "What if we had solved how to generate cool stories, but we hadn’t solved how to let the player see them?"
This last point got me thinking. I would answer: depends on what you consider a 'story'.
I think we all tend to make the mistake to only consider 'story' the part which is presented in form of narration, either written, acted by character dialogues or likewise; to only consider the narrative-story. However, the events that happen in any systems-driven game could surely be translated into a compelling narrative-story by a sufficiently skilled author.
I disagree with one of the comenters above when he mentions that the events that happen in a game like Spelunky are always the same, as opposed to the epics inspired by Civ style games. One could also argue that Civ games always consist on "Civilization started in a precarious state. Civilization slowly explored its surroundings. Civilization encountered opposing civilization and slaughtered/assimilated it. Civilization advanced in a specific direction in a tech tree. etc.". I think that the biggest difference between these types of games is that the Civ type tends to accompany the game systems with much more narrative pieces, making it look that it creates richer stories, but I'm not quite so sure that the interactions arising from the systems in such types of games are inherently much richer material for a story, than those in Spelunky (isn't the Indiana Jones saga a good example of this?).
I think that a lot of the systems in apparently story-lacking games are indeed generating very rich stories (in the broader sense of 'story'). And probably yes, those stories are staying in the background in most cases. I also think that the capability to generate such stories (considered in the broad sense, not necessarily in the narrative form) is _the_ main point which makes games a unique form of expression.
Not that I have anything against linear, narrative-story based games such as Half-Life or the more recent The Last of Us (although I find that narrative-story-wise there's plenty to get inspiration from in more 'mature' mediums such as literature or even cinema), but I fin the idea of stories emanating from game systems a much more compelling area to think about and try to advance into.
Bill: Thank you for pointing out the downsides to options 3 and 4. The Lee article made it sound like emergent stories are the only way to go to get the most out of a video game, but they aren't for everyone. If a story doesn't have anything to say about our lives, then for me it's not worth telling or experiencing except as an entertaining time-waster. An action scene was the perfect analogy.
Dan Stubbs: Thank you for this video. I think you're spot-on in your analysis, but I've been thinking about this problem for a long time now, and I think I've found a solution, and I'd be really interested in your opinion. Storybricks appears to follow a very similar process, but I'm planning on making this one freely available to anyone with a story to tell. I wrote an article a while ago, which desperately needs updating, but here it is: http://www.gamedev.n... ...-hit-r3706
Jabberwok: I would say Dwarf Fortress is the closest project I've seen to solving these problems, and with adventure mode, it's about being a person instead of just managing them. I mean, the game procedurally generates everything from worlds and civilizations down to the psyche of an individual.