Designing Interactive Story (PART ONE)
by Greg Johnson
DO INTERACTIVE STORY GAMES EXIST YET?
So…. The year is 2016. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this supposed to be “the future”? Heck, 2016! That’s when we’re supposed to have hover cars, robotic assistants, matter transmitters, and full-on ‘Holographic Interactive Movies”. OK, so perhaps you’re not a child of the 1960s like me, in which case, maybe this isn’t quite so much “the future” for you, but still… where are the Interactive movies? We should at least have those by now, right?
Let’s talk about video games. Raise your hand if you like this topic. (Really, go ahead, who will know?). (….OK, fine. Don’t raise it then.) If you’re a gamer you’re probably aware that there is a genre of games called “Interactive Story Games”, and also that people in the gaming press have been talking about Hollywood and Video Games converging for many years now. If you’re not a video gamer you’re probably already starting to get sleepy, and this might be a good time to think about reading something else.
So what are Interactive Story Games? And what does this convergence mean? It sounds exciting doesn’t it? It sort of suggests that you can somehow step into a movie and “live” the story. Just like in the “Holodeck” on StarTrek (Raise your hand if you know what that is……. oh, come on.) The idea here is, of course, that you have total freedom to do anything you want in the game-world, at any time, and interesting things will happen as a consequence. In the end, a really satisfying story, unique to your experience will result.
So back to our first question…What are Interactive Story Games? As we said already, this is commonly referred to as a genre of existing games. On the other hand, the interactive story that we just described where you can “live the movie”, clearly doesn’t exist yet, so what’s up with that? What is this existing genre of which we speak?
Well, try to stay with me here, because this is going to get a little subtle, and perhaps just a little inane…. what we were talking about with our Holodeck-type description are: “Interactive-Story games”. Those don’t really exist yet, or perhaps it’s fairer to say that Interactive-Story exists today only in its simplest form. What we currently have are “Interactive Story-Games”. (hopefully you’re not reading this out-loud to someone, because that won’t have made any sense to them at all.) If you think about it, games are by their nature, interactive, and there are plenty of games with stories, so we DO have Interactive Story-Games. Voila, that is one major problem shot down! High Five! ….what? That’s a stupid problem to solve you say? OK, well how about this then?
The game industry has spent billions of dollars, and probably hundreds of millions of people-hours producing games so far. There are a lot of really smart people making games. (some of them even talk to me now and then, when they’re not ignoring me) I can attest to the fact people have been trying to make truly interactive-story for at least 3 decades now. So… er… cough cough…. Where is it?
In spite of the fact that there are tons and tons of games out there, many of them truly impressive and masterful works, it’s still tough to deny that the art of building Interactive Story is in its infancy. We’re still mainly in a world of trial and error. Unfortunately, this R&D-like, iterative approach is inherently unpredictable, and it adds tremendous risk to Interactive-Story projects, which translates into time and cost. This is probably the main reason why we don’t see more attempts to break the Interactive-Story barrier. The attempts we do see are most often in the realm of low-budget indie projects where the money at risk is minimal. These projects often offer interesting insights, and wonderful learning examples, but they are so limited in scope that they only hint at exciting possibilities.
AND I SHOULD CARE BECAUSE…..
Before we dive into a deep scientific analysis of Interactive Story (which will be very scientific – did I say that already?) Let’s take a look at the ever-present question of “do we care?” After all, there is a whole wide world of game genres out there. I, for one, have been addicted to many awesome games that have nothing to do with Interactive-Story. Is this even worth the trouble to pursue? For some, clearly not, but here’s a bold statement for you…. Interactive Story is something we human beings almost have to pursue. (by the way, if you’re reading this, and you’re NOT a human being, please email me. I REALLY want to talk to you!)
How surprised would you be to learn that human beings are literally built for story… physiologically speaking. Brain researchers have been finding that a significant portion of our brains are structured specifically for ‘modeling alternate realities’. From an evolutionary perspective, our ability to imagine possible futures, and run hypothetical simulations in our minds has had tremendous survival value. This singular ability has allowed us to predict the consequences of our actions by first testing them out in the safety and privacy of our minds, and it’s what’s allowed us to learn from the experience of others without needing to face dangerous situations. This ‘reality modeling’ is possibly the most significant milestone in the evolution of human intelligence. With it, we construct ‘complex chains of causality’, also known as “stories”.
In regards to how ‘real’ stories are for us, other interesting brain research has shown that when we’re immersed in a story, via a book, movie, or story teller, our brains trigger chemically and electrically in exactly the same ways as when we experience events directly in the real world. Our emotional responses of surprise, fear, joy, arousal, anger, and sadness, our learning and memory centers, even our visual cortex and sensory or motor areas of the brain get stimulated as if the experience were real. This isn’t to say that we can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, but it is a clue as to how fundamental stories are to human experience. In other words, we can’t help but respond to stories. We’re story machines. Within the last several years, neurologists have made great strides in identifying the functions of specific areas of the human brain. One area of our cortex, the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, is found to be the master control center that essentially orders and sorts our various disparate thoughts and impulses; it prioritizes, organizes and builds causal links, or in other words, it creates stories. The Orbitofrontal Cortex acts like a fact-checker to make sure our internal stories “make sense” and are consistent with the rest of our mental model. This part of our brain decides what’s “real” and what’s not.
Think about how our daily lives are filled with stories. We share our life events with friends and family via stories, we run scenarios and conversations in our heads constantly, we teach each other by relating stories, speculate on the future with imagined stories, escape into fictional worlds to relax, or role play-stories with each in acting or gaming contexts. We even dream in stories, albeit semi-rational ones.
“OK, OK!” You say in my mind. “You made your point about stories being important to human beings 3 paragraphs ago! But there are a ton of great games out there that give you the feeling of being in a story. They may not let you do whatever you want, and they may not really let you change the story much, but still, they can be lots of fun, and sometimes deliver a pretty good story experience. Why do we need to understand more about Interactive Story?”
If we make innovation less risky we’ll be able to do more of it. This is true both for the small incremental steps of making existing story-games better, and for bigger, more ambitious leaps, where we really try to advance the art. The goal of a great game is to let players feel empowered through choice and through action. Games are all about doing. Stories, on the other hand are about suspension of disbelief. The goal of a great story is to transport you into the world of the story and allow you to “live the experience”. Interactive Story strives to blend both of these things together. The challenge of course comes from the fact that stories are, by their nature linear sequences. Every time you introduce player choice into a story, you mess with that linearity.
This is the key challenge with creating a truly Interactive Story experience. Anyone who has tried to tackle this problem can tell you immediately that the tough part is figuring out how to give players lots of choice and freedom to affect what happens in the story. Or put in a more academic way, how to give players “agency” in the story. Games, by their nature, tend to be tight loops of repeated actions and repeated outcomes. You dodge and you shoot, then you dodge and shoot again. Or perhaps it’s driving, or playing music, or moving through a dungeon or whatever the actionable-loop of your particular game is. These loops allow players to develop an expertise in some skills, and they allow designers to ramp difficulty and adjust parameters of whatever the core activity is. More relevant to this discussion is the fact that these loops offer efficiency in terms of the assets that are needed. They allow game builders to create sustainable play experiences with limited, repeatedly used content. Some games may offer lots of content in regards to environments, enemies, vehicles, level designs, etc… but as soon as this becomes unmanageable designers simply stop adding content. As long as the core action loops work the game is playable. In contrast to this, games that allow players to fundamentally change the story via their actions very quickly run into an ‘exploding content’ problem. With every player action potentially causing a whole new set of possible NPC behaviors and world states, building a game from a fixed set of pre-made assets becomes extremely problematic.
The key problem with Interactive Story is never “what’s the story?” In a way this is of little importance, and shouldn’t be the focus of a design. Of course we ultimately want great stories, but the real difficult and interesting question to answer is: How does one allow the player to meaningfully and dramatically affect the story, in a way that is viable?
There are two basic roads we can take: The Real Road, or The Imaginary Road. The Real Road is the road of the real world, with all its current limitations. For better or for worse it’s the road we’re on, maybe not by choice, but hey that’s reality. On this road we use a wide variety of tricks and techniques to try and give players the sense of affecting and being “in” the story. For every technique there are limitations, costs and benefits. These techniques are not exclusive but can be used in combination with each other. We’re going to go over all of these shortly and talk about when they are useful and what trade-offs they offer.
The Imaginary Road is the road of our hypothetical Holodeck in the future. This is the road of advanced simulation, and true “emergent story” (i.e., story that isn’t pre-planned, but instead simply emerges from the simulation experience as a fascinating byproduct). Oddly enough there is a lot to learn from thinking about this Imaginary Road, so we’re going to start here and then circle back to look at the current State of the Art in Interactive Story Trickery.
Designing Interactive Story (PART TWO)
by Greg Johnson
THE IMAGINARY ROAD
Let’s start with a fun thought exercise, after all that’s all we have on the Imaginary Road anyway. Let’s suppose for a moment, that we had the most advanced and sophisticated Interactive Story simulation technology ever. Imagine that we could put you into an advanced Simulation where you could go anywhere or do anything you wanted. You could speak, and control your human avatar perfectly. Suppose our virtual reality came with totally believable, procedurally driven AI characters, perfect physics, and incredibly detailed consequence to every action you could think of doing, or anything might say. In fact, suppose we could create a simulation that was so real, it was indistinguishable from real life. Imagine that your life, right now, as you’re reading this sentence IS that simulation. Pretty impressive, huh? Don’t you love virtual reality?
Now let’s put on our game designer caps and ask the question…. how fun is this game? Is it going to sell? Sure the graphics are great, and that avatar is really good-looking, but how engaging is it? How do you win? Where in this simulation do we put our camera to capture the most interesting story? For that matter, how do we guarantee that the story will be fulfilling at all, and when does the game end?
Have I beaten this point to death enough yet? Even with the most advanced simulation in the world, we still don’t have a fun video-game….far from it. Clearly this means that creating an advanced simulation can’t be our only goal. Creating deeply believable human-seeming AI (even if it’s an alien or a robot or whatever) is a huge challenge. Creating a simulated, “living world” is a huge challenge too. But even if we manage to pull off both of these amazing feats of design and engineering, it’s not enough. We still don’t have a fun game.
OK…so… what’s missing? What makes for a fulfilling video-game experience, at the most basic level? Also, if we are able to have stories emerge from our simulated experience, how can we make sure whatever stories result will be fulfilling and complete for the player? These are two good questions (thank you very much. I asked them myself) Our first question, “what makes for a satisfying video-game experience?”, may seem almost too basic, but ironically, things that seem obvious to us, tend to get less explicit attention. Being clear on what is fundamentally important to all video games might help us in our design process. …Or then again, it may not. Since we’re not in any rush, lets tale a look and see.
WHAT MAKES A VIDEO GAME?
So, what would we need to have in our simulation to turn it into a successful game experience? Here are a few things: clear goals, challenges, and clear success conditions. Video games set us up with some fictional context, and then they provide us with a clear purpose, or goal. They put obstacles in our way and they give us a means of overcoming those obstacles.
Another defining aspect of video games are rewards. These rewards can be explicit elements within the game, things like points and badges, fanfares, or progress indicators, all of which stroke our egos and make us feel competent; or they can operate on a more subtle physiological level in the form of shots to our systems of adrenalin, or dopamine. Needless to say, this type of reward is a little harder for designers to plan, and we might get some of this by chance from our advanced simulation, but video-games strive to be “addictive”, or perhaps more favorably put, “irresistibly appealing”, and this is part of why this works.
Oddly enough, simple movement is a key part of video-game expectation. Think about it for a second. What do you see when you walk the floor of a game convention, or watch game trailers in a video-game store. Almost all video games involve players controlling movement …lots of movement. Human beings are visual creatures. Our visual cortex takes up significant real-estate in our brain-organs, and vision is… well pretty big for most of us. This movement can be fast or slow but more often than not it involves a certain level of animal-brain movement-response stimulation that is designed to put us into a flow state. We’re like cats chasing the laser light on the floor. This flow state can excite us, or it can relax us and give us a release from daily stress. (how many video games you have on your mobile device?)
In short, video games are like microcosms of life – they give us clear purpose, and ways to clearly succeed, and then throw manageable obstacles at us. They engage us with movement, put us into flow-states when they can, and reward us, chemically and emotionally, by telling us how awesomely competent we are. It’s no wonder video-games make billions of dollars.
This overly simplified view of video-games may seem a bit cynical, so perhaps it’s worth adding a nod to game makers out there. What we’ve described is what all video games have in common, and why they “work” on us, but this is by no means all that they are, or can be. Crafting a microcosm of life that challenges, engages, stimulates, rewards, and sometimes teaches is no easy feat. Creating games that elevate us, or that push the boundaries of interactive innovation is truly an art. A developer friend I used to work with had a saying….one he would say to me almost every day when we worked together, and it eloquently captured the vast array of challenges that game developers face every day… …“Making video games is hard.” Mike Badillo (well said, Mike).
There’s actually one more piece of the definition to “what makes a video game” that I forgot to include. Ok, I didn’t forget, it just wasn’t so relevant to the point above. This definition is actually part of the broader definition of “all games”. It’s the fact that games are arbitrary, and their primary goal is to entertain us. Sure, games can sometimes train us and teach us, but the overriding perception of the purpose of games, especially video games, is they exist simply to entertain us.
Think of the phrase “what do you think this is, a game!?” What does that mean? It refers to the fact your motivation for doing something might be only for entertainment, and you might not be taking something seriously enough.
This leads us to the topic of non-gamers and (shudder) game haters. When have you heard this before: “Games are a waste of time and offer nothing of value”, “I prefer the ‘real world’”, “Games are not art”, “Video-games are way too violent”, “Games are for anti-social self-stimulating geeks” (ouch that one hurts).
Do we care about any of this? Well if you hang out on Facebook you probably love these statements because they offer an awesome excuse to climb up onto a soapbox, flamethrower in hand, and gloriously defend all games and gamers. Still, understanding why many people don’t play video games is a clue to understanding how to make games that offer value to a wider audience. This doesn’t mean we will necessarily choose to appeal to non-gamers. Maybe we’ll pull some of these people into the gamer-fold and maybe we won’t, but in the process of understanding how to build experiences that even die-hard non-gamers find meaningful, and valuable, we’ll push our own boundaries, and make games that we gamers love even more.
So, what is it these non-gamers want? Well, allow me to now speak for all those people because I know exactly what everyone else wants….. ok not really. Still speaking as someone with one foot in the gamer camp and one foot in the “Is this all the game industry has to offer?” camp, I’ll take a brief shot. If you happen to be a non-gamer and are reading this (which would be really impressive) you can attest to how spot on, or not, this assessment is…
What most non-gamers want: Less repetitive actions, less killing, way less blood, more meaning, more humanity, more mature and sophisticated story, more beauty, more relevancy to the real world, and more value in the area of learning. It’s not that non-gamers don’t enjoy story or entertainment; many of these people are big book readers, movie goers, and board game players. Generally what they are interested in is people-to-people interaction, and character-based stories. There is probably a strong correlation between action lovers and video-gamers, after all, that’s what videogames tend to be. Portraying deep and interesting characters, interactive-dialogue, and life situations; and making that interactive without the killing, isn’t what the game industry seems to be good at, or very interested in doing. …Certainly not so far. What we do, we do really well. One thing the game industry is good at, that overlaps with these non-gamer interests, is cooperative play, or family play, and giving people reasons to laugh and smile together. This has been our main avenue to reach this audience so far. Perhaps Interactive Story will open up some new paths.
In addition to that population of people who have trouble connecting with the world of video games, there is another big group out there of people (like me) with one foot in and one foot out. These are people who love the idea of playing games, but simply don’t have the time or room in their lives for hours and hours of gaming that isolate them from family members. For these people the answer lies in shorter play experiences, and in non-aggressive multi-player experiences that can pull other non-gamer family members into the experience with them.
Well let’s leave that for now and take a look at the ‘Real Road” we mentioned above, which is to say, our current state of the art in Interactive Story. We’ll start with a look at the most common structure used in current Interactive Story-Games. In fact I’ll make a bold statement as say that perhaps 80%, or more, of all of today’s story-games use this same structure.
THE ‘REAL’ ROAD
There are quite a few different genres of video games. Sometimes you will hear the terms “story-game” or “interactive story game”. These terms don’t have very clear boundaries and it can be debatable as to what qualifies as a “story-game”. Most RPG games have some sort of story in them. Lots of tactical games with campaigns and cut scenes offer stories. Even arcade style games will often have some story-set up and story resolution that caps the experience. For our purposes, we’re going to call a video-game a story-game if its primary role is to allow players to live through some story, and if it’s difficult to describe the game without describing the story. Again, this is admittedly vague, but so be it.
Today’s story-games may look very different on the surface, and have wildly different art styles, themes, play mechanics, and scope, but oddly enough, when you look at them from a structural perspective they are all very similar. This is so true, that we have come to think of this general structure almost by default when we think about “story-games”, and many game-makers launch into building with this structure without even considering alternatives.
We’re going to slap a label on this structure and call it the “Path Structure”. In these “Path” games, players move along a pre-determined path which can be narrow, wide, or of variable width. Obstacles and gates are placed in the player’s way. Obstacles take the form of movement based challenges, puzzles, fighting challenges, or keys and locks of various types. Almost always, path games have a combination of these barriers. Minor story elements are often delivered along the path as players progress. When players reach points that stop them completely, and that they must pass through, we call these gates. Gates are usually where major story elements are delivered because players are guaranteed to experience these before advancing. Gates also give designers the ability to require other conditions be met for advancement (for example, having collected resources, or leveled up, or having achieved story-state related accomplishments, etc.). They also allow designers to load new levels with new backgrounds and audio visual assets, characters, mini-games, bosses, or change the story context.
Big Blockbuster AAA games like: Tomb Raider, or The Last of Us and Uncharted, Dark Souls, BioShock, Metal Gear Solid, and Mirror’s Edges, as well as medium scale games like ICO, and Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Heavy Rain, Tearaway, or even smaller scale indie story-games like 2-Brothers, Magicka, Beyond Eyes, or Orphan all use this same game structure. This isn’t to say that these games are similar in other ways, and it’s not to suggest for a moment that they aren’t imaginative and original. Within this basic structure they all bring new things to the table when it comes theme, art style, scope, audio, writing, and especially play mechanics. Still, the goal of the player is almost always to progress forward along a path, or set of paths, and the main ‘job’ of the game is to place challenging and entertaining obstacles in the player’s way, while delivering bits of pre-created story.
Designing Interactive Story (PART THREE)
by Greg Johnson
BEYOND SIMPLE PATH STRUCTURE
As we mentioned earlier (um… I think), there are quite a few games out there with variations on this path structure, and some rare story-games that deviate from it entirely. Before we talk about some of the approaches these games take, let’s have a moment of silent appreciation for some of the great Path-Structure games that have been made. In our noble quest for the Holy-Grail of the Immersive Interactive-Movie experience we don’t want to blindly rush past these great achievements, some of them truly inspirational and… dare I say it? …works of art. Two of my personal favorites are ICO and Journey, although every gamer has their own favorites, often games that changed the course of their life and perhaps even launched them into a career of making games themselves. There is a lot that can be done with a simple formula, and sometimes limiting your variables so you can focus on doing fewer things well, is exactly the right choice.
In the next few pages we’re going to run down a list of some of the techniques existing games have used to promote a sense of player-involvement in story. We’ll start by looking at a few variants on the Path Structure, and then devolve into a grab-bag list of some techniques people have been using to enhance story immersion and involvement. Lastly we’ll list out a few newish concepts that are just starting to be explored. It’s worth noting as well, that individual games generally use more than one technique. Designers may do this without thinking of them as specific ‘techniques’ per se. Whatever works, right? Still by pulling them apart we can hopefully empower designers to achieve their goals with greater clarity and efficiency.
A disclaimer: Examples of games are listed under the concepts below. These examples are meant to help readers understand the concept, and aren’t meant to be exhaustive by any means.
Structural Path Variants:
Open World Sections
These games intersperse their constrained path areas with, wider, more open spaces, often cities or towns.These open areas usually have some light simulation element to them to make them feel alive and populated with NPC characters and enemies. (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, Mad Max, Red Dead Revolver)
Branching Paths, and Networked Paths
Sometimes players will come to a crossroad where they must choose one path or another.Usually these new paths will re-converge along the main path.In a story sense they represent “optional” story threads.Sometimes games will allow players to re-traverse unlocked paths later, giving a sense of a bigger open world but still constraining players in their initial play through.Some games create a network of paths and apply these to a map, so that players can go from place to place but still always be on a constrained path. (Fable, Magicka)
Embedded Paths and Areas
Players moving along a path will sometimes find a doorway leading to an ‘embedded’ path, or open area.This is similar to a branching path, except a branch is a choice (path A or path B) and it lets you out in a new location, while an embedded path is an addition, and it brings you back to your entry point.
Many games will make a path feel less linear by turning the path, or parts of the path, into a maze.It is still a constrained path, but it’s not a straight line.If we replace the word “maze” here with “dungeon” it becomes easy to see that it is commonly used. (Skylanders)
High-Level Maps, and Side-quests
Many games will have an overarching map that players have some means of moving freely on.When they get to destinations on the map they drop into ‘embedded’ paths or open areas.Occasionally, these may, in turn have their own portals that drop you into new ‘embedded’ paths or open areas as well. (e.g. going into a building). Usually, in a story-based game with a map players need to unlock sections in some order that allows the story to be told in sequence.Usually there are optional areas players can go to in any order, and these are called side-quests. (Nino Kuni)
A Grab bag of Additional Techniques
Multiple Outcomes and Multiple Endings
One of the most common, and powerful ways to give players a sense of impact on an unfolding story is to allow their specific actions to alter the conclusion of the story.The wonderful thing about a conclusion is that it doesn’t lead to new branches of the story.Often, if designers are super clever (and if they have an adequate budget to create content) they will add in multiple outcomes to player actions that happen midway along the story.This might be something like causing the death or saving the life of some NPC character, and thereby changing some aspect of the story. The trick here usually, is to figure out how to make it feel like you’ve really impacted the story without changing the course of the main story – at least not until the very end. (Deus Ex)
Player Reputation, Being Good vs. Being Evil, and AI Memory of player actions
Some games will build some simple AI into the game’s NPCs that allows them to refer to things the player has done or “said” earlier in the game.Sometimes this NPC impression can be widespread and result in what feels like a growing ‘player reputation’. NPCs might become more impressed or appreciative, or more afraid of, or angry with the player.Some games focus on giving the player choices that take them down a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ path, with consequences and a reputation that affects the ‘flavor’ of the story experience.(Fable, Black and White, Fallout, Mad Max, Doki Doki Universe, Animal Crossing)
Random NPC Generation
A few games have taken the approach of creating random NPCs with different appearance or behaviors.This allows subsequent play-throughs of the game to feel different, and it allows different players to have slightly different, ‘customized’ story experiences.Shadow of Mordor put a lot of work into a system like this and called it their Nemesis system.
Occasionally games will provide players with an NPC character who becomes their travelling companion.This can be an effective way to build emotional connection with an NPC.These characters don’t need to be super smart for this connection to be effective.By having a companion character in a game with a more traditional structure (e.g. path structure), it allows the designers to put as much or as little effort as they want into the NPC’s AI, without requiring it to bear the entire weight of the game. (ICO, Last Guardian, Never Alone, 2 Brothers, Brutal Legend)
Some games take the approach of gradually changing the appearance of the environment or the state of some main characters, based on how the player chooses to act. This choice usually takes the form of good actions vs. evil actions, or light vs. dark. (Black and White, Fable)
Barren World Fiction
This isn’t a technique so much as it is a ‘side-step’ strategy.Many games create a fiction of an “empty world” that the player travels through.This has the wonderful advantage of not needing to create a lot of intelligent-seeming AI-driven characters.It can also lend itself well creating a certain tone of somber loneliness, and give an epic, mythic mood to a game. (Journey, Rime)
This is a technique that has been used to great effect by a company called Telltale, as well as a few others.Players watch a high quality movie-like story, and make choices as the movie plays by clicking on things.As they do this, the story branches.A variety of other techniques can be applied to this approach, such as limiting the time players have to make choices, requiring players to search for the choices, etc. (Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, Kings Quest)
This technique involves allowing time to pass in the game world when the player is not present.This can allow a player to gain resources when the game is off, or make players feel missed by NPC characters, or let players return to see world or character states having changed.It can lend great believability to a game world, but it poses a number of design challenges (…that we’ll conveniently ignore right now).(Animal Crossing, Seaman, Mad Max)
Some games are built to allow 2 or more live players to go on a journey together in an online story-adventure.This is an effective way to bring really high-quality AI into the game. (OK, fine, it’s not Artificial Intelligence, it’s RI …“Real Intelligence”).Feeling like you are not alone in a world can connect people emotionally and make the entire experience feel more meaningful, even if the world itself is devoid of other characters. (Journey) The down side here is that it’s hard to control what other players do in the story, and they may not want to role-play the way you want.One stratagem for dealing with this, is to severely limit the amount of actions or input they can have, still this has obvious downsides and only works if it fits your fiction.
An Open World game is one that tries not to constrain players in terms of where they can go.In a truly open world game the player has access to the entire world right from the beginning. Often, there are still locked areas, or factors that limit the player’s access to new areas, such as tougher enemies, or resources needed to travel. Open world games pose challenges for story sequencing – i.e. controlling the flow of events or narrative. (We talk more about this below).
Light, Heavy, Local , and World Simulation
Light simulation is when NPCs do simple looping behaviors that make them appear alive and busy.These AI’s are only minimally reactive, but they provide a backdrop that feels less static. (Fallout2, GTA,) Heavy Simulation (or deep simulation) is when one simulated NPC (or creature) affects the behavior of other NPCs.This creates causal chains, (or cascading behaviors) and worlds that feel much less predictable and more alive.This is harder to control from a story perspective. Heavy simulation can also mean more sophisticated NPC reactions to the player as well. (Dwarf Fortress, Spore, The Sims) Local simulation refers to simulation that is tightly controlled in a small space.This can have big payoff for relatively little cost. (Assassins Creed) World simulation is when the entire game world is part of one big connected simulation. (Animal Crossing, The Sims)
This is not very different from Open World, but it’s worth a mention.Sandbox worlds are ones that offer players interesting consequences to their actions, but don’t require players to satisfy goals in any order.Players are free to explore at will and experiment in a giant virtual sandbox.(Minecraft)By creating a world filled with interesting consequences to player actions it’s not hard to allow players to create their own stories.Still it becomes very difficult to create a system that yields sophisticated or satisfying stories.
It’s difficult to imagine a compelling story from a book or movie that doesn’t have any conversations.Sadly, this is one of the most difficult things to pull off in a videogame while maintaining a sense of player freedom.The most common way to handle conversation is with conversation trees.These offer players fixed choices of a sentences, or sentence fragments, and then after players make their selection, NPCs deliver their sentences in response.There are a few other techniques used, such as ‘emotional posture’ selection, non-verbal communication action selection, or conversation chunks.This last approach involves breaking conversations into pieces and allowing players to access these in a non-specific order. (Starflight, Doki Doki Universe)
Ongoing Story vs. Back Story
It is worth being aware of the difference between ongoing story and back story because they have different requirements for delivery.Ongoing story is a story that is unfolding as the player plays. (i.e. the perception is that the events in this story are happening due to the players actions). Back story is a story that has already happened, possibly long ago.With ongoing story there is the expectation that the player’s actions may be able to affect what happens, and because the story feels like it’s happening “now”, there is a much stronger requirement that the story unfold in some logical order.Back story, on the other hand, can be useful because players don’t have any expectation of affecting it with their actions, and it can be revealed in a much less controlled order.Most mysteries involve discovering and uncovering back story – (i.e. what really happened to this civilization, or how did person X get killed).Players may find clues to this in a random order.This may not be as satisfying as ‘living the story’ but it’s a great way to give players the ‘sense’ of compelling story.(Destiny and Mass Effect)
Creating a Network of Dependent Gates
One approach to structuring an open ended interactive story game is to create a network of dependent story-gates.One does this by starting at the final player-goal (we’ll call that “D”) and working your way backwards in a big networked chart.In order to get D you must have “C”, in order to have C you must have “B”, and so on.To get “C” you can go to location 7, or location 8.At each location there are conditions for how to get the thing you need.In order to know how to satisfy these conditions, or where to go, you piece together bits of back story that you learn as you travel about. Finally, you limit the player’s ability to get to these locations by needing resources for travel, and by placing increasingly tougher enemies in the outlying areas.This is essentially the formula that some very old-school old open-ended space exploration games used.It is a very open-world structure and has no paths in it (though one could certainly embed paths).It relies heavily on back story. (Starflight, and StarControl 2
Designing Interactive Story (PART FOUR)
by Greg Johnson
A Few Newish Concepts
Generalizing Behavior with Attributes and Properties
One concept that hasn’t been used much, but probably will get applied more as world simulation becomes more commonplace, is the notion of NPC behavior being based on response to generalized attributes and properties.A big advantage to this type of approach is that it makes NPC behavior much more flexible, and allows them to react to anything with attributes.It means that as the PC or other NPC attributes change, the NPC’s behavior towards these characters can change as well.Another advantage of this type of a system is that NPC characters can be picked up and dropped anywhere in the game world; similarly, new NPC characters can be introduced during the game, and existing NPCs will know how to respond to them because they are really responding to the properties. To make this clearer, imagine an NPC that is programmed to hate anything that is green, and programmed to attack anything that is weaker than it is, and run away from anything stronger.These are simple attributes that lead to complex and variable behavior. You, the player may drink a potion and turn green, and now the NPC that was nice to you, hates you.It goes to attack you, and you pick up a sword and now it turns and runs away. This NPC is capable of doing these behaviors with any other NPC it meets depending on their qualities as well.This simple concept can be extended to great effect.(Scribblenauts, Spore, Doki-Doki Universe)
Story progression in a Static Space
The most common way to control the flow of a story is by tying it to spatial elements on paths, or on a map, and then controlling the player’s progress through this space.This is certainly not the only way to control story flow. A few experimental games like Fa?ade and PromNight, Cart Life, or The Sims, have made interesting attempts to control story flow in a single, limited space.Just like the other games we’ve talked about, these games still have conceptual gates.These are conditions that the player meets which trigger story events.These could be story pieces that get unlocked in a fixed sequence, but designers who take this route almost always take a more simulation-esque approach and break their story events into “possible events” that are conditional, and that can lead to other events, making the outcome less certain, and giving players more control.Fa?ade even goes so far as to create a “story manager” that tries to guide events by prioritizing outcomes based on their effect on ‘story beats’ and a story climax etc.
Using NPC Goal States to Control Story
As NPC AI gets more and more sophisticated, one possible approach to controlling story flow might be to use the goal-states of some key NPC character.In a sense, the NPC itself becomes the holder of all of the ‘gates’.Imagine that an NPC has goals that it wants to satisfy in the world and gives it a purpose.You, as the player are allied with this NPC’s goals.Your goals may be to help or to hinder the NPC, but either way, your goals are defined by its current goals.As the NPC’s goals shift, your goals shift.As the NPC achieves its goals, world states (or story states) change and you enter new chapters of the story.This method (which may be getting used already – but I haven’t seen it) would feel very organic and would make the story progression feel less ‘puzzle-y’, and more character based.
Another approach that has probably been used already in a few games (but I can’t think of them right now) is the technique of giving the player-character some autonomous qualities.Put another way, your avatar, who is almost certainly the main character in the story, may have a will of its own.It may not always want to do the things you “command” it to do.This puts you more in the role of influencer than controller.Perhaps you are a god, or the conscience of your character.Perhaps your character even addresses you directly; getting pissed off at the things you have asked him or her to do, and perhaps you have a means of conversing with this character.This is an interesting way to make your character have more of a believable presence and gives you yet another possible point of emotional connection to the game world.
Breaking the 4th Wall
Almost always in games we interact via some avatar who is part of the game fiction.There have been a few experiments where players interact with the characters in the game as themselves – essentially talking to or dealing with an AI character on the other side of the glass.Breaking through the 4th wall and being “seen” and recognized by a smart NPC character is one way to get people to connect emotionally.So far these experiments in direct interaction have been more about showing off some new peripheral device, and have felt perhaps a bit gimmicky, but at some point this technique of “breaking the 4th wall” will be used in a deeper way to allow players to make a connection with AI characters that feels extremely immediate and real.Being anonymous allows us to stay at an emotional distance, while being ‘seen’ and vulnerable essentially forces us to feel something.
The Players Personal Space
One very simple way to get an emotional reaction from players is to encroach on their personal space.As much as we like to think of ourselves as intellectual beings, we are also products of millions of years of evolution and our animal brains kick in and take over when certain stimuli-buttons get pushed.This technique is possible to do in a horror setting by using darkness, and then making things suddenly appear very close to the screen.Many horror themed games do this (e.g. Five Nights At Freddies).In evoking gentler emotions, this ‘invasion of personal space’is harder to achieve unless one straps on VR goggles, or perhaps uses tactile, haptic devices. A VR game called Summer Lesson is using this technique to the extreme and trying to make players have a visceral response to NPC characters by having these characters get extremely close and invade their personal space.Given the young male audience they are appealing to, and the fact that it’s a Japanese game, you can probably guess what type of NPC characters they are using to get this reaction. (nudge nudge wink wink).
Communication and Natural Language
If we start from the premise that we want to create great story experiences for people, one of the first issues we run into is creating interesting interactive characters.While it’s true that some stories have been made with a single “hero” character, and no other characters in the world, one has to admit that this is severely limits the type of stories one can tell, or the degree of detail and subtlety one can deliver.The same observation can be made about the importance of language in stories.Some beautiful movies and games have been made with little or no language.There can be a certain grace, and mystery to this extreme level of simplicity.Still, think of all the stories you’ve loved over your life, and how many of these stories had no talking in them.So…that brings us back to the recurring difficult question… if we need characters, and we need language to make compelling stories… “how do we deal with language”? A few pages back we talked about conversation trees and players selecting fixed choices from a menu.We didn’t mention Natural Language Processing (NLP).This is the ability to allow players to type anything they want, or better yet, speak naturally.The game then accurately translates their speech into text, and the program parses their input into something it can recognize.Next, the game code selects an NPC response from a set of pre-made phrases or communicative behaviors.Let’s remember that communicating doesn’t necessarily mean talking.We humans do at least half of our meaningful communication in the non-verbal realm, with our bodies and faces.Something as simple as looking away and not answering is an effective communication; action and expressions convey feelings or intent.This is an area that has rarely been touched on in games.One very old experiment in communication was a product called Seaman on the Sega Genesis.Another product, much more current, called Milo, allows players to speak naturally and it tries to recognize tone, facial expression, and body language.Needless to say, there are many problems being tackled at once here.
An entirely different set of challenges lie in the realm of generative language.This is a whole other ball-o-wax, as it were.Generative language, for anyone who doesn’t already know, is the process of constructing phrases out of individual words based on some internal notion of “meaning” and context, coupled with rules of syntax.This is of course what our brains do (unless you happen to have a set of pre-recorded phrases built into your brain).Representing “meaning” and creating systems that can, in some sense “understand”, is a super exciting emerging area of AI, but obviously, not one to be jumped into lightly.
Here is one last, minor footnote having to do with Natural Language (NL) in games. This has to do with the difficulties NL imposes when dealing with localizing a product for other countries.This is hardly the biggest barrier to implementing NL, but one of many that have kept this from seeming to be cost effective for developers.That said, with our coming age of AI and VR, and with text to speech finally reaching a point where it is reliably usable, we will be seeing products pushing the boundaries with Natural Language and Expressive non-verbal communication.
Designing Interactive Story (PART FIVE)
by Greg Johnson
ALL I CAN DO IS SHOOT?
One of the big challenges to face in designing an Interactive Story game is player agency. Earlier we spoke about games being all about what players “do”. When we’re talking about the role a player plays in an unfolding story, the question becomes “what can I do to affect the story?”
The basic standard set by most of today’s games involves players moving, shooting, and possibly punching and kicking. When you stop and think about how you can impact a story based on having access to only these actions, it pretty much comes down to choices of “do I use violence or do I not” , or perhaps “who do I kill?” and “who do I save”. You can certainly build in higher level choices with this limited agency that result in “who do I align myself with?” or “what quests do I choose to do or not do?” Still there is a pretty limited set of ways one can affect the world when there is a gun strapped irrevocably to one’s hand.
Admittedly there are other types of agency in games besides simply shooting. Sneaking and hiding is one example of an agency that isn’t too far off this well trodden path. Many games will make this an optional path to achieving goals. (Thief, Assassin’s Creed, Metal Gear Solid). Probably the most common other type of agency (player action) is contextual action. Essentially, you come up to some object in the world and you can press your button to open a door, drink from a cup, read a sign, or pick up the key, etc… Contextual actions are sometime used for interactions with NPCs as well, and sometimes players are given a choice of contextual options from a limited set of actions… (a) pet the cat, (b) kick the cat.
We are undoubtedly shortchanging a few particularly innovative story-games out there that have experimented with player agency. This question of “what actions can I do, and when” is a core question in any story game. One might think that if our goal is to mimic the real world, we always want to try and give players access to as many actions as possible. Actually, there are quite a few reasons why this isn’t feasible, and why sometimes it’s not even desirable. Here are a few ‘example’ considerations:
1.We’re limited by our input devices in terms of controlling our avatars
2.We want to keep our game controls simple and accessible and not bog things down
3.We want player actions to be clear and unambiguous, and generally physical, since games are all about action
4.A wider array of player actions means a lot more animation assets for players and NPCs which gets impractical unless you happen to be building procedurally, in which case you have a different set of issues.
5.With a wide array of player actions, we need to deal with a wide array of responses and a larger set of story consequences (possibly branches).
6.All player actions need to have an effect on the ‘game-system’ i.e. do they help or hinder the player in achieving their goals. Many actions make for a much more complex game-system.
7.The core console gaming audience loves to kick butt – so if we’re building a game for them and we want it to sell…. Just sayin’.
There are probably other considerations but these are a few. Basically, it’s not a simple problem. The answer may not be in giving players a lot of agency, the way we have in real life. More likely, it lies in giving them the right agency…. access to good choices at the right time. The problem with having a small set of fixed actions players can do throughout the game is it severely limits how players can impact the story, especially other characters. The problem with contextual choices is that players can’t get used to the limited set as part of the fiction, because it’s always changing. This means that players are continually aware that their choices are arbitrary and limited. Every time the player wishes they could do something in a game and can’t, it breaks them out of the immersive fantasy. In contrast, when players have a fixed set of actions, they tend to adapt to the limitations and stop thinking about them after awhile.
Some games have experimented with something called “direct control” where players can essentially puppet their avatar with direct movement. (i.e., as you move your mouse or controller your arm moves). Direct control seems to offer promise in terms of connecting players more directly to an “ownership” of their actions and allowing them to feel more directly involved but it poses a number of issues and challenges. These are things like: how do you intuitively map complex actions onto a controller, or what actions add to the experience with direct control, and what actions simply become annoying? Using direct control in the wrong places, or in the wrong ways, can actually work against your immersion, and make players too aware of the game controls. (Until Dawn, Octodad, Growing Home, Surgeon Simulator) With the advent of VR, and new infra-red sensing devices, or input devices like rings and haptic gloves, these input-mapping concerns may start to diminish. Perhaps the most intriguing challenge having to do with direct control has to do with NPC characters interpreting player intent, or expressive meaning. This requires some fairly sophisticated AI. Even without being “understood” by NPCs in the game, direct control can be a lot of fun. Some games have used it to great effect in multi-player settings. (Little Big Planet, MakeOurWay)
A last word on this topic has to do with the shooting itself, or more generally put, the “killing”. Without getting too deeply into the hot topic of ethics and video-games it’s worth noting that it can be a challenge, from a practical game-play perspective, to come up with primary player activities that don’t involve killing. When one is telling a story through physical action, there are few things easier to communicate, or more dramatic, than simple survival. Killing is clear and easy to represent with a very limited set of player actions, and easy to make skill-based. That said, there are a ton of great games out there that have found other creative solutions for player action, and their ingenuity should be recognized and applauded. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the games doing interesting things with Interactive Story have rather dark themes, and bloody subject matter. This is quite a turn-off to a large population of potential players. (I find I can’t even get through many of these otherwise amazing games).
WORDS ARE WEIRD, AREN’T THEY?
It may be a little late to be defining this term, since we’ve been using it left and right already, but perhaps we should take a moment and clearly define what we mean by ‘game structure’. For that matter, while we’re at it lets define another term we’re tossing about, play-mechanic (or game-mechanic).
Words are funny things aren’t they? We toss them around as if they were real solid things, assuming that what we think we mean by them is what other people think as well, because after all, a cat is a cat, isn’t it? And a game is a game. In our daily lives it’s generally not productive for us to go around second guessing everything… but the truth behind the curtain is that our brains are playing a continual trick on us, so that we can function on a daily basis. If you stop to think about it, you’ll see that every word we use is an arbitrary construct; part of our mental model of the Universe we live in. After all, every thought you have, every perception, and every bit of understanding is nothing more than the machinery of that mental model working away. At the speed of the electrical wiring in our brains our mental models make causal and associative connections, layering in memories, and emotions, and trying to fit what we see and hear and read, into a bigger picture that makes sense. When we translate the words we hear or read into ‘meaning’ (reading this sentence, for example), our model is also taking things like context, and intention into account. All of this happens within the vast neural network of links and associations in our brainputers at super high speeds, with us only really aware of the thought that pops out at the end, as if by magic.
The point here is that words are nothing more than labels we slap onto concepts that have varying degrees of ‘fuzziness’, by virtue of this myriad of connections to other concepts. Add to this fuzziness the endless differences between your own mental models, and all those other mental models floating around in all those other brains, and it really is a wonder we manage to communicate at all. Take a solid, unambiguous word like “cat”, for example. Is a lion a cat? Well, sort of, though it’s probably not what your friend meant when they said they were going to adopt a cat. Now consider words like “game-play” or “art”. We think we know what we mean when we say “game play” or even “video-game” but these words have an awful lot of fuzz around their boundaries, yet we sling them about left and right assuming our meaning is getting across. And let’s not even get started on disastrously fuzzy words like “art”. I’d be surprised if two people’s definitions of this concept line up, yet gamers and non-gamers spend hours debating the question of whether games are “art”, as if they all meant the same thing…. Ok, so it is entertaining.
So, why this little detour into the philosophy of language? Well it’s really just to point out that the term Game Structure is just an arbitrary construct, as is the term Game Mechanic. (Come to think of it, I suppose I could have just said that to begin with, but then I wouldn’t have been able to use my “is a lion a cat?” question, and I’ve been wanting to ask that one for a long time now.)
As academic as it may seem to spend time defining our terms, or perhaps even boringly pedantic, there is a very practical and useful application to this. Knowing what a mechanic is, and knowing what a structure is, or for that matter, a theme, or a story, or a reward system, or whatever, allow you really zero in and think about it with much greater clarity and efficiency. Fuzzy thinking takes more time. So let’s get to defining.
A ‘game mechanic’ (or ‘game-play mechanic’ or just ‘mechanic’), is what a player DOES in a game coupled with some aspect that makes this “doing” a challenge, hopefully an enjoyable challenge. In the first few pages, we talked a little bit about how the goal of a successful game is to empower players though action and choice. This “doing” is at the heart of what makes a game… a game, and it is a HUGE part of player expectation. One of the most productive ways to think about game design is by asking the simple question: “what does the player do, most of the time”. Surprisingly, even the best designers often forget to ask this question enough.
When coming up with mechanics for a game, or breaking down mechanics for an existing game, one can start by thinking in terms of categories. There are probably only about 40 or 50 categories of existing game mechanics. Again, simply put, these are the things players actually “do”. Here are some examples of these categories:
Hand to Hand Fighting
Rhythmic Music Matching
Crafting (combining elements)
Navigating Conversational Trees
Dodging and Jumping
Hiding and Sneaking
Climbing and Leaping “Parkour” Movement
Simple Quick-Button Response
Building and Creating
A few specific mechanics might be things like:
Shoot the bird with the slingshot by pulling back and releasing. Bird moves in an arc based on weight of bird and the distance it was pulled back. Player attempts to hit and knock over structures to pop the pigs inside.
Move constantly during attacking phase of enemy to avoid getting hit, then strike the enemies vulnerable zone accurately during the enemy’s resting phase.
Attempt to match the musical notes by hitting the correct key within a window of time as shown by the notes passing the bar.
Some simple mechanic might be things like:
Move forward as the terrain becomes visible and try to find the path forward.
Move from object to object, hiding from enemy’s searchlight
Press the button within the window of time allowed
A complex mechanic might be something like:
Drive your tank while also turning your turret and using the zoom feature to shoot targets. Select appropriate shell type for target and attempt to hit enemies in side or rear where armor is weakest, while using terrain for cover and to stay hidden.
Notice that these examples of actions all include the description of the challenge as part of the action. “Paint a picture” is an activity, it’s not really a game-mechanic, whereas “paint a picture within a 5 second window” comes much closer to being a mechanic. One thing we didn’t mention, that should also probably be part of our definition of game mechanic, is the idea of being able to evaluate player performance and feedback to them how they did. “Paint a picture within 5 seconds” still has problems as a mechanic, because it is a difficult thing to judge or give player feedback on. (as opposed to say, something like connect the dots correctly to form a picture). This isn’t to say that subjective “creative” activities don’t have a place in games – they certainly do, but in and of themselves they are not game-mechanics.
One other side note here: we often hear the term “game play”. This almost always refers to the collection of mechanics that are found in a single game, coupled with an expectation of these as being ‘fun’. Gamers and game critics will often talk about game play as ‘the most important thing’ in games. They may sometimes have a fuzzy concept of what they mean by this, but if you offered them this definition, most would say “yeah, that’s what I meant”.
Now that we’ve described what a game mechanic is, we can distinguish this from what a game structure is. As we’ve said early on, games can have many mechanics but only one game structure.
To look at a game’s structure we have to step back and look at the game as a whole. The game structure is, in a sense, the higher-level shape of the game. It’s the thing that defines the flow of player experience….where do they go, and what do they do, in what order? Since most games tend to involve movement from one place to another, a game’s structure might be as simple as the map of the game world, with design notes applied to various locations. Many games are more complex than this however, and it’s often useful to diagram out your game’s structure. Often there are conditions that players need to meet before they are given access to new parts of the game. These conditions can be as simple as reaching a location in the game, or it may be collecting certain resources, or making friends with NPC characters, or attaining a certain level, acquiring an item, etc… Mapping all this out in a flowchart can be of great value. Among other things, this allows a designer to know exactly where player choice points are in a game. It’s a bit like writing an outline for a movie.
Game structures for Story-Games generally included some notion of story chapters. These are the phases of the game where the story context has shifted. Players may sometimes have new goals and new abilities based on the chapter they are in. In a linear-path game, mapping these story-related changes is very straightforward. In a game that allows for more emergent (or organic) story, plotting the structure is more complex. Here it becomes a matter of identifying potential story threads and laying out the conditions that need to be met which will change story-related character states and world states. In the section above titled “Creating a Network of Dependent Gates” we talked a little bit about how some of these conditional networked structures can be built.