Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 August, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Story in games
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:53 PM

This challenge will be brief but incredibly challenging, I think. To put it simply: name a vital step that must be taken in order to tell stories in games.

This step should be something that will specifically help tell stories better in games. It can be something that has been done before, but perhaps isn’t done very well. I’ll also allow things that should stop being done.

My answer below.

Note that this isn’t the place to discuss whether storytelling is possible or desirable in games. There is another thread for that. Even if you’re against story in games, put that aside and do some thinking about what it would take to put story in games. It can be a fun thought exercise.

I think the thing we can stop doing is relying on cutscenes in our game. These are a cheap way to put story in, but they do not fit in games. Creating a passive cutscene may make the Hollywood wannabes feel better, but it can be jarring for the player. It’s not interactive, and removes control of the game from the individual.

But, what can we do? I’m going to steal a bit of what Lee Sheldon talks about in presentations. We need to realize that stories do not need the linear structure we are used to. (Notice the name of Lee’s domain? Anti-linearlogic.com. Yeah, he’s big on this idea.) Think about that for a moment: something so simple to say yet so mind-blowing if you’re used to traditional linear media. Trying to force a game to support the traditional linear forms of story has some of the problems I talked about in my previous blog entry.

Lee’s idea instead to create a series of scenes with not particular pre-determined order. The player can visit an of the scenes in any order they want and still get a good story from it. Of course, each scene may change depending on the actions and consequences from previous scenes. For example, you might be able to open the bound chest in the basement if you got the brass key from the bell tower. Or, maybe the village is burning by the time you get to it if you didn’t visit the orc horde and stop them from attacking. Many different possibilities without forcing players into a very linear path.

One thing I think is most interesting about this idea is that it has some basis in literature. The novel Rayuela by Julio Cortázar (translated as Hopscotch in English) has a very fluid structure where you can read some of the chapters in a different order and still get a story. This isn’t quite as ultimately flexible as we need in our games, but it’s an interesting example of the direction we could go.

So, what’s your ideas for introducing story into games? What initial steps do we need to take in order to make it happen?


Next Post: »





13 Comments »

  1. Porn.
    Lots of porn.

    Comment by Tadhg — 13 August, 2006 @ 3:36 PM

  2. Nodal logic.

    By which i mean, non-static environments. Environment and the reaction of others to that environment carries story.

    Node 1 – player begins in [place]

    Node 2 – X is occurring in [other place]

    Node 3 – consequence of X can be diverted by action [Y] or altered by action [Z]

    Node n – state of world after player’s actions and their consequences have played out.

    Provided that n is clearly due to the player’s action or inaction, story is created.

    Comment by Cael — 13 August, 2006 @ 7:09 PM

  3. I’m going to say “Characters”, “Choices”, “Icons” and “Voice Acting”. Voice acting can do a great deal to fill out a character in the minds of the players, but it needs to be done close to when the character is introduced.

    Comment by Rik — 14 August, 2006 @ 12:03 AM

  4. In a word: journalism.

    Journalism has a way of taking “personal” stories and transforming them into “universal” stories.

    Hmmmm… I can’t really word what going on my head, but I’m trying to determine how journalism would be done successfully in a game.

    I feel the traditional news is pushed on the veiwer with little control over what they are viewing and this feels opposite what a game is about, which is interactivity. Traditional news also tends to be supported (at first) by a governing body. This would mean the developers would have to be supporting body (who knows if this cost-effective). Then we have conflict over whether the journalism can be unbaised if it’s controlled by the governing body.

    Hmmmm… too much confusion going on in my grey matter. I’ll think about this for a bit.

    -Nathan J.

    Comment by Nathan Johnston — 14 August, 2006 @ 12:29 AM

  5. Tadhg wrote:
    Porn.

    If you have the funding, I’ll write up the design! ;)

    Rik wrote:
    Voice acting can do a great deal to fill out a character in the minds of the players, but it needs to be done close to when the character is introduced.

    I’m going to have to disagree here. First, on a budget level, it costs more to record voice recording when you have to map out different paths. It can get downright costly to record the same bit of dialog multiple times depending on the situation. As I’ve been playing EQ2, I have found the voice acting to be more of a distraction than anything else. When the game first launched, the press releases bragged about the well-known (and undoubtedly expensive) voice actors they used for the content. Yet, it seems silly that the person will say the same thing every time I visit them. WoW is no different, in that every NPC of a particular race and sex will say one of a few different phrases when I talk to them.

    Second, I personally don’t find it more immersive. I read much faster than most people talk, so it is a chore to have to sit around and listen to the voices. Maybe I’m just too old-school, though, having “grown up” on text MUDs in college.

    But, related to this, I think one technique designers need to learn is the brevity of a poet. I found WoW’s story, as revealed by the quests, to be interesting. The information was well-presented in the quest bits, and a lot of the story had to be inferred by the player. This is what I talk about in my previous blog entry on this topic. In EQ2, by contrast, I get bored after reading the third page of prose in the tiny NPC chat window. It’s not low-quality work, but I don’t want to have to read that much. Learn to say what you need to say in fewer words. I think this is more important than trying to do voice overs for everything in order to avoid people getting bored from having to read too much.

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 August, 2006 @ 12:51 AM

  6. I don’t think that the best story based games are doing that bad a job with story, so for me I think ultimately, what the games need is more dynmacism. How can you put that in? There’s a suggestion that non-linearity or nodes let you break it apart, but again, you have to design a story that handles it. Straightforward stories are difficult to design let alone ones that actually follow different paths.

    I would say, you still need structure to a story, but if you can break it down in the middle somehow. Maybe you still are a castaway in the beggining and you still defeat the monster in the end. But in the middle *anything* can happen. It suggests a bit more than just X or Y, so you would need a way to make generalised decisions based on a players actions.

    As a player tool for making the story more involving, i’m going to suggest an auto-journal idea. Everything you do is recorded as a story that writes itself individually. Example: You kill 3 orcs, your character is a bit of an exaggerator so the journal ends up writing a little paragraph that says you killed 15 orcs while one arm was tied behind your back. A rogue’s might say you stealthily killed two and poisoned a third. The idea is that it records your personal story for you. Rather than just saying ‘quest complete – ‘ That way the ‘story-u-made’ is there, it is the story of the game, not just stuff that happened in it.

    But that just seems a bit silly to leave all by itself, so you can also drag pages out of the book and into the game world. Maybe going into ‘brag mode’ let’s you choose a personal story to tell. Or one step further you can drag them out of the game into a blog. And one step further than that, you can write your own if you really want to roleplay it.

    Comment by Jpoku — 14 August, 2006 @ 12:58 AM

  7. To include more “story”:

    1) Better AI for NPCs… so they have feelings, can be talked to, are funny, etc.

    2) Inclusion of a god, director, dungeon-master, or whatever you want to call it. Think of it as an AI that encourages a plot and meaning.

    3) A game system that allows PCs and NPCs to do more than just kill one another.

    Psychochild wrote – “Second, I personally don’t find it more immersive. I read much faster than most people talk, so it is a chore to have to sit around and listen to the voices. Maybe I’m just too old-school, though, having “grown up” on text MUDs in college.”

    You’re “too old-school”. Silent movies had many advantages over talkies, but talkies won out in less than a decade. The same with black-and-white (aside from schindler’s list, etc.)

    And as for recorded speech… Remeber the 90′s with phantasmagoria and other “interactive” movies? Recorded speech is equivalent to an interactive movie. If you want to have believable NPCs (in non-combat roles) you’ll need them to talk and not play the same recording every time. Text-to-speech, for all its warts, is the only way to go.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 14 August, 2006 @ 2:41 AM

  8. Mike: Remeber the 90′s with phantasmagoria and other “interactive” movies? Recorded speech is equivalent to an interactive movie. If you want to have believable NPCs (in non-combat roles) you’ll need them to talk and not play the same recording every time. Text-to-speech, for all its warts, is the only way to go.

    Ah yes… Phantasmagoria- played for hours- even after I found the “games” lacking… just to have the final CD crap out on me. Same thing happened with Gabriel Knight “The beast within.” It was a conspiracy, I tell you. A CONSPIRACY.

    Text-to-speech would be the way to go, but development in that field has slowed. Sure, we have things like AT&T’s TrueVoice, but those industries don’t need to have hundreds of voice variations and only need to work against a small subset of our vocabulary. Inflection, emotional weight, and personality are all missing from these “actors.” If I want that kind of entertainment, I’ll… watch practically anything on TV instead.

    Sure, we can say that ‘the technology is developing’ but the fact is that the industry developing most of text-to-speech doesn’t have same interests as game developers.

    It’s similar to how many thought Motion Capture would be well beyond its current applications by now. They saw the movie industry using it, saw gaming picking it up, and fully expected that adaptive MoCap would come along rather quickly. You know.. mocap that changes slightly in realtime to accomodated different neutral states, or different sized characters sitting in a chair, or chairs of different height, etc. The problem was that game designers were at the time “borrowing” MoCap technology from the movies, who had little interest in realtime adaptation. They didn’t develop down that path, and game developers were reluctant to budget such a challenge.

    Text-to-speech, no matter how much I want it, will be a long way off…

    … unless, of course, you make a game that’s set in a synthetic world- where the low-fidelity voices would reflect the setting.

    Many of the issues Psychochild brought up can be worked through with strong TTS tech- variations in phrases, abruptly cutting off dialogue, chat bubbles concurrent with the text, etc. Heck, the software might even speak character NAMES… though how you PRONOUNCE many of those “high fantasy” names is beyone even me.

    Comment by Chas — 14 August, 2006 @ 10:37 AM

  9. Joku wrote “As a player tool for making the story more involving, i’m going to suggest an auto-journal idea. Everything you do is recorded as a story that writes itself individually. Example: You kill 3 orcs, your character is a bit of an exaggerator so the journal ends up writing a little paragraph that says you killed 15 orcs while one arm was tied behind your back.”

    I love it … especially the example.

    But it’s a good point. Much of what makes mundane action interesting is the fancied recollection of it later, among peers. A self-writing story would be interesting. Even more interesting if the single player game allowed automatic posting on a website (i.e. something a little better than http://www.360voice.com/).

    Comment by Tuebit — 14 August, 2006 @ 12:37 PM

  10. Chas wrote, “Text-to-speech would be the way to go, but development in that field has slowed. Sure, we have things like AT&T’s TrueVoice, but those industries don’t need to have hundreds of voice variations and only need to work against a small subset of our vocabulary. Inflection, emotional weight, and personality are all missing from these “actors.” ”

    Agree…

    Except:

    a) I am creating my own game and have written my own text-to-speech, which is designed for the game. It can produce a large number of voices, etc. (It is by no means limitless in the variety though.)

    b) There are some hacks that can be used to improve emotion, such as transplanted prosody.

    Still, I fully agree that TTS is a long way away. However, the characters in phantasmagoria looked very lifelike in 1995(?)… because they were real actors. They looked much better than anything game 3D-graphics could produce at the time. In fact, they still look much better than anything 3d graphics can produduce in 2006, and will continue to look better than anything produced with graphics for the next 20+ years.

    Players will sacrifice eye candy if the sacrfice gives them a better game. At the moment, TTS is equivalent to battlezone (1980?) quality, or maybe slightly better. People still played battlezone and other 3d games at the time, but they were in the minority. 2+ decades letter, almost every game on an XBox is 3D.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 14 August, 2006 @ 2:41 PM

  11. Never Winter Nights had excelent voice acting and and lots of branching trees in the dialog. It could be skipped for those of you who read quickly. :) Clearly that takes a lot more money that some people might have. I think the dwarf voices in WoW do a lot for establishing what dwarves are like, as another example of it done well, and establishes it quickly. That said, I’m really meaning that every character worth remembering should have one line of dialog recorded that you hear just that once. The King, The villian who escapes from the first cave, and so on. It’s a part of introducing the character. Introducing the characters helps the players make the story from the elements provided.

    Comment by Rik — 14 August, 2006 @ 11:44 PM

  12. Characterization. Without a strong sense of who the characters are and what motivates them, stories are relatively empty.

    The story isn’t about what happens. That’s backdrop. The story is how the characters are affected by and react to what happens. How are they changed? How do they act to change what’s happening?

    Comment by ReptileHouse — 15 August, 2006 @ 1:59 PM

  13. Weekend Design Challenge: Storytelling

    [...] This is related to a previous challenge I had, but this has a slightly different [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 28 May, 2007 @ 12:58 AM

Leave a comment

I value your comment and think the discussions are the best part of this blog. However, there's this scourge called comment spam, so I choose to moderate comments rather than giving filthy spammers any advantage.

If this is your first comment, it will be held for moderation and therefore will not show up immediately. I will approve your comment when I can, usually within a day. Comments should eventually be approved if not spam. If your comment doesn't show up and it wasn't spam, send me an email as the spam catchers might have caught it by accident.

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Email Subscription

Get posts by email:


Recent Comments

Categories

Search the Blog

Calendar

September 2019
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
2930  

Meta

Archives

Standard Disclaimer

I speak only for myself, not for any company.

My Book





Information

Around the Internet

Game and Online Developers

Game News Sites

Game Ranters and Discussion

Help for Businesses

Other Fun Stuff

Quiet (aka Dead) Sites

Posts Copyright Brian Green, aka Psychochild. Comments belong to their authors.

Support me and my work on