Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Role of Story in Games

While doing construction on our annual Halloween event this weekend, I've had little time to do game development, but ample time to think about game development.  It's hard to code while you're painting things black, but it's not exactly a mentally tasking chore.

One thing I often think about is the game developer's relationship to story.  It's pretty complex.  Screenplay authors, novelists, playwrights, painters, and all other non-interactive art form artists all enjoy quite a luxury that I'm not sure you can entirely appreciate until you try crafting an experience where your audience can actually reach into what you're doing and change how it operates.

Just about every artistic medium has the ability to convey story.  Photo essays, poems, plays, movies, books, sculpture, music...they all can conjure up a story for their audiences to consume.  But in nearly all cases, the person (or people) producing the artwork have complete control over how the story they tell plays out.

In many ways, this is ideal.  When shooting for an emotional impact, being able to craft every element of the story towards the intended emotional punch is extremely useful.  The villain can be villainous.  The hero can be heroic.  The victim can be victimized.

But what happens when the person watching has a say?  What if they can intervene and make the hero less heroic?  Or save the victim before they're victimized?  Or stop the villain before he can be villainous?  The danger to the intent of the work is clear: it can dilute or change the intended emotional impact.

One solution to this is to put the player on "rails", to give the player the illusion that they have some sort of autonomous agency in the story that unfolds, but not really.  They are constrained from taking any actions that will scuttle the story, or if they do, the story is contrived to steer back around to the intended direction.

Of course, if this is done inexpertly, players will pick up on this, and (reasonably) call foul.  So you can either find better and better ways to disguise your rails, or you can look for a different approach.

One other approach is to not write the story in the first place.  With a robust and dynamic enough game world, stories will emerge naturally without the game author having to pen them.  These "emergent" stories are often not as emotionally compelling as a custom-crafted story, but they also have a different emotional character to them, typically, because the player will pick up on the fact that they are not scripted.  When some mind-blowing chain of events occurs in, say, Dwarf Fortress, it's all he more flooring when you consider that no one planned it.

In Lone Spelunker, I'm hoping that people will experience and share their own emergent stories.  The game is certainly not nearly as deep and complex as Dwarf Fortress, so there's an upper limit to the level of story that can emerge.  Most of the stories would be of the sort that you'd read in a National Geographic description of a caving expedition, not something with sweeping emotion or interpersonal conflict.  But hopefully, people will still find that compelling.

But most of all, I hope to be surprised by the stories that emerge.  When I think of the joy that Tarn must get when he reads a story of something that happened in someone's dwarven fortress...and doesn't already know the end of the's hard to imagine.  It would be like being able to read your own novel through the eyes of someone reading it the first time.  That would be one of the most rewarding experiences I could imagine for a game developer.

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