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Author Topic: A rant about stories, immersion and choices  (Read 1199 times)
Kytin
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« on: March 29, 2015, 07:51:21 PM »

Hey guys.

So today I decided that it might be worth explaining some of my thoughts about story design in games.
I really care about storytelling in games. In fact I sometimes say that I play games for their stories, which has gotten me a few puzzled looks at times. After all, there are movies and novels and other mediums that are purely about telling stories. They can focus on telling a great story without having to have gameplay too. If it is great stories that I am after, surely I should be looking there?

The thing is, I believe that as a storytelling medium, games have more potential than anything that has gone before. I have already experienced some of that potential, so I know it is real. Cave Story is a game that had a huge effect on me, and has been a massive inspiration to my own work on Dragon's Wake. Shadow of the Colossus is another that showed the potential games have as a storytelling medium. The stories that these games told simply wouldn't have worked the same way in some other medium.

Part of it is immersion. You (or at least, I) get more immersed in a game than in a movie. With a movie, even when you get completely immersed and forget that it is a movie, you are still watching other characters. When you become completely immersed in a game you are one of the characters, and so your reactions are naturally stronger.

However, games also have access to inducing a wider array of emotions in their audience than passive mediums. When was the last time a movie made you feel regret? (Other than the times you felt regret for having started watching in the first place?  Tongue) How about pride? Or even feeling smug? (I often play Priest on Hearthstone. I often feel smug. Tongue)

And yet so little of that potential tends to be realized in the majority of games.
I'm not talking about the ones that aren't trying to tell a story. Angry Birds and Tetris are fine the way they are. I'm talking about the ones that try and fail, or at least don't succeed as well as they could have.



Ludonarrative Dissonance is a term that has been spreading through the developer community. It refers to the situation when the story told by the cutscenes and dialogue is contradicted by the story being told by the gameplay. An example would be a situation where the player is progressing through the levels easily, blasting apart monsters left and right without taking a scratch, and yet when they reach a certain door they cannot go through it because "There are too many monsters that way."

But other people have explained Ludonarrative Dissonance better and in more detail. Most developers have heard of it and know it is something we should avoid. I want to touch on something less explored: the interaction between player immersion, player choice and storytelling.


Let's start by looking at one of the most important elements a game can have: the Player Character. The Player Character tends to exist on a sliding scale between two camps. On one hand they can be a well defined character within the world of the game with their own history, preferences, and voice. On the other they can be a blank slate that (in theory) the player projects themselves onto. Let's call these two states Defined and Undefined.

So we have a player character that can be Defined, Undefined, or more likely somewhere in between. Then we have the plot: the series of events that occur during the game. The plot can, and usually does, consist of a single possible series of events. Alternately, it can give the player more agency and allow them to change at least some of the events. Let's call this Linear vs Freeform.

So how do these different aspects of the story interact? What happens when we have a Linear plot and a Defined player character? It tends to work pretty well actually. Any time the player might want to take a course of action that would disrupt the linear plot, the player character can tell the player (sometimes literally) "I'm not going to do that."
There is of course a downside to this. Because the player cannot control the plot or even the choices of the player character they become basically a spectator to the story rather than a participant in it. It is the easiest combination to do well, but also the least powerful.


What about a Freeform plot with a Defined player character?
In a story, choices are what really define a character. The more Defined the player character is, the fewer places the player can insert their own preferences and choose what they want. The player is given control over some choices and not others, but the game is designed in such a way that the choices they do have can actually make a difference.
Telltale's The Walking Dead series would be an example of this style done well. The player character is well Defined with their own history, voice and personality, but the player is given control over choices where the character could easily go either way.
The main downside comes from the Freeform plot. A game with a large number of choices can quickly branch out into more possibilities than the designers can handle. It also becomes difficult to build a consistent theme when the protagonist can make choices in any direction. Telltale cheats by having the different 'paths' recombine together as the story progresses, but this means that no matter what the player chooses things will turn out the same. Playing the game again reveals the illusion, thereby undermining the idea that your choices matter.
But the first time you play is amazing. Smiley


What happens when you have an Undefined character in a Linear plot? Done well you get something like the Half-Life series. Having a Linear plot makes it easier to set up and enact dramatic events and twists since you don't have to account for multiple possibilities, and having an Undefined player character allows the player to feel like they themselves are a part of that story. Unfortunately, there can be side effects.
In order to make a Linear plot work with a (largely) Undefined player character, the player must never be in a situation where they have a choice that is outside what little definition their character has. For example, Gordon Freeman is never actually given the opportunity to choose to work with the Combine. The level design prevents him from trying to run away and find somewhere quite to live the rest of his life in peace. He doesn't even choose to deepen his relationship with Alex Vance - it is just assumed to happen as she monologues at you.
This mostly works as long as the choices made by the player character are the same as or close to what the player would choose if there was a choice. It does however mean that the player character cannot make any remarkable choices. In order to appeal to a wide audience the protagonist cannot be particularly outstanding their decisions. Despite being central to everything the character of the protagonist is - must be - utterly bland.


Finally, what about a Undefined player character in a Freeform plot? At first glance it seems like a good match. The player is able to express themselves freely through their choices and have those choices mean something. The examples that come to my mind are open world RPGs, particularly the Fallout games.
Of course, those of us that have played such games realize that there are problems inherent in even this style. Freedom of choice again makes it hard to build a consistent theme to the story, and limiting the complexity of the branching paths without cheating or restricting player freedom too much is again difficult.
The designer may also struggle not to make the player character seem bland. Yes, the player can express themselves through their actions, but a character tends not to be very interesting unless we see the motivations for those actions as well. The player may understand their own motivations just fine, but none of the other characters in the game will - especially when the motivation only makes sense outside of the game (e.g. 'I wanted to see the bad ending').
There is an additional challenge that limits our ability to tell a compelling story in this format as well. Often characters in a story will have what is called a character arc. This is where a character in a story will change due to the events in the story. When the character of the protagonist is solely defined by the character of the player however, you would need to bring about a change in the personality of the player in order to have a character arc. That said, if a game did succeed at this, it would be amazing.


 
Hmm. I seem to have forgotten where I was going with this. I guess I'm just trying to point out some of the problems I see with storytelling in games today so that hopefully people can better fix or work around them.

For myself, I have enjoyed games in all of the above styles, although I tend towards games that are Linear (or mostly so) with mostly Undefined player characters. Dragon's Wake is being done in that format, although it may be a bit more Freeform than some.
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« Reply #1 on: March 29, 2015, 08:50:10 PM »

Yeah, I made a similar statement in a Devlog (currently not in the works at the moment) long ago about story and gameplay. I too agree that videogames can display a stronger message or meaning than other forms of media if made correctly and with the right players. Personally, my favorite of these types of games is the Mother series.

If I can recall from that post I made, what I wanted to do was make a game with a subtle story since it was based of Megaman X(Gameplay-wise, not story-wise!), but I also knew that story shouldn't get in the way of core gameplay. My thoughts were that it should instead enforce it. The character would be mostly defined but there would be segments that would be "breaks" from the intense gameplay where you could upgrade or find smaller missions to do. It would be set up in a Hub World and you could meet different NPCs.

Depending on what missions you had done the Hub would be different, with different NPCs that would say new things. You could even give these NPCs small stories as the game progressed that the player could find on their own without having it forced in their face. Now the big deal about this is that in the core gameplay, you have 4 main weapons that while you play through missions can be upgraded to be stronger or do various effects (Like create a shield).

So the idea is that when you talk to some NPCs or certain events happen, you could choose from 4 different choices and depending on which you chose, during the next mission you'd get a small weapon boost to one of the weapons. So if you decided to react with anger or hostility, your Fire weapon would get a boost. If you chose to stay cool and calm, your Ice weapon, and so forth.

I was also wanting to do this since I wanted some world building for the main character and for the player to get some sort of attachment to the Hub. When some plot points happen such as when the Hub gets attacked and different NPCs that they might have different relations with (Such as they like this dog, they hate this salesman, or they feel sad for this friendly homeless guy) are reacting differently, they might have a more deep experience with the game than just a LOOK, EXPLOSIONS! Now go attack this crude looking bad guy...

So it's a character whom is defined, but has undefined choices and story is linear (You get to choose missions in any order, but after you complete a set, a new set with the next part of the story appears).
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xier
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« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2015, 08:33:18 AM »

Great points here, thanks for that Kytin
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