Some Quick and Dirty Thoughts about Richard Rouse III...Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

...'s talk about Dynamic Stories at MIGS. These are my notes as I wrote them up for my Compulsion Games teammates... The complete powerpoint is on Richard's site

Dynamic Story = Story that is not the same every time you play the game.

Why good? Replayability. Especially these days when players stream, it’s boring if all the streams are of the same stuff.

Types of dynamic story:

a. Explorable story space

What we’re doing in WHF and what most AAA games do these days: bits of narrative that you discover wandering around. Hopefully there’s enough that few players discover all of it.

Doesn’t have to mean environmental narrative. Her Story allows you discover bits of video through a text parser. You never actually go anywhere.

b. Open ended story

Give the player enough bits of a story that s/he can find his/her own meaning in it, but not so much that you force the player into your interpretation. One player may come away with a very different experience than another.

c. Reacting to player actions

Branching story trees. Generally, game devs stay away from branching trees because they get crazy fast. Trust me on this one. 31 endings on Stories: The Path of Destinies. (Which, hey! Won Best Indie and Best PC Game at the Canadian Video Game Awards last night.)

So often you get a series of choices, but really it’s just one choice repeated: Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade. Bioshock's Harvest/Rescue.

Or, choices, but only some of which change the story, and then only change a little bit of the story: Walking Dead.

d. Shifting story elements

Procedurally generated story. In Richard’s game, The Church in the Darkness, you are there to rescue someone from a cult. Sometimes the cult is a suicide Jim-Jones-style cult. However, sometimes, it’s just a bunch of hippies who want to be left alone. The Blade Runner game changed who was a replicant from playthrough to playthrough. In both examples, the payoff is you Actually Have to Pay Attention to the story around you. If it turns out that in the story they're just nice hippies, or humans, you're not supposed to go shooting them.

e. Character Simulation

The Sims. The Civilization franchise. Characters have personalities and react to your actions according to them. Faction-based systems: characters will react differently to your dwarf rogue depending on how they feel about dwarves and/or rogues, and how nice you’ve been to their friends.

The player here is choosing what story s/he wants to be part of.

f. Drama Management

Here Richard’s talking about games like Façade that try to make a story out of whatever it is you are doing. Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system turns an NPC into your nemesis if he’s killed you before.

Wot I Thought

The Holy Grail of game narrative is emergent narrative. Emergent gameplay is when you design systems the players can use in ways the developers did not plan for, e.g. rocket jumping.

Most of the dynamic storytelling methods listed are not emergent. The Shadow of Mordor people like to claim that SoM’s nemesis stories are emergent, but someone had to write and record all the nasty things the orcs say to you when you come back from the dead, or they do.

On Stories: TpoD I pitched the idea of a sort of Collectible Card Game or faction-based narrative. I.e. NPCs have a basic reaction to you, which changes according to what you do with other NPCs. So if you kill someone’s brother, they will no longer sell you a sword, but they might fight you. If you marry their brother, they might tell you where some loot is.

This is not emergent narrative, either. It feels more like it, because you discover the story branches according to your own wanderings through the game. But someone has to write each branch of each NPC’s story tree.

(In the end we just went with a straight ahead story tree for Stories: TpoD. Nothing wrong with a story tree, they’re just hard to write so every path feels like a good story, in which the seeds of the ending are in the beginning. And they’re a lot of work.)

To make really emergent narrative, you’d have to create narrative building blocks that players can arrange in different ways.

Say you have one building block: dude’s getting a divorce.
Second building block: dude’s sleeping with someone who’s not his wife.

Both of these are narratively fraught events, but they have a different meaning, and tell a different story depending on their arrangement.

If you see:

dude sleeping around -> getting a divorce

Then the player probably interpolates the story “he cheated, so his spouse is dumping him.”

But if you see:

dude getting a divorce -> sleeps around

Then you might interpolate, “finally free of his toxic marriage, dude is seeing other people.”

This method is probably hella difficult to pull off, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it in a game. But then:

Q. Knock knock.
A. Who’s there?
Q. Control freak. Now you say, “Control freak who?”

So there you have it. We’re doing a lot of environmental narrative, and some open ended story telling, but the other techniques will have to wait for some future game.


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