Everything wrong with hand-written narrative

The limitations of authored narrative as opposed to systemic

· 9 min read
Everything wrong with hand-written narrative

This is part of the series about my design for a Systemic story game. See the Promise of Adventure for how hand-written narrative limits player freedom. This part covers everything else.

The Narrative is how the story is presented as a series of plot events. For games, this includes how the player experiences and interacts with the story through the game. The creators of the game construct a story with a scenario consisting of places, factions, characters, relationships and so on. The player then experiences this story through the narrative. But the term Narrative is also often used to signal that the story is an important part of the game, to the degree that the game is the story rather than having a story.

I have chosen to use the term hand-written instead of authored or scripted, for making it clear that it’s about the game designer creating a tree of narrative events with details such as dialogue lines and quest logs. There could still be some scripts with a Systemic Story and the story could still be authored even if each narrative step is systemic.

The positives are obvious for those of us who want to play the story. The cost is all the work that has to go in to cover all the combination of choices that comes from the player. Even more so when the game has higher fidelity with motion-capture and recorded voice lines.

Open-world

Almost no games are completely linear or branching. The now common story-based open-world action-adventure game has a mix of components used to enhance the gameplay. There is often a lot of optional content that can be experienced in any order. Fragments of backstory are often spread throughout the world in the form of audio logs or the like. The game is often divided in stages where the player gets access to more and more of the world as the story progresses.

Even if individual quests are linear, they may differ depending on the order they are completed. There may be an additional voiceline acknowledging something that happened before, depending on character progression or world state. Individual quests are designed to only have limited influence on other quests in order to keep the number of permutations manageable.

The narrative structure is often what can be described as beads-on-a-string or diamond shape, where any branches in the narrative goes back to the same place at the end of the quest or level. The game remembers that the quest has been completed. You may have gotten a new object during the quest that can be used in other places. Your actions may have contributed to a change in faction or NPC reputation. Some choices in dialogue are just for expressing personality and will have no influence on the future. Other choices are just for getting additional information or optional backstory.

Even with all the tricks to keep quests isolated, there are usually lots of situations where NPCs should have a reaction that's missing, or the player should have an option. Some games give you the freedom to kill anybody, but it's too much work to make the world actually respond to it. The NPC will say something like

— I can’t believe you just murdered my friend! … Anyway, what did you want to buy?

Sandbox

A sandbox game has repeatable activities that encourage experimentation. Open-world games are often also sandbox games, but the sandbox part is independent from all the hand-written quests. There may be a gang of bandits that you encounter on your quest while traveling from point A to B. But if you would encounter those same bandits outside of the quest, it's something that is independent of the quests. The experimentation is something you get from the tactical and exploratory freedom. It’s an effect of the Systemic Environment.

A sandbox game can facilitate emergent narrative, where the player's interaction with a systemic environment is experienced as a story. It can for example involve mistakes that get compounded by other factors, the player barely survives, sets out to recover, and re-establish control by revenge on the initial perpetrators. This will often be enhanced by the presence of NPCs that the player tries to help. The random events and limited details that give room for imagination helps the player to create the narrative through apophenia.

Lots of games are using procedurally generated places, characters and loot. But some games also have random repeatable procedurally generated events and quests. An example of a procedural event is a person running from bandits in a way that the person runs right in front of the player. A procedural quest can be an NPC that asks the player to do a specific task in a specific place with a specific enemy, selected from a template and based on the level of the player, their playstyle and what parts of the world they haven’t yet visited.

Systemic

Systemic Story is different from branching, emergent or procedural narrative. A lot of games have developed a Systemic Environment that gives the player tactical freedom. Let's make the story systemic in a similar way. Doing that means that all parts of the story have to be encoded as interactive systems. In order to have a satisfactory overarching main story, we need a top-down approach. The story is continuously adapted as a possibility-space using rules of story structure and theme.

Think of the story as a table-top D&D module. A new story may require a couple of new systems that fit the featured themes and dynamics. The locations, characters and scenarios are described. There are inciting incidents and some extra care for expected events that can come up on the way to the final resolution. There are a lot of techniques that can guide the player back to the content of the story, but the player is free to turn around and do something that's not at all covered by the module.

The story will be a mix of authored content adapted to the player choices and backed up by systems and generated content. It’s not a traditional procedural generation or simulation, but rather a type of top-down constraint-based generation based on story-structure, theme and tone. More of that in other parts of this series.

There will probably be a temptation to mix traditional hand-written dialogue with systemic dialogue. Some games have used generated content in side activities alongside the hand-written quests and main story. But I think that would lead to inconsistencies in what you can do in the world and how the world would react. It would also lead to inconsistencies in the NPC interactions. I would rather see a refinement of the systems needed than a continuation of this type of compromise.

Finite content

A common thing with hand-written narrative is the desire to experience all the content and achieve the best or intended version of the story. You go through all the available options not because that's what you would want to do as your character, but because you don't want to miss anything important or good. It becomes a game about sweeping through the locations, objects and dialogue choices. You become more focused on what's left in order to cover everything rather than the actual content of the story and dialogue.

The game will help you out with markers on the map and quest logs listing everything left to do. All these directions take away from the player's autonomy of deciding on their own path. Some players want the directions so they can get to the good stuff. Others just want to reach 100% completion. And yet others want to do whatever is needed to level up.

A Systemic story game will not have hand-written dialogue options, so it’s not possible to exhaust the dialogue. But it will be very possible to exhaust the NPC patience with you for pestering them with every little detail. Locations may be moved around, altered or generated from scratch to fit the need of the story, all within the limitation of what has already been revealed by clues and NPC dialogue. You can get hints and direction by asking people rather than some omniscient quest log.

Guessing game

What do the game want you to do now? Watch someone that has never played a game and you will see how much of what we do in games is based on video-game logic that often makes no sense. Experience will make you better at figuring out what you the game creators probably intended for you to do in each specific situation.

Getting stuck in adventure games can suck. There are often a lot of places, people and things in the game that could potentially help. But mostly everything is just part of the background graphics and has no interactivity. Most people in the game have nothing to say about the things I would like to do and I can't use the things I have found in the way I would like.

Total freedom does not exist either in life or in games. But there is a big difference between hand-written and systemic solutions. Systems are something you can learn and trust to behave consistently. It will not be some type of one-off thing where the author decided to give a specific object some property just for a specific puzzle or part of the story.

Story triggers

Story games will often have some stuff to collect while traversing through the levels. It can be story fragments, crafting materials, ammunition, powerups, money and so on. That is something that is rather specific for games and is usually not seen in movies or books. (I would hope that an adventure game could be good enough to not need all that bling.)

Action-adventure games usually have scripted events that advance the narrative. Combine that with collectibles and you will have constant anxiety about accidentally triggering the next cutscene before you had time to finish searching the level for everything of value.

Finding the good ending

There are more reasons to provide choice than just the sense of freedom. Alternate endings have the potential to make the story work better for more people, where the different branches can suit different types of player personalities. The game should lead the player to what is the best completion of their individual story. Best as in the best story experience, not necessarily happy. It should complete the arc.

But then there is the point of games as providing a challenge, as opposed to toys or interactive experiences. The possibility of failure will contribute to the feelings of meaning and accomplishment. The perils of the adventure gives excitement. What is the point of choosing if you can’t choose poorly?

One common way of handling failure in games is to stop and rewind to an earlier point to let the player try again. Another way common in adventure games is to not let the player do anything that will get them killed or stuck. Just say that the thing they try doesn’t work and let them try something else. Non-lethal failure can be as easy as failing a jump, getting up, going back and trying again.

But then you have narrative games with bad endings. The player may not even realize that there is another ending they would enjoy much more. Getting the better ending may require going back hundreds of hours of gameplay. It's a good thing that choices can have big consequences hundreds of hours later. Sad endings can be good. But this type of massively delayed failure feedback has problems.

Some people have choice anxiety to the degree that they prefer a completely linear narrative. Choice games should have accessibility options that clearly mark up or block choices that will lead to bad things. Especially in regards to characters in the game that you may care about.

Players should also be able to fix mistakes without reloading. Did you say something that angered the NPC? Let's just talk about it. Did this person tragically die? Oh no, she is still barely alive. Let's heal her. Did we lose this very important quest item? Let's find something else that will work. A systemic game can provide much more options than would be reasonable to handle in a hand-written narrative.

Having ways to fix mistakes will not negate the challenge. It will just provide a much better alternative to just reloading a previous save. Fixing mistakes is what makes up the bulk of many classic adventures. You want mistakes. But they should come from the player and not from scripted events.

Failing a combat challenge could lead to mocking, escape, injury, capture, last-minute rescue or something else. There are so many more options than just death and rewind. What happens in a Systemic story game will depend on what would make sense for that part of the story and the relationship with the enemy.

A Systemic story game can also provide much more customization options. You can adjust the level of danger, brutality, stress, complexity, sorrow, uncertainty and so on. The same game can be kind and nice for some players while grueling hard for others, depending on their preferences.

Conclusion

A Systemic Story game can lead to experiences much better than anything in existence today, because it can adapt to the individual player. The realization will be gradual and take many iterations before they will surpass the fidelity of current AAA story-based games. But I hope I showed that it will be worth the effort. More to come.

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Written by Jonas Liljegren
Building modern web components on reactive state semantic graphs. Passionate about exploring unconventional methods in technology development to shape a better future.
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