Systemic story game development 2021

· 5 min read
Systemic story game development 2021

Welcome to Adventure alpha zero 2021.

This is the second post in the series about my design for a systemic story game. The first was about NetHack. I have been thinking about this for 30 years. Especially the last two years.

I have tried to find the complete and perfect way to write about this and it has held me back. I have to start writing for myself and accept that a lot of it will be incomplete and of lesser quality. So this is it. I will start explaining part of it and it will be incomplete and probably even harder to understand than I had hoped for.

The first thing would be to explain what a systemic story game is. In what way has this never been done? Why is this something desirable?

Computers, software and games have gotten better in many ways in the last 30 years. The main driving forces has been the increased memory and speed along with better resolution in the transmission of images and sound. The increased capabilities has allowed new types of games.

But there is a duality that has crystallized in the game development community. Everyone has accepted it like it's some sort of immutable law. And it's about the conflict between player freedom and authored story.


A systemic game consists of several things in the game world that the player can interact with. The outcome of those interactions are influenced by rules of how things influence each other. The draw or the systemic game comes from when the possible combinations of interactions are large, interesting and unpredictable.

All games have systems, but not to the degree that makes it a systemic game. The physics systems of 3D games may allow players to traverse to places not intended by the creators. One example of this would be when you can climb walls by jumping on objects you managed to attach to the wall. Common systems in games are fire, water, construction and destruction. A sandbox game allows some sort of construction and has several interacting systems.


Dungeons & Dragons has had an enormous influence on computer games since its inception almost 40 years ago. Not only for the introduction of the concepts of experience points and gaining levels and character classes and looting and much much more. The Swedish variant Drakar och Demoner blew my mind when I first saw the game in a game store 30 years ago. It was the promise of boundless freedom. The game had no borders. You could go anywhere. You could do anything. That was the real draw of the role playing game. It has directly or indirectly greatly influenced all computer game developers.

My favorite games are story-based. The story and characters engage me to play because I care about them. The process of overcoming obstacles and achieving happiness is satisfying. That is basically the primary addiction.

Stories also allow you to engage with themes, explore concepts and reflect about life and people. There is a lot of wisdom out there for stories through the mediums of books, movies, rituals and tabletop role playing games. I have delved quite a bit into Joseph Campbell's depiction of the Hero's Journey.


Stories in games are handcrafted. It's typically a pre-authored story that you experience in cut scenes in between levels. The game-play consists of reaching the stated goal in order to get to the next part of the story and then on to the next level. This can work well enough if the story can stand on its own like a good book or movie and the game-play has you engaged. You will still experience agency if the story progresses in congruence with your desires.

Let's say you have a game with only one button. It's basically like an old paper book. Your action is to turn the page to the next part of the story. You are the protagonist. If everything that happens in the story is congruent with what you want to do, you will have your agency.

It will differ from person to person, but most story games have parts where the agency falters. You might want to go somewhere, say something or do something that the game doesn't let you do. It leads not only to frustration but also to the sense of entrapment. Loss of freedom. Your character in the game might be a proficient climber but is in this case unable to get over an insignificant obstacle just because the game designer doesn't want you to go that way. Your character might do something that you would never want to choose in the same situation. But you have no choice in the situation if you want to continue the game.

Game designers have several techniques to minimize the possible frustration points. But it's all just workarounds for the same intractable conflict between story and freedom. The better the story with characters, relationships and emotional journeys of growth, the more restrictions there will be on your freedom.

The branching story will accommodate a bit more freedom. But since this is just another version of the pre-authored story it will have the same limitations. It doesn't solve the combinatorial explosion of dependent outcomes. The creators may have developed ten different endings. They saved themselves a lot of work by doing variations of the ending. If the game would continue they would have to accommodate all those variants for the continued game. Real choice will result in limitless variations. It simply doesn't work with pre-authored stories with hand-written dialogues and custom animations.

Open world games will use isolation with contained side quests. They are pre-authored stories that have no influence on the content of other quests. They may use a system of faction relationships. That means that the designer of the quest has developed variants for accommodating your relationship with the person or faction. But every path and every interaction has been hand crafted and tested. More often than not you will find yourself in a situation where the dialogue or choice of actions doesn't make sense.

Systemic story games

My dream is to play a game that has both systemic object interactions and systemic story interactions. You would actually be able to find your own solutions to problems beyond what was thought about by the story authors. You could use the help from people of one side quest to find a creative solution to another situation. You could continue to develop relationships with anyone and see them react to your situation and the things you have done in the world. And all this would still be embedded in engaging story arcs with meaningful and thoughtful content. This would be a sandbox for learning about psychology, relationships, sociology, politics and life.


Written by Jonas Liljegren
Exploring unconventional methods in technology development to shape a better future.