The Promise of Adventure

The impossible dream of freedom in story games

· 10 min read
The Promise of Adventure

Imagine a game where you inhabit a living breathing world with the freedom to go anywhere you want. Find your own unique solutions to the problems you encounter. Befriend any NPC on your way and form lasting relationships.

This is part of the series about my design for a Systemic story game. This part and Everything wrong about hand-written narrative compares systemic with hand-written narrative. Other parts will go into details of how to make this “impossible” dream possible. (And that is without any need for advanced AI.)

A Story-driven game has events throughout the game that contribute to the beginning, middle and end of the story, through dialogue and world interactions that advances the plot. Those games can be classical RPGs, text adventures, action-adventures or anything else with an unfolding story.

There is a sort of common wisdom in game development that player freedom has to be sacrificed in order to create a more emotional meaningful story experience. That is why the emotional story parts often are created with hand-written narrative and cutscenes. Rather than compromise, I believe we can have both the sandbox gameplay together with the top-quality story.

Who cares about game stories?

There are many factors that make it hard to clearly know just how many people enjoy story-based games, regardless of the type of game they spend most of their time with. Among everyone who plays games, a large amount of playtime is spent in multi-player games where the focus is on the social aspects rather than the story. There are also a lot of people who play multiplayer games as if they were single-player. There are also some players who focus on the story in social multiplayer games. The statistics for the most played games will give the wrong impression since story-based games have a limited playtime. The multiplayer games have a longer total play-time and often a larger player-base since many of them are free to play. Among the most played games on Steam only 8% was primarily single-player games.

One source from Statista from 2022 says that half of PC and console gamers spent most of their time playing alone. When I last looked at Steam charts two thirds of the most played single-player games were story-based. There is also a smaller portion that plays story-based games but ignores the story and will skip cutscenes even on a first playthrough. That totals to about 33% that enjoys the story of story-based games.

We can broadly divide story-driven games into linear and branching games. I’m using branching here in the sense that the player will be locked out of narrative content based on choices in the game. Based on partial statistics from Quantic Foundry, there is about 35% who prefer the linear story, 50% who like the branching story and 15% who have no preference.

I don’t have data for the overlap of branching preference with story-preference, but I estimate it to be about 20% that would prefer non-linear story-driven games. This is all very approximate. The point is that even if most people may not see the draw of freedom of choice, there are a portion of gamers who do.

As to the type of player, it's related to the Bartle Explorer, the Quantic Bard, the Big Five Open or the Hexad Free Spirit.


Story-driven games are easier to do as a single-player game. Places and events are put together specifically for the experience of the player. Introducing more people will severely restrict the experience. The story beat that will work for player 1 may not fit with player 2.

A tabletop roleplaying game master will adapt places, people and events for the choices of the group. That will still work for co-operative games, but not so much for competing players. Many MMO games have solved this problem by creating instances, where each group will get its own version of a place not touched by the actions of other groups. The same goes for quests where the same quest will be available for each player or each group.

The introduction of multiple players will also limit the use of time, as for fast-forwarding all boring parts or even going back in time if you want to try something different. You would also have to handle what happens when the player is off-line, among many other things that come with a multiplayer game.

The type of Systemic story game I’m propagating for will not use instanced locations or quests. It can be made to work for multiple players or even massively multiplayer, but it will make the implementation much harder and limit the possibilities to optimally shape the story to each single player.


Being immersed is the feeling of being present in the game world. It will evoke the emotions of real life. For me, it can have an effect similar to a lucid dream, flying through the land. You are transported and absorbed and lose awareness of the before. This can be a partial or complete experience. Absorption is a normal psychological trait related to dreamers, dissociation, meditation, suggestibility, flow and the like.

Immersion can take place with any media, such as daydreams, verbal storytelling, books or movies. The feeling of immersion is not conditional on advanced graphics. Computer games have had the potential of being immersive since the beginning. But there is an aspect of hedonic adaptation in the works. The first time you see something in a game that reminds you of your world experience, it will help your immersion. After a while you may get used to the experience and automatically classify your sensations as coming from the game, thus lessening the experience. I think this may be a factor of the never-ending drive to increase graphical fidelity in games.

Animations that look natural can help immersion, even if it's just a few pixels as with Choplifter on C64. But you will also have to look past the things in the game that aren't immersive. The ability to do that will depend on individual differences in the ability to be absorbed, the level of engagement and personal tastes or beliefs that have to be willingly suspended. Unexpected sensations that don't remind you of your world have the risk of breaking the immersion.

There are many things games can do to facilitate immersion, like idle animations, ambient sounds, trees blowing in the wind and so on. The environment can be painted with words or even suggested by established icons. I love the immersion of moving through 3D worlds in 1st or 3rd person perspective.


Freedom can make the game more interesting and is a way to improve immersion. Based on a reddit article, I’m going to cover freedom under the topics of mechanics, traversal and story. These correspond to the concepts of Volition, Autonomy and Agency. Most discussions about freedom in games usually refer to just one or two of these.


The mechanics connect you to the world. The responsiveness of the control will let you embody your avatar. The world should react to everything you do. The ability to touch the grass, move objects and leave your mark will enhance the immersion.

Volition is your ability to act according to your will. Anything that temporarily blocks your actions will diminish your volition. For example, if a door can’t be opened because of a scripted quest that requires you to do something else first. If there is an object you should be able to push but it doesn't react. Cutscenes are another example of something that takes your volition away.

The basic actions you use are often called verbs. I don’t like to use interact as a verb, since that will mean very different things depending on the context. The verb should be directly mapped to a specific movement of your avatar. That will not only enhance the embodiment, but also make the actions easier to understand. It will also remove the worst of the downside of the contextuality when you are on the edge of switching context. See my suggestion for embodied manipulation.

It should be clear what you can do in the world and what effect you can expect from your actions. Ideally, anything seen in the world should interact with everything else according to rules you can learn to understand and use to your advantage. The combination of all the player equipment and abilities with everything in the environment should create a possibility space large enough to give players the freedom to choose their own approach according to their playstyle and preference and give them the ability to find their own uniquely clever solutions for what they want to do. This type of Systemic Environment giving you tactical freedom can be seen in many sandbox games, CRPGs and immersive sims.


The freedom to explore anywhere you want. You should not be locked to a specific area because of a specific quest. You may be trapped in a room, but you should be able to use all the mechanics and environment to try to escape if you want. No blocked actions. No invisible walls. No indestructible doors. This will build on your volition to increase your Autonomy; the power to make your own plans.

A character that can or should be able to jump and climb should also be able to get up on objects in the world. Unclimbable rubble or invisible walls restricts your autonomy. Rubble blocking passages are all too often used in linear games to keep the player on the right path. Some linear action-adventure games have started using wide-linear levels where you have the freedom to choose a couple of different paths or at least feel like you have the choice of path, but still end up in the same place at the end of the level. The design of the level with rubble and highlighted paths are of course meant to serve the pacing of the hand-written narrative. All the resources can be focused on a limited set of locations that are needed for the story.

Even open worlds often have places with invisible borders or indestructible objects just so that they can function in specific scripted quests. That is an effect of the old way of doing quests where it becomes too hard to make the quests work if the player has the freedom to visit and affect places in the wrong order. It's often done with an object you must interact with, that only becomes available according to the quest progression. The better alternative is to use Systemic Story to adapt quests to anything the player has done.

The possibility to go everywhere will also introduce numerous ways to get stuck. The locking down of places and actions are often a way to avoid puzzles getting to an unsolvable state. Quest items can be lost or destroyed. Doors can be buried under tons of rubble. Important characters can die. Or you could find yourself in a hole with nowhere to go. Handling all this with a traditional hand-written narrative would be too much work. See my article about traversal freedom for more about what happens if the player is stuck.

Some games use procedural generation in order to populate a world with objects. Most open worlds use those algorithms during the development of the world, so they don’t have to hand-place each tree and blade of grass. With a set random seed, the world will look the same for every player, and that also allows the game to be fine-tuned with hand-crafted details that overrides the procedural parts.

For a Systemic story game, that can adopt the story based on player choice, the actual locations can be kept undetermined until the player actually gets knowledge about it. The simulation that updates the world will only simulate the parts that the player has in memory, gradually phasing out the details as the possibility-space grows. This will allow the virtual game-master to relocate story elements based on which clues the player decides to follow.


The Agency to affect significant and lasting change in the world and shape your future. That doesn’t mean that you will automatically succeed in anything you do. The world will remember the things you have done and react accordingly.

A good story usually has an arc with a promise in the beginning that gets fulfilled in the end, with emotional depth, a cohesive theme and much more. As part of the story and character development, there usually needs to be a low point that finally forces the protagonist to give up one of their prevailing faulty assumptions about life. The events in most great story games are carefully crafted to serve the theme and arc for the future resolution. They would lose their impact if the player avoided the misfortune that the story needed.

Story-based games usually set up limitations in order to keep the story on track. This is usually done by restricting where the player can traverse, what things the player can interact with, available dialogue options, or with scripted events or cutscenes. No matter what you do, your character will get themself into trouble. Great care is put into the framing to create parity between the player and what the player character must do. Agency is upheld if the game succeeds in making the player want to do the things that progresses the story.

A game with linear narrative is described as railroading. For players there the parity is not upheld, this becomes a problem. More often than not, you will smell the coming ambush and be frustrated that your avatar had no autonomy to prepare and be more careful. Even worse is when the avatar is forced to do things that the player absolutely doesn't want to do, as in making an NPC upset, saying stupid things, or even killing people when you would rather avoid them or make friends. As a pacifist, this is something that frustrates me in almost every chapter of every action-adventure game.

One of the most common critiques of games with branching narrative is that choices that felt important did not have the impact they hoped for. Why bother making the choice if it doesn’t matter in the end? Most game developers try to make the choices feel impactful, but there is a certain percentage of the players that are left unsatisfied. The limits of branching narrative is that every combination takes additional development resources. Some players see how outside events again and again push them back to the main branch.


A lot of people want more freedom in games. A Systemic Story game can avoid many frustrations of hand-written narratives, without sacrificing the character development, emotional depth and dramatic tension of the story. The development will be gradual and take many iterations before they will surpass the fidelity of current AAA story-based games. It will be worth it. More to come.

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