Authorial direction, replayability, and player narrative

Some years ago, while I was still working actively on the Imperium project, I wrote a bit on the subject of Narrative in strategy games, where I speculated on whether less structure in a game story actually gave richer narrative. As Will Wright pointed out in his 2007 SXSW talk: “Players invariably come up with stories about what they did in games. They’re never describing a cut scene.”

This relates a lot to a discussion I’ve seen repeated a few times when browsing the interactive fiction community – whose story is being told? The traditional interactive fiction/choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) approach is very author-driven; even though you – as the player – are making choices, you’re making them within a tightly limited framework. Every action – every connection – in the game has been painstakingly mapped out by the writer. Which is pretty amazing, because doing this is a huge amount of work (if you don’t believe that, try to write even a small choose-your-own adventure sometime). But I’m not convinced it is the right approach in a game.

Interactive fiction has been making a strong come-back on mobile devices, with many of the past masters returning to bring their CYOA books to an entirely new audience. It turns out that people like to read good stories (who would have guessed). One problem I do have with these games, though, is their limited replayability. Once you’ve seen the good ending, there is very little incentive to go back and play again. The more choices a game includes, the fewer players will actually get to see it. This is actually one place where the book medium is superior to apps/games; if you’ve finished playing through a CYOA book, you can always page through the book and see what other endings were possible without too much effort. That is rarely possible in a digital gamebook.

I really like the approach to solving this that Inkle Studios have taken, where they essentially allow the player to “rewind” the game to any previous choice, and continue on from there. It is still an approach tied up in the “physical” origin of the medium though; which is why I find the approach taken by Failbetter Games (Fallen London) more interesting. Sadly some of the really cool blog posts they did on this seem to have disappeared, but basically, the game(s) are based around these multiple short chunks of text (storylets). These texts are intentionally kept short, because – as noted on their site – player’s will skim any text that they are forced to read more than a few times.

The storylets are tied together by the stats/traits of the players – completing a storylet rewards the players with a stat/trait, and as the player gains these, more and more stories open up to the player. This is a branching narrative, but one where the player drives the narrative to a much greater extent than in regular IF. These are the stories that player’s enjoy retelling. I find the mechanisms for this fascinating.

I hope to attempt something very similar in Pirates and Traders 2. Player’s of the original will already be familiar with the text-based missions in the game; a few of which tie together in longer “epics”. This is actually pretty similar to the Storylet concept, except that the glue binding the stories together is either non-existent (the small random missions), or completely deterministic (the epics). My plan for P&T2 is to create more missions that are loosely coupled with each other, with the glue being player character’s traits and relations to NPCs (compared to Fallen London, that may perhaps be the unique aspect of my approach). So in one game, story A leads on to story B, whereas in the next story A occurs, but you never see story B or – if you do – it occurs in a completely different context. This is key to replayability in a narrative – each re-telling of the story has to be unique.

As a writer, it means abandoning much of the authorial control over the story flow, and trusting in the game systems and the player. At it’s best, this can result in some amazing narratives, especially if one can get the story aspects to respond closely to the choices and actions of the player. There are no guarantees that what the game system puts together is a cohesive story, though – the game essentially relies on the player’s ability to smooth out any inconsistencies, fill in the blanks, and put together a sensible narrative from the different parts presented. This is the player’s story – not the writer’s.

I’m looking forward to finding out how well that works.