Narrative and Consequences

The holy grail of narrative game design is a game with a carefully constructed narrative that players can influence to the same degree as their real lives. The goal is to have stories that are every bit as engaging as traditional narratives but created in such a way as to enable a rich variety of player experiences.

For games in which content is written primarily by human beings, creating such flexible narratives is almost certainly impossible given the number of potential choices for the player -- far too many for any author to account for. On the other hand, for games in which content might be generated dynamically with the aid of computer algorithms, current Artificial Intelligence approaches aren't advanced enough to produce engaging narratives.

A less ambitious goal, therefore, is to make games in which players' decisions are limited but significant: limited because the possible choices and outcomes are only a small subset of those that would otherwise be available, and significant because the players' choices make sense to them and have a perceptible effect upon each game's environment. Even so, merging together narrative and gameplay is difficult to accomplish successfully.

Players should be offered meaningful choices

"Is doing X a better choice than doing Y? Why?"

For players to make effective decisions they need more information than games of this type typically provide. A game's narrative should be crafted in such a way that players can, in most cases, make informed decisions. This doesn't mean that optimal choices should be obvious or require no work to ascertain, but that players should be given the chance to foresee, to a reasonable degree, the possible consequences of their actions. Always provide enough information for players to have some idea of what the outcomes of their actions might be.

Players shouldn't be afraid to make decisions

"What if I make the wrong decision? Can I try again or am I stuck with it forever?"

Players may fear the possible consequences of their actions, leading to what some people call "analysis paralysis". It may be that players lack sufficient information as to the possible outcomes of their choices, or it may be the game is designed in such a way that players expect the consequences of their actions to follow them for the rest of the game. Players should have enough confidence in the game's design to know their experiences will not be ruined by making the "wrong" choices. Avoid long-term negative consequences and allow players to recover from undesirable outcomes.

Players shouldn't feel like they're missing out

"What would've happened if I'd done Y instead of X? What if the alternate ending was better?"

Having multiple paths for players to follow means players don't get to see all of your story. While this conceivably adds to the game's replay value, there are players who would rather not play through the entire game a second time just to see the parts they missed. Alternate endings are often little more than a gimmick, a testament to the narrow set of choices offered to players. Consider whether paths not chosen really add to the player experience and keep in mind that a narrow set of choices does not truly afford a sense of freedom.

Avoid the illusion of choice

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

It may be tempting to have a large number of alternatives for players to choose from, but if all the alternatives lead to the same outcome then all you're doing is providing the illusion of choice. As already stated, providing significant choices means that players' choices actually make a difference in the game. Avoid offering choices that don't make any difference.

Narrative puzzles

In light of the fact that players' choices are severely limited compared to real life, avoid shallow, falsely personalized narratives in the style of "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories and instead make your narrative elements integral parts of your games' puzzles -- into parts of the games' mechanics. Just like some games call for the manipulation of objects in solving puzzles, games with narrative puzzles call for the manipulation of dialogue and story elements in pursuit of each puzzle's solution. This avoids the problem of complicated branching while still providing meaningful choices in the context of each game's narrative.


James Broadhead said…
Hi! I typed up a response to this piece, but ran into a 4096-character-limit.

Some friendly disagreement :)
Anonymous said…
Hi, I agree with most of you points. It would be nice to see game designers today had taken those within the consideration when design their game. Player driven story/ dynamic choices are one of the trends today and I can see many new gen games like dragon age, mass effect uses this player choice method. Many new mmo’s such as rift online also taken this approach to create a dynamic player experience, and I can see it also come down to the points you mentioned.

However, I think a few points you mentioned are a bit contradiction and could be hard to come with a right balance.

To avoid illusion of choice, would mean to create an after effect or a consequence with choosing that dialogue. If the outcome does not create a major affect on the game story, it would create another illusion of choice. But if the outcome does create an after effect, it would cause player afraid to make the decision.

An example I could think of is in the game dragon age where your companion is giving you a dialogue choice, and determine on your choice, they would either stay with you party, leave your party or die. While this does create a more believable environment, it made me stop and look online for the outcome of choices (afraid to make decisions).

With a numerous of dialogue choices. I agree completely on your point where player should not feel like missing out. An example in dragon age, where you are given a choice to flirt with an inn lady. While a sensible choice would be not doing it, however player will be tempted to see the outcome of this event. This causes player to reload their save frequently. What frustrating is when the outcome of those choices are shown only at the end game. Which would causes players to play through the whole game and restart just to see that event. Many player such as myself would not be bothered and would rather go and read the walkthrough which could possible lead to spoilers of other parts of the story (bad).
Anonymous said…
You know, games could benefit from a well-designed "Experience" class.

Humility, Pride, Revenge, Surprise, Fear, Regret, Love, Hate, Stressed, Rushed, Relaxed, Contentedness, Safety, Hope, Disappointment, Joy, Amazement, Satisfaction, Justified, Dominant, Powerful, Weak, Dependent

If you could map these experiences to in-game events, dynamic content would be much more feasible.

I don't think we'll see any software capable of generating realistic narrative details any time in the next century, but I don't think mapping emotions and experiences to in-game events is too much of a stretch. With something like that in place, dynamic content could be taken further without worrying so much about the consequences. Players could miss out on this or that, even plunge themselves into hardship, because they can trust that the system will eventually even the score.
Allen Webster said…
I think everyone has some confusion on this topic. A careful reader will notice the contradiction here in this post. Don't leave the player feeling like their choice is irreversible and don't leave the player wishing to see the other routes the story could have taken VS don't create an illusion of choice where every choice just leads to the same result.

These are incompatible ideas: don't have a branching story vs do have a branching story.

Firstly, the decision on whether to have a branching story or not has to come down to more than just "does it make a good game". Having a branch is about the idea that our actions have consequences, it makes a statement. Having the illusion of choice is about the idea that sometimes things are outside of our control, it makes a different statement.

Further there is this constant line of "The player's choice should actually matter in the game." What does that mean? What would make it matter? Getting different dialogue? Really? I say if you really want to make my choice matter, change the mechanics of the game. Then my choice really does matter to the game.
Adrian Lopez said…
I fail to see the contradiction. You can have choices without a branching narrative, or indeed a narrative of any kind. You can have a linear narrative and still incorporate that narrative into the game's mechanics.
Anonymous said…
But if the choices cannot affect the narrative. Does it really matter? Or is the choice just an illusion. Making choices means affecting outcomes. If for example I decide that A should overthrow B as king and make that happen in my game, if they both provide the same number of soldiers to help me fight the dragons at the end, and if I never get to return and see how things are different with A or B. My choice had no impact.

You say "Avoid offering choices that don't make any difference" and that players shouldn't feel like they're missing out because they made a certain choice. In order for a choice to make a difference, the result for the player must be meaningfully different from the alternative.
Anonymous said…
One more thing. Your point about trying to avoid the player being afraid of the wrong choice is flawed. Why? Because if the player is afraid to make a wrong choice that means you've succeeded making the player CARE about his choice. You've immersed the player in your world and he is considering the ramifications of his actions. That is exactly the goal of choice-based narrative.

I agree though that it is necessary not to make the consequences severe for a given choice. There should not be "right" or "wrong" choices. Simply choices with meaningfully different outcomes that will affect the narrative and make the player feel like his actions are meaningful and consequential.
Adrian Lopez said…
"But if the choices cannot affect the narrative. Does it really matter?"

Choices can affect things other than the narrative, or they can affect the narrative in ways that don't produce "Choose Your Own Adventure" kinds of experiences.

"In order for a choice to make a difference, the result for the player must be meaningfully different from the alternative."

Yes. Choices should make a difference, but choices can have effects other than navigating narrative branches.

"Your point about trying to avoid the player being afraid of the wrong choice is flawed. Why? Because if the player is afraid to make a wrong choice that means you've succeeded making the player CARE about his choice."

I'm not saying players shouldn't care about the choices they make, nor that choices should be free of negative consequences. I'm saying the game shouldn't discourage experimenting with different choices.
Anonymous said…
I think I should worry about the consequences to my actions, but not so much that i look through a walk through and spoil the experience for myself
Seraphian said…
I think there's a few levels of player control, especially in the Visual Novel context.

Sometimes the "illusion of control" is a good thing, when you need to talk a long time branching the dialogue a bit with some choices avoids your game becoming minimally-interactive, something many VN suffer from, especially in the introduction sequence. Something as simple as allowing the player to decide to be friendly or initially wary, "Who you calling 'new girl'?" versus "yup, that's me, I'm new" might not have any points or stats impact and might only affect a few lines of dialogue (in the intro you probably don't want to start already handing out affection points after all, before players understand the context and characters a bit better).

Not all choices have to make MECHANICAL difference, sometimes a little branching dialogue for roleplaying's sake is useful in allowing a player to place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist. It rips many people right out of a game when their only option to the tsunedere's insults about your intellect is to passively take their abuse, let the player speak up for themselves if they want to! It's little minimal branches that combine with big deeply meaningful branches to give the illusion of a living world and provide for a deeper game.

In the same way, not every choice you make is deeply consequential but they provide the player with control. This is tied heavily to the type of game you want, I prefer more game/sim and less straight-up kinetic novel with minimal branching. Either has their fans, but for the stories I tell sometimes a little light branching along with the hard branching is very useful to keep the player in driver's seat mode not passive observer mode.
selena montana said…
To get in touch with your booster, you may use the live chat in the members area onDivision Boost - - Professional League of Legends Boosting & Coaching service!.

Popular posts from this blog

Controlling Aspect Ratio in Unity

Don't think "random", think "statistics"