Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Narrative Games

I'm very interested in this thread. It's a fairly interesting topic, and somewhat of a Holy Grail of Games: Making a game where the player is actually driving a story. Or at least feels like he is doing it.

I'd like to make a note here that, again, my requirements aren't quite as stringent as most people. I think a more advanced choose-your-adventure book (ACYAB) would be just fine. But others, god love 'em, are striving for something more. Which is decidedly good.

Anyway, it's a fairly huge problem. How do you make it feel like the player is actively moving a story along, hitting all the "beats?" Obviously, your typical pen-and-paper role-playing game does this with a nice human DM, who, if he or she knows what they are doing, can be reacting to the player's whims and wishes and improv the new storylines if that's what the other players want to do. But how does one let a non-player game component perform this function? In a board/card/book format no less. And then add the ability of being somewhat replayable?

I don't think it can happen. At least within trying to meet all the requirements that suit this particular Holy Grail.

Let's face it, the video game world, in all their advanced technological glory, hasn't been able to come very close to achieving this goal. The best narrative games, ones that try to tell a story, still make you follow an essential linear path. Sure there are side quests, but you are hardly in control of your own destiny. You can't make your character in Grand Theft Auto decide to go off and join the circus, for example. It does a fairly good job of letting you decide HOW to accomplish your goals along the way. But the goals themselves are laid out neatly in front of you.
Gotta make sure you hit those beats!

The Sims does an excellent job of providing a sandbox for letting you do what you want to do within a given scope; and yet, it is often derided as a toy (like most sim games) since it doesn't have a logical way to "win" the game. Yes, they do provide scenarios where you need to get your amusement park to make XXX dollars. But that doesn't seem to satisfy many people with the game aspect for some reason. Maybe, because the point of the game is to just screw around with your toys and make the thing YOU want, not some arbitary goal set by the game designers...

But wait? I thought that was the whole point of a narrative game? You know, let the player feel like he's the one setting goals. And somehow it's needs a complete story with all the "beats" and peaks and valleys of storytelling that go along with it. Again, I think a good DM can do this; I'm not really sure how well a deck of cards or a library of books can provide this given the infinite variations of a player's actions especially if you are trying to do something larger and cooler than an ACYAB. Then there's the dreaded replayability issue, and what happens if one player replays the "book" with another player who hasn't.

Anyway, I hope one of the guys on the thread can figure something out interesting from it. The use of books, or better yet, I think, of cards somehow to advance the story with expandable capabilites could turn out to be something very cool.

On a positive side note, this has gotten me back into the mindset of working on my "Restless" project again (a twist on an ACYAB). It's a "game" based on too much watching of haunted house investigation shows during 3AM baby feedings. In essense, Restless involves a solitaire player (or more) investigating a haunted house, using a slider card mechanism that hides entries in a book. So, if you are in the Cellar at 2:00AM, you look on the slider card for a reference number. This number gives you an entry in the book, which you then read what happens there. However, there is some stat keeping involved, and as events happen, you can become 'scared,' and getting scared too much forces you to leave the house. Multiple players in the same room can also give different readings as to what is happening. And based on your current stats, different things can happen. The goal is to simply try to determine what happened on that fateful night when the house became haunted. It has some amount of replay-ability, since you are only getting some parts of the story in some rooms at certain times. It's not a true game, but more of an elaborate interactive fiction story, where you have to determine what the story is.

As a side note, there is an interesting blog that talks about interactive fiction at great length, named Grand Text Auto. It's worth a peek if you are into that kind of thing.


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