Monday, October 31, 2011

Narrative Games Redux

If you're not familiar with the basic argument about the role of narrative (story) in games, this essay is not a good place to start. This essay is about a specific approach.

I'd like to talk about the idea of adaptive narrative. That is, a story which changes as you interact with it, and not with a dialog tree.

If you're like me, you've played Heavy Rain. If not, a quick summary is: the game has no real gameplay, it's mostly a giant branching path story where you try to figure out who the killer is. Spoiler: it's the one person who's definitely not he killer.

As games go, Heavy Rain is a bit of a bust, more like an interactive movie where you can choose which characters die, when.

If you're like me, you've played the old Blade Runner adventure game. There are several games where you are investigating a crime in something like real time, and the NPCs are also advancing in their own plots at the same time. Blade Runner is simply the oldest one I know about. Like most of these games, the way you can interfere with other characters' scripted timelines means that there are a wide variety of endings. Like Heavy Rain, it features not a whole lot of actual gameplay... but it's an adventure game, so that's par for the course.

If you're like me, you've played Catherine, known for its combination of box-pushing puzzle sections and fan service. If you haven't played Catherine, you may be unaware of its bar and nightmare plateau scenes, where you can talk to people, let time pass, and in general feel like you're impacting on their lives. Catherine has gameplay, but it could be replaced with any gameplay you care to name and nobody would notice: it has no relation to the story progression.

In my long history of failing to create adaptive narratives, I've tried many things. But I'd like to consider an approach based on these three games.

The core of the idea is that there are other characters, and they do things in some kind of (probably scripted) timeline. While time doesn't have to advance at a constant march, the point is that their stories advance when yours does.

There are three kinds of "inflection points" I'd like to consider. That is to say, there are three ways I'd like to let the player interact with the NPCs.

1) When the NPC's timeline brings them into collision with the PCs timeline during an event sequence. This could be happenstance (they rob a bank you happen to be at) or it could be that one of you is seeking the other out on purpose. Either way, the interaction offers a clear chance to change the trajectory of one or both characters. This is a common method used by branching plotlines today.

2) When the player, in his free exploring, sticks his nose into an NPC's life. AKA "sidequest syndrome". To be honest, I don't like this this method. Most games that use this method do not use it to radically alter anything, they are primarily subquests or only affect very minor characters. For example, the romance plots in Mass Effect, or the way you can try to free the slaves in any Jedi game ever. This is mostly distinct from type 1 in that they rely on the player exploring to the right physical place and then putting his life on hold to do some subquest.

3) Lastly, a subset of NPCs (and the player) can gather into one place when they are "off duty". These are quiet times in everyone's plot lines, and serve much the same role as a safehouse in a horror game.

In these sections, you can talk to a lot of different NPCs, perhaps in phases as the "off duty" time wears on. You will get to know them better as characters, and form a bond with them. There is also the option of interfering with their plotlines by giving them items, advice, or introducing them to other NPCs.

It's this "off duty" section I'd like to see more of.

Right now, most of our adaptive narratives are set around the idea of giving the player an illusion of freedom while, at most, offering them two choices. Basically, if you can imagine it, the current method is a lot of parallel lines that occasionally jitter slightly to one side or the other as the player bumps them.

The "off duty section" method is more like if those parallel lines converge - three meet here, five meet there. Then they separate and go back to being parallel. This has a lot of advantages, in theory:

A) Keeping up with the Joneses. Because the off duty sections are reliable as a heartbeat, the players can get updated on how the plot line of each character is progressing. It serves as a regular and centralized way to keep up to date with everyone. This allows for many plot lines to be active at once, and for a much longer period of time, rather than the short bursts of sidequests most games use.

B) Deflection as gameplay. By bringing everyone together, you can weave the plot lines in a regular fashion, such that the momentary lulls appear at more or less the same time for every character. The player then has to choose which characters will receive his resources and help, and in what way. So you take an ordinary set of simple branches, and suddenly there is choice and gameplay.

C) Closed-world. This system works great in a non-open-world game, where the player is not allowed to randomly wander into the NPCs' normal lives. In this way, a lot of the scenes and activities of the NPCs can be "just talk", rather than actually being represented in the game engine or with cutscenes.

That's my thinking. You?


Christopher Weeks said...

The difference that you're noting between 1, 2 and 3 are just how the PC and the NPCs come together, right? That seems like a pretty trivial distinction (which means I'm probably missing the crux of your concern) and like the real thing you want to look at when considering adaptive narrative is what the player(s) can do with/to the NPCs -- regardless how they've come together.

You note that you don't like #2 and you seem to be saying that the reason is that the player can't radically alter anything -- thus the approach merely spawns sidequests. Do I have that right? If so, isn't the thing to look at allowing the player to make radical changes?

Craig Perko said...

Ahh, apparently I wasn't clear.

The distinction is in the scaffold it gives the player.

Type 3 isn't distinct in that it allows the player to make larger changes. It's distinct in that it gathers together a large number of characters, repeatedly, in the lulls of their plot lines.

IE, type 3 is about many plots progressing at the same time, and the player being given the opportunity to keep up with all of them. Type 2 is about a single tiny shard of plot happening when the player searches for it.

Phobosis said...

It looks like the advantage of side-quest type over safehouse type narration is ability to focus on one plot.

Maybe it's something like Dunbar's number

but when I find myself in safehouse environment, such as Mass Effect 1/2 Normandy or Final Fantasy 8 Balamb Garden, I usually can only concentrate on one plot and on one NPC (or set of NPCs in one plotline), effectively turning it into sidequest model for me.

My biggest gripe with "big" environments, ie scenes with multiple active plot elements (NPCs in this case) is that their exploration can turn into a chore.

In most games, if you don't want to miss any content or plot, you have to talk with each and every one NPC, and can't focus on things you're interested in because by taking actions (instead of first hearing what each of 50+ guys in this area has to say) you risk disabling some or all other NPCs by advancing the plot and turning all events of this point invalid, for example.
I hated this in otherwise excellent Planescape: Torment even more than horrible, meaningless battles.

You obviously don't want to miss anything, so you brace yourself for huge infodump, notice some interesting quests and impatiently read everything else to get to those damned quest already.

So while safehouse is great to establish pace, I'm not so sure that it's a best place for narration.

Craig Perko said...

Have you ever tried it?

It's not like sidequests. These are not NPCs which are just randomly in the same universe.

These are NPCs whose plot line entangle with yours and each other's. And the point to it is that it is not a chore to explore.

You're taking attributes you hate about type 1 and 2 encounters, and saying that therefore they are better than type 3 encounters.

Phobosis said...

I'm just curious if there's a hard limit on player's attention that won't allow us to monitor all the NPC plotlines.

I mean, in this encounter type we won't have to manually click on each guy to receive information alright. But if there are multiple guys with simultaneous stories (entangled with our plot) at once, will we really care for each one?

Remember Facade, interactive narration game? There were only two NPCs, but I've found it pretty hard to meaningfully interact with both of them at once so I eventually had to abandon one of the guys.
Maybe it's just me and my attention, of course.

Taking cue from tv shows, maybe switching spotlight from one NPC to another could be a good idea.

Well, looking at Jensen' sour "alright, okay, I'll do that" answer to each NPC quest-giver in Deus Ex:HR, I agree, sidequests today are pretty silly, something must be done about it :]

Craig Perko said...

I wouldn't do more than six NPCs at once, and usually I'd probably try to cap it at four. However, as long as the plots unfold slowly, are entangled with or echo your plot, and the characters are iconic, it shouldn't be too hard to keep track.