Emergence Room

As I already pointed out, I see a huge value and especially a unique trope of game stories in emergent narration (also often dubbed “player stories”). Many developers, both AAA and Indie, try to build on the idea of highly systemic games that have no set embedded narration, but live through their story emergence. On 2014’s GDC, Irrational Games’ Ken Levine talked about a systemic game design concept at the core of a fictitious emergent narration game. From the bottom of my heart I appreciate such approaches and look forward to the narrative possibilities, as I see the future of game stories in this kind of storytelling – the stories spawned are always meaningful to the player and are driven by his or her efforts to play the game (being a storytelling device no other medium can yield).

The goal of emergent narration, as I perceive it, is the following: We want the players to encounter the same amount of thrill and quality in their emergent stories as they experience through linear media – not through telling them but through having them experience these stories driven by their own actions. I order to do so, we have to craft believable ecosystems in which the player can act as he or she pleases, so that each and every combination of actions creates meaningful and exciting events. These of course need not be pre-written but rather system-emerging, yet they have to convey powerful emotions still.

And at the moment I see a couple of problems with that. Not that I doubt that these achievements are possible, but I see the problem rather in the approach than in the idea. The issues I perceive can be summarized as follows:

  • Usability: If the player has great freedom, he or she needs to know where the borders of this freedom are.
  • Loss of embedded content: If we embrace the “player story” so much, we endanger ourselves to lose the embedded story instead of combining them to get the best of both worlds.
  • Consistency: Especially in games with randomized events (or through player disregard), stories or combinations of events can easily appear hilarious or unfitting.

Luckily, these are not unsolvable problems:

Usability

Problem

The usability problem I see in systemic games with high degrees of freedom is that the player might easily get lost in his or her possibilities. Additionally, players might not know what exactly they are capable of (so what the elements of the game system are) or in what degree their actions affect events and NPC behavior.

Solution

This is the easiest problem to solve, as communication is usually the key to it. If the player gets informed through a tutorial or a less classical approach to teaching him or her the game mechanics, the confusion can very easily be overcome. The player needs to be familiarized with each and every component of the game (but not with their recombination, as finding these out is the core of most systemic games) in order to make meaningful decisions.

The second part of the problem can very well be addressed through feedback. If the player gets an indication for which actions get noticed by the system and which are mere tools to hold the game elements together, he or she can decide on relevant game actions much easier. If, for example, the PC steals a car and parks it right in front of his or her spouse in order to impress them, then the player needs to know if the system recognizes this or just disregards it as a parked car with no tie to the NPC. Without such feedback, the player may easily feel betrayed or has his or her immersion into the game world broken as the freedom’s instability shines through. Having the player always have a look onto the game system makes things much more accessible for him or her, even if that means integrating HUD or abstract menus into the game (this will break the immersion in a far smaller degree than the consistency break of the system not recognizing the player’s actions – this is part of knowing that games are just exemplary depictions).

Loss of Embedded Content

Problem

The strength of pre-written content is that a distinct person or team can care for its quality and progression. If we exclude this part of game development from a game in order to completely embrace the emergence of systemic game design, we endanger just inverting the problem. When every game element is randomly constructed and consists just of the player’s interaction with the system, the overall experience can very easily feel dull, repetitive or artificial.

Solution

This one-way result can be prevented if embedded narration is not demonized but instead though of as a tool at the hand of the designer and writer, capable of improving the liveliness of the game world. Let me give you two examples how this combination can be achieved.

Example 1

Let’s take the theoretical game Levine describes in the talk linked above – an open world Fantasy RPG (with fighting!) with different villages (dwarven, orcish a.s.o.), where each NPC’s sympathy towards the PC depends on the sum of about three individual dispositions, each representing a passion (e.g. “hates elves”, “wants a temple for the old gods”, etc.). In that game, to create player incentives, you could hide a number of legendary weapons in the game world. Each of these weapons have a distinct, pre-written legend to it, describing its origin, powers, previous owners and eventual loss to history. This enables the game to randomly decide the exact whereabouts of each weapon and their connection to the game world.

These connections could be NPC’s passions or backstories, which all are pre-written (but can also be randomly chosen from among a variety upon each playthrough). This way, each NPC is created with a number of pre-written plot hooks that can connect him or her to the treasure (e.g. family inheritance, secret hideout places, treasure maps etc.). Per plot hook, any part of the world’s lore can be connected to it, the legendary weapons being among them. Besides creating motivation for the player to learn about the NPC’s passions and backstories and to befriend them, this also enables the game writers to contribute to a believable game world without taking away any agency from the player.

To get this example a little bit more specific, let’s assume there is the legendary Sword of the Lion in the game world that causes earthquakes when rammed into the ground. The Sword’s origin and story can be traced inside of the game (e.g. through library books or historians), and these sources can also contain hints on its wherabouts. But one player will find this sword through befriending the Orc Smith who found a secret diving spot on her favorite fishing site, while another player might dig up the sword in the cellar of his just-married Dwarven husband, and yet a third might come across the sword atop a magical tower that she gained access to through eliminating a tribe of wood fairies that magically hid the tower from human eyes.

Example 2

Instead of adding pre-written content to the game, instead a pre-written structure can be applied. To pick the easiest, let’s assume you want to spice up your emergent narrative through topping it with the three-act-structure. Though remaining completely emergent and player-controlled, the game will thus lead the player through 3 different (st)ages, where the game elements of possible decisions (and, depending on the game, random recombinations) vary in degrees of epicness, tragedy or danger. This could also mean a different context for each of the stages (beautiful summer, harsh autumn and deadly winter, for example) that forces the player to rethink each of the available game actions and elements as they are set in different contexts.

Hence, a general structure and possibly also a distinct ending (e.g. through time pressure) can be put on a systemic sandboxy game, helping to forge a story with a type of arch and progression we can relate to as it is akin to the linear types of narration we are used to from entertainment media.

Consistency

Problem

The core problem I experience with the immersion of emergent games is the feeling of some game elements or events being hilarious, inappropriate to a certain situation or presenting an anticlimax unaware of previous events. This can stem from ignorance inside of the system or from pure negligence from the player’s side (which isn’t much of a problem in a singleplayer game, but can destroy other player’s immersion in a (massively) multiplayer environment). Especially Maxis’ “The Sims” has managed to present some really puzzling occurrences at some point, like a llama-dressed college promoter at a wedding party.

I am aware of the fact that this is in fact only a problem of games that integrate pre-written content into their system. Purely systemic games (like Civilization) do not have this problem as the choice of game actions is abstract and self-restricting enough that inconsistent choices are nearly absent.

Solution

To address this problem, one has to differentiate between the two named sources of inconsistency: Player unpredictability and interactions of game events. I will illustrate each of these with short examples.

Player Unpredictability

Please note that there is no point in blaming the player for performing these actions, as the utter ignorance of the game for certain actions can yield a great deal of fun, which is a valuable part of emergent narration that should not be ignored. Instead of restricting player freedom for the sake of sacredness of the art, I advocate playing with the unpredictability of the audience. In order to keep up consistency, integrating the player’s possible ambiguity to the narration and having such events have consequence is a much better solution in my eyes. The Elder Scrolls Games, for example, do not punish the player for running around naked (other than the mechanical loss of armor protection) but instead have NPCs notice this fact and talking to them about it. This weaves another player action into the game by simply adding a new line of idle dialog, but with the advantage of increasing immersion and meaningfulness while still enabling the player to do as he or she pleases (and mocking his or her surroundings). The same can also be done for constantly jumping or dancing characters or other awkward actions.

As for more narrational moments, a player leaving his or her own wedding should not have the events wait for him or her to return (or just reset the level), but this player decision needs to become part of the game, too. To not having to write (and record!) an adequate line per NPC for each situation, each game event could simply have a termination scenario that triggers when the player actively ignores or destroys events. Imagine, for example, a burning house the player comes across. Should the player decide to ignore the house fire, the inhabitants die (instead of waiting for the character to come back for them). I know that such design decisions have been abandoned previously in some game’s designs on purpose so to not force the player to do things, but it contributes a huge part to the feel that the player’s actions have a real impact on the world – and can also keep up replayability.

Also, events could even build upon the player’s unpredictability. In the above wedding example, how about there is an assassin present at the wedding that can only be spotted and hindered when the player leaves the ceremony? This is an example that should not trigger always, of course – these events need to rely on previous player actions or random factors in turn, according to the game’s design principles. Correspondingly, what about a certain treasure can only be obtained from the burning house when the endangered inhabitants are ignored and not rescued?

I do not argue that a game should have an answer to every possible player action (as this would be an unachievable task to accomplish) – but it should provide backdoors or reactions for each huge set of player actions (like a general termination scenario).

Interaction of Game Events

As I already pointed out, games like “The Sims” sometimes suffer from the inaptitude of game event interactions. And though Maxis’ game manages to deal with this quite well through the game’s intrinsic humor and irony, other games may not perform so well when dealing with randomized content or reactions.

In order to prevent game events from taking place during an inappropriate moment, a game could take advantage of assigning different moods to the current situation. This would limit certain random or player-kindled events to only become active during one of certain different moods. Hence, the random man in a chicken costume is hindered to break the funeral of a deceased child, as his “neutral” and “fun” moods do not fit the currently active “tragedy” mood.

An alternate solution would be to work on the transitions of game events. Like dominos, randomized content or AI decisions could have certain IN- and OUT-labels. Following this, an event with a specific IN-label can only take place right after or during a certain OUT-label event in its direct vicinity. This could also help serialize events to build upon each other and support the solution of rising tension curves mentioned above.

The most important remark on these “events” I talked about is that they should never stand just on their own. They can be used to re-contextualize the game environment, provide feedback to player actions or present incentives, but they must always be connected to other systemic game elements in order to keep up the consistency.

Conclusion

To sum this long post up, I wanted to help identify common narrational problems for emergent games and propose solutions to them, as I see emergent narration to be the future of interactive storytelling. I hope this post might help developing a distinct approach for this highly-acclaimed trope.

An Ever Ending Story

When I wrote my interactive fiction game “20-4-7” (currently only available in German, translation is in process), I wanted the players to experiment with possible consequences of their actions. The game is set on an airship with a bomb in it, and there are several ways to dismantle the bomb to save everyone aboard. It is also possible to have just one or two characters escape the ship with parachutes, or the player could just ignore the story line with the bomb and focus solely on the interpersonal relationships of the main characters. This would mean in most cases that the bomb goes off, killing all PCs. While this would be considered a proper ending for a linear narration (Titanic would not lose anything of the interpersonal story if all characters died at the end), it implied much more emotional investment for an interactive experience.

The players wanted to save the main characters. And while replaying the game and experimenting with different decisions and outcomes was the exact gameplay I had in mind when designing the game, focusing solely on the bomb story arch was not. So I added a disclaimer to the game, informing the players that the end with all main characters dying was not the “bad end” (and no “game over”), that they did nothing wrong in that case and that a catastrophe was still a decent end for such a fiasco-loaded game. Form that moment on, the players accepted the death of the main characters as a story solution and started to focus on the major part of the game that happens before the bomb goes off, instead of completely concentrating on the game’s ending.

And this got me thinking.

Game Endings Should Be Valued Less

“Multiple endings” is a big selling point for games these days. The number of different endings for a game seems to act as a criterion on a game’s interactivity. Just as in the example above, players seem to feel cheated of their freedom when all their efforts lead to the same outcome anyway. Regardless whether the meaningful choices they made led to no difference or make for two extra minutes at the end – as long as there are different endings, the game appears more interactive. This probably ought to enhance the game’s replayability, although five different lines of dialog at the end alone certainly do not do this. And though it could solve a lot of larger-scale story problems (like stories of game prequels, expanded universes or game worlds with heavy lore), a fixed ending for a game is considered bad. But why is that?

In my opinion, the ending of a game is too much in focus of both developers and players. Contrary to movies where all actions work towards the ending, and the ending itself is quite a big part of the experience – probably at least one 60th of screentime – the focus of a game lies in its middle part. And somehow this movie expectancy gets carried over to games, where suddenly the short ending – probably one 1000th of play time and in most cases not even interactive – is valued so much that an undesirable ending spoils the whole game for some.

Since developers know that quite well, they work satisfying endings into their games  – endings that many players will never see, for a large number of them does not continue playing a game to its very end. Should some writer dare to include a cliffhanger or open ending with unsolved questions into a game, he is soon forced to develop a sequel that leads the waiting community to a satisfactory ending (as happened to Scratches, for example). Also, unusual endings are often considered the “wrong” or “bad” ending for a game, which means that in fact there is only one right ending, the others just being punishments to the player for not playing right.

My dearest hope is it that endings of games will leave the focus of attention in terms of that people stop expecting happy endings – for the emotional investment games build up over their long play time can be used quite well for other intense ending releases like sadness (Final Fantasy X; Red Dead Redemption) or puzzlement (Bioshock Infinite).

Game Endings Should Be Valued More

As soon as we reach a point where the ending of a game is more than a mere means to reward the player for his or her investment a last time before shutting of the game, we can start concentrating on telling meaningful stories through a game’s ending. When we are not bound to please the player in a satisfactory way, we can start treating him as a mature entertainment customer that also endures sad, revealing or open endings.

This also means that I argue for not shying away for writing the occasional, mandatory “bad ending” – with dying main characters, world destruction, betrayal, confusion, and so on. At the moment, such endings seem to just disgust players. A great example for this was the ending of Quantic Dream’s Fahrenheit (you might know it as “Indigo Prophecy”) – eventually, the character will obtain god-like powers which he uses to destroy all of existence and create a new world. The ending was not well received, because of which Quantic Dream returned to rather conventional resolution in their follow-up game Heavy Rain. In fact, many players would not like Fahrenheit just because the ending did not please them, although it changed nothing about their play experience with the game (not even re-contextualize it).

Of course, some of my arguments do not refer to all types of (narrative) games. Some open world games like TES V: Skyrim do not have an ending. Sure, each story arch has an eventual resolution, but the game itself never ends. Assassin’s Creed games on the other hand use to have two endings per game: An in-animus ending (that usually concludes with a positive resolution) and an off-animus ending, that is usually an open-ended cliffhanger. Even crazier deviations from the classical endings are conceivable: Imagine a game with an interactive ending or with one that needs the player to break an eternal cycle (which the Stanley Parable does quite well).

So What Now?

To sum my point up, I would wish both players and developers to devalue the ending of a game so to value it more. Taking a step back from emotional investment and the connection of all of the game’s worth to the ending would enable the developers to tell more meaningful endings and derive them from a much broader range of tropes, while it would in turn enable players to value the sheer narrative and artistic worth of the ending instead of just conceiving it as a source of pleasure or possibly just another reward for their achievement.

Kill It Before it Dies!

It is interesting to see how naturally the topic of video games comes up in connection with violent activities. In reports about a German school shooting, a Final Fantasy game found in possession of the attacker has been connected to his violent nature. And while I certainly will not argue in favor of any validity of these arguments, I do see that there is quite a point in making these connections.

When looking at most games’ core loops, killing seems to be a necessary part of both their mechanics and their theme. This goes even so far that from German magazine PC Games’ list of Top 100 games, only about 19 of them do not include constant killing of other living beings as their core mechanic. And from these 19, at least two still include killing as a core theme in its story. The games without a killing core loop are mostly games that simply cannot include it due to their nature, i.e. sports games or Sim City.

To go even further, some games omit killing, but substitute it with quite a similar mechanic. The Dark Knight in Batman: Arkham Asylum for example swore never to take a life and instead beats his foes to the ground – but, I would argue, this is still a killing mechanic in a sense that its aim is to violently get rid of enemies. The Pokémon games do a similar thing – the situation of a “killed” Pokémon is reversible as it is only “knocked out”, but still the game’s core loop revolves around combat and defeating enemies.

Killing seems to be such a fundamental part of games, that even games with a totally different theme and story (like Bioshock: Infinite) use killing as their core mechanic – almost completely detached from the game’s story. Magic, too, becomes just another means of killing enemies in most games, and thus just another weapon at disposal, instead of a mysterious force that alters reality.

Why do we kill?

And there is absolutely no problem with all that. I perfectly see the reasons for all these decisions. Death is the greatest threat we know in real life. It is, as well, the greatest threat known to players, as the death of the PC (contrary to, for example, the loss of his or her family) translates into game vocabulary: Game Over. Thus, protecting one’s own life as well as one’s play progress is a big motivator (although, in many modern games, this is a pseudo-threat that does not pose any progression loss).

Also, the ability to kill at will is a unique characteristic that differentiates games from real life. The power this ability represents and the feeling of progression as the lines of enemies fall and decrease is a positive feedback that enhances the player’s experience, with the released adrenaline helping the immersion and emotional bonding.

Why not?

What I am arguing about is while there are several good reasons to include killing mechanics in a game, I do not see it being necessary. For the same reasons we see a rather small number of movie characters with a spectacular body count, interactive stories can also be told without the need for killing. Of course, such an established mechanic cannot be simply avoided without further thought. Therefore, other motivators need to be found. An example for this can be seen in social games, where the pressure of keeping up with your friends provides a motivator quite possibly greater than the fear of virtual  death.

As a matter of fact, whole genres have already successfully chosen other mechanics and themes for their core. Puzzle games, even in the hardcore line, have mechanics completely harmless. In games like Portal or Quantum Conundrum, you will not see much killing and violence, at least not against living beings other than the PC. Most point and click adventures also refrain from PCs that kill other persons, as do some survival horror games in the style of Amnesia (where enemies are not even attackable).

Point and Click Adventures also often embrace the possibilities a non-killing PC offers: Their personality can be picked from among a much broader range of characteristics, as it is not necessary for the character to be violent, tough or even able to hold a gun. A shy, cautious, hemiplegic and pacifistic PC suddenly becomes possible, which in turn allows for a great deal of inspiration for possible, plausible, and character-tailored game actions. All the while, the moral of PCs that constantly kill can easily get blurred. It is simply hard to present a character as the good guy when you have made him kill dozens of people before.

So, to sum up my position, I do not argue for removing killing from all games. In fact, it is as rightful a theme and mechanic as it is in every movie, book or song. But what I do say is that we need to come up with different mechanics and themes to mature out of telling stories about but one theme. This way, the range of game themes and game loops will diversify, possibly spawning new genres while doing so. For example, think of an open world fantasy RPG that does not include killing. You would need to step back from hero-saves-damsel-in-distress clichés to reinvent the meaning of a fantasy world in the context of living there instead of killing and looting there. And suddenly, a new game genre could be born.

 

P.S.: L.A. Noire with turned off action scenes comes pretty close to such a new genre, as the core loop of finding clues and interrogating suspects based on their reactions presents a whole new gameplay feel. Without the action scenes, of course, L.A. Noire's open world would be redundant.
P.P.S.: As Ian Bogost points out, Fullbright Company's Gone Home is an example of how a game like Bioshock would look like devoid of its combat. And indeed did it manage to tell a story more mature than most video games, and with an atmosphere quite as thrilling. This might arguably be the genesis of a new genre as well.

Gameplay Is Narration Is Gameplay

Tying gameplay and narration together is quite a big topic in modern game development. I argue that parting them would actually be the harder task to accomplish, as I feel they are very close at heart. Though it is true that narration is often implemented in a way that differentiates it from gameplay in terms of interaction (controls change or are completely blocked during a major story event), this only refers to narrative content, or embedded narration. While it is generally accepted that its complement, the emergent narration, also exists, few consider it as an equal element of storytelling. Nonetheless, many players derive a large portion of their fun from emergent narration. What compels most long-term players of MMORPGs is the group experience of accomplishing something that they will forever remember as a unique story. This is not a story that the game writers wove into the game, but rather a story that developed from the sum of all game actions and reactions.

When considering not only dialog, cutscenes, and written text part of the narration, but each and every gameplay action – as they are part of the PCs experiences as well – playing itself becomes an act of storytelling. And while I do not argue that games should focus solely on this type of narration distinct to the medium, it should not be forgotten when considering the narrative depth of a game.

This tight connection between narration and gameplay leads to the fact that whenever gameplay emerges, so does narration. Consider a game with a high amount of emergent gameplay, like Civilization V. Though there is almost no embedded narration within the game, the complex interconnections of all game elements spawn story wherever they spawn gameplay. This way, fictitious history can be written, where China threw the A-bomb on the Iroquois in 1895 and Lincoln conquered Mongolia on horseback.

The same is true for the reverse view: Just as gameplay creates narration, narration creates gameplay as well. Storytelling is a huge part of informing the player about gameplay, even if using the more subtle art of environmental storytelling. Not only does narration provide the core gameplay hook for designers, it also forms a fictitious world’s rules that the player can use to think within. This way, he or she is enabled to grasp the game’s rules more easily (provided they are consistent to the game world, of course), enabling him or her to learn to conclude game actions from the narration presented (e.g. learning that groups of enemies in a water pond can be electrocuted together after observing it).

A third conclusion from the co-existence of gameplay and narration is that following a narrative itself can also be gameplay – be it games with narrative gameplay actions like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead or even just proceeding in the narration itself as in the genre of Visual Novels. These games have no distinctive game mechanics other than those providing means to process through the story. This way, gameplay is actually there just through the existence of interactivity of the story.

And though there are games that keep their narrative dimension almost separate from their gameplay dimension (like most JRPGs and other games with turn-based combats do, as these combats do not represent proper actions in the game’s narration), these games still have emergent narratives, at times even more intense than other genres. Beating Omega Weapon in a Final Fantasy game and developing a strategy for doing so can be a highly emergent narration completely separate from the game’s usual story.

What I am arguing for is that the topics of Game Design and Narration should not be discussed about too far apart, as they inform and rely on one another. Both should be at the heart of a non-puzzle based game, providing the other the best assistance possible and as early as possible – even if they are developed apart from each other.

They will eventually meet.

Lines, Trees, and Clusters

Some of the concepts presented here are partly based on Justin Alexander’s node-based scenario approach to writing Pen & Paper RPG adventures.

Though the industry talks much about interactive storytelling and non-linearity in games, most games available to this day actually still follow pretty linear approaches to leading the player through the game’s environments. And though one might argue that open world games offer freedom of choice, these choices appear to be choices of different linear paths to follow rather than open interconnections. The reasons for this linearity can be manifold, but the most-quoted of them is probably the manageability of linear content. When there is a predefined route for the player to follow there is little doubt that the player will encounter all content placed there for him or her to find. The argument goes that each larger piece of content that will not be encountered during playthrough is lost development time.

What I am suggesting here is that there are two conventional ways to address this problem:

  • Following the linear approach
  • Branching the story into a tree-like structure

And then there is another solution that I clearly prefer above the others:

  • Keeping the story open in a cluster-like environment

Line

A linear story path

A linear story path

In the shown example, each of the squares might stand for a point in a dialog, a place the PC is to visit or an in-game interaction during a quest. For example’s sake, let’s imagine we are talking about a single quest in a fantasy RPG where the player has to find and retrieve an abducted king. The developers prepare six interactions (talking to court members, catching a member of the kidnapper gang, interrogating him, finding the gang’s hideout a.s.o.), and the player will encounter any of these steps, one after the other. The story will appear well prepared, but the replayability is comparatively low due to the lack of diversions the player can take. This makes for 6 interactions (6 per playthrough), 0 choices, 1 way and 1 possible outcome.

Tree

A branching story tree

A branching story tree

To offer players greater freedom, branching decisions are often implemented into games. This results in a tree-like structure that allows for the player to decide at certain points to follow a different path. Players feel more empowered with this non-linear approach, especially when comparing to other players, and replayability is kindled as well. On the downside we have the enormous development cost – the example requires the developers to implement 22 different interactions, but upon each playthrough the player will encounter but four of them. In the said example this could mean that the player can decide between interrogating court members, searching for clues in the king’s bedroom, visiting a seer and so on, with another two critical decisions later on, based on the taken path, but no backtracking. All in all, this makes for 22 interactions (4 per playthrough), 3 choices, 11 ways and 11 possible outcomes.

Cluster

An open story cluster

An open story cluster

Following Justin Alexander’s insights on Pen & Paper RPGs, the next logical step is to open the system up for an almost indefinite number of player choices. Such a clustered approach keeps up the impression of freedom of choice for the player, while having this freedom emerge from the system itself rather than from predefined content. The cluster allows players to freely move between the nodes of the cluster, going back and forth and backtracking as he or she pleases until a defined outcome is reached or it is interrupted by the player. In the fantasy RPG example, this could mean that the player might wander around the court, talk to different people, search for clues and so on. From the gathered information can then be concluded where the hideout of the kidnappers is. This could happen through cutting the hideout-related information up into different parts (like the surroundings – forrest, desert, mountains, – the cardinal direction, and the secret keyphrase to enter) and then have the player uncover only parts of these from each interaction until the information is complete (doubling the pieces and hiding them in different nodes is therefore necessary). The player will maintain full control as to where he or she goes and how the investigations proceed, finally uncovering the truth using his or her very own way of doing so. To sum this up, the Cluster approach will require the designers to come up with 9 interactions (any number of them per playthrough) and an almost indefinite number of choices, ways and outcomes, as all these depend on the player’s decisions throughout the quest.

Conclusion

This post argues that using a cluster-based approach, development cost can be held comparatively low while still providing the player with an interactive and replayable experience depending on his or her playstyle with almost no lost content. Any of these techniques can also be used during a conversation with an NPC – with the Line approach equaling a cutscene, the Tree approach corresponding to usual dialog trees and the Cluster approach providing a technique where (using only a few generic interconnections), topics could be addressed in a freer and more natural way, without endangering the player to have missed a critical branch of the dialog.

Please note that other than in a tree-based approach, the cluster does not withhold any node from the player – he or she can access any node at any given time, provided the correct interconnections are taken. This way, no content is lost to the system, and the better part of the story emerges from the interactivity itself.

Games Are But Exemplary Depictions

When people argue about the credibility of games, the choice of game mechanics or the variety of options available, they often put forth the argument of the game being unrealistic. These people do not refer to the possible context of PSI powers, dragons or faster-than-light travelling being present in the game, but to their perception of being within the game world shattering at the confrontation with choices they are denied in-game but would have at disposal in real life. The inability of Bioshock PCs to pick up food but instead instantly eat it is an oft-cited example.

I do want to point out that I see some kind of a misunderstanding taking place in these debates. For most cases, games are not simulations. Games do not want to depict reality as is (and will probably never strive to do so), not only because people would probably find it boring or because the workload implied would massively exceed most developer’s budgets – the main reason for the design decision of restricting game actions is that games are not reality simulators. What they are is exemplary depictions of a certain world. Therefore, Bioshock PCs do not pick up food, because managing the PCs luggage is not part of the experience the game developers wanted to present. And while certainly no one wonders why no single coins and bills have to be managed in the players inventory (instead of just summing them up as a number), people tend to anticipate a high degree of realism in other parts of the game.

This, I believe, is the core of the misunderstanding. The number and variety of available game actions is carefully chosen by game designers to fulfill a certain purpose. The reason why we are not forced to have our PCs constantly eat, drink, sleep and (especially) go to the toilet is that those game actions are of no relevance to the game. Though that defecation example might be a rather obvious one, the same is true for many other cases where people would argue about the unreality of the game.

“The Sims”, for example, is a game that is on the verge to simulation. Nonetheless, the game’s designers chose to omit parts of reality and simplify it at others instead of having the PCs live through life in all detail. They chose to have the game time run 60 times faster than real time, because they wanted to exemplarily depict real life. Newer iterations of the game series have even taken back complex reality depictions in favor of more accessible gameplay. And while there are certainly cases where – either due to lack of attention on the designer side or communication problems between different departments – game actions that would appear logical are missing or altered, in most of the cases the answer as to why a certain option is not available in a game is that this is not part of the model nature of games.

The same is true for other media, when we don’t see movie characters go to the toilet regularly (except for when their absence matters to the story). Narrative media always have the responsibility to carefully balance how much realism they want in the story and how much authorial power they want to retain. So the next time someone jokes about a Skyrim character carrying around 15 battle axes and three sets of heavy armor, take a moment and reconsider how this decision has been made in order to keep the balance between what the designers want to achieve in the game (provide the player with treasure-hunting capabilities without the need of constant backtracking) and what would be true in reality (the availability of but one or two weapons at the same time due to extreme weight).

In order to reasonably discuss the choice of designers to allow or permit certain actions or situations in-game, one has to consider not only what would be true for our reality, but also what contributes to the intended feel and gameplay of the game.

A realistic depiction is not always a good one.