Archive for June 2nd, 2011

Some Principles for a “Story Now” Video Game

2011 Jun 2

Over on SG, I objected to Jamie’s claim that “what [indie roleplayers] know [about storytelling in games] can’t be done on a computer yet,” saying that “Complex, emergent, player-driven stories are totally possible on a computer RIGHT NOW. Heck, they were possible 10 years ago.”

Johnzo called me on this, saying he was “a little skeptical. Can you do a thought experiment on what something like this might look like?” And I’m not one to pass up an opening like that, so here’s a few basic principles — drawn from 10 years of involvement in indie roleplaying — that I’m going to attempt to apply to video game design, at least in this imaginary exercise.

1. “Don’t repeatedly hand the players a fish; teach them to fish.”

A “story now” video game doesn’t tell a story to the players; it gives the players the tools and support that they need for telling their own story. This is a fundamental shift in design orientation and was the grounding principle of LowFantasy, the imaginary iPhone app I sketched out for Christian Griffen a couple years back.

2. “The game is not the GM or the other players; its just the rules.”

Likewise, the game text (in this case, interpreted as code by the computer) cannot substitute for the other human beings that you need to play the game, even with the best AI programming people can turn out these days. And you can’t just play the game with yourself due to issues like the Czege Principle (which says that creating and resolving the same conflicts often isn’t very fun). Similarly, bouncing a ball and catching it isn’t nearly as fun as playing catch or some other game with other people. Video games, at least as they are now, aren’t really that different.

3. “The most important interactions are not player-game, but player-player, mediated by the game.”

Derived from the above, the core of the game is not the players interacting with the “rules” or the “text” or whatever you want to call the computer-rendered content. Rather, the core is players making choices that affect — through the medium of the game — other real, live people and their choices. Really, in a way much more than most existing video games, this asks the game designer to leave the room, metaphorically speaking, to take themselves out of the equation and let the players talk to each other rather than commanding all the attention on the beautiful thing they’ve created. Sure, it may be super beautiful, but if it doesn’t facilitate interesting interactions between the players, it’s not doing what we’re asking it to, in this particular case.

4. “To naturally constrain a story, limit its scope.”

Games like Breaking the Ice and The Mountain Witch demonstrated pretty clearly that limiting players’ options doesn’t feel confining if there’s a relatively specific experience that they’re coming to the game for. You don’t need to allow players to go anywhere and do anything. Why would that make sense in the story? Why would they even want to do that? Instead, make them choose between the options that are actually available to them. Furthermore, if “story now” is about addressing the premise, then it’s critical to have one and have most things in the game point directly at it or at least in its general direction. Speaking of premise…

5. “Ask a question with your story, but leave it to the players to answer.”

In Apocalypse World, this is called either “leave yourself some things to wonder about” or “play to find out what happens.” Don’t answer the question in the rules or the players won’t get to answer it themselves. This requires both a lot of trust on the part of the game designer and often for them to sit on their hands. Don’t answer the question! Don’t even rig the game to reach specific results! Don’t do it!

Anyway, there’s my starting point.