Saturday, December 27, 2008

Linking Stories and Games, Part 1

Players of the Neverwinter Nights games sometimes complain when the role-playing choices open to their characters are limited. They want their characters to act the way they imagine they would when faced with the situations that the game presents them with. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the options they would have wanted to take are sometimes not available to them. Perhaps the game designers had not thought of making those options available, or maybe they deliberately left them out because these options would have led to certain defeat. It’s also possible that time constraints prevented the creators of the game from implementing them.

The question of what story choices to present players with is not a simple one to answer. With the current state of game technology, it is impossible to implement all possible choices that players may want. Nevertheless, this question has to be answered during the design phase of each game or module.

This blog post is the first in a series wherein I attempt to show how game designers may handle the question of story choices.

No Story-Affecting Choices

The term “computer role-playing game” has been loosely applied not only to games such as Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2 but also to the likes of Diablo, Final Fantasy 7, Jagged Alliance, and X-Com: UFO Defense. As long as player characters have stats that may improve over time and that affect their in-game abilities, the game that these characters appear in are described as “role-playing.”

The last four games that I mentioned above have two things in common: (1) they were hailed as great games during their time; and (2) none of them presents players with meaningful choices that affect the game’s plot. Of these four, only Final Fantasy 7 was commended for its story. Like the other three games I mentioned, however, Final Fantasy 7 does not have options for changing the direction of the story in any significant way. There is no good or evil ending for Cloud Strife, just one successful ending. The game does not even allow players to create their own characters. You always play as Cloud Strife, although you can choose what abilities and stats to improve as the game progresses.

It’s all right to produce games in which the story is not interactive. In fact, the game may still come with a great story, albeit not an interactive one. Some players may complain if you create a Neverwinter Nights module where story-affecting choices are not presented to players. Nevertheless, if the module is done well, those complaints may be few or non-existent.

One of my favorite NWN1 modules is Bone Kenning I: Art of the Thanaturge by Wes Lewis. To date, this module has an average rating of 9.65 compiled from 361 votes. With over 42,000 downloads, “Bone Kenning I” has earned its rightful place in the Neverwinter Vault’s Hall of Fame. The atmosphere in this module is wonderfully eerie, and the gameplay is great fun. The story isn’t interactive, however. Player characters will always be power-mad necromancers of sorts, and there is only one successful ending to the game. I honestly don’t know if anyone has ever complained about the lack of story-affecting choices in “Bone Kenning I.” I’ve no interest in sifting through all 670 comments on the module to find out.

In the next blog post in this series, I will describe what goes into an interactive story and how such a story may be designed.

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