Sunday, December 28, 2008

Linking Stories and Games, Part 2: Creating Meaningful Choices

This is my second blog post in a series on linking stories to games. Readers may want to read my previous post to put this into context.

Few Branches

Role-playing games from Bioware and Black Isle/Obsidian are noteworthy for allowing players to affect the outcome of the games’ story. Nearly all of the opportunities for directing the flow of the plot are presented through dialog. Most conversation options don’t affect the story, though. If we set aside conversation nodes that deal with gathering information from NPCs, much of what we’re left with are there just for flavor. For example, in the official campaign of Neverwinter Nights 2, PCs may speak with Daeghun bitterly or kindly, but none of these dialog options will affect how the story turns out. They give players the impression that they are role-playing their characters, and a good number of these dialog options may change the PCs’ alignment. Even so, few of them will affect the story in any way.

In the OC, how PCs treat their NPC companions does affect the story in small ways. By conversing with their companions over time, PCs affect which companions turn on them or abandon them. PCs may even affect whether one of their companions switches to a different class. PCs also affect the story when they choose to side either with the city watch or the shadow thieves. This decision is made in the middle of the game and is one of the determinants of the game ending that the player sees.

Ultimately, however, the number of significant ways that the story branches out is few. This fact is apparent when you consider that there are only a handful of possible endings for the OC, almost all of which involve rocks falling on the PC’s party. Because of constraints in the game production process, players’ ability to affect the story is necessarily limited and mostly illusory.

Even with these constraints, there are ways to make players feel as if they have greater control over the plot. To tweak a story for more interactive control, begin with the endings in mind.

Begin with the Endings in Mind

A story where players can make meaningful choices will generally have multiple endings. The word “multiple” in this case can mean as few as two or as many as seven. Designers might never finish making their game if they have much more than that.

When you’ve outlined your basic plot, think of the different ways that the story may end. For instance, you might take inspiration from the D&D alignment system and make an ending for each of the alignment extremes: chaotic evil, chaotic good, lawful evil, and lawful good. Alternatively, you might focus on how the PC may turn out in the end – an iron-fisted baron, a weak and paranoid ruler, a happy-go-lucky adventurer, or a lonely and misunderstood nomad. The types of endings you come up with will depend on your story, of course. Try to make the alternative endings varied enough that playing through them will generate different experiences.

From there, examine the plot to see what branches may lead up to each ending. This is where you put your story-affecting decision points. If you can incorporate these decision points in your story without too much difficulty, well and good. If it looks like putting them in will require you to write a whole new story, however, consider dropping the alternative ending. It may not be worth the effort to implement it.

That’s all there is to it. If you were to start from the beginning and work your way toward the alternative endings, you run the danger of making your endings either too similar to each other or unsatisfying to players. By focusing on the endings, you can ensure that they are divergent enough to be interesting while giving a proper sense of closure.

My next blog post in this series will focus on creating role-playing options for evil PCs, something that I believe has been poorly implemented in many computer RPGs.


Jclef said...

Thanks again, Elysius!

Lance Botelle said...

Hi Frank,

I always enjoy this kind of topic. ;)

Choices in a CRPG ... As you say, any that affect the story are difficult to implement, and I would say exceedinly difficult if the story is only the first part of a chapter.

For instance, when a builder designs a "campaign", then they have to plan quite some way ahead. In PnP D&D, dynamic changes can be made as play goes along, but this is nearly impossible in a module. I say nearly, because if you have the time, then one could (in theory) write/build for any eventuality.

That said, I have tried tackling the idea from a different stance ... by using "systems". i.e. Like a shift in alignment, affecting NPCs responses (and even abilities) and also building "problems" that can be tackled by more than one method.

You have alluded to this kind of thing already, and I think the best modules will be those that try to allow as much flexibility in this sense, which will help to give the illusion of choice throughout the module. After all, if the player has many paths that lead to the same end, then its the 'adventure along the way' and of how they got there that counts, rather than (necessarily) the final outcome.

I look forward to the next instalment. :)


Frank Perez said...

Glad you like the post, guys. Hope you stick around for the rest of the series. :)


I understand where you're coming from, being a programmer myself. I have a few ideas for systems too, but it's hard to conceptualize something that has hardly been done before. I don't want to give away more than that because I'm not even sure I can pull it off. Wouldn't want to get egg on my face. ;)