Monday, November 8, 2010

Narrative structure for RPG

I am back to thinking about suitable narrative structures for CRPG games.

My current breakdown is something along the lines of:

* Linear narrative - Essentially there is one start and one ending, there may be more or less variability in the middle.  (Think Max Payne )

* Broom narrative - Similar to the above but with the addition of a number of different endings. (Stalker is an example ) 
* Serial missions - One mission at a time usually with a strong theme. Can do branching but very expensive to develop whole mission modules that may not be played through.
* Mission Loom - From a single start point the rest of the game is composed of many small missions that overlap and weave together. Good for pickup games or for the OC gamer who wants to "complete" everything in the walkthroughs.
* Mission Loom with main thread(s) - One or more primary missions are presented to try to tie all the mini-missions together into a common theme? (Think Fallout 1,2,3 etc)

These are essentially all fragile systems that have modular segments that join together to create the narrative context for the play activities. They are fragile for a number of reasons, the first being that they have no capacity to be resilient to any errors in the chain. If one module fails ( for whatever reason) it conceptually leaves a gap. Even if the player somehow crosses the gap and gets back into the game, they have experienced the cognitive dissonance of having to "exit" the flow of the game to deal with the broken game engine/level script/ whatever bug.  Obviously this is undesirable.

The second issue of fragility is to do with the Users perceptions of whats going on. Its fine to be able to tune a level until most users get it most of the time, but for complex storytelling that involves any subtlety ( which the debate is still open as to how many people would actually buy a game with too much subtle storytelling...stuff but anyway) there is no way to gauge if the user is following the storyline at a level they want or care about. (I use care to represent their level of engagement in the storyline rather than just their engagement in the game activities which can be a different kind of bear tickling)

So, to recap, the player can loose interest, loose the thread or fail to engage with it enough to differentiate the meta story from the game activities. (Not see the forest for the trees... so to speak)

The other sort of fragility I was thinking about is the temporal aspect. How to deal with the amount of playtime that the player wants to commit vs the time required to get through the narrative. Can the player commit more time if they enjoy the story or does the story have to fit the amount of time the player wants to commit?  Both of these scenarios have ugly issues associated.  Players are getting a little tired of "sticky" games that demand attention. (This whole issue has been soured by the MMORPGs and their subscription models.)
So players want a quality experience not a skinner box.  Something that enriches their life rather than sucks it dry.

This is a similar issue to the one faced by television serials. Keep a narrative arc or make each episode self contained. Keep them wanting more or give them what they want? The eternal dilemma for media producers.

I have been reading an interesting post by someone about working inside a bounded time frame that has some interesting dimensions for writing. These ideas have mixed with an analysis I recently read of the "Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time" fiction series.  One point of view is about how forcing us to work within a clearly bounded time frame helps sharpen everything you are doing while on the other hand, the book series was criticized because it wandered at times without boundary and so the quality suffered.

The point being that forcing a scenario or a narrative into a fixed time frame may be no bad thing. Especially a reasonably short one. Cinematic scripts are usually 120 pages which forces them to keep it tight (conceptually. Lets not argue about all the exceptions to this rule that exist.)

So how would that be applicable to game narratives, assuming game narratives are even well enough defined to be called such a thing.
If we are looking at a simple linear narrative, its easy to apply a fixed time to the narrative. It just keeps on ticking no matter what the player does. This forces the player to get with the program and stay with it. In effect punishing them pretty severely for making any mistakes or wandering around exploring.

Pick this up later.

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