Monday, 19 August 2013

5 Core Elements Of Interactive Storytelling

Introduction
Over the past few years I have had a growing feeling that videogame storytelling is not what it could be. And the core issue is not in the writing, themes, characters or anything like that; instead, the main problem is with the overall delivery. There is always something that hinders me from truly feeling like I am playing a story. After pondering this on and off for quite some time I have come up with a list of five elements that I think are crucial to get the best kind of interactive narrative.

The following is my personal view on the subject, and is much more of a manifesto than an attempt at a rigorous scientific theory. That said, I do not think these are just some flimsy rules or the summary of a niche aesthetic. I truly believe that this is the best foundational framework to progress videogame storytelling and a summary of what most people would like out of an interactive narrative.

Also, it's important to note that all of the elements below are needed. Drop one and the narrative experience will suffer.

With that out of the way, here goes:


1) Focus on Storytelling
This is a really simple point: the game must be, from the ground up, designed to tell a story. It must not be a game about puzzles, stacking gems or shooting moving targets. The game can contain all of these features, but they cannot be the core focus of the experience. The reason for the game to exist must be the wish to immerse the player inside a narrative; no other feature must take precedence over this.

The reason for this is pretty self-evident. A game that intends to deliver the best possible storytelling must of course focus on this. Several of the problems outlined below directly stem from this element not being taken seriously enough.

A key aspect to this element is that the story must be somewhat tangible. It must contain characters and settings that can be identified with and there must be some sort of drama. The game's narrative cannot be extremely abstract, too simplistic or lack any interesting, story-related, happenings.


2) Most of the time is spent playing
Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing. This does not mean that there needs to be continual interaction; there is still room for downtime and it might even be crucial to not be playing constantly.

The above sounds pretty basic, almost a fundamental part of game design, but it is not that obvious. A common "wisdom" in game design is that choice is king, which Sid Meier's quote "a game is a series of interesting choices" neatly encapsulate. However, I do not think this holds true at all for interactive storytelling. If choices were all that mattered, choose your own adventure books should be the ultimate interaction fiction - they are not. Most celebrated and narrative-focused videogames does not even have any story-related choices at all (The Last of Us is a recent example). Given this, is interaction really that important?

It sure is, but not for making choices. My view is that the main point of interaction in storytelling is to create a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside the game's world. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a steady flow of  active play. If the player remains inactive for longer periods, they will distance themselves from the experience. This is especially true during sections when players feel they ought to be in control. The game must always strive to maintain and strengthen experience of "being there".


3) Interactions must make narrative sense
In order to claim that the player is immersed in a narrative, their actions must be somehow connected to the important happenings. The gameplay must not be of irrelevant, or even marginal, value to the story. There are two major reasons for this.

First, players must feel as though they are an active part of the story and not just an observer. If none of the important story moments include agency from the player, they become passive participants. If the gameplay is all about matching gems then it does not matter if players spends 99% of their time interacting; they are not part of any important happenings and their actions are thus irrelevant. Gameplay must be foundational to the narrative, not just a side activity while waiting for the next cutscene.

Second, players must be able to understand their role from their actions. If the player is supposed to be a detective, then this must be evident from the gameplay. A game that requires cutscenes or similar to explain the player's part has failed to tell its story properly.


4) No repetitive actions
The core engagement from many games come from mastering a system. The longer time players spend with the game, the better they become at it. In order for this process to work, the player's actions must be repeated over and over. But repetition is not something we want in a well formed story. Instead we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires. The players are not playing to become good at some mechanics, they are playing to be part of an engrossing story. When an activity has played out its role, a game that wants to do proper storytelling must move on.

Another problem with repetition is that it breaks down the player's imagination. Other media rely on the audience's mind to fill out the blanks for a lot of the story's occurrences. Movies and novels are vague enough to support these kinds of personal interpretations. But if the same actions are repeated over and over, the room for imagination becomes a lot slimmer. Players lose much of the ability to fill gaps and instead get a mechanical view of the narrative.

This does not mean that the core mechanics must constantly change, it just means that there must be variation on how they are used. Both Limbo and Braid are great examples of this. The basic gameplay can be learned in a minute, but the games still provide constant variation throughout the experience.


5) No major progression blocks
In order to keep players inside a narrative, their focus must constantly be on the story happenings. This does not rule out challenges, but it needs to be made sure that an obstacle never consumes all focus. It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story. If they get stuck at some point, focus fade away from the story, and is instead put on simply progressing. In turn, this leads to the unraveling of the game's underlying mechanics and for players to try and optimize systems. Both of these are problems that can seriously degrade the narrative experience.

There are three common culprits for this: complex or obscure puzzles, mastery-demanding sections and maze-like environments. All of these are common in games and make it really easy for players to get stuck. Either by not being sure what to do next, or by not having the skills required to continue. Puzzles, mazes and skill-based challenges are not banned, but it is imperative to make sure that they do not hamper the experience. If some section is pulling players away from the story, it needs to go.


Games that do this
These five elements all sound pretty obvious. When writing the above I often felt I was pointing out things that were already widespread knowledge. But despite this, very few games incorporate all of the above. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. The elements by themselves are quite common, but the combination of all is incredibly rare.

The best case for games of pure storytelling seems to be visual novels. But these all fail at element 2; they simply are not very interactive in nature and the player is mostly just a reader. They often also fails at element 3 as they do not give the player much actions related to the story (most are simply played out in a passive manner).

Action games like Last of Us and Bioshock infinite all fail on elements 4 and 5 (repetition and progression blocks). For larger portions of the game they often do not meet the requirements of element 3 (story related actions) either. It is also frequently the case that much of the story content is delivered in long cutscenes, which means that some do not even manage to fulfill element 2 (that most of the game is played). RPG:s do not fare much better as they often contain very repetitive elements. They often also have way too much downtime because of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue.

Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead comes close to feeling like an interactive narrative, but fall flat at element 2. These games are basically just films with interactions slapped on to them. While interaction plays an integral part in the experience it cannot be said to be a driving force. Also, apart from a few instances the gameplay is all about reacting, it does have have the sort of deliberate planning that other games do. This removes  a lot of the engagement that otherwise come naturally from videogames.

So what games do fulfill all of these elements? As the requirements of each element are not super specific, fulfillment depends on how one choose to evaluate. The one that I find comes closest is Thirty Flights of Loving, but it is slightly problematic because the narrative is so strange and fragmentary. Still, it is by far the game that comes closest to incorporating all elements. Another close one is To The Moon, but it relies way too much on dialog and cutscenes to meet the requirements. Gone Home is also pretty close to fulfilling the elements. However, your actions have little relevance to the core narrative and much of the game is spent reading rather than playing.

Whether one choose to see these games are fulfilling the requirements or not, I think they show the path forward. If we want to improve interactive storytelling, these are the sort of places to draw inspiration from. Also, I think it is quite telling that all of these games have gotten both critical and (as far as I know) commercial success. There is clearly a demand and appreciation for these sort of experiences.


Final Thoughts
It should be obvious, but I might as well say it: these elements say nothing of the quality of a game. One that meets none of the requirements can still be excellent, but it cannot claim to have fully playable, interactive storytelling as its main concern. Likewise, a game that fulfills all can still be crap. These elements just outline the foundation of a certain kind of experience. An experience that I think is almost non-existent in videogames today.

I hope that these five simple rules will be helpful for people to evaluate and structure their projects. The sort of videogames that can come out of this thinking is an open question as there is very little done so far. But the games that are close to having all these elements hint at a very wide range of experiences indeed. I have no doubts that this path will be very fruitful to explore.


Notes

  • Another important aspects of interaction that I left out is the ability to plan. I mention it a bit when discussing Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, but it is a worth digging into a little bit deeper. What we want from good gameplay interaction is not just that the player presses a lot of buttons. We want these actions to have some meaning for the future state of the game. When making an input players should be simulating in their minds how they see it turning out. Even if it just happens on a very short time span (eg "need to turn now to get a shot at the incoming asteroid") it makes all the difference as now the player has adapted the input in way that never happens in a purely reactionary game.
  • The question of what is deemed repetitive is quite interesting to discuss. For instance, a game like Dear Esther only has the player walking or looking, which does not offer much variety. But since the scenery is constantly changing, few would call the game repetitive. Some games can also offer really complex and varied range of actions, but if the player is tasked to perform these constantly in similar situations, they quickly gets repetitive. I think is fair to say that repetition is mostly an asset problem. Making a non-repetitive game using limited asset counts is probably not possible. This also means that a proper storytelling game is bound to be asset heavy.
  • Here are some other games that I feel are close to fulfilling all elements: The Path, Journey, Everyday the Same Dream, Dinner Date, Imortall and Kentucky Route Zero. Whether they succeed or not is a bit up to interpretation, as all are a bit borderline. Still all of these are well worth one's attention. This also concludes the list of all games I can think of that have, or at least are closing to having,  all five of these elements.


Links:
http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2012/08/the-self-presence-and-storytelling.html
Here is some more information on how repetition and challenge destroy the imaginative parts of games and make them seem more mechanical.

http://blog.ihobo.com/2013/08/the-interactivity-of-non-interactive-media.html
This is a nice overview on how many storytelling games give the player no meaningful choices at all.

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2013/07/thoughts-on-last-of-us.html
The Last of Us is the big storytelling game of 2013. Here is a collection of thoughts on what can be learned from it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_novel
Visual Novels are not to be confused with Interactive Fiction, which is another name for text adventure games.

Thirty Flights of Loving
This game is played from start to finish and has a very interesting usages of scenes and cuts.

To The Moon
This is basically an rpg but with all of the fighting taken out. It is interesting how much emotion that can be gotten from simple pixel graphics.

Gone Home
This game is actually a bit similar to To The Moon in that it takes an established genre and cuts away anything not to do with telling a story. A narrative emerge by simply exploring an environment.


59 comments:

  1. I would like to see Half-Life 2 on the list over games that deliver really well. You are constantly inside the game and it's what YOU do that drives the game forward and you are inside the story making a difference.

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  2. Half-Life 2 fails on repetitive mechanics (anything that more-or-less subscribes to the 30-seconds-of-fun or first-person-roller-coaster schools will fail).

    I think there might be a problem with the definition since it seems to exclude all games save those that are (with the possible exception of Journey) regarded as not being very game-like (rather "interactive experiences" i.e. toy/book like). I haven't played Imortall or KRZ.

    Game and story definitionally shouldn't be opposite ends of a spectrum, otherwise you are making interactive books/movies or toys, not games. Is it impossible for the player to be engaged in both gameplay and story at the same time? We are giving up too quickly.

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    1. There is no need to remove gameplay, only to make sure that it does not becomes repetitive or blocks progression too much. This means a lot of common game feature cannot be used, but that is also what makes these constraints interesting. They forces one to think in new ways.

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    2. In Half Life 2 the shooting sections can be repetitive, but they tend to be varied. I don't feel them repetitive...
      What do you think about the physics sections, anyway?
      They mostly limit to move objects with your hand or the gravity gun, but I don't think I saw every combination possible yet. Simple mechanics (for the user, not for the developer) but variable implementation.

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    3. Mostly they are lever puzzles as I remember it. Not all that different from "hit the switch to activate the bridge."

      An improvement to be sure, but I don't know if physics-based gameplay in an FPS was the great leap forward that I think most of us thought it might be at the time.

      Turns out the great leap forward was actually RPG-like progression and in-engine storytelling (which came from HL1 of course not HL2).

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    4. That's not true. There are switches, but physics gameplay is more varied than that. Just try to remember all the uses for the gravity gun. It could support two episodes without having to add new weapons (well, the second one, the first is not that original to not feel more of the same).
      The Research and Development mod is a pure form of all that gameplay, it's worth trying.

      I have a question: I've read out there that Limbo is varied enough to not feel repetitive, but I remember that you mostly jumped, hung in corners, pushed and pulled. What is the criteria to distinguish a repetitive (but engaging) story game from a non repetitive one?
      It just strikes me as arbitrary, or preferential sometimes. I find a lot of modern games too padded and repetitive, sure. But Half Life 2 (which I played a lot of times) still has to feel mechanical.
      With the same criteria, Deus Ex (a game where the developers tried truly hard to make an inmersive world) would be repetitive (but that repetition gives place to an ability to learn how the world behaves and emergent gameplay).

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    5. In Limbo the set pieces change constantly. Giant spider, crates, boat, bear trap, giant fly, cog wheels, etc. It is the same basic actions, but you constantly do new things with them.

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    6. Well, in a less pure form you could say the same thing for Half Life and Deus Ex. (Limbo had many advantages: it's short, build over a more solid knowledge and it was more about presentation than technological innovation, damn good atmosphere, and didn't tried to use new technologies like physics or simulations). There is always a slightly (or completely) different situation, or new form to approach problems.
      I agree repetition should be avoided whenever is possible, and even that there is a lot of advantages to not having a core mechanic that becames evident over time, but I wouldn't be that strict about it. I think it reduces to suspension of disbelief and how engaging things are when you play. Sometimes engagement can make excusable some repetition; it's when an action becomes boring that is bad.
      You need some repetition to learn how the world behaves (even if there is no combat; if you played as a lawyer you would need to know the basics capabilities of one). Then, the same actions can be used for different situations.

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    7. With Deus Ex, the earlier games in the series had unforgiving difficulty in places where your progress would be halted until you figured that area out. Now, Human Revolution is a different story. You always had a different way of succeeding.

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    8. I'm sorry, you are wrong. There was no point being "unforgiving difficulty" in Deus Ex 1. Perhaps the game did the tutorial in a bad way to the explain how it works, but it was fair all the way through. Maybe you didn't spent all skill points you had, or did not noticed some alternate method of getting somewhere, because there is always another way, ahd the game offers far more customization to the player, and also presents a consistent world. By consistent I mean that every single metald crate in the game, for example, behaves the same, is movable, has the same weight. In Human Revolution no, some crates are movable, others are part of the scenery. All in all, I meant to say that I think Deus Ex is a very well crafted game world.

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  3. In the process of designing & developing your games, do you find it difficult at all to stick to these principles?

    This may not apply to anything but your latest super secret game (assuming that these are realizations you've come to after the release of Amnesia), but have you found that things you've revisited in the design or the implementation have been detrimental to the kind of principles you're outlining above? Or are these things so much a part of how you think about games that you haven't (recently) had that issue?



    As a side note, if you don't mind answering another question, did you *enjoy* Gone Home?
    It may not meet you're criteria exactly, but as you say, a game can still be great without fitting into this definition exactly, or vice versa

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    1. I cannot say anything about our old games since we did not have a list like this, or anything similar, that we tried to stick to. We just wanted to make scary games with a certain feel :)

      But for our super secret game, all of the above are very much in focus. While these elements are deeply ingrained in our design thinking, it is still very nice to have it on paper like that. I think that will make it better to stay on track with the design.

      I liked Gone Home quite a bit! I thought the story was good and there was a lot of clever design. Lots of small details that you filled out in your mind and I loved that. My problem was that I did not do anything narrative interesting as a player. I know that is the whole point, but I would have liked the game more if I felt I was more involved somehow.

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    2. I remember in the 90s when I was into Michael Crichton novels, my favorite thing about them were all the faux "source material", like letters, emails, computer screens, etc. Similarly, I love it when movies have things like billboards in the background that don't necessarily draw your attention, but provide texture and backstory.

      Gone Home was a game that was 90% texture and backstory, and so I loved it, but at the same time, as you said, that made in inherently non-interactive. The game could've just been on rails and showed us each room and each letter in order, and we would've gotten almost as much out of it. (What would've been lacking is the slight sense of dread and anticipation.)

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    3. "The game could've just been on rails and showed us each room and each letter in order, and we would've gotten almost as much out of it. "

      I would have like to see someone do research on this! I wonder just how much the act of exploring adds to the experience. I think it is quite substantial and that it might actually be a lot worse on rails. But not sure, so would have been fun to get hard data :)

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    4. Yeah I do think maybe you would be less interested in reading snippets of papers if you didn't "find them" yourself, even though they're intentionally left in conspicuous places? Probably triggering some sort of voyeurism instinct in us. :)

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    5. Have to agree with Thomas there, I think the interactivity was pretty critical for me personally, although I totally appreciate why you say it ToastyKen

      Frankly what would have improved the exploration & interaction quite a bit would be a similar system of physics manipulation that Penumbra & Amnesia had in terms of doors & drawers. The picking up & examining stuff was pretty flawless, but still, although its a small thing, there is no better system for picking through drawers for clues than in those games!

      That being said, they did only have 1 programmer with a lot of roles to fill and a whole game to make in just over a year :) so that's understandable

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    6. In Mirror's Edge I thought about what would have happened if they made it as a movie instead of a game, and my conclusion was that a lot would be lost. Being able to see the world for myself added a lot to the atmosphere of a hollow and lonely paradise.

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    7. I agree about player actions having little effect in Gone Home's primary storyline, but slightly disagree with regard to the secondary stories; the player action of reading (which I'd suggest is a legit action and core mechanic in this game rather than just background exposition) has an effect on whether those secondary stories exist at all.

      It is entirely possible to play through the game, racing through the main plot, without those secondary stories having occurred, since in this game they occur (for a given player) only by virtue of the player's discovery. This is a pretty subtle distinction, though, and I still find the classifications above useful.

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  4. I wonder how you feel about Papers, Please? The only one it might not meet is 4, but yet the repetition is not only a core part of the gameplay (eyes glossing over making it harder to spot discrepancies), but also a core part of the narrative (depicting the drudgery of an authoritarian bureaucracy).

    Otherwise, it's certainly focused on storytelling, contains few explanatory cut scenes, has tight integration between storytelling and gameplay (the core mechanics are how you express all your choices), and there are no complex puzzles or extreme difficulty challenges that block progress.

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    1. Lots of awesome in Papers Please. Loved the story-like encounters, the UI, the graphics, the atmosphere, sounds, music etc.

      The repetitive nature is just too much for it to fulfill the 5 elements though. That it is is part of the narrative feel does not matter, as the same can be said about any shooter. Also, there are progress blocking too. Unless you master the system enough to keep your family alive, its game over (which is serious blockage since it is so long term).

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    2. Also curious about where something like Hotline Miami would fit into this spectrum - i mean, it tells a pretty effective story (evenso it's an 80's action movie type storyline), with some meta commentary on the nature of violence, which is shown starkly thru the game mechanics. It fits a lot of the criteria, but also subverts elements of them also. I don't know; i'd be interested to hear anyone else's opinion on this

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    3. I don't think Hotline Miami fits you into a narrative, but is, rather, a commentary fit in the package of a very GAME sort of game.

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  5. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the game that has come closest to fulfilling all five elements in my opinion. An interview with the game director in Gamasutra discusses many of these elements: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/197999/A_film_director_gets_video_games_right_in_Starbreezes_Brothers.php

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  6. Agree with most of the post, however, I must mention that not all video games must be narrative games. I recently played Cogs, and I was amazed how innovative and well made that game was even without a context or story. Games need to maintain gameplay as their most important element but serve the story and context if there is one. But there's no need for one all the time, a gameplay can stand on its own, like board games, if well designed. A well crafted gameplay is a meta-narrative on its own.

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  7. I think it would be useful to talk about how explicit versus implicit narrative (heavily authored vs implied) impacts the game design (in the context of your post). (And also I don't think explicit and implicit narrative are mutually exclusive, both can co-exist, and usually does).

    Of the games that I have played that are the most successful in fulfilling your criteria, most of them are typically leaning towards narrative that is more implicit and less authored.

    KRZ is really odd one to me, in that it has these explicitly detailed characters and story elements mixed with vague player participation.

    Like one thing that stood out to me in KRZ is the dialogue. You sometimes make dialogue choices between these super specific snippets of your own back-story. It changes your perception of the narrative and the characters, but it doesn't impact the immediate narrative that much.

    I feel inclined to mention Dishonored or perhaps even more fittingly Far Cry 2. Both of those games have explicit narrative as the sort of bookends of their missions. Those bookends informs me of what I should be doing, but the more interesting story is the one that happens between the bookends right, the one I play. In Far Cry 2 they put in these NPC buddies. They give you missions, but more importantly they can rescue you if you die. So instead of having to reload from an earlier save, being shot down is tied into the implicit (as in not authored) narrative right. And on top of that, the buddies can go down and if you fail to rescue them, guess what, they die permanently, so you lose them for good.

    I don't think alot of people would argue that Far Cry 2 is a story focused game. It's mainly a shooter. But the way they did a few things made sense, the explicit and implicit narrative, the gameplay and the story, all of these elements harmonize really well.

    More interestingly though are games like Gone Home, just because we have had less of them (I also happen to like it alot). I think that in part, one of the reasons Gone Home is successful in doing an explicit narrative, is that they skimped on the interactivity and player participation. The more explicitly you want to tell the story, the harder it is to make the player participate in it and permit some meaningful interactivity.

    I need to end this somehow, go play Scratches and The Last Express if you haven't maybe? I don't know, this is hard stuff.

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    1. Actually, I can rephrase this into a question.

      Do your core elements lean in favor of games with explicit narrative or games with implicit narrative or is it impartial?

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    2. The problem I see with generated narrative moments is that they are really hard to do on a larger scale. Our approach is to have the game's narrative authored on a high-level, and then have more it open and procedural on a lower level. For instance, when facing a monster it is generated how the encounter will turn out, but the plot dictates that the player always end up encountering the monster in the first place.

      So the elements are sort of partial to it and I really think a mixture is what gives the best result. Purely authored and purely implicit have both big problems. If the plot is exact, interaction is hard. If there is no plot, it is hard to do good pacing.

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    3. FC2-->FC3 is an interesting comparison. The critical response to 3 was better, but it feels more like Just Cause with a more pervasive story. Too many gameplay systems, too much interrupting the player's private narrative.

      I have only about 8 to 10 hours into FC3, but aside from progression bugs in FC2, I think FC2 is a more interesting game because of the lack of clutter.

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    4. "So the elements are sort of partial to it and I really think a mixture is what gives the best result."

      So the authored content is kind of fuel to the fire of the implicit narrative?
      SO! This is really the Goldilocks principle of storytelling in games isn't it? Can't be too much or too little.

      Nailed it.

      "Too many gameplay systems, too much interrupting the player's private narrative."

      Exactly. FC2 blends the authored content with the players own emergent narrative. FC3 is very incoherent in comparison.

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    5. There's also something here about interface and interruption preventing the player from enjoying the experience and enjoying/creating their story.

      Contrast GTA4's first four hours with the first four hours of Saints Row 3. GTA4 wants to funnel you through it's training mode and quite intrusively hijacks your play to introduce fundamental story elements.

      Saints Row 3 throws you in a firefight, drops you out of a plane, then after one or two five minute missions you're pretty much on your own. You have the option to follow the story loop from "phone calls" that you aren't required to answer, or you can just go around the map engaging in map activities and buying up properties.

      I didn't get far enough into GTA4 to determine whether the story was better than in SR3, but I can certainly tell you which one I'd rather play. If you don't want to engage with the game, then you will never experience the story.

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  8. Thomas, you never and never mentioned the Gothic series in your articles. Did you ever played them, especially the first two?
    In my opinion, Gothic I & Gothic II "Night of the Raven" are the best examples of all games who tell a story right and this automatically means a huge immersion.
    Unfortunately is the english synchronisation not the best, like the rough german original is. But that wouldn't harm the thick atmosphere that much.

    Sorry that I everytime ask you about Gothic, but I never got an answer whether you played it or not. And what you think about the game. I know a lot about gamedesign and core elements how to tell a story, and there's actualle no game what dit it better. Of course, Penumbra and Amnesia are very equal in the structure of story telling.

    Would be interested what you think about that and how you would classify the Gothic series as a professional developer.

    Please answer,
    thanks Thomas!

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    1. Not played the game. Will see if I have time to give it a go, usually RPGs are too long for me these days.

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    2. Hey, thanks for the response! Well, you need a lot of time for a hardcore RPG. But when you decide to give it a go, you can sent me a PM in the forum and I give you some optional fixes. Gothic is from 2001 and you need a bit "medicine" to get it running in Win7. The game runs well, but the videos are not shown and the FOV is wrong in widescreen resolutions. I managed to fix that and some other improvements for a maximum of experience.

      Gothic Complete Collection:
      http://www.amazon.com/Gothic-Complete-Collection-Pc/dp/B006OBE5VY/ref=sr_1_1

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    3. Gothic is a decent game, nothing more. It has a very nice world and lovable characters which easily surpass many other games, but also a very flawed and simplistic gameplay mechanics. Story wise, it isn't anything particularly spectacular, and I must add that side quests including various NPC-s story are much more interesting that the main plot itself.

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  9. Off topic: Thomas, for some of your analytical stuff, this book could be an interesting one in light of the genre your games represent: "Philosophy of Horror - Or, Paradoxes of the Heart - Noel Carroll" --Just browsing it, and thought to share.

    -Miika P.

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    1. Nice :)

      Ps,. I mentioned you in my game studies master's thesis (as a designer who is more after experience-based gameplay that is not simply about the "fun", which Koster writes about)

      I think your writings and FG games are reference-worthy stuff in any academic game studies texts.

      Keep up the good work and defining the way for gaming, all of you in FG, of course.
      -Miika P

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  10. You don't want to answer my question, right?
    OK, then you'll miss one of the best designed games in the world.
    And I think it would meet all 5 elements!

    But I feel "Gothic" is not welcome here.

    So sorry for asking, Thomas.

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  11. "Papers, Please" is a wonderful game that manages to work in challenge, puzzles, repetition yet also narrative and immersion all into one coherent game. You ought to try it if you haven't.

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  12. I personally felt the Thief series came close to filling all five of these. There are, however, two points that some might argue it didn't quite nail down.

    I've heard people say that the games aren't story-focused, which is true to an extent. However, the story elements are always present through the ambient dialogue, the way the missions are designed (the bank level for example was designed as if it were an actual building rather than a game level) and the occasional notes scattered around the levels. This would actually be an interesting point of discussion; can a game with a sparse plot still be considered "story-focused"? Thief's plot was heavily based on mystery with only small snippets revealed about the setting and its history.

    Repetition is also present in the game. This is partly because the gameplay of Thief has mainly centred around mastering your tools with constant practise and experimenting with the different ways they can be applied. These are gameplay mechanics of course, but their use is directly tied into the narrative and allows a degree of emergent possibilities.

    Tell me Thomas, out of curiosity; do you think that games need to be linear to tell their story effectively? Or do you think a a certain amount of freedom and exploration can enhance the player's investment in the events taking place? I would guess the latter based on the level design in your games.

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    1. What his post sort of implies is that games in any established genre is probably not going to be purely focused on storytelling. RPGs and Shooters will always be 'diluted' by game systems and mechanics that is completely irrelevant to the storytelling.

      The story focused games that Thomas mentioned above doesn't fit into an established genre that easily or not at all.
      All of them are very stripped down games, that's the one thing they have in common.
      Games like Gone Home and Thirty Flights of Loving are really interesting reductionist experiments in that they're trying to boil down storytelling in games to it's essential elements.
      I don't know if that was their intention, but that's my take anyway.

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  13. What about Dead Space 2?

    I replayed that game like 3 times in a row because the experience felt really unique at the time. Cutscenes were often very short and you could move Isaac during most conversations.
    The mechanics weren't always "shoot many necromorphs" the game was constantly changing and challenging you with different environments.

    The fact that you could choose your preferred weapons and armor added too some kind of decision making. Characters were well developed and I always felt attached to them. Even though the game is almost a railroad experience I never felt like someone was guiding me by the hand, it was more of a make your way through the end.

    To point some of its faults, the "make us whole" thing got tiring, yes, but the story was quite strong with all the religious/political implications. It too was quite repetitive with Isaac falling everywhere (funny this happens so often at space). Also it was more of an action game than a horror one, but the atmosphere, even though different, was overwhelming during the whole experience.

    I think it meets the 5 requirements as good as many other games mentioned here.

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    1. Well, I think most people will disagree that Dead Space fulfill the 5 requirements, but still think it might be worthwhile to give a brief overview why this is not the case:

      1) While there is a story in dead space, I do not think you could say the game has focus on this. There is so much design that revolves around the combat parts (upgrading, looking for ammo, buying equipment, etc) that I think it is fairly safe to say this game has a focus on shooting monsters.

      Litmus test:
      - Is the game engaging if all story is removed? Yes.
      - Is the game engaging if all shooting is removed. Highly unlikely.
      Case closed :)


      2) You play most of the game! Dead Space 2 fulfills this. However, most of the important story bits are in cutscenes, so the player does not really play much of the story. So it is not a clear fulfillment.

      3) Some the shooting has some story relevance but much of it does not and just acts as filler. Added to that is the looting, upgrading, etc that has no story relevance at all. Negative on this point.

      4) While the game does vary itself, there is lots and lots of repetition still. It goes way beyond having the actions to set mood and provide narrative. Most of the shooting is just meer padding and there for the sake of shooting. That means it does not pass this point either.

      5) Does the game halt your progress? Yes, there is a lot of sections that require mastery to overcome. So negative here too.

      Summed up, Dead Space manages to get 1 point, 0 if really unforgiving and 2 if really stretching it.

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  14. What is your opinion on first-person adventure games, more specifically "Riven: The Sequel to Myst"? In my personal opinion, very few games have woven their puzzles/mechanics into the fabric of the story and game world more tightly and seamlessly than Riven. Even today, it's still one of the go-to examples of implicit storytelling in video games.

    On a slightly unrelated note: it really irks me that Gone Home is receiving so much glowing praise for its implicit storytelling, when it was already done in a similar manner by Riven 15 years earlier (and Myst 4 years before that). Not only that, but Riven arguably executed it much more masterfully, even with the presence of puzzles.

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    1. Yes! I too did think of Riven. People have a short memory, it seems.

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  15. Have you played Bastion? I think it comes really close to meeting all 5 of the requirements, with the only possible exception being a little bit of repetition (element 4).

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  16. Having read through these again, trying to put games through the 'test', I feel like element 4 should be re-titled - all the other four element titles make sense and work without any extra explanation

    'Focus on storytelling', 'Most of the time is spent playing', 'Interactions must make narrative sense', 'No major progression blocks'. All of those are absolutely clear in what they mean, and are all (mostly) objective observations

    But 'No repetitive actions'? It's probably just my interpretation, but I feel like the sentence in the explanation for that element, "Instead we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires" would do a better job getting the point across and be a bit more 're-usable' and less subjective as an observation

    So how about
    4) Activities only last as long as the pacing requires
    It's definitely not as 'punchey' as the other title though.. :)

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    1. That is really interesting and I agree with what you say. I think that element (along with perhaps "focus on storytelling") is the most vague one. But I am unsure that "having activities that long as pacing requires", really solves anything. The thing is that many would simply conclude that repeating certain things a lot is fundamental to the narrative. For instance, someone said that about Papers, Please. And it is not trivial to refute this. Especially since certain other seemingly repetitive tasks (eg crawling through power tunnels in Heavy Rain) really ARE properly part of the narrative experience.

      Perhaps a better way to phrase it is something like:
      "The game must not revolve around a repetitive activity".
      This is not super, but it is slightly better. For instance now it is really easy to rule out Papers Please, but to still have the section in Heavy Rain. PP clearly revolves around sorting and comparing papers, that is what makes the game tick. Dead Space is repeatedly killing necromorphs over and over. And so on. But Heavy Rain is NOT about crawling through tunnels.

      But there are still some vagueness. For instance, Thirty Flights of Loving revolves around walking around, which is a repetitive action on its own. However, unlike say Dead Space, the game does not really draw any engagement from this repetition. If fact it is so pushed into the background that you do not think about doing the actions.

      So then we get something:
      "The game may not revolve around, or get the main engagement from, a repetitive action that lies in focus (ie not in the background of perceived narrative).

      But that gets really cumbersome, and can be shortened to "Game must not be repetitive" :)

      Still I agree with you, it is far from clear. But as long as designers that wanna do games about storytelling just asks themselves: "Is my game too repetitive?" I think we will come a long way!

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    2. Nice, great analysis! That reasoning is very clear, it's almost a shame that short titles work so much better than long ones, because the extra detail in this, "The game may not revolve around, or get the main engagement from, a repetitive action that lies in focus", works perfectly.

      Following on from your last example, "Game must not be repetitive" could be summed up again as "No repetitive actions", so we just end up where we started! Oh well

      Your right, it's always going to be up to interpretation, and if the goal of these is to get the designer to think critically then it's clearly working as it is. Maybe just leave it alone, in that case :)

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  17. @Thomas
    have you played 'Shelter'?
    it's a game where you are a badger, a mother badger, taking care of your offspring, it seems to me to fit on those 5 characteristics, there's no HUD, or tutorial, and teh story(a very sad one) is completely told by gameplay, teh only fault i think is the repetition of mechanics, wich is very subtle. i recommend you giving it a try.
    it can be found in steam for a fair price(http://store.steampowered.com/app/244710/), a very artisy game, but it is unfortunately very short. hope you'll like it :)

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  18. Thomas! you should play outlast. It's really really good so far. I would like to see what are your thoughts since this is so similar to what you and Frictional do.

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  19. To add to the list of games that people have told you to play... I just finished 'Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons'. It's very short (3 hours) but very impactful due to the way it combines the storytelling with the game mechanics. The ending brings the story and the gameplay together really powerfully in a way that could not be replicated in any other medium.

    I think it fulfils almost all of the criteria you outlined above, except perhaps for relying slightly too heavily on cutscenes. However, their presence is not overwhelming, and there are many brilliant moments in the game when the player has control and story and gameplay mesh wonderfully. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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  20. I think you're leaving out the Elder Scrolls and Fallout (post-3, the earlier ones didn't meet these requirements) games. The only place I think they fail is that one could make the argument that they aren't really story focused, per se, since you can CHOOSE not to follow the story. But, even then, you are still following A story, even if it is not the MAIN story.

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  21. Thomas, as much as I am a huge fan of narrative and I do think that it must be a top priority, I think you underestimate the value of player agency through interaction in a consistent game world.

    Personally, I think a key element in a game is that every single same object must behave the same. It is huge to maintain a sense of consistency and "reality" in the game world.

    So, explaining: The very first Deus Ex, which, to me, is one of the best designed games ever. Every single medium sized metal crate behaves the same way. You can move every single one with your hands if you have the strength augmentation. Or you can push it with your body if you don't have the strength to carry it. You can move it to jump up and reach a higher place. You can hide behind those, either to avoid enemy sight or enemy fire. So, once I learn how *one* crate behaves in the world, I learned how *every single crate* works.

    Every time I see those, even from a distance, I can already plan my approach, without the need to check if this crate here will behave the same way the crate over there. I like to call it a "consistent game world" (kinda like System Shock 2, Thief and even your own Amnesia - The Dark Descent does too), and it is essential to my full immersion. It tells me that the game world behaves in a constant, logical way, and around that I can plan to reach my objectives.

    Deus Ex - Human Revolution threw this out of the window: some crates can be moved (and these can be highlighted as an option), and some cannot. So, I can move "this" crate here because the *game designer* wants to, but I cannot move that "same looking crate" right there because the *game designer* doesn't want to. This ruins immersion completely. I am not in a logical world, that obeys a consistent set of rules, I am in a clearly designed world, following along someone's else hand.

    When I can see the game designer leading me through the game, then it failed me as a video game, since I cannot ever hope to fully comprehend it and have the sense that "I" am making my way, my narrative through it. It ceases to be a interactive medium and turns into a passive medium. And this is what video games must avoid the most: the feeling that I am being guided.

    More than follow along a story TOLD to me, I need to MAKE my your through the story. And video games are the only medium that can do that.

    Dear Esther avoid this by eliminating all interation, except walking. Unlike you think, for me it does become quickly repetitive. I'm walking along what is essentially a story book being read. The story is always TOLD to me, I have not a say in it, I cannot even manipulate a single object to make this world more believable. It could be a short movie or a short novel and it would lose very little (only some the "randomness" of the narration).

    And this is why I don't like at all Amnesia - A Machine for Pigs as a game. There's very little interactivity. And when there is some, it is clearly some cheap puzzle throw away to block my way, since it stood out so much from the rest of the game already non-logical set of behavior.

    Interactivity is key. More than story. And I feel strange for saying this, I love well told stories, but I love more stories in video games that, at least, gives me some illusion of choice, of impact. I think every game designer should ask him/herself: "Could I tell this exact same story through a movie, or a novel?" If the answer is even a remote yes, something in the game needs reworking, because it will not reach the full potential that only a video game can achieve - true interactivity.

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  22. Have you played Miasmata, dear Thomas? It is a very interesting game, with no hand holding and a strong focus on the player experience. I found it to be quite refreshing in the game medium. Nothing "really" innovative, and somewhat frustrating, but a true bit of fresh air nonetheless that deserves to be played and talked about.

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    1. Yup! Played it and liked! Just was really hard to progress and the narrative was not that interesting to me. But 3 hours or so into, and enjoyed a bunch of it.

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  23. Dear Thomas, I would like to hear your thoughts on The Stanley Parable, if possible. I think, it's a major improvement in terms of interactive storytelling.

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  24. Thomas I'm a little late here. I wanted to ask you about Riven. I read through to see if it was already brought up, and it was, but it didn't receive a reply. Have you ever played it? It's my all time favorite. And it really mastered almost all of your criteria. Almost. However I don't believe it "fails," so much as challenges the criteria to begin with.

    Of course I am talking about criteria 5.You said above about Dead Space, "5) Does the game halt your progress? Yes, there is a lot of sections that require mastery to overcome. So negative here too." Riven stifled my progression more than any other game. Complex puzzles are the name of the game. However I feel Riven turns this criteria on its head, because progression is only found through mastery of the narrative. Instead of complex puzzles pulling you away from the story, they force you further into it. Any thoughts on this?

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