Friday, January 16, 2009

taking plot to the player

I was thinking about unclear goals and wandering in games. Like a lot of players, I enjoy just wandering and exploring. In a game like Fallout 3, I like to just head east and see what happens. True adventure always involves events which are unplanned and unexpected.

But if you wander too long, if you're always chasing minor goals and don't have one or more great conflicts to tie it all together, then the experiences start to feel shallow. The grand conflict frames the smaller events, reveals order and meaning.

Most games which offer content far beyond a scripted plot, like Fallout 3 or Saints Row 2, merely leave an invitation with the player to jump back on the narrative highway whenever fancy strikes. Either the player is forced into the game's narrative heart from time to time, or the player is given a map to find it whenever.

There is an alternative, though I don't pretend it would be easy. The alternative is for the main conflict to enter smaller conflicts in the form of overt events.

In The Godfather III, there's an important scene where Michael Corleone realizes he can't escape his past:

He walked away from conflict, and conflict hunted him down. He was able to have meaningful experiences apart from that old war, but eventually it always finds a way to interrupt or mix into those experiences.

Let players chase those smaller conflicts and experiences. And let them choose when to fully engage with the main conflict. But don't just leave a sign, post reminders, or tie everything to the plot through passive crossovers (side-quest choices which relate to the primary plot but cannot affect its progression). Occasionally bring the main conflict to wherever the player has wandered, with force and with consequences.

Remember, adventures isn't chosen. It's responded to.


  1. I've been thinking a lot about this post since finding it in my reader. It may not seem like it on the surface, but it rather directly lead to me doing a write up on SMT: Persona 3.

    In Persona there is always a clear goal, get to the top floor of the tower. There are time released locks inside the tower, that are directly related to time based events in the rest of the game. You are also warned to begin with, that you only have 1 year of in-game to win the game.

    The vast majority of the major story events actually pointedly avoid the tower entirely. This creates a strange sort of dichotomy, since you always know the tower is there and that you "should" be making progress in it... but it's more of the elephant in the room since you tend to spend a lot time off doing something else.

    Most importantly, almost every time I've been to the tower, and I'm only about six in-game months through the game, it's been my choice. In other words, I myself have to choose to pursue the storyline's main goal, or choose to helplessly watch the havoc it's wreaking in the rest of the game. Of course, if you don't spend some time in the tower, you won't have the power to survive the major storyline encounters, but that is consistent with the story they are trying to tell.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, you don't even need Fallout 3's super duper go everywhere sandbox world to create meaningful choice. In fact, it's limitations that give your choices meaning. But too often we choose to avoid the limitation of time, since we equate it to dross like timed jumping puzzles, rather than with gold, like meaningful choices. Having the primary storyline continue with, or without, your presence can actually be a powerful motivator, since not having power over the main storyline can instill a certain feeling of helplessness when it touches you. But if you don't have a defined end that it continuously closes on, you run a high risk of pushing your audience into apathy. And if they start to get even a little bored of the main storyline, they may turn apathetic to the game entirely.

  2. A well-designed 'sandbox' game will, for me, will push the main storyline towards the players style of play.

    In other words & if we take Fallout 3 as an example here, exploring the world & shifting towards the side quests shouldn't mean the main questline is unapproachable. The game mechanics could be geared towards the players responce & have important storyline moments occur a little more spontaneous. This does lead to the question of do the main questlines work best as 'location specific'?

    Good post Aaron, funnily enough I had been eager to find Rachet City to finish a side quest before the main questline took me there - it did mean running away from some hairy situations that, if I had stayed & fought, I would have not survived.

  3. Hmm, a very intriguing possibility. Do you have any specific examples in mind of how the main conflict could be brought into the smaller conflicts in a particular game? At the moment it's difficult for me to imagine how that would work, exactly. Maybe I'll have to watch more movies. ;)

    "if you're always chasing minor goals and don't have one or more great conflicts to tie it all together, then the experiences start to feel shallow"

    I think this pattern is quite relevant to real life as well as to games.

    Fascinating comment by Sara Pickell about how the tower provides that clear goal, and the steady but relentless progression of time subtly reminding you of your duty there. And the tension between story and tower goals, invoking a bit of procrastination into the game there... This example is very helpful to me in understanding this concept. Thank you. :)


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