Choosing between two options for storytelling and character development in a game

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by esrix, May 19, 2007.

  1. esrix

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    I've come at a crossroads in my personal game project, and I'm debating which way to go.

    Without going into too much detail, the game itself is a turn-based strategy game similar to Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea.

    I'm having trouble choosing between two options, each with its own method of storytelling and character development.

    Option 1:
    Storytelling
    The story would have to be comprised of several decision trees; what you choose to do at one point in the game affects how who you encounter and battle later on. This would still be very linear, but offer several choices and multiple endings.

    Character Development
    This would take a more traditional RPG approach; the player would have to outfit each character with a weapon and some accessories for battle. The more enemies you defeat, the more you level up/improve your stats and the easier it becomes to defeat any future enemies.

    Advantage
    Much more rewarding in terms of character development and customizable.

    Disadvantage
    The story, while dynamic, would still be completely linear.

    Option 2:
    Storytelling
    This would be an attempt to come as close to non-linear storytelling as possible. The player would be able to go to almost anywhere they decide from the very beginning of the game and experience the events in almost any order. Encounters would be very episodic and mostly self contained, but would offer an interesting degree of freedom. Depending on which events you complete before the game ends determines what ending you get. It wouldn't be completely non-linear as I would require certain events to be completed to unlock other, more challenging events.

    Character Development
    To keep things from getting too easy or too hard in this case, there would be almost no leveling up and less customizable. Instead, the player would gain experience points that are specific to enemies. For example, if you defeat several goblins, it becomes easy for you to defeat goblins. But defeating goblins would not help you to defeat a dragon. Enemies would be specific to an area.

    Advantage
    The story would be incredibly flexible and very non-linear.

    Disadvantage
    Character development would be dumbed down significantly

    So in the end, it's flexible character development versus flexible storytelling. Obviously, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. I'm indifferent to either one personally, so I'm asking around for some opinions and suggestions on the matter.
     
  2. Rainer Deyke

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    Character development aside, option 2 will almost certainly result in a weaker story. A story functions as a cohesive whole because of the interdependencies between the scenes - otherwise there's no point in including the different scenes in the same story.

    (Edit: I meant option 2, of course.)
     
    #2 Rainer Deyke, May 19, 2007
    Last edited: May 19, 2007
  3. HDL

    HDL New Member

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    I'm a strange one. Whilst in theory I love the idea of multiple choices that effect how you play the game, at the same time I want to see all of the game and hate the idea of missing out on a good ending just because in the first ten minutes of a game I said yes instead of no. When given three choices and the option to dither about without choosing I tend to stick with the dithering, or read a walkthrough to find out which is the best choice to make. But I love the idea of having choices, just in practice, unless it's a game like Cute Knight too much choices start to frustrate me. It's weird coming to that realisation. I'm playing Fable just now and I'm forever reloading old save games so I can see what would happen if I did something a different way.

    Personally I prefer it when my decisions in games have an immediate effect as opposed to making a decision then having to wait several hours later until the consequences of that decision happen. Since usually that means I'll then have to replay those several hours to see what would have happened if I made the other choice. Unless it's stuff like in Fable making the concious decision to be good. That locks some of the game from me but I know that I can go back and replay making the decision to be bad and experiencing the other half of the game.

    There's nothing wrong with having a linear story. It's better to have a good, tight linear story than something so unfocussed the player doesn't know where they're going. Too much choice can be as bad as not enough.

    I like being able to customise my characters so that I can play the game the way I like. Bahamut Lagoon is the only tactics style game that I've played but I enjoyed that. All the battles had a purpose that fitted in with the story and there was no pointless grinding on monsters. I like that.

    By non-linear do you mean there'll be a bunch of events that you can do and you can choose the order? If they all need to be completed would that make much fo a difference? Or is it a case of you can choose to defend the castle, or charge off and rescue the princess, or split your forces and try and do both, and each choice you make and depending on whether you win or lose will create more choices in the future?

    I'm not sure if I like the idea of just gaining experience used against certain enemies. I like the idea of progressing in a game and getting better, as opposed to being back to square one with each different enemy. I suppose it would depend on how it was implemented.

    To be honest I'm not sure which one would work best. The second idea sounds more innovative, whereas the first a more tried and tested route. I guess it depends on how much of a risk you want to take. If you want to go with something new or just go with a mechanic that you know works.

    Hmm and having read Rainer's response I'm not sure how Option 1 sounds as if it would have a weaker story. It seems as if the story could be pretty solid. With linear games you have a lot more control over exactly how the story is told.
     
  4. Game Producer

    Moderator Original Member

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    Would there be some middle-ground, would it be possible to have both to some extent? (Like sometimes you have freedom... while sometimes it's linear).

    Just a thought.
     
  5. esrix

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    Rainer:
    Indeed it would. I'd have to think of other ways to compensate and keep the story engaging. Like, X-Files engaging or something.

    HDL:
    Yes, for the non-linear choice you'd be able to choose the order of events. You'd have to complete a certain percentage of events before being allowed to go to the final area. So you don't need to complete all the events, but you most certainly can if you want. Depending on which events you choose to complete would affect the ending.

    To Polycount:
    I've been trying to figure out a middle ground for the longest. It becomes hard to challenge the player if you give them a non-linear story with highly customizable characters because it's impossible to determine who they would encounter first. What would stop them from battling a very difficult boss on the first try and a very weak one on the last? I toyed with the idea of dynamic difficulty adjustment, but in my opinion that defeats the purpose of leveling up then... I would definitely like for there to be a middle ground, though.
     
  6. GolfHacker

    GolfHacker Member

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    I like the freedom to explore, so I would probably vote for option #2 or a hybrid like others have mentioned. I really hate games that lock me into a fixed decision tree (like some of the old SCUMM games) for the sake of story.

    A lot of old sidescrollers (Commander Keen, Crystal Caves, etc) gave you a world map that connected all the levels, and usually let you go wherever you wanted and play levels in any order you wanted. Of course, they had weaker stories. But the story wasn't the engaging characteristic of those games - it was the fun gameplay.

    A lot of old RPGs I used to play gave you a great deal of freedom to explore, while still preserving a rich (though fairly linear) storyline. I think of Baldur's Gate, Interplay's old Lord of the Rings, and other games that had huge game worlds to explore. The games were linear, but they disguised it well by making each area monstrously huge. A nice side effect of this was that it prolonged the gameplay and allowed you to enjoy the game longer.

    For Dirk Dashing, I chose a hybrid model. I divided the story up into 5 parts, through which you must advance sequentially. But within each part, you can go anywhere you want. Each part corresponds to a geographic area and contains 5-6 levels, and each level has its own little mini-story. For the most part, the levels can be played in any order (except in a few cases where story dictates that the first level is an entrance to the area and must be played first). This allowed me to add some structure to the story while still giving the player some freedom to move about and explore.

    I think a hybrid approach like this should work fine for lots of adventure, strategy, or RPG games.
     
  7. jefferytitan

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    I tend to like the second option. But I think it could do with some tweaking.

    For a start, for character development I think you need a set of attributes which improve based upon what the character does. For example, killing lots of goblins would improve strength, speed, stamina, and in particular the ability to combat small foes. So it would help you immensely against goblins, reasonably against other small foes, and very little against a dragon.

    As far as endings go, I think a two-tiered sort of system would work well. You have individual quests, where you have a certain degree of freedom in how you achieve them. And you have the plot, which is based upon which quests you complete in which order. The first sort of freedom does not affect the ending at all, the second does.

    Certain quests may be very linear, which would best be achieved by a clear path of necessary objectives or by terrain restraining them to attacking the problem in a limited number of ways, e.g. a valley full of goblins with an objective in the middle and they can only attack from the north or the south. Other quests, such as getting a dragon's treasure may be very open, e.g. you can do it as a thief, you can do it as a mighty warrior, you can do it by paying mercenaries.

    Similarly, there may be linearities in the top tier, e.g. to fulfill one quest you must have finished one of two other quests. These sorts of relationships would prevent a combinatorial explosion of endings. You could also cheaply add extra endings by combining their path through the quests with their end state, e.g. if they have lots of men they have the regular ending PLUS they become king. If they are treacherous they may be betrayed right at the end. But I definitely think that a fixed set of endings will provide a more cohesive story than letting them randomly wander around.
     
    #7 jefferytitan, May 20, 2007
    Last edited: May 20, 2007
  8. esrix

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    After some thinking, I am leaning toward a non-linear system with the more advanced character development hybrid. However, to keep it challenging, I'll have to put away my fears and develop a system for adjusting the difficulty so that the player stays challenged. This will mostly mean logging which spells and abilities would be more advanced and making those available to enemies based on the player's character stats.

    Does anyone have any suggestions or comments on that idea?
     
  9. Therion

    Therion New Member

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    Option 2 would make the game story-less and without leveling or progress in characters will be boring (IMHO).

    You can offer a non-linear history (with branching paths) in a pseudo-free-roaming world, i.e.: in some point in the game you have 2 options, kill the king or kill the pirates, to kill the king you must go to the kingdom, there are 2 paths for that, mountains or plains/forest, and to kill the pirates you must go to their lair, with 3 paths for that, plains/swamp, valley, mountains/lake.

    Each path is a different level with different reward/story outcomes, and at the same time you are choosing what to do.

    OR, if you anyway want to stick to the 2 option, you can make your characters level anyway, but make the monsters levels rise relatively, making the illusion of progress.

    My 2 cents.
    Cheers!
     
  10. dannthr

    dannthr New Member

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    Choice is illusory.

    Within the multitude of options we each walk only one path. What are the goals of the game? If the game is going to say something about freedom of choice then embrace those goals.

    Within the leaves one of the first pen and paper RPG game master guides I ever read was writen something like: A good game master creates the illusion of freedom and the motivation for decision.

    Essentially good writing will motivate the player to progress the story.

    So if your goal is to tell a story, decide what that story is and embrace those goals.

    Is the story about the player character? Is the story about the world? Is the story about a non-player character? Is it about some theme? Like determinism, choice, or destiny?

    It feels like these are choices you yourself need to make before you're ready to dig into implementation.
     
  11. esrix

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    dannthr:

    The story is actually very character driven--you play as 5 escaped convicts who are seeking answers to personal questions while getting revenge against a new post-war government. There's no real saving the world; it's all about satisfying themselves due to previous encounters.

    That's why I think it could go either way, really.
     
  12. jefferytitan

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    My feeling is that you have to either allow some freedom or target a very narrow audience. I mean sure, you can display the plot in flashing neon signs so they know where they have to go, but anything with subtlety can be interpreted many different ways. Different audiences have different expectations, and will act accordingly. Think about watching a movie with friends. Often you'll find people saying 'Why the heck did he do that? I would have...", and they often don't agree with each other.
     
  13. dannthr

    dannthr New Member

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    Plot shouldn't have neon flash signs--good writing is subliminally motivational. If it's well written, you will make the player WANT to make the choices you want them to make. That's your control--that's game mastery.
     
  14. jefferytitan

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    As I was saying, I think the single path approach incredibly limits your choice of subject matter. For example, imagine if a male character kidnaps his daughter because he cannot get custody. I think you'll find your players split into three groups; those who side with the mother as a victim of kidnapping, those who side with the father as fighting against a biased judicial system for his daughter and those who don't like kids and don't really give a damn either way.

    How is one story path going to accomodate all of them? You could say it's down to what your target audience is, but many games have subplots which the player doesn't know about when they buy the game. That would pretty much leave you with archetypes as subject matter because everybody understands them.

    In any case the element of choice is what separates a video game from a movie. Why play a linear video game when a movie can always tell that story better?
     
  15. dannthr

    dannthr New Member

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    I really don't see how that's a problematic scenario--a well written story will motivate and evoke the proper sympathy in the player.

    It is, however, a silly scenario.
     
  16. jefferytitan

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    Books often feature ambiguous situations designed to make the reader think, with no clear "good guy" or "bad guy". How will a linear game work if the player chooses to side with the "wrong" person? How do you motivate the majority of people appropriately in an ambiguous situation? That's akin to mind control. And if you can, why aren't you a speechwriter for your government?

    PS - I'm sure the best-selling writer who wrote a story about that very topic does not find it silly.
     
  17. dannthr

    dannthr New Member

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    The scenario in my silly qualification includes it being a game.

    But if you're going to make that game then I'm interested in seeing it.

    Mostly, however, I'm confused--you seem to give writing enough credit in books, why do you maintain the position that it's lesser or weaker in regards to a game?

    Isn't a book really just a game where the player is given the choice to read or not to read?

    How does an author keep a reader from skipping over a paragraph? Reading has rules just like any other game. You play the game in a certain direction, in a certain order, and in a certain language. There are expectations with regards to syntax, grammar, structure, etc. These expectations can be played with or even directly challenged.

    (Try Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves)

    A good writer keeps the player from skipping over passages or putting the book down altogether, or more specifically: A good writer keeps the player abiding by the rules of the game--rules set forth through the very implementation of the game specifically.

    I think you'll have an easier time solving your dilemma if you stop separating what makes a good game and what makes a good book, painting, or piece of music.

    Why defeat yourself by saying a movie is more well equipped to tell a story than a game?

    What do you want from your game?
     
  18. esrix

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    Well, for starters, I just want an interesting way of going about telling the story while giving the player some control with it.

    It may sound arrogant, but I've no problems writing an interesting story. It was just an issue of design and implementation that I was worried about.

    I am taking your comments into consideration, however, as I feel all opinions are worth listening to.

    My plan, as it stands now, is to decide what the main story (or stories) I definitely want to tell and from what aspect (as told from the view of one of the main characters, or from one of the antagonists, or even from a bystander who witnessed the events). I'm going to plot out each one individually and list all the directions the player can go with each story. Then, I'm going to go Slaughter House 5 on them--chop them up a little and mix the stories together to give some variation.
     
  19. jefferytitan

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    Hmm, the direction of this is turning a little more adverserial than I intended. Basically it seems to me that Dan's position is that it is better that all games be written in a linear fashion (with little to no user choice in the final outcome) unless they are explicitly about the topic of choice. My point is that games based on a wide variety of subject matter would suffer from a linear treatment, i.e. it would feel too restrictive to many players. I am not talking about any specific game, past present or future.

    In my opinion books and movies are a far better choice for linear stories than a game because by their nature they are linear and non-interactive, and people expect them to be that way. A reader could read a book out of order if they wished, but that would be far and away the exception to the rule. There are of course D&D books etc which require the player to make choices, but that is more of a paper-based game than a traditional book.

    The strength of a computer game is that it can be highly interactive (hundreds or thousands of decisions an hour) as opposed to other forms of entertainment. We should enjoy that ability, rather than avoid it. True, it is a difficult medium to work in. Writing a story that makes sense based upon the players choices is a problem which by and large has not been solved yet. But that does not mean it's a bad goal.

    Even games as primitive (story-wise) as Doom give you a glimmer of what true choice would be like. The fear when the lights go out and you hear things growling because you were greedy enough to go for the armour in the obvious trap was far and away different to what you see in the movies. You know it was your choice which got you in the situation, and if you're not good enough you will die. You can't sit back and mock the character that walked into the trap because it's you. You can't wait for the inevitable conclusion because there is none. It's in your hands. Now imagine that simple choice (get the armour or don't) and it's consequences (safety vs danger) magnified to meaningful levels. You can't tell me that wouldn't be cool.
     
  20. dannthr

    dannthr New Member

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    Not at all.

    I am a huge proponent of non-linear game design, but I simply didn't think it was fair to say that a game is any less capable of telling a story than a movie or a book and that I believe you can with writing motivate the player to make the choices you, the game designer/master want.


    Not all stories have to be linear, again read Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves.

    I don't believe any sacrifice has to be made with regards to character development in non-linear stories so long as the writing is exceptional and the writer is clear about the goals of the story and the development.

    There is no need to make my conclusions for me.
     

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