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  • A Common Framework for Storytelling in Games

    - Gian Mancuso

  • Conflicts and Coherence in Dynamic Plot

    We've all played those games where the game's story is trying to be serious, but the game mechanics make it ridiculous, or where we know what the story is trying to do, but we're just not feeling it. A lack of coherence between story and plot, or story and gameplay, unless done for satirical effect, is the mark of bad storytelling. Let's take a look at a game-related example.

    In Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Games), the player can go on dates outside of the main storyline with four women: Kate, Alex, Kiki and Carmen. These side quests aren't just there to be amusing; completing multiple successful dates with these characters will reward the player with tangible, in-game abilities (e.g.: calling Kiki will take three stars off your wanted level). All of them, that is, except for Kate. No matter how many successful dates you go on with Kate there is no in-game advantage. Because of the precedent set up by the other, similar side-quests, the effect is either that the player is annoyed by Kate or else avoids Kate completely.

    In the story, on the other hand, Kate is the player character's main love interest. What's meant to be an emotional moment towards the end of the game instead comes off as ineffectual because an emotional attachment with Kate isn't established during the course of actual gameplay. In fact, the gameplay is in conflict with the story, and acts against the story's attempts at establishing this emotional attachment.

    If the game had gotten the player to like Kate through gameplay, the emotional moment would have been much more effective. This conflict between story and gameplay in Grand Theft Auto IV suggests two things. Firstly, gameplay becomes meaningful to the story whether the designer intends that meaning or not. And secondly, coherence is an important factor in making gameplay that harmoniously reinforces and enriches the story being told.

    Coherence can be as simple as making sure that the units and rules in a World War II themed game somewhat accurately reflect our expectations of World War II. Most game designers are already skilled at implementing this kind of coherence (realism) into their games. But beyond this, designers interested in telling stories better need to start considering what kind of plot they want their game mechanics to create, and whether that plot is telling the story the way they want it to be told.


    One example of this second kind of coherence, ludonarrative coherence (described variously by Clint Hocking and Jonathan Blow), can be found in BioShock (2K Games). The relationship between two non-player character types that populate the levels of the game, the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies, is an important part of the game's story. This relationship is made evident through some of BioShock's game mechanics, mechanics the player can't avoid if they want to become strong enough to progress in the game:

    1. A Little Sister cannot enter or exit a level without a Big Daddy.
    2. A Big Daddy will follow his Little Sister.
    3. A Big Daddy will threaten and push anyone that scares his Little Sister.
    4. A Big Daddy will attempt to kill anyone that tries to harm his Little Sister.
    5. The player cannot interact with a Little Sister until her Big Daddy is dead.

    These simple interactions between units, their rules, the environment and the player are coherent with the game's story. They are a visceral way to showcase the Big Daddies as protectors, demonstrating their unyielding dedication to the safety and wellbeing of their Little Sister. Without saying it orally, textually or visually, these rules procedurally communicate a strong relationship between these two units, reinforcing the story that the game is trying to tell. These rules can be usefully described as dynamic plot devices; together they create dynamic situations for the player to experience the story of BioShock.

    No playthrough of BioShock is ever the same, but everyone who plays BioShock experiences the same relationship between Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Without these rules there would be far fewer opportunities for the player to observe and emotionally react to their relationship outside of an initial opening cinematic. Sure, these NPC behaviours are also sound design decisions-decisions which were likely made for reasons that have nothing to do with the story, but that's the beauty of it: you shouldn't have to sacrifice good game design for story.

    Putting it All Together

    So far we've discussed the foundation needed to establish a common framework, and the implications this foundation has on the way we talk about and understand stories, characters, agency and game mechanics, but we haven't really established what that common framework is. The crux of it all comes in shifting our perspective. By seeing all of the various tools we use to tell a story as systems in their own right, systems of meaning that can be used to affect the way a story is told during gameplay, we can refine our perceptions to what matters most about each tool and how they interact when building an experience.

    When building a house you might use hammer, it might be made out of steel or zinc alloy, it might be 12" long, it might also be useful for hanging picture frames, and all of these characteristics might be important to the person wielding the hammer, but when talking to the person working the bandsaw, what matters most is how these two tools interact with the raw materials available in order to produce a set of trusses for the roof. Whether we want to impart a certain atmosphere through lighting, a certain emotion through music, a certain mood through character art, or a certain reaction through game mechanics, all of these tools can be used well together if we holistically frame the game and all the tools we use to create that game as a system that communicates meaning through play.

    Our task as designers and artists is to use that common framework to visualize a holistic blueprint, to know how to intentionally and purposefully use all of the tools in our toolkit to create a game that tells a story the way we want it to be told, and to understand how one tool interacts with another tool in order to create a game where the total sum of those meanings constructed and expressed by each individual tool comes together to form a singular, cohesive (or ironic) story as experienced through play. With a common framework in mind, artificial intelligence isn't designed to accurately simulate cognition, but to create compelling story experiences; levels aren't designed with the back-story in mind, but with an aim to meaningfully reinforce the story being told; and game mechanics aren't just fun, they're meaningful.

    But after all that pomp, I do want to emphasize that we are already doing this today, to some degree. I hope many of you reading this article weren't surprised by what was said and saw instead a reflection of your own thoughts. Many of the notions presented here come naturally, others need refinement, and so much has yet to be discovered. We still have a long way to go in perfecting our craft, and I hope the idea of a common framework based on coherently communicating a shared meaning will help get us there.


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