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  • Nonlinear Narrative in Games: Theory and Practice

    - Ben McIntosh, Randi Cohn and Lindsay Grace

  • Solutions for Nonlinear Narrative Design

    There have been many ways to address these challenges. Programmers and engineers have pursued procedurally generated levels and artificial intelligence solutions to entwine the logic of storytelling with the logic of the game. This approach has worked beautifully but not without its disadvantages. The most common setback is that there is a schism between the vision of the authors and designers, and the practicalities of procedural generation.

    The idea behind procedural generation is to change the level design or spoken narrative in a quasi-random way while still conveying the ideas set forth by the designer. One successful example of this is Left 4 Dead where the layout of the levels is slightly different each time you play the game. This gives the feel of the story being played out slightly differently each time you play. Another example could be a dialogue system where certain verbs or adjectives in a conversation are chosen based on game events somewhat like a "Mad Lib", but still convey similar meaning. These methods have still not seen widespread use and more commonly the designer chooses to have more explicit control over the narrative options.

    There are a few commonly used tools for people who design nonlinear narratives and dialogues routinely. For quick prototyping or brainstorming, designers may employ hand-drawn graphs and flow charts to diagram the relationship of specific events or moments in dialogue. These diagrams may be effective for small projects, but they do not scale for large, complicated narrative structures. Designers also combine traditional diagramming tools like Microsoft Visio with the word processors or spreadsheets. These often take the form of cross-referenced documents; where by an item in the diagram refers to a line of dialogue or a plot event in the word-processed document or the spreadsheet. However, as projects grow, the graphs become unwieldy.

    Example of a student's high-level nonlinear narrative hand-drawn graph

    For open world games, mind mapping tools like Mindjet or Freemind, or database tools like Microsoft Access may be useful in organizing quests, missions, or side-stories. While all of the solutions mentioned so far are common and relatively low-cost, they also suffer, to some degree, from their simplicity. Namely, they have difficulty allowing the designer to create conditions, which are circumstances that may change the direction of the story. Because the game world is a dynamic one and in most cases quite large, designers often turn to software to keep track of variables in order to prototype the narrative.

    Imagine trying to manually diagnose problems with the flow of a 500-line spreadsheet of nonlinear dialogue. To mitigate these problems, some companies create propriety solutions for managing their nonlinear narrative. As with any custom software development, it has advantages and disadvantages. Building software is not cheap and it takes development time away from making games. Time is also need to train people to use and maintain the software. However, when done correctly, it can save time in future game designs, especially if the tool implements a compatible data format that can integrate the dialogue directly into the game engine. An independent developer called Urban Brain Studios has made an attempt to bring such a tool to the commercial market with its nonlinear dialogue-editing tool, "Chat Mapper". Although it's a good start, there are still issues with handling the complexity of very large games. Also, while the built-in scripting system can be powerful, it may still take significant effort to convert the dialogue data to a usable format for the target game engine.


    As you can see, writing and implementing truly nonlinear games can be a daunting task. Due to the many challenges to designers, engineers, and producers, many companies opt to simply incorporate small nonlinear elements to make the game "feel" more nonlinear than it actually is. While this can be very successful, a truly nonlinear narrative that allows the player to dictate how the story progresses and ultimately ends, can be very rewarding and allow for a deeper emotional investment by the player. Technology should not hinder creativity. To help game designers, this article has presented ways to use traditional word processing tools as well as some creative solutions to generate nonlinear dialogue and story elements. We hope you have gained some knowledge and insight to the process of writing an innovative and intricate story.


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