Story vs game part II

I started this subject by offering a counterpoint to Greg Costikyan’s article on the incompatibility of Story and Game from  2001.  Greg wrote another article on the subject some seven years later which can be read here:  Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.  This article presents some of the same historical overview of stories in games, and gets really interesting towards the last third starting from ‘algorithmic systems + multiple approaches to problems‘, and in particular where he discusses ‘narrative RPGs‘.

Before I go into that, I will reiterate the main point from my last post — Greg’s definition of ‘story’ in his articles is of a linear, more or less predetermined narrative arc, that when viewed objectively has the qualities we expect from mainstream fiction.  And given that definition, his logic is water tight.  But when it comes to interactive fiction, or ‘story games’, that definition is not really applicable.  The purpose of interactive fiction is not to produce a story, it is to participate in a story.  It is the quality of the participation, rather than the quality of the objective result that is important, the same as any other type of game.  A basketball video game isn’t judged by how much like a real game of basketball it appears, its judged by how much fun it is to play.

So I am side-stepping completely around the argument Greg presented in 2001 article.  The objective becomes designing a game with great gameplay that provides the experience of participating in engaging fiction, rather than producing an objectively good story.  That doesn’t automatically make it easy, but it does dodge the bullet of ‘fundamental incompatibility’.

So how does a game provide the experience of participating in engaging fiction?  By placing the player in the shoes of the protagonist and offering the player the same sort of decisions, and context for making those decisions, that a character in quality mainstream fiction would be expected to make.  Then let the situation play out according to the decisions the player makes.   This is no different from any game, except for the nature of the decisions being made.  See my previous posts Decisions, decisions and Goals.

There are game designers who have been following this approach for some time — Greg’s article discusses a ‘narrative’ table-top RPG called My Life with Master — a critically acclaimed game within it’s niche.  What is a narrative RPG and how is it different from mainstream RPGs?  In mainstream RPGs the decisions often revolve around tactical combat and puzzle/mystery solving.  In narrative RPGs, the decisions often revolve around moral dilemmas.  Mainstream RPGs emphasize the setting of the game, and the weapons, skills and equipment the player characters are likely to have in that setting, whereas narrativist RPGs  focus on the situation the player character is in: “You are the servant to an evil scientist“.  Mainstream RPGs tend to have a lot of mechanics that focus on resolving combat or skill execution, whereas narrative RPGs tend to have mechanics that focus on how the character’s decisions affect their ongoing behaviour and relationships with other characters.    The reason MLWM is lauded is because it is so effective at focussing the player’s decision-making on the moral dilemmas associated with being a servant to an evil scientist.  That is the core of its gameplay, and all of the rules in the game directly support that premise.

Another important distinction between mainstream and narrative RPGs, as MLWM’s designer discusses here, is that narrative games place a high value on the player’s protaganism.  The linear-predetermined-story vs. player agency debate isn’t confined to story within video games.  It has been going on in table-top RPG circles for ages.  In mainstream RPGs, the person running the game often (secretly) hammers out a rough plot for the players to follow.  Within the confines of that plot, the players are free to make tactical combat decisions and solve the GMs puzzles and mysteries in various ways, but for the most part they will be shepherded back onto the GM’s predetermined path whenever they stray.  These are Greg’s ‘beads on a string’, and in RPGs it’s called rail-roading.  Whereas in  narrative games, the understanding is that the GM will allow the players full agency and honour the consequences of their actions.   Most narrative RPGs don’t have predetermined  ‘acts’ the way MLWM does, but MLWM does for a specific reason – not to restrict player agency by discounting the consequences of their actions, but to keep the game situation intact – you can’t have a game about being a servant to an evil scientist if the player decides to leave or kill the master at the very first opportunity, nor is it feasible for such a tightly focussed situation to continue indefinitely.  All games must have constraints that essentially define what the game is.  Pacman can’t leave the maze.  Super Mario is over when Princess Peach is rescued.

Part of honouring the players protaganism is allowing them to make the decision they want to make within the general constraints of the game, as Greg mentions in  ‘algorithmic systems + multiple approaches to problems‘.  For instance, the main problem with choose your own story games is that you can’t — you can only choose between a very few predetermined courses of action determined by someone else.  To get around that you need to have an algorithmic approach to resolving consequences.  Easy to say, harder to do, when the consequences  revolve around behaviour and relationships rather than hitpoints.

The summary is that narrative RPGs seek to produce the kind of situations and decision making that is associated with engaging fiction, and to honour the player’s protaganism by allowing the consequences of their decisions to play out in full within the general constraints of the game.  They are games about story (usually about a certain situation), as opposed to games about tactical combat, or puzzle-solving, or platform jumping, or basketball.

Computer games have already successfully implemented the mainstream RPG long ago – back in the day of of Wizardy and a bit latter Baldur’s gate, and these days with MMORPGs.  I’m firmly convinced that the first truly successful story computer games will be based on the same principles that narrative RPG designers continue to develop.  

Story games

I recently came across this article by Greg Costikyan about the fundamental incompatibility of story and game  Story vs. Game.  This is as a result of a really interesting discussion on that topic at Keith Burgan’s game design forum.  I don’t want to critique Greg’s article so much as offer a counterpoint to that line of thought based on my experience playing and designing both computer games and tabletop roleplaying games.

The main thrust of the argument against combining story and games is that good stories are pre-determined and linear, while good games are not — they require the player to  have the agency to be able to make decisions that change things up.  So the conclusion drawn is that limiting the player’s agency makes for a worse game, and conversely allowing the player to mess with the arc of the narrative makes for a worse story.  You are effectively making a frankenstein that is unsatisfactory from either perspective.

I can’t argue with most of that, but to cut directly to the chase, I think it’s missing the vital point — you don’t play a story game to produce a story, you play it to be in a story.  The objective literary value of the ‘story’ produced as a result of play is irrelevant.  To quote Lemmy, “the pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say“.  And in fact Greg talks about the huge advantage that participation gives games  over other mediums towards the end of his article.

There are also a few assumptions that go along with the story vs. game argument.  The first is the very concept that story and game are distinct and separate things that need to be mushed together somehow.  I think this is because so many games do exactly that — tack a few cut scenes in between blowing shit up.  Most gamers be like “How quickly can I fast forward through this stuff?”  But that type of stitch job isn’t the only option available.  A story game needn’t be “story + game” any more than an arcade game would be considered “game + physical challenge” or a strategy game as “game + planning”.  A story game can be simply a game about story.  The genre of interactive fiction.

The Story vs. Games article does consider “Choose your own adventure” style of games and also touches very briefly on paper RPGs.  The problem that Greg sees with CYOA games is that they lack goals. I don’t agree.  The goal is to work in the best interests of the protagonist.  Fictional Bowser kidnapped your fictional Princess Peach?  Man, you got to fictionally get her back!!!   The real problem with CYOA games is that they are just really simple little things that won’t hold any serious gamers interest for more than a few minutes.

For me, where Greg discusses Paper RPGs is the most interesting part of the article.  That part stands out because it concedes that yes, these peeps have fun playing their style of game, and that participation is the key to appreciating any resulting ‘story’.  But then glosses over that observation to conclude that by an objective literary measure, the ‘stories’ aren’t much chop.  To that, I refer you again to Lemmy.  But I will also add that the paper RPG community has made huge strides in the genre since 2001.  There is really a whole lot of insightful designers that have spent the last 20 years doing a mountain of great work with games intended to be both great fun to play and produce satisfying narrative as a result.

The second assumption is that a story game must necessarily be inferior as a game.  It ain’t necessarily so.  In fact, the factors that are most important for engaging gameplay – consequential decisions made in the pursuit of goals – are precisely the factors that make for engaging narrative.  So putting players in the position of the protagonist and giving them the opportunity to select those goals and make those consequential decisions seems more like a match made in heaven than a fundamental incompatibility.  They are just different types of decisions and goals to arcade games or strategy games, that’s all.

Lastly I would like to touch on the possibilities that story games offer.  I’m not going anywhere near  ‘games as art’ or ‘games vs. art’.  What I will say is that all types of games offer moments.   Arcade games can offer moments of exhilaration.  Puzzle and strategy games games can offer moments of satisfaction or triumph.  Story games can offer moments of emotion and insight.  It’s by the frequency and depth of these moments that story game players derive satisfaction from the ‘narrative’ rather than some literary measure of coherency.  Ask anyone who has played  improv theatre or paper RPGs, and has experienced a point where the talking stops and everybody stares at each other like ‘Did that actually just fucking happen?‘  There is definitely something worth shooting for there that only interactive fiction can provide.

The fact that nobody has quite yet managed to successfully bring that experience to computer games (that I’m aware of) isn’t anywhere near enough reason not to keep trying.

Dungeon Bash now on KICKSTARTER!!

Im ecstatic to announce that Dungeon Bash, my squad-based tactical roguelike for IOS and Android is now on Kickstarter!  

Can you imagine leading an acid blob, an elf and a minotaur into combat?  Or perhaps a pit-viper, a zombie and a slime demon?

Dungeon Bash puts the player in control of a team of three adventurers, randomly selected from a list of over thirty radically different creatures, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Your task is to learn how to effectively utilize your team in every new tactical situation they find themselves in, as they delve ever deeper into a monster filled dungeon.


Rules of engagement

A recap  — in all of my posts so far I’ve been banging on about decisions and goals as a way to understand and design games.  What separates a game from other activities is consequential decision making in pursuit of a goal, whether that goal be explicit in the game itself — even just ‘survival’, or a goal imposed by the player on the game, such as high-score or the innate goal of continuous improvement.   (see Building little empires)

If an activity doesn’t offer any opportunity for the player to make significant decisions in pursuit of a goal, then it isn’t a game.  I guess it could be called a ‘toy’ or an ‘experience’ depending on the intentions of the creator.

After more consideration, I have pinned down the problem I attributed to RTS games and Civilization, which I labelled ‘micro-management’.  To be more precise, I think the basic problem is a lack of engagement, which I see as the player experiencing a period in the game where they aren’t making consequential decisions in pursuit of their current goals.

I highlight current, because players goals can change during a game.  They can change in nature and they can change in scope.   For the player to stay engaged, the game has to allow them to make consequential decisions in pursuit of their currently favoured goals or they will get frustrated.  They may still keep playing if the pain of giving up is more than the pain of getting through the rough patch.  But the job of the designer is to try to keep the player engaged as much as possible.

So ‘micro-management’.  Something can only be termed micro-management if its in the context of there also being a macro.  If there isn’t also a macro to consider, then its just management 🙂   In games where the scope of play goes from small to large, as it does in any game where the goal is to make the players position larger and more influential, then the scope of the player’s goals are very likely to change from the micro to the macro as the game progresses.

Micro-management becomes unfun when it isn’t in-line with your current goals. Players want to be making decisions that are consequential to the goals that they have prioritised *right now*. When the players goals are in-line with manipulating single units, micro-management is fun, like at the start of most empire-building games, RTS games included. But if the game basically forces you to pay attention to other stuff that is not directly important to your currently prioritised goals, it feels like being asked to take out the garbage while you are watching TV.  Sure, the garbages needs to be taken out, but does it have to be done right now?  Can’t somebody else do it?  Im busy!

This is the reason that games such as these have ‘AI’ that you can delegate micro-management tasks to, but unless these are as reliable and efficient as a real player, they won’t be used.  In Dungeon Bash, it can get tedious to to guide a team of three through a cleared section, one team member at a time, so there is a ‘Leader mode’ where the rest of the team falls in line behind a designated leader as they travel automatically to a waypoint.  This is only going to be used if the player can rely on it.  So in Dungeon Bash, if any team member sees any monster at any point along the way, it instantly returns to manual control so you can’t get ambushed.

So the take-away is that the game design should facilitate the player being able to focus on whatever their currently prioritised goals are, with as little distraction as possible. Easy to say, harder to do, particularly for real-time games where the scope of the players goals necessarily must change from micro to macro as the game progresses.

Real Time Strategy games suck

I was brought up on arcade games where you went to a slightly shabby, disreputable place (kind of like how tattoo parlours used to be regarded – or anything ending with ‘parlour’ for that matter), plonked your coin on the cabinet screen, and waited for your turn to play these amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing things called computer games.

Arcade games were mostly about physical challenge.  The goals were not much more than survival and high score — (you played in front of an audience!)  The choices mainly moment-to-moment spatial and timing decisions that meant the difference between life and death.  Real lizard-brain stuff.  The self-improvement goal was real self-improvement – to get better at the game you had to develop better hand-eye coordination and reflexes.  I suppose first-person shooters are a logical evolution of those games — blurring the line between game and sport.

Physical challenge is appealing in games because the goal of self-improvement is innate to the player, and in ‘twitch’ games it encompasses both game and gamer in the most direct way.  It is also a common way to achieve flow in games — the pleasurable feeling of synchronicity and effortless accomplishment.

But if you aren’t designing a pure twitch game, it can be hard to marry physical challenge with higher-brain-function decision making.  They are somewhat incompatible.  How can you zone-out into a bullet-dodging state of conciousness and be making high-strategy decisions at the same time?  Maybe Ender Wiggins can, but what about the rest of us?

Spelunky manages to combine the two by making the physical challenge just as much about risk-assessment as reflexes.  To get good at Spelunky, you have to master certain physical challenges, but its rarely a stream of moment-to-moment decisions that are being made.  Jumping, climbing, flying and bomb-throwing all require dexterity and timing, but the game generally gives you time to consider which of those activities, if any, would be best, and if what you gain by succeeding is worth the risk of losing health if you fail.

It manages this by allowing the two concerns to be seperated.  The pace of the game is such that you have time to make high-level decisions and decide on a strategy – do I jump down here, blow up that wall, kill that frog and then use a rope to rescue the girl?  Or do I just leave that in the too-hard basket and go for the exit?  Having made the decision to rescue the girl, you can attempt to execute those physical challenges before deciding on further strategy.  In fact, a lot of the decisions you make when playing Spelunky revolve around how to arrange the situation so you have that time to seperate those two concerns.  How to buy time to plan your next move.  And what is planning but setting yourself a series of goals?

Buying time to plan is the major concern of RTS games.  With these games, you have to break your opponent’s ability to plan and implement a coherent strategy, whilst at the same time implementing yours.  Your goal is to remove the ‘S’ from your opponents ‘RTS’.  Once your opponent switches from planning mode to micro-managing his units in order to fight spot-fires, you are in the box seat.  It’s resource management where the resource in question is the player’s own time and focus.  RTS games tend to have three distinct phases — a build phase where the player is concentrating on pure strategy, a middle phase where they divide their time between planning and micro-management as required, and an end-game where one player is spending all of their time micro-managing as they slide inexorably to defeat.

OK, so I have to admit, RTS games don’t actually suck.  Micro-management is un-fun, for reasons I’ll cover in my next post ‘Rules of engagement’, but it seems to be a necessary evil in RTS games where the entire point of the game is to prevent your opponent from making consequential decisions.  And I have to admit that the middle phase of play where both players are pushing their opponent into spot-fire mode demands physical-challenge type of skill.  Not the type of skill that is based on timing and reflexes, but the ability to quickly identify a solution to a problem and implement it efficiently with rapid hand-eye — expending the least player focus (and other in-game resources) as possible.  I can see how this could lead to an ender Wiggin’s style state of flow for a good RTS player, although I’ve never managed it.  Probably why I think that RTS games are a bit sucky — sour grapes!

In many ways, Spelunky is a RTS game.  You plan — you decide on a series of goals — and you then you execute, performing physical challenges in order to do so.  Imagine that Spelunky didn’t allow you to arrange a little planning time.  Imagine that monsters constantly spawned in clear areas, or the ghost appeared on the level at the same time that the player did.  It wouldn’t be the same game, and in my opinion, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.  It inhabits the middle-ground on an axis between turn-based strategy and full real-time strategy, and it does this successfully by facilitating a steady flow of decision making, even though those decisions are different in nature.

To summarise, offering goals that are fundamentally different in nature, such as Physical challenge + Strategy is effectively asking the player to multi-task, and multi-tasking is not great for engagement and flow.  One way to combat this is to facilitate the player pursuing different types of goals sequentially rather than simultaneously.

Building little empires of out of some crazy garbage

Why does a multi-millionaire strive to make yet more money?  How could a teenager derive more satisfaction from the purchase of a second-hand jalopy than a middle-aged executive acquiring their third luxury sports car?  Because happiness and satisfaction are associated with relative improvement, not absolute achievement.  As long as you are better off today than you were yesterday, by whatever measurement floats your particular boat, you’ll feel good.

No, I haven’t decided to branch out into a self-help blog.  I was just setting up being able to use a quote – ‘In games, as in life‘.

An innate goal that players set for themselves in any game that allows it is to continually improve their situation.  Many games tap into this powerful urge by starting the player in a relatively uniform, weak or barely adequate state, and then offer opportunities for the player to make it more personalized, powerful or capable.  In Civilization, the aim of the game is to turn your little empire into a great one.  In Spelunky and Dungeon Bash, the player constantly strives to make their character or team more capable.

Look at Farmville.  A quick google, and many of the top results are articles sniffing that because its such a ‘dumb game’, it must be the ‘power of social-networking’ that is responsible for its phenomenal success.  Well sure, social-networking is a great way to promote awareness of the game and get people to give it a test-run, but the game itself must be doing something right to hold on to players for any significant time.  If you aren’t familiar with Farmville, its basically Sim City lite.  The same basic gameplay as Sim City is going on, except the game itself is less complicated and very accessible to new players.  The thing that is going on is resource management decisions in pursuit of the goal of building the player’s own little farm.  You start off with a certain amount of money, and you decide which crops to grow, and harvesting your crops gives you more money.  You can buy other stuff to personalize your farm, and tractors and things to make harvesting easier, etc…  As games go, it’s fairly shallow – the variety and depth of the decisions the player makes is limited.  As long as the player tends to their farm frequently enough, it’s existence is never threatened.  But regardless, it does allow the player to make decisions in pursuit of the goal of continual improvement and that’s enough.  Without that basic thing going on, no other amount of social-networking stuff laid on top would get anyone to play it for very long.

Minecraft is an example of this goal used in it’s purest form.  In this game you start with a pick-axe and a few other resources, and you can literally end up building the Taj Mahal.  This game has two modes: survival mode in which your resources are limited and the existence of your character is threatened by monsters and environmental hazards, and creative mode, where you have infinite resources, super powers, and nothing to worry about except what to build.  My exhaustive research (I googled it and clicked on the first three links) shows that survival mode is more popular.  Survival mode takes the improvement goal and combines it with some consequential decision making and thus makes a game of it.  Creative mode does not.

So.  The pursuit of improvement is probably the most important goal a game can facilitate.  Many successful games don’t use it, but many, many, many successful games do, and for good reason.


In my previous post ‘Decisions, decisions‘, I talked about… decisions, and how important they are are to a game.  But thats a bit like saying “The most important thing about wine is what it tastes like”.  Yes, thank you, Sherlock Holmes, but how do I make it taste good?  What factors affect the taste?

One of the most important contexts for making a decision is in pursuit of a goal.  Once a player commits to attaining a goal they will eagerly play your little game to achieve that outcome.  It’s a ‘human’ thing, I suppose.  Anyone who has played Civilization can attest to the siren song of ‘I’ll just keep playing until I…” Build that thing.  Conquer that city.  Discover that stuff.  And the fiendish game keeps tempting you with new goals before you have managed to complete your current ones, and suddenly it’s three o’clock in the morning.

As with decisions, balance is key for goals.  It must be the decisions the player makes that are the biggest factor in whether or not they achieve their goal.  If the goal is too easy, or too hard, or too random, then the decisions the player makes won’t matter, and you will be cursed for your “stupid game”.

And again, its best that the goals be consequential within the context of the game.  Sure, players might have all sorts of reasons for setting a goal that doesn’t have consequences within the game itself — one example is the concept of a score.  Getting a high score is a valid goal and can drive some players.  They get to be at the top of the score table.  Not only did they beat a game, but the score gives a quantifiable measure of how well they beat it.  But its not as good a goal as the consequential type that Civilization is littered with:  if I build that farmer, then I can grow my population.  If I conquer that port city, then my coast will be safe from raids.  These types of goals are more likely to keep you up until 3am than trying to beat the current high score.  Spelunky is a brilliant game.  In Spelunky, the money you exit the cave with is your score, yet money is useful for buying things that help you exit the cave.

Which brings us to the most delicious decision of all – choosing between mutually exclusive goals.  In story-telling, that is the seed of all drama.  If you can consistently offer your player mutually-exclusive, consequential goals, then you have hit game-design gold.  Do I spend these resources on building farmers to get more population or on military units to protect my coast from raids?  Purest gold.

So maybe goals are the most important factor in game design?  No.  Only insofar as they provide a context for players to make decisions.  Goals can be achieved in a mindless, un-fun fashion.  Want that shiny new magic sword?  You can grind for pennies a throw until you save up enough to buy it.  Goals are powerful enough that players will do that sort of thing.   It is far better to offer a way to get the sword that involves consequential decision making on the part of the player.  Or in other words – fun.  Imagine an RPG that didn’t have money.  You couldn’t grind to save up to buy a shiny new sword from an impersonal shop.  You could only get stuff by performing quests, or taking or trading it from someone who already had it.

In summary, another weapon in your game’s arsenal is laying out “goal mines” for the player to step on or avoid.  Consistently offer your player the choice between mutually-exclusive, consequential goals.

Decisions, decisions

Hi, and welcome to my first post for the Armpit Games blog.

Here I will talk about game design in general, and the things I learn by developing and publishing Dungeon Bash – a mobile game I am currently working on.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS….  imagine Im having a Steve Balmer-like rant (but less sweaty).

The significant decisions your game offers the player are the most important factor in game design.  Of any type of game – tabletop, computer, or otherwise.  I imagine a game as being a cannon constantly firing a stream of decisions at the player.  When the rate of decisions slows, or the decisions become meaningless, then the fun stops.

By ‘significant’ decisions I mean those that have an impact on how the game plays out.  Whether it involves success at ‘solving’ the game, or the direction of the narrative, or achieving certain goals, or just plain survival.  This is the reason ‘game balance’ in conflict-type games is so important.  If the game is too easy, or too hard, no matter what decision the player makes, it wont affect the outcome.  They will win or lose no matter what choice they make.

So the best place to start when analyzing your game is to list the decisions that it forces the player to make, and when it does so.  For instance, Dungeon Bash is mostly about making a constant stream of tactical decisions.  Decisions about when to attack, when to run, do I use this now or save it for latter, do I group tight or spread out, order of march when in corridors of exiting a level, which character would benefit most from equipping this item, who should tank and who should flank, etc, etc, etc…  Dungeon Bash is a turn-based game and it is at its best when one decision can mean the difference between victory and disaster.

Decisions can also lose their significance once the player becomes familliar with them.  The first time a particular level in a puzzle game is played, it is new and the decisions being made cause the player to engage and think.  But once the puzzle is solved, the replay value of that level diminishes rapidly.

In Dungeon Bash, decisions are kept fresh by providing variety – each time you play it offers a different team of three characters so that the player has to learn how best to handle that particular combination.  Every level is programatically generated so the player cant anticipate the lay of the land.  And there is a very large number of monsters to encounter, that will appear alone, in mixed groups, or swarms of the identical creatures.   All of this is aimed at forcing the player to make significant decisions as frequently as possible, by placing the characters in an endless variety of tactical situations.

You should try to categorize and describe games in terms of the decisions it offers.  Dungeon Bash is largely tactical and resource management.  A puzzle game offers logical and spatial decisions.  A story-based game should offer chances to affect the ongoing narrative.  Multiplayer games involving alliances or factions revolve around making trust and communication decisions.

In analyzing your own game, you can look at your list of decisions and decide:

  • Is this decision significant?  If not, how can it be made so, or should I just get rid of it?
  • Are there situations in the game where the player makes no significant decisions for long periods?  How can I reduce the length of those periods, or introduce new decision-making into them?

Keep your decision-cannon firing big, bold decisions at the player as fast as it can!