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.