For a little over a week now, assassin dog robot Chuck Wendig has been trying to wrap his head around storytelling in games. He’s posted about it three times, in case you want to download his brainmeats: 1
This is something we’ve been talking about at work lately. While I’m certainly not going to say that I have the one true answer, I did write up a pretty lengthy email about my opinions on the matter, which I’ll paraphrase here. I should note that, in this case, I’m primarily talking about video games and balancing interactivity with a scripted narrative structure, but there might be some bits that might work for other interactive games (like those funny ones you kids play with the strange dice and the killing of orcs).
I’ve been thinking about beats in video games a lot, between Robin Laws’ stuff, some passing conversations on Twitter, and reading Creating Emotion in Games. I haven’t sat down and compared specific beats between media, because I confess I’m still learning on the go with a lot of it, but I think it’s fair to say that most stories have beats (or “scenes,” or “key actions,” or whatever – the things you say when you’re summarizing the story). Since they’re not quite like narrative beats and not quite like scenes and not quite like other things, let’s call them “blobs.”
At a rough guess, blobs in a video game are probably closer to beats in a Choose Your Own Adventure-style book than anything else – the beats are all there, but can be approached in a variety of orders. It’s a similar level of author and player controlled pace, with CYOA leaning more toward authors and video games leaning more toward players. But the key idea is that there are various keystone blobs that can be approached by a variety of vectors – for example, whether the player sneaks past the guard, bullshits the guard or kills the guard, what happens in the office being guarded is relatively intact.
But also, some blobs can hold slightly different meanings but still be relatively intact, depending on the order approached. For example, let’s say there’s a story where an elderly woman has forgotten her son. There are two obvious blobs:
* Talk to the mother, and realize that she’s forgotten her son.
* Meet the son, who tells you that he doesn’t want his mother to remember him.
Taken in the current order, the story is pretty clear – you talk to the mother, and the game points you toward finding the son. But if you go the opposite direction (meeting the son first), you’re pointed toward finding out who the mother is that the son is so afraid of. In one direction, the reason for the mother’s loss of memory is the impetus and the son’s reluctance to be found is the answer, but in the reverse the son’s reluctance is the impetus, and the reason for the mother’s loss of memory is the answer.
I’ve done similar things when structuring LARPs – there are a few key scenes that need to happen during the night, but when they happen and how they happen develop organically through the game, rather than on a particular railroad. Granted, the author/audience control is far different in a LARP (the most immediate difference being that a LARP’s ending comes from the players, but most video game stories have an author-crafted ending of some sort). However, the main idea is that one group might go in ABCD with blobs, while another goes ACBD and a third goes ADBC, and they all get a story that’s essentially similar but a little unique, as the order provides slightly different textures to the overall experience.
I think this is where video games can actually improve the storytelling experience over non-interactive media – giving players a similar enough story that they can still say they’ve played the same game, while offering a different textural experience that is unique (or relatively unique) to each player. If crafted right, blobs being all over the place can be a feature of interactive storytelling, rather than a bug. Let me give some more concrete examples.
This is a snip from one of the Exalted SASs I developed. If you look at each box as a blob or beat, it has a pretty straight-forward lead up until the middle. Those four blobs can be approached in any order, but a number of them are touched before you come out the other end and back on the railroad. That box is what I was thinking of when I mentioned ACBD order, but you can take lots of boxes like that and stack them together into a story structure. Here’s a more complex example from another SAS (Blood Drive, from Hunter: The Vigil).
The story idea is taking a vampire from Philadelphia to Chicago. As you can see, there are four rough “boxes”: Getting the vampire (the circular bit at the top), transporting the vampire (the three routes under it), stops along the way (the branch with “Suit Up at Price-Plus” and “Welcome to Haven House”), and the big showdown (the circle at the bottom which can happen in any order). It all leads to an ending in Chicago.
There’s a lot of options in this story (perhaps a few more than would make sense in a video game), but it’s still more or less a progression from top to bottom. If you take a rising action chart and stick it along the side, it still follows that structure.
Even if you open it up, though, there’s still a need for some structure. Here’s one final snip from another Hunter SAS, Bad Night at Blackmoon Farm.
This is more like a dungeon crawl or exploring a large map than anything else, but there’s still a lead-in, and one location triggers the end sequence of blobs. Some players can jump right to the chase, while others will explore and get a deeper sense of the backstory for the area, but the story is still there.
None of these even look at multiple endings (because, being a tabletop structure, the “end scene” is actual open for players and Storytellers to interpret), but it’s generally what I was thinking of when I talked about non-linear structure. I think you can provide flexibility and meaningful choices in narratives while still providing enough structure to give a cohesive story experience.