Over at What makes a Game Story good or bad? we've attempted to hunt down and extract some 'awesome game story genes' from our favourite game narratives. The discussion was initially kicked off by Game and Narrative Designer, John Karnay, and has received one hundred and twenty-four comments since inception.
So I plunged into this primordial soup of opinion for the second time and got my forceps soundly clinched on another wriggly Story Gene. The first was Deep Characterization. The second is...
A Responsive Narrative-rich Game World
What is a 'Responsive Narrative-rich Game World' when it's at home? It's a video game environment that tells much of the game's story through encounters with the world itself.
Kevin Matsuoka summed it up sublimely. "Instead of changing the world...the world changed you."
He was discussing the Shivering Isles expansion of Oblivion at the time, and in fact said..."Talking about TES and Oblivion in particular, a thought came to mind and that was about the Shivering Isles expansion, which many can agree was probably the best thing to come out of Oblivion. I think one of the main reasons was because instead of you changing the world, (because it really couldn't change, it was 'mad' and always will be) the world changed you."
This is exactly the kind of world we are looking for when it comes to video game narrative. A world that is able to touch the player, to evoke emotions and changes in perspective in a way that goes well beyond the effects of dialogue and cut scenes.
The Bioshock series got many a mention with regards to its powerful environmental storytelling.
Todd Misura suggested that, "The plot is one of the deepest around. Ken Levine took Ayn Rand's ideas and created a world around that. A fully realized world with people who *believed* in it. The stories that were told in the world...audio logs, environments, all of these things told a narrative that still haunts me."
Me too, Todd. From the psychotic ramblings of Splicers echoing through desolate halls to the bloody graffiti scrawled across the walls, Bioshock 1's environment told me more about the twisted psychology behind Rapture than any NPC ever did!
John Karnay agreed. "Bioshock was on my list. It's a great story with some interesting visual and psychological narrative."
One thing that a narrative-based game environment must do is create the feeling that there is a greater world out there than the player is able to experience at any one moment. While we're exploring this water-logged passageway or fighting desperately to survive that Splicer attack, Bioshock 1 never fails to impress that there was a living, breathing world here in Rapture. Now it's a dying one. The splicers are clearly doing their own crazy things, muttering away maniacally to themselves until the player turns up. Rapture, as an environment, is so self-possessed that it doesn't seem to care if the player is there or not, at least at the beginning.
RajeevJ - "My monitor conveys but a small part of this universe which compels me to dive deeper and the storyline allows me to do exactly that."
It also seems to be important that we are able to freely explore our game world, unrestricted by the too-often linear restrictions of plot.
Ivan Atanassov, referencing Fallout. "Freedom to explore the world that reveals gradually before you and feels alive. NPCs have relationships between each other. Your actions can change their lives (even if it is with a delayed effect)."
Massive open worlds are the current trend but they come with significant pitfalls as John Karnay points out in the context of Fallout and Elder Scrolls.
"Fallout was a great series. I really enjoyed the ability to make my own way through their world. I feel like as a world building and lore example these are some of the best. My main problem with Fallout and Elder Scrolls and most big open world games is the lack of focus on both plot and characters. For my taste, I don't feel significant in those worlds."
Ivan once again reinforces this point. "Another problem with the open world stories is that they tend to overwhelm you with small tasks which are all "urgent" but always wait for you to finish them whenever you want to...which kind of breaks the magic for me."
It would appear that our 'Narrative-rich Environment' must be designed so that the player isn't just another grain of sand on the beach. They don't need to be 'The Chosen One', but they do need to able to see the effects their actions have on the environment around them. The environment needs to be 'Responsive'. We need to feel as if we are making a difference, no matter how little that difference may be.
I think this quote from Nik Blahunka sums up the power of the 'responsive world' perfectly. A touching tale of one man and his virtual horse ;-)
"And finally, stupidly - when my first horse died in Skyrim. This was my own narrative but it didn't feel like I was controlling the plot. I was just following the rules. I was poor and I wanted a horse more than anything. The very first thing I did in my game was work toward getting my own horse. I had terrible stats, terrible weapons, and I was still getting used to the controls so it took forever. Finally I had enough money to buy my horse. I saved and went out on my horse adventure. Five minutes later, as I was thinking of names for my new best horse friend, I met my first giant. I survived, my horse did not. He distracted the giant so I could run away. All those hours of grinding were lost. I could have rolled back to my old save game, but I didn't out of respect for my horse's bravery in battle.
I know it's silly to include the last bit, but there is something to the crafting of a rule set that allows the player to form small relationships. I barely remember beating the main quest, which I really enjoyed, but I will always remember Horse With No Name who was punted very far by a giant."
In order to create these magical moments, a world needs to be designed with a clear, narrative purpose. Red Dead Redemption has that kind of purpose, as described here by Harald Hagen.
"Open World Games seem to be a difficult beast to tame for all the reasons brought up earlier. Chosen One Syndrome, variable urgency, lack of recognition, stretched-thin pacing. But RDR knocked it out of the park, for me, and (mostly) avoided these pitfalls. The main reason is that everything fits what I can only assume to be the dev team's core statement during development: "Become a legend of the West." And I mean everything. Whether you're rounding up rapscallions, hunting game, herb-picking, or just riding through the wilderness, they all build a particular flavor of that archetype. I was always role-playing."
To wrap this article up in some pretty paper, I'd like to venture my own benchmark for what a responsive, narrative-rich world can be. Journey.
Journey is a telling example of where we should be headed in our video game storytelling. It simply tells it's story through environment and action. Each area, each puzzle, each creature interaction builds your understanding of your own narrative and that of the land and it's inhabitants. It's a very difficult experience to put into words and that really is the point.
The best game world tells its story without uttering a single word.