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Story structure in games compared to movies


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#1 Munchkin9   Members   -  Reputation: 125

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Posted 09 January 2012 - 11:20 AM

It bothers me that most game designers, consumers and those that know nothing about games all seem to think a game's story should be like the ones in books and movies. Now obviously if every one is happy why change it? Because, in my opinion, this is not reaching the potential games have.

Computer games add one thing that neither books nor movies can do: interaction. The ability to influence the events in the game. In most games currently the interaction of the players is limited to on the moment conflicts in the game, with maybe a few pre-made 'choices' here and there that 9 times out of 10 do not have an effect on the long term, example Dues Ex: Human Revolution. How books and movies are successful in their stories is that they make the user care for the characters and the world, and therefore the characters' goals. And this obviously still applies to games, except that there doesn't need to be a true 'main character'. This role is aptly filled by the player themselves. Now obviously impossibly immense, complex, branching story trees in which every single one of the player's action changes something important is impossible. But what is possible is having the player choose their own goal. Not by menu screen or anything rigid but by playing the game, observing the events in the story, and forming their own opinion. Whether this goal gets fulfilled or not could have varying effects on the players' feelings.

This is, functionally, very similar to your standard book and movie plot except that the player is presented with a few, non-ambiguous, choices through out the story. These choices should have obvious and strong results that the player must be entirely aware of: killing a character, or letting him live; and what would follow from that action. The story would only need a few branching choices such as this, and nearer to the end. The point of these is not to 'see the multiple possible endings' but to let the player tell the game what there goal and opinion is. The player would choose these choices always keeping in mind what they hope to achieve for their character (themselves in this situation) and the world. This doesn't have to even change much regarding the ending. The results would instead be more 'message' based. To show the player what their choice of goals would bring about, how they were mistaken in an assumption they made about another character, or just to show them why they chose this goal (could be an interesting self-reflection moment).

Lets take an example from a game in which this sort of potential was missed, warning spoilers ahead for the game Assassin's Creed: Revelations. At one point in the story Ezio encounters an apparently traitor Janissary captain, Tarik Barleti. Tarik shows every indication of being a traitor so Ezio eventually decides to kill him (its a little more complex then that I know). At this point Ezio has chosen a goal, and while the players might agree with this and are controlling Ezio, they are really just along for the ride. Upon hunting down Tarik, Ezio kills him. Here would have been a perfect point to have a quick 'choice' moment. The player could have been asked whether they would prefer to leave Tarik alive, or kill him as they had originally planned. Now having followed the story most players would, I think, have opted to off him. Only then to realize that they had made a mistake as Tarik was in fact not a traitor at all, just a little unconventional in his techniques. Having made the choice to kill him, players might have found this moment of discovery and truth more touching, realizing how their own assumptions where enough to cost this man's life. Instead Tarik dies no matter what, Ezio discovers the truth, and the players wash their hands of all this saying "I didn't choose to kill him". The moment for a strong message is lost. If the player had chosen not to kill Tarik, Tarik could have informed Ezio (and the players) of his real intentions and gone into hiding as his cover was now blown, vanishing from the rest of the story just as he would if he was dead.

The above example could be further improved by having a few points in the story line where their could be doubt that Tarik was a traitor which would probably only be noticed (with influence) on a second play through. Being a "Oh how could I have been so stupid, if he had been a traitor he wouldn't have done or said that" moment. And this would further increase the impact on the player. As I said, these choices do not need to influence how things turn out, if the player refrains from doing something, it might be done anyway by a different character but the choice had been given to the player and that is what matters. The only real issue with this is a lack of much re-playability but I think in some situations that is an acceptable sacrifice. I am not saying that every single game should do this, we still need are twitch based action games.

One more thing, about the choice of goal and the end result only being to show the player what their goal was and why. This might sound pointless and redundant; and I admit I do not have an example for this, but it seems to me that games can brilliantly serve as a 'mirror' for the player, reflecting not their faces but their personality. It is my belief that we do many things without truly realizing why, psychologically, we did them. In a sense we do not truly know our selves as well as we would like to think, including in how we would react to certain situations. And games offer us that opportunity to see ourselves act in these situations and reflect upon it, whether we react well or not. And I am not talking about twitch based reactions but moral or just intelligent reactions. Having chosen our goals based on what we see happen in the story, the game could end with us realizing why we chose as we did, unrelated to the whether any of the choices where good or bad or choices that were neither good nor bad. As I said I can not provide a worthwhile example and can only say that it seems like something that games should, every so often, try to accomplish.

Thank you for reading, hope something in their was mentally stimulating to someone.
-Munchkin9

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#2 Gregory Aaron Martin   Members   -  Reputation: 159

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Posted 09 January 2012 - 12:03 PM

So basically a team would spend years of hard labor to create an open world game with very little to no story arc for players to free roam in. I think players enjoy having a story arc with some depth to it even if they are limited with small game altering choices. a big reason for that is because players DO feel in control enough and they do put thought into their decisions in games. But would they want to play the games through ten times just to try at a different choice in any given scenerio?

#3 Munchkin9   Members   -  Reputation: 125

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Posted 09 January 2012 - 12:37 PM

I'm not entirely sure how you understood that I was saying

a team would spend years of hard labor to create an open world game with very little to no story arc for players to free roam in

when I distinctly said "Now obviously impossibly immense, complex, branching story trees in which every single one of the player's action changes something important is impossible" and I later talk about how this wouldn't change the ending or even major plot points.

Did you read the entire thing? If you don't want to I understand, its a long wall of text, but then don't respond please.

#4 Tom Sloper   Moderators   -  Reputation: 10157

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Posted 09 January 2012 - 04:21 PM

Lets take an example from a game in which this sort of potential was missed, warning spoilers ahead for the game Assassin's Creed: Revelations.


That's a fine example, but Gregory raises a valid point. Maybe the designers of Revelations wanted that particular character to be killed, for perfectly good reasons of their own. I remember in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, I refused to kill a character, but the designers anticipated that and had someone else kill him - so he (or was it she?) wound up dead anyway. A more recent example is L.A. Noire. I can get things wrong about a suspect, and then I have to live with the consequences. A guy I wrongly put in jail left a young daughter, whose miserable life I now feel responsible for.
The number of times that a game can let a player-created story branch off has to be limited. Which means that there will be some junctures in the story where the player can't branch the story. Like the Assassin's traitor, for example.
-- Tom Sloper
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#5 sunandshadow   Moderators   -  Reputation: 5056

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Posted 09 January 2012 - 04:43 PM

Well, personally I think interactive story games have a lot of untapped potential. I would really like to play a game that was like an interactive science fiction or fantasy romance novel. But I've also intensely enjoyed many completely linear movie-like games. Actually the thing I disagree most with is having only a few choices near the end. If the game doesn't branch relatively near the beginning I'm probably never going to play it again to see the other possibilities because it would be boring and frustrating to replay the first part. I see little point in being given choices in a game if they are only there as some kind of trap with unpleasant consequences such as a game attempting to make me feel guilty. If I make a choice that turns out to be the wrong one, the fact that it is wrong is the game's fault, either for giving me insufficient information to make a good choice or for disagreeing with me about what the realistic/appropriate results of the choice should be, or in some cases for not giving me a good choice at all.

On the more practical side of things, my personal experience has been that it is extremely hard to write interactive fiction because my writer instincts naturally choose one path the story should go, which is usually the one that I as a reader would most want to read. It's really counter-intuitive to then come up with a different path when I've already decided on one I think is very good, and it's very very hard to try to imagine what sort of path would please someone who doesn't like my first choice due to having different taste and personality than me.

Phone game idea available free to someone who will develop it (Alphadoku game - the only existing phone game of this type is both for windows phone only and awful. PM for details.)


I want to help design a "sandpark" MMO. Optional interactive story with quests and deeply characterized NPCs, plus sandbox elements like player-craftable housing and lots of other crafting. If you are starting a design of this type, please PM me. I also love pet-breeding games.


#6 Wai   Members   -  Reputation: 1002

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Posted 11 January 2012 - 02:38 AM

Re: Munchkin9

You played a game and found that it didn't use the full potential of a game--as an interactive medium. You know how to use more of this potential, and gave an example of how a simple change would make it better without adding much to the complexity. You saw that games has the potential to be a medium that reflects a person's moral and intelligence.

Evolutionarily speaking, game-player is a form of practice. Lion pubs play with one another to gain hunting skills. Games were not meant to be an end of its own. Since you have identified that games is a mean to reflect on ones moral and intelligence, then I think it is important to point out that the end goal of this 'practice' is civil service.

Many people would not make the switch from playing games to get engaged in civil services. Sometimes because the actual society is way more complex, more frustrating, and more ugly than games. It takes a lot of dedication, integrity, and wisdom to solve the existing problems and to educate the mass.

I don't know where you stand on this matter. it is easy to get caught up and perceive the practice as an end of its own. It is also hard to let go of something familiar or to take on new responsibility. You might see yourself as a designer of games, but more importantly, you are taking part in shaping the future.

I don't really know what prompt me to write this, but I think it is the general complaint that people have made, about games not letting them express themselves. To me, the solution is not to create better, more expressive games because that would be like asking people to shout at pillows. The solution is to make people understand that society has a place for that kind of expression, but it will take training and some hardcore intelligence and dedication. Currently, the society is not supportive for people to express themselves publicly because the society does not provide enough education nor friendly support for people to express. People are getting ridiculed, and populations are getting polarized without proper ways to resolve conflicts. This is a huge problem that needs to be fixed.

I understand that my reply is potentially offensive therefore I apologize. I will not make further comments (to explain or to correct misunderstanding) unless specifically asked to do so because this is not my thread.

#7 Heath   Members   -  Reputation: 344

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Posted 14 January 2012 - 04:18 PM

Very interesting post, Wai.

About interactive fiction, my instinct tells me that I would much rather enjoy doing actual improv theater than try and get that out of a video game. You can throw all the technology you want at it and still require that I press a button, but all you're really doing is reinventing the stage.

Human beings want to craft stories, and computers are good at computing. I don't really see a need to force this into games, or how it would really be any more expressive than the current "technology" that we have had for thousands and thousands of years.

#8 sunandshadow   Moderators   -  Reputation: 5056

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Posted 14 January 2012 - 06:41 PM

I've done improv theater, and it's actually not like being in a story at all, the focus is entirely on acting, what you look like to the audience. An interactive story is supposed to be more like an adult telling a bedtime story where the child listening gets to add details or impose changes, and often the child identifies with the main character of the story, or the main character may be explicitly stated to be a fictional version of the child. A more adult version of an interactive story is the concept of being the main character in a novel or movie, but experienceing this kind of entertainment in a more sensory-immersive way, and allowing the player to make decisions in the same way a main character is shown as having the freedom to make decisions, rather than the predetermined way a reader experiences decisions made by a main character (author) who is not them.

Phone game idea available free to someone who will develop it (Alphadoku game - the only existing phone game of this type is both for windows phone only and awful. PM for details.)


I want to help design a "sandpark" MMO. Optional interactive story with quests and deeply characterized NPCs, plus sandbox elements like player-craftable housing and lots of other crafting. If you are starting a design of this type, please PM me. I also love pet-breeding games.


#9 Wai   Members   -  Reputation: 1002

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Posted 18 January 2012 - 04:13 AM

I think it is important to point out that single-player interactive stories are different from multiplayer interactive stories.

Multiplayer interactive stories have existed in games for a long time. This includes table-top RPG where the players may be only given the beginning of a scenario, and they create the story collectively on the fly by playing the game (subjected to the game rules). One of the drive for this type of gameplay is the face-to-face socializing. The game is a vehicle to having fun and entertaining one another. The players enjoy being entertained and also being the entertainer at the same time.

Single-player interactive stories are fundamentally different. While the player might be entertained, the player does not directly entertains another person (unless it is a spectator single-player game). Therefore, single-player games with open-ended interactive stories is harder to design because it loses a chuck of attraction that players familiar with the multiplayer versions would demand. The single-player version simply cannot satisfy them, regardless what technology is used. The fundamental difference lies not in whether there is "interaction", but whether the player is interacting with other players.

A person who approaches single-player interactives stories from the perspective of reading stories would see it as an upgrade. But a person who approaches from the perspective of multiplayer interactive stories could see it as a downgrade.

Because this fundamental difference is significant, it might be important to clarify whether the discussion is strictly about single-player interactive stories in the perspective of someone coming from reading and watching movies, or to simply acknowledge that there are at least two different perspectives that value single-player interactive stories differently.

#10 JBarrios   Members   -  Reputation: 142

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Posted 23 January 2012 - 03:42 PM

It seems that the problem is if you give players more choice you create more work for the developers. This makes sense. If you give the players the choice to gun down an alien horde or join congress and start piece negotiations you essentially have to create two games. But I feel like there could be a middle ground.

What if designers set up the story and gave the players a clear goal: get to the castle and save the princess. Early in the game the player gets a support character. His job is to hack the castle doors so the player can get inside. In a traditional game if this support character dies they will get a game over screen and start the level over. But what if the game didn't end? What if when the support character died the player could still finish the mission? The player would be punished (in a way) because it will be harder to get into the castle, but the game can still be completed.

I think if a game is designed so the story stays out of the way of gameplay players can have more freedom. Of course once the support character dies it's up to the player to figure out how to get into the castle and this might be too much of a challenge without help. Also this game style isn't suitable for every situation. Imagine if in a World War 2 game players could run away from the battlefield, give up their arms, and take up life as a humble pig farmer.

Just my thoughts.

#11 eugene2k   Members   -  Reputation: 237

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Posted 27 January 2012 - 05:27 AM

Now having followed the story most players would, I think, have opted to off him.

If you offer a choice here and don't offer the same choice at non-important events, the fact that you offered a choice would make it look suspicious and the player would think twice about whether or not to kill the character. In other words the player's choice will partially be based on the fact that the designer offered a choice in the first place, thus the choice option would break the immersion and the player won't be emotionally attached to the choice. If you want to elicit emotional response from the player, allow him to make the choice based on how he interacts with the game world, rather than simply making him choose A or B in a dialogue. Let's take the example with Ezio. You hunt the traitor down and once you have, you're offered to choose whether to spare his life or kill him. If you decide to not kill the traitor, why would you be hunting him down in the first place? It's not something you would be doing, if you had doubts about this traitor being a traitor. So, as a designer, what you should really do is make it so that successfully pursuing the traitor or not was the actual choice you as a player make. If the player has doubts - he might abandon pursuit, if he doesn't he can kill the NPC. However, this gameplay addition implies that failing a mission might be Ok, and thus leads us to a mission-less system of an open world - I'm not sure if it's possible to implement this kind of gameplay.

#12 eugene2k   Members   -  Reputation: 237

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Posted 27 January 2012 - 05:35 AM

The other possible option would be making it so that completing a certain optional side mission would reveal the truth about the traitor and change the player's pursuit and eliminate mission into something else, like pursuit and interrogate.

#13 ManuelMarino   Members   -  Reputation: 153

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Posted 29 January 2012 - 01:56 AM

Interactive stories like the famous gamebooks of the past. I loved those books but I never played them more than 2 times, anyway, and just to see a couple of differences in the story.

I think it's a waste of time, it's better to focus to a main important and good story, maybe a couple of branches, many side quests and nothing else.
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#14 heavycat   Members   -  Reputation: 387

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Posted 08 February 2012 - 05:24 AM

A game's "story" is a "series of interesting choices." Where most games fail is the follow-up to the player's choices and how those affect the world around them. There should be consequences of equal gravity to either option in any player choice, and neither should be obviously preferable.

Civilization is an excellent example of this. The player can choose to conduct their foreign policy peacefully or more aggressively. Neither choice is a certain path to victory, and both offer significant challenges. In this way, the game reveals the player's character, or at the very least the character of the role the player takes. A great game would allow the player to experience the kind of character arc or change over time that a literary or film hero would.

Sadly, most game companies would rather spend another couple million $$$ on triangles. Things like characters and emotional connections with an audience are much too difficult it seems. :)

#15 Stormynature   Crossbones+   -  Reputation: 3414

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Posted 16 February 2012 - 12:39 PM

Interactive fiction or as I remember it from my youth "Choose your own Adventure" books often has a crossroad decision virtually at the start. One decision leads you deeper into an adventure and the other is an immediate end to that story. In a few of these books, that immediate ending usually read something like this: Your next six weeks were spent quietly and then you died to the alien invasion. In seeking to have a game that is interactive you open yourself up to the reality that the path you take is still at the mercy of the writers.

You cannot truly have a successful interactive adventure if the final outcome is immediately one event or another eg. Stopped the aliens or died to aliens. It needs to be a multiplicity of endings some of which are defeats, some are wins and importantly, some are compromises. Moreover the premise will never truly succeed if you imbue absolute opposites i.e. good and evil. Absolutes don't work well for the most part as it very difficult to produce reasonable "compromise" endings which is what I think you are looking for in a game. Either way you still exist at the mercy of the writers.

#16 websmythe   Members   -  Reputation: 159

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Posted 27 February 2012 - 02:18 AM

In writers terms I think this is called plot development.

The number of times that a game can let a player-created story branch off has to be limited. Which means that there will be some junctures in the story where the player can't branch the story. Like the Assassin's traitor, for example.


Nature exhibits the same approach. I remember watching a documentary on the ecosystem of the North West Coast of North America. In it they said that there were key species in the ecological chain that were critical to the proper functioning of the system. Other species could come and go, but the loss of particular species would destroy the whole environmental life chain itself. Plots and sub-plots could be built and resolved in similar fashion. The Witcher seems to be taking a pretty decent stab at the non-linear user-defined plot thing.
"I am not a number!" - The Prisoner

#17 websmythe   Members   -  Reputation: 159

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Posted 27 February 2012 - 02:46 AM

Well, personally I think interactive story games have a lot of untapped potential. I would really like to play a game that was like an interactive science fiction or fantasy romance novel. But I've also intensely enjoyed many completely linear movie-like games. Actually the thing I disagree most with is having only a few choices near the end. If the game doesn't branch relatively near the beginning I'm probably never going to play it again to see the other possibilities because it would be boring and frustrating to replay the first part.


Was thinking about the same today. Seems to me the focus could shift to the script & plot, I just finished trawling the free 3D game listing on MMOHut, and got to thinking that the plot lines for most were pretty stale. Might be different graphics, but the same old classes, same old grind. But then how many options are there ever going to be, eh? Still would be nice if there was more stories/plot lines like Fringe or Dark City or something. I know there's a ton of really good sci-fi that isn't just campagin and conquest.

Good comment on the balance of plot vs game play.
"I am not a number!" - The Prisoner




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