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Branching gameplay and storyline

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Hi,

i was reading about interactive storylines and emergent gameplay in videogames, which i think is something desiderable because after all we're talking about videogames and not movies/books, so the player is expected to have an active part in this experience, not passive like movies, by definition of game.

So , the more freedom the player has in changing the game world and story , the better, despite such a game design may cost a lot nowadays, but i wish it to be the future trend.

It is better when the player is able to find his own solutions to the problems presented by the game, when the puzzles/problems in the game offer choice on the number of possible solutions to them, and the progress and storyline (if any) should branch on a different path based on how he solved each problem, and on what actions he made.

And i don't think multiple endings of the game are required, a single ending is already good if the player has many ways of getting to it.

 

Now i want to ask you all , are there good titles that satisfy this request?

So that i can check them out for fun&inspiration.

 

From what i've read, the following  categories of games may satisfy the requisites above, but i have some arguments to share with you and i would like you to comment on my considerations.

 

 

 

----- Visual novels -----

They say that the only games that offer, at the same time, good AND interactive/branching storylines so far seem to be visual novels, like Shadow Of Destiny (PS2/XBox/PC/PSP).

The big problem with these ones is that they explicitly require you to see all/most of the multiple endings to actually understand the story, as each of the story path is just a piece of the story which doesn't make sense by itself. 

So it is like the game has a single story at the end of the day, no? The designers just used this trick to lenghten the time to finish the game, because in each play there are some scenarios common to multiple story paths.

 

Usually, visual novels present puzzles to solve with multiple solutions, and the story will evolve in a different way based on which solution you find among the possible ones.

And that would make sense for a game, it actually means that the player has choice.

BUT if you, designer, force me to re-play from the start many times to find ALL the solutions for each puzzle, in order to finish the game, then there is not a real choice.

It is like each puzzle actually has a single solution equal to the sum of all of its solutions, because i am required to replay the game to find all of them, right? (not sure if i explained it clearly ) .

So the only real choice left in visual novels is a very basic nonlinearity, that is the ability to walk through the different story pieces in the order i wish, but hey... nothing new here, since even the old 8bit/16bit games had the choice for playing the levels in any order, ex. Super Mario games, Bumpy (MS-DOS), etc.

----------------------------------------------------

 

 

 

----- Open-ended games -----

 

Open-ended , as far as i know, means all of those games without a main objective , so endless. Like Sim City or Dwarf Fortress, right? Or even Tetris if you play in survival mode just for the biggest score.

This type of games are designed specifically to have a lot of emergent gameplay, and possibly to let players build their own stories.

BUT one moment, the lack of a main goal is in contrast with a golden rule for games: when the player does not know why he's playing, does not know what is he supposed to do, he gets bored, he lacks play motivation because there is not a real challenge presented to him.

These games are like Lego for me, and i get bored too quickly, i don't know about you.

I've read somewhere that for these games actually the players are supposed to define their own main goal as well, but i can't think of some actually good/fun examples of it.

My biggest score example in Tetris, that i pointed out above, is a player-defined goal, but it's boring, no?

I need a  challenge which is more... i don't know how to say, maybe "intelligent", or elaborate.

 

And about the storyline here.. well i think you already know that a story generated from emergent play usually isn't compelling. Nowadays the so-called procedural narrative is not so effective, compared to a good human story writer.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

 

 

About other games i've heard of in this context.., what about Fallout 3/4 ? What about Mass Effect series? Deus Ex 1 ? Alpha Protocol  ?

Before buying them i am curious to know if they have a gameplay with both actual choice, good storylines and an interesting main goal/challenge, in other words if they are or not the state-of-the-art when it comes to interactivity.

 

p.s. About Fallout, i am skeptical after reading here: http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/220-rpgs-everything-else/67934771

Quote: "Sure, Fallout gives you choice, but it only changes the way people view you, not the actual story. So it would be on an even deeper level."

Fable 1 has the same problem, right? Whether you behave good or bad only affects how people see you, but the story remains the same, so the  moral choice is not very useful there.

Edited by PixelFun

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The Longest Journey is kind of old now, but has been known for a while as one of the best integrations of dialogue puzzles into adventure games.  Or there are open-world games like Skyrim, but each individual quest within it is either linear or has 2 endings.  I like interactive story games, but dang it's been a long time since I played one that had more than 2 endings...  Even the time loop ones intend the player to see all the content in a more or less linear manner, that line just takes the player through the game's main event sequence 2 or 3 times.  Which I can sympathize with, because it is kind of wasteful to develop content that some players will never see.

 

As a general piece of advice though, instead of the term "branching" like in your title, you might be better off thinking in terms of modular story, or a procedural interactive story and NPC system - the kind of thing that includes faction and individual reputation, mood gauges, key words, and item exchange.

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branching storyline games are an evolution of basic single storyline based games.   branching, then converging to a single outcome is more common than branching to multiple possible endings, as its less work.

 

the trend now is, as sunandshadow says, towards episodic storytelling in the context of a larger open world type setting. the player "encounters" succeeding "chapters" of the story as they move though, explore, and interact with the game world. such episodic storyline quests / campaigns can be branching, or non-branching.

 

unfortunately, meaningful choice is something that most consider to still be woefully lacking in most storyline based games. your actions have no impact on the world. save the world in skyrim, and they still treat you like just another adventurer. for most games, the limit is having player actions affect player relations with various factions.

 

OTOH, i'm playing Mad Max these days, and it has some of the elements you mention. multiple solutions to challenges. player actions affect the game world (relations, encounter chances, and availability of resources). but i don't really see any evidence of branching in the storyline. the main storyline quest series is pretty linear. side quests all appear to be single quests. no multiple questlines like skyrim.

 

the fact is that branching storylines can quickly grow exponentially in size as the number of branches increases, so they are much bigger investment in man-hours / days / weeks / months of work.  

Edited by Norman Barrows

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The Longest Journey is kind of old now, but has been known for a while as one of the best integrations of dialogue puzzles into adventure games.  Or there are open-world games like Skyrim, but each individual quest within it is either linear or has 2 endings.  I like interactive story games, but dang it's been a long time since I played one that had more than 2 endings...  Even the time loop ones intend the player to see all the content in a more or less linear manner, that line just takes the player through the game's main event sequence 2 or 3 times.  Which I can sympathize with, because it is kind of wasteful to develop content that some players will never see.

 

As a general piece of advice though, instead of the term "branching" like in your title, you might be better off thinking in terms of modular story, or a procedural interactive story and NPC system - the kind of thing that includes faction and individual reputation, mood gauges, key words, and item exchange.

 

I'll check out The Longest Journey, thanks.

 

About "key words, and item exchange", what do you mean? 

And modular story?

Any examples ?

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branching storyline games are an evolution of basic single storyline based games.   branching, then converging to a single outcome is more common than branching to multiple possible endings, as its less work.

 

the trend now is, as sunandshadow says, towards episodic storytelling in the context of a larger open world type setting. the player "encounters" succeeding "chapters" of the story as they move though, explore, and interact with the game world. such episodic storyline quests / campaigns can be branching, or non-branching.

 

unfortunately, meaningful choice is something that most consider to still be woefully lacking in most storyline based games. your actions have no impact on the world. save the world in skyrim, and they still treat you like just another adventurer. for most games, the limit is having player actions affect player relations with various factions.

 

OTOH, i'm playing Mad Max these days, and it has some of the elements you mention. multiple solutions to challenges. player actions affect the game world (relations, encounter chances, and availability of resources). but i don't really see any evidence of branching in the storyline. the main storyline quest series is pretty linear. side quests all appear to be single quests. no multiple questlines like skyrim.

 

the fact is that branching storylines can quickly grow exponentially in size as the number of branches increases, so they are much bigger investment in man-hours / days / weeks / months of work.  

 

The fact is, at the beginning my idea of this branching storylines thing came to my mind because i believed that "the more agency the player has , the better in any case".

But i was wrong.

Indeed i watched a video by Extra Credits:

 

where they explain that a lot of choice is not needed in every game and in every scenario within a game, it depends on the game and scenario.

There are cases where choice would give benefits to the gameplay experience, others where it can be useless , but still expensive to develop.

The question they say you have to ask yourself is "Does my game always give enough choice to make players believe their actions matter?", considering the type of game , the particular situations within the game.

The problem is answering this question, learning how to design/develop a game with the best possible agency/interactivity for a particular in-game situation , with practical examples.
If you can point me at some books or resources explaining that, i would appreciate.      

Edited by PixelFun

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The Longest Journey is kind of old now, but has been known for a while as one of the best integrations of dialogue puzzles into adventure games.  Or there are open-world games like Skyrim, but each individual quest within it is either linear or has 2 endings.  I like interactive story games, but dang it's been a long time since I played one that had more than 2 endings...  Even the time loop ones intend the player to see all the content in a more or less linear manner, that line just takes the player through the game's main event sequence 2 or 3 times.  Which I can sympathize with, because it is kind of wasteful to develop content that some players will never see.

 

As a general piece of advice though, instead of the term "branching" like in your title, you might be better off thinking in terms of modular story, or a procedural interactive story and NPC system - the kind of thing that includes faction and individual reputation, mood gauges, key words, and item exchange.

 

I'll check out The Longest Journey, thanks.

 

About "key words, and item exchange", what do you mean? 

And modular story?

Any examples ?

 

Key Words are ways for players to exchange information with NPCs; grammar is too hard for AI, and players don't want to be typing at AIs anyway, so instead you come up with a set of 10 or fewer key words for the whole game, and put that in your NPC template, and then you set each individual NPC to know about some of them and react to learning about others either through a global event or through 'conversation' with the player.  The player may also enjoy the collecting aspect of discovering new key words as they explore the world.  For example, the player may examine some graffiti and learn the key word "Denizen", presumably a graffiti artist or gang name.  Then, each time the player talks to an NPC they see the list of key words that they have collected so far, color-coded for how that NPC will react to each of them.  The categories would be: no reaction, already discussed, NPC has new info, and player is able to give info to the NPC.  Digimon CyberSleuth has key words but it's a dumbed-down system because the game is aimed at a young audience.  I'm sory, I can't recall a better example offhand, maybe someone else here can supply one.

 

Item exchange is when you can give or sell inventory items to NPCs and NPCs can give or sell inventory items to you, and then NPCs react appropriately to what they have received.  In the Harvest Moon series, for example, the entire list of items in the game is part of the NPC template, and each NPC has settings for how much the like or dislike getting each item as a present.  In other games like Skyrim and WoW, NPC merchants like it when you do business with them (raising your reputation with them) and if the merchant is aligned with an NPC faction they will offer the player a different attitude, different goods, and different prices, depending on the player's reputation with the faction and also the player's level.

 

Modular story is when you allow the player to make choices, the game reacts to those choices, but because the unit of story is more or less self-contained the game doesn't need to remember much about what the player decided.  For example if the player chose a dialogue option that offended an NPC, that NPC's relationship with the NPC and/or mood will decrease, but the details of the player's choice don't matter beyond that, so the game doesn't need to remember them, and more importantly, doesn't need to figure out how to react to remembering all 20 or 30 dialogue choices the player has made so far.  Whereas with a traditional branching story every choice is remembered and they accumulate into a mess unless there are only a few in the whole game.  The Mass Effect series is an example where the designers got overwhelmed with the number of decisions made in the first two games, and made players mad when they decided to discard a bunch of the data about past decisions in the third game.  (assuming I remember correctly how that went down...)

Edited by sunandshadow

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branching storyline games are an evolution of basic single storyline based games.   branching, then converging to a single outcome is more common than branching to multiple possible endings, as its less work.

 

the trend now is, as sunandshadow says, towards episodic storytelling in the context of a larger open world type setting. the player "encounters" succeeding "chapters" of the story as they move though, explore, and interact with the game world. such episodic storyline quests / campaigns can be branching, or non-branching.

 

unfortunately, meaningful choice is something that most consider to still be woefully lacking in most storyline based games. your actions have no impact on the world. save the world in skyrim, and they still treat you like just another adventurer. for most games, the limit is having player actions affect player relations with various factions.

 

OTOH, i'm playing Mad Max these days, and it has some of the elements you mention. multiple solutions to challenges. player actions affect the game world (relations, encounter chances, and availability of resources). but i don't really see any evidence of branching in the storyline. the main storyline quest series is pretty linear. side quests all appear to be single quests. no multiple questlines like skyrim.

 

the fact is that branching storylines can quickly grow exponentially in size as the number of branches increases, so they are much bigger investment in man-hours / days / weeks / months of work.  

 

The fact is, at the beginning my idea of this branching storylines thing came to my mind because i believed that "the more agency the player has , the better in any case".

But i was wrong.

Indeed i watched a video by Extra Credits:

 

where they explain that a lot of choice is not needed in every game and in every scenario within a game, it depends on the game and scenario.

There are cases where choice would give benefits to the gameplay experience, others where it can be useless , but still expensive to develop.

The question they say you have to ask yourself is "Does my game always give enough choice to make players believe their actions matter?", considering the type of game , the particular situations within the game.

The problem is answering this question, learning how to design/develop a game with the best possible agency/interactivity for a particular in-game situation , with practical examples.
If you can point me at some books or resources explaining that, i would appreciate.      

 

I kind of disagree there.  Making choices can matter to the player even if the choices themselves don't matter to the game at all - the choice of clothing, mount, which pet monsters to battle with, and all those other aesthetic choices are the most obvious example.  But beyond that, I'd say the the key aspect of player choices that that the game reacts appropriately to them, which is a vital part of the game being an immersive virtual world.

 

For example, let's consider time loop games.  In most cases the second play is extremely unsatisfying because the game totally fails to react to the fact that the player should remember which decisions went badly before (even if they didn't actually get to choose them the first time).  The second play throughshould have new choice options because the player knows way more than they did the first time around; if the main character can't remember anything and the player can't guide them on a better path than before, that completely undercuts any time-loop related story as well as the player's agency.

Edited by sunandshadow

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learning how to design/develop a game with the best possible agency/interactivity for a particular in-game situation , with practical examples. If you can point me at some books or resources explaining that, i would appreciate.      

 

learn by doing. go out and play some games! 

 

that's the kind of question any hard core gamer worth their salt could answer in a heartbeat.

 

its a question that can only really be answered by experience and empirical evidence. there is no real underlying theory to study. in scientific and engineering terms, player agency is a "how-to" not a "why" science.  so unless someone plays a ton of games then writes a book on what types of choices to present when (which is still just an opinion), you're out of luck.

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You should play RPGs by Obsidian. ie, top to bottom, Tyranny, Fallout New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. At least for my tastes, Obsidian does really well the whole branching storyline thing. Bethesda's Fallouts? (ie, 3 and 4) Not so much.

 

While Pillars of Eternity is a pretty long RPG, Tyranny is shorter but much more free in the choices department. Fallout New Vegas alone has tons of factions you can piss off or ally with. Good stuff. Much better done than Bioware 's "good/evil/sarcastic" or the "Yes/yes, but later" from Bethesda.

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