Thursday, April 29, 2010

Open world issues Part 3: trust and the player-driven narrative

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I confess that every previous attempt to write this third installment has been met with some manner of derailment. Anyone unfortunate enough to have contact with me in casual conversation or on message boards on the subject of games will find me increasingly the ideologue. Any discussion about games seems to lead back inexorably to a few pet topics: the scourge of "cinematic" gaming chief among these, player agency and narrative.

As with the other two articles I hope that in identifying shortcomings in game design principles, in asking the right questions, I will have answers worth considering.

The player-driven narrative

The player in an open world wants to be in the driver's seat, literally and figuratively. I personally would like an open world to be just that: not an otherwise linear game whose mission order can be scrambled, but at the cost of endless shuttling to and from mission locations (AKA the pizza boy syndrome). As with GTA this is where the conversation always seems to turn back to cutscenes and movie-style story content because it is necessarily cost prohibitive and static. Either the movie conforms to the game (enormously expensive even to offer small choices in the main narrative), or the game conforms to the movie, which is how most games end up. Aspirations to "cinematic" games are a dangerous trap because in order to get those movie-like experiences we undercut what make games worthwhile on their own terms.
This suggests that cinematic-style high cost content--cutscenes and their related animation and voice work--have a higher impact on the quality and actual player choice than most people assume. If players and designers free themselves from the increasing fixation on the trappings of the disparate medium of film, likely it will be far simpler to allow the player farther-reaching choice and consequence in the game world.

Armed with ability

If we are to commit ourselves to greater player agency outside the bounds of movie-styled static content delivery, then we may find ourselves looking around for something to do. I do not criticize GTA's increasing emphasis on mimetic/lifestyle fantasy elements because there are fascinating, unique experiences allowable within that context.
An example I give that is similar to other stories I have heard about playing GTA4: once I had just fixed myself a sandwich but also wanted to play the game. I started GTA IV and then hired a cab to a mission destination across town, and simply did not skip the ride. It was an oddly inspired, unique experience to sit within the POV of the passenger, looking out on this well-realized virtual city traveling in real time, and eat a sandwich. While passive it was an experience I chose, one that made me reflect on various cab rides in cities in memory--unlike much of GTA4 it was not a movie-inspired element.
This is not to suggest that I want to play a slow boat to China simulator replete with various 1920s socialite passengers as the boat travels in real time (scratch that: now I do). But there are very strong elements in GTA, as with the other open world games, that are somewhat overlooked but do more than their share to immerse the player in the world.
Replacing the cinematic with the experiential would seem a critical step in vitalizing open worlds. Far Cry 2 is a game I otherwise enjoyed tremendously, but for the general shallowness of what I needed or could do within the visually lush environment. Tie my character further into the socio-economic fabric of the world he inhabits--not in order to simulate, but to create play economies, interactions with an otherwise static world.
In FC2 I am a mercenary who outside of the inspired malaria mechanic sought only weapons, ammunition, and morphine. What other needs or mechanics would serve to deepen both my immersion but also the playability of unique environs of the game?

Player input required

I would like to close with a contemplation of skill and performance. Not as an appeal for so-called "hard fun," or a return to outrageous difficulty ramps/endless trial-and-error gauntlets, but as an appeal for games to recover a capacity for the player to use their wit and intelligence. Both in rewards and in penalties.
Perhaps this marks me as too old-school of a PC gamer (or an inveterate hoarder) but I feel this is deeply intertwined with above concepts of agency, of choice. In order to let players be extraordinarily clever, I suppose it means you might have to let some players lose.
A story to illustrate: I remember playing Gears of War and first encountering the Hammer of Dawn weapon. It was enormously powerful, but clearly restricted by the vagaries of a weapon that called down an attack from a satellite. In the game Marcus can only carry two weapons, so it seemed a very clear moment of choice to me: do I drop the Hammer in favor of a less powerful gun that I can use frequently, or do I give up that second slot on the chance that later on I will be able to use the Hammer's enormous damage? I chose the latter--I was carrying two weapons of a similar performance profile so I decided it might come in handy.
Sure enough, it did come in handy later--but when I needed it there was of course another Hammer, lying conveniently on the ground just before an encounter with an enemy who could only be defeated using the Hammer.
I felt cheated. As a designer, I understood what had happened: if the player was to experience an interesting special encounter (we've got to get this enemy out in the open and then use the Hammer), they couldn't risk the player not having the weapon handy. But in making sure anybody playing the game had access to the Hammer when they needed it, the game also removed any sense of reward for my own initiative to keep the weapon.
Certainly I don't suggest that players just be screwed over with an unwinnable encounter without the Hammer--but couldn't the encounter (or similar encounter) be structured to reward cleverness or foresight, while still allowing other players an alternate, possibly more difficult solution to the problem? Say if you didn't keep the Hammer, you might still be able to whittle the Berserker's health down conventionally, or there might be another entertainingly "hardcore" method of dispatching it, like crushing it with a boulder.

 Choice needs to come with its own realm of variable performance. In order that there be real benefit to cleverness, to foresight, not all players can reap the rewards.
A positive example is in RE4, with the multi-part treasures: if Leon held off on selling what looked to be components of a larger whole, he'd make considerably more money later, once he had assembled all the pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this element has been "streamlined" out of RE5. Sooner or later we'll get to "streamlining" most anything resembling a conscious decision or choice out of mainstream games, but it doesn't have to be this way.


To restate the above points: the essence of a game apart from traditional media is the player's interaction. The more a game allows the player to choose, to drive the story, the more it is a game and not a counterfeit of filmic experience.
If the player is to drive the narrative, he will likely require a greater range of possible interactions with the world--something to do that replaces the "cinematic" straitjacket of before--and these interactions will comprise much of the meat of the game, moment to moment.
If then the player is in the driver's seat and has an array of skills and interactions available, the final step in adding depth to the play experience is to take the training wheels off, allowing variable performance beyond rote or mechanical. Hope springs eternal.


Diferro Biga said...

Excellent series of essays on the importance of player agency with respect to in game narrative. The "GTA: IV" problem is actually in every GTA game (3 through Liberty City stories). The games constantly force the player into scenarios that make no sense if not viewed as a series of movies. For example, in [SPOILERS] "The Lost and the Damned" the player (movie) wants to to stop another character from revealing incriminating information to police while in prison, so the player (gameplay) breaks into prison and kills a few dozen guards and possibly a couple of cops before killing the potential snitch right in the prison yard and riding out of the prison. The decision is even worse if the player is aware that the reason he/she is raiding the prison is to protect the gang because after the mission is over they disband anyway.[SPOILERS] Occurrences like this really sour the experience no matter how much I enjoyed the earlier bits.

Also, although its not that important, the berserker from Gears of War can be killed by grenade tagging and then shooting when her skin is red or tagging some more. Its dangerous at first but gets easier with practice.

Mariano Trod said...

Thanks for this reading, it was great. I'd love to read your ideas on how to possibly create alternatives to these narative schemes. I think the main problem is language (even if a game doesn't have voices, just text you can read).
Another problem is that many players don´t like complex branching paths because that would force them to replay some parts of the narration many times in order to take a different path and see the different outcomes.
This could be partially avoided if missions were somewhat dynamic and would be and feel different each time you play them (maybe you still need to rescue the princess but she'd be in a different castle each time, with differente enemies and different conditions)

Many thanks and sorry for my lousy english!

chiasaur11 said...

Really, the 1920s are an underused setting, aren't they? Sounds like an interesting little indie project.


Anonymous said...

That hammer situation reminded me of a section of Fallout 3.

I went into a factory that was full of robots and I knew that if I had a high science skill I could hack the terminal and stop them from attacking me. I decided to just take the chance and didn't bother increasing my Science skill.

I found myself overwhelmed because I had no ammo and was quickly running low on hit points. Extremely afraid I searched through my items and found a drug to increase my intelligence which would increase my science skill allowing me to hack the terminal.

The genius behind that design reminds me a little of Table Top Games (D&D) and how a good DM would allow very different solutions to problems but remind a player that he had made a mistake.

I was rewarded that my clever thinking was rewarded by letting me escape without the robots attacking me.

I was still penalized that my lack of preparation I ended up paying for in the long run. By using the drug rather than earning the skill through experience(or even fighting my way out). I became addicted to the drug.

Ben said...

Great post as ever, Jack.

Now, about that boat...

Resin said...

I like player agency, but I don't think it is the end all be all, and that their is no place for the cinematic style game. What I really hate is the false choice, the game that tells you its going to give you a say in how it plays out, but is actually lying and whatever choice you made doesn't actually mean jack.

James said...

Boat, 1920's? Have you played "The Ship", on steam. Really interesting game concept, which I imagine you'd enjoy if you haven't come across it already.

Your thoughts on the Hammer situation in Gears is an interesting one. You're point is spot on, as per usual, there's nothing more patronising than being given the tool for the job moments before you need it. However the other side of the problem is when the player develops a reluctance to use any sort of special item, for fear of needing it later. The example of this which springs to mind is Deus Ex, where you only come across about half a dozen EMP grenades in the whole game, but fast discover that they're absolute gold dust. I play the whole game carting around such equipment and not knowing when the best time to use it would be.

I suppose the answer to all these issues is one of balance between giving the player what they need at the time and having them figure it out for themselves, and getting the balance right is the real challenge for the designer.

Cheers again for all these posts, your writing is fantastic. Incidently, so is the art that accompanies them. Do you draw on photoshop?

chiasaur11 said...

Only a half dozen emps?

Somebody wasn't looking too hard.

That's one of the great things about Deus Ex. Lots and lots of hidden loot. You can scrimp by with next to nothing, or you can beg, borrow, steal and explore getting enough loot to kill cities.

Or you can kill everything with the dragon's tooth. Like you do.

Junch said...

Great article. You might like to take a look at the new Fallout 3: New Vegas seeing as it gives the players an opportunity to start outside the story, hardcore survival mode included, and as you say, win with "wit and intelligence"

Copperkat said...

I'm reminded of GTAIV the ballad of gay tony, where I was literally forced to have sex with a girl. If I tried to avoid it, I'd just have sex with a different girl anyways.

If that doesn't speak volumes about the modern games industry, I don't know what does.

Albey Amakiir said...

I suppose this is what Dwarf Fortress is doing (adventure mode, at least, when he gets around to it). If it was made by a big company, they'r force in a story "because it has to have a story or no one will like it!"

Wait... did I already make this comment on another post...?

rovias-rumi said...

I love this blog and the recent open-world articles have been especially interesting. I was wondering what you thought of Saints Row 2?

True, cutscenes reveal that the Saints Row "protagonist" is more of a sadistic psycho than any GTA lead, but the series shows promise in that NPCs needn't be violated to provoke a reaction. It's still very limited -- eliciting a kind reaction from an NPC gets you nowhere in terms of gameplay -- but it's a welcome change from always holding people up at gunpoint.

I'd love to see the kind of immersion you discuss here. When playing Saints Row 2, I imagined how cool it would be to dress your character in rival gang colors, steal a rival gang vehicle, and attack a third gang to pit your rivals against each other. Something like this is usually limited to MMOs, but if a single-player game could pull this off, it would be SWEET.

chiasaur11 said...

Ah, false flag operations.

The generally somewhat regrettable Deus Ex Invisible war apparently let you frame innocent NPCs for murder entirely via AI reactions, but pulling that large scale would be pretty neat.

Hey, a next gen X-Com apocalypse would be pretty awesome for that kind of thing, come to think.

Grauth said...

I agree with you that the Berserker encounter could be made more interesting. The ones who kept the Hammer would be able to more easily take down the Berserker. The others who left it behind could get it dropped further away from the start of the encounter, allowing them to either take the risky option of trying to tag the Berserker or running to the new Hammer spawn.

Many games won't allow the player to solve the problem in a clever way. I especially hate it when the designers take away the control in a situation were I as a player would have acted differently than they intended. Take for example the many chase scenes in GTA 4. I've tried to block the whole street with cars, doesn't matter, the NPC will always find a way out. You can't stop him/her before the designer allows you to do so.

I think it's about respecting the player. A lot of games doesn't even allow the player to control the first person camera during a lot of the in-game cut-scenes.

[SPOILER] Same thing happened after finding Elinor in BioShock 2, the control was taken away. It seemed that the designers were afraid that I would spoil the moment if I were to participate in it. [SPOILER END]

The talk about giving the player more control reminds me of the Mount & Blade games. The actions limited, but the player is allowed to make his/her own story.

It's an intresting subject, I hope you will write more about it.

Dhatz said...

problems with sandbox world is trying undoable and not designing the world to be enjoyed, just look how many of AC2 stuff is based on collecables(codex is mandatory). I stopped playing it when I had 50 feathers at end and stopped caring about the chests after my villa was making 14Kx3 per hour. and replaying it in italian also doesn't work because it is italian in both worlds. Another game is Red dead redemption, where there are plains everywhere. don't even wanna discuss Borderlands, the travelled distance there is quite extreme(few levels in DLCs need to be covered).

Anonymous said...

The Way of the Samurai games aim somewhat in this direction. They have their problems, but the concept is good. The player enters a space in which a story is occurring in something like a progressive and limited amount of time. Several factions struggle against each other and the player can join one of those factions, betray those factions, try to remain unaligned, or simply walk out of the game space. In your next playthrough, you retain whatever benefits (weapons or skill unlocks) you gained in the last. You can take that shiny new sword (or spear, or fish) with you for your next playthrough, join the rebels, and try to defend the peasant town against the military aggressors (maybe this time, with your new weapon, you'll be able to save everyone!) - but you have to be careful, because if you die out there, you lose the weapons you took with you. As far as your weapons are concerned, the WotS series are roguelikes.

Anyway: replayability, a (fairly) open environment, NPCs that matter (and can be killed by the player), an opt-in or -out story, real narrative choice... It's a good concept that I hope another studio will decide to invest a larger pile of money in someday soon.

poop said...


frostymoose said...

Guass, have you ever played Demon's Souls on PS3? I think it's a great example of an open-ended game. The game has 5 worlds, all of which are open to the player almost immediately. You can kill every NPC in the game but one, and there is plenty of opportunity for the player to use different combinations of tactics, weapons, items, etc to get a different experience from the gameplay.

DemonDoll said...

Demon's Souls must be such a horrendous pain in the ass to play unspoiled it's not even funny. It auto-saves after you do ANYTHING (like killing aforementioned critical NPCs, or in one case, the NPC rushing off to get slaughtered by monsters) and many items and events are only accessible under very specific circumstances (pure black or white world tendency) which, while not impossible to achieve unspoiled in a couple of worlds by accident, require serious planning and flawless execution to get both in all 5 worlds in a single playthrough. Due to the auto-saves any error results in being unable to get 100% in that playthrough. On one hand this is the kind of thing that annoys me 'cause I can't do it well unspoiled but I think that in this case, like in Nethack, it's not a weakness because even with spoilers there is a lot of difficulty in the execution so it's still rewarding.

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug said...

I really enjoy good narrative in a game; the thing is when an otherwise open game tries to force narrative via cut scenes as you describe, the result is a suspension-of-disbelief killing strain of schizophrenia. I'm guessing very few GTA4 players made choices consistent with the character presented by the narrative.

Bethesda games I find more immersive, perhaps because the narrative string is more subdued; but Fallout 3, while fun, still felt contrived in the end. I think what blew the re-playability of that game for me was that there was no mechanic driving any sense of urgency beyond surviving the next opponent; thus I was free to explore every region on the map and dabble in every side quest until I was drastically overpowered and things got sufficiently boring that I finally finished the story missions to see the big finale, which in turn was a let down. The end-credit slide show was the only tangible consequence for dozens of hours invested playing this way or that.

Maybe it's been tried before and there's a good reason not to do it, but what if the story in an open world were driven not by a character narrative, but by large scale, inevitable events? Reboot Fallout3: the game opens during the apocalypse-war, but before the world-ending Big Event. Society has unraveled at the seems, with plenty of villains and competing factions emerging to provide a plethora of exploration avenues, the most fun part of the game's mechanic. The player can explore these freely, but after completing 3 or 4 out of a dozen quest lines, the sirens blare and you have just 30:00 to wrap up and fight or negotiate your way into a bomb shelter.

Depending which shelter you enter and how, you get various intermission-phase story arcs, most of which give the player opportunity for drama of some kind, including killing everyone and pressing fast forward to wait out Armageddon by your lonesome.

When the doors finally reopen and you emerge bleary-eyed and a few years older, the board is shuffled according to the choices you made during the first phase, with a bit of randomness thrown in for good measure. The kid you saved (or didn't) from a lawless street gang has now grown up (or not) to be either a do-gooder hero, a brutal thug, or an inconsequential nobody, determined somehow by other player actions, but in unpredictable or even randomized ways. Your choice to save him hugely impacts the world you encounter, but you don't get to entirely dictate the future landscape via that choice.

The question then becomes how to wrap up. Maybe there is no scripted ending, thereby absolving the need for forced cut-scene narrative; you play out the generated scenario till you get bored then go back to the beginning and replay. But that lacks any real motivation or sense of urgency. Maybe the player emerges into a map where various factions are allied or at war, strong or weak, organized or in chaos depending on your previous decisions; but they all understand that a horde of mutants is massing beyond the edges. The player can choose to support a faction, take one over and command it, play various ones off against each other for personal gain, or, Gandalf-like, flit between them all preaching the need for cooperation in the face of certain doom. One way or another though, the game concludes when the horde invades. Fight them off, become a martyr in the struggle, or disappear to safety in your steam-punk personal jet powered by the tears of all the NPC's you've betrayed.

Compelling story without contrived daddy-issues or other forced narrative. The player can control the character freely, even letting the world entirely pass him by, but that in turn is a choice that affects what happens when the game ends.

Thanks for the thought provoking posts, this one really got me going. :)

Chauzuvoy said...

Forgive me for reviving a post from half a year ago, but it seems to me that open-world storytelling has a more severe problem.

At it's root is that there can be nothing in a game that the designer doesn't put there. This means that open worlds can have a finite amount of fidelity. Games have to go gold at some point.

The problem this creates for open world stories is that there's a compromise: Limit player interaction or limit NPC reactions. This is more of a problem in RPGs, but imagine this. You're playing the new GTA. As part of it, they've greatly expanded the ways you can interact with the various NPCs. Shoot the old lady, give the homeless man your jacket, invite the nice prison guard you met at the strip club home for dinner, what have you. Then you go to do a story mission. The old lady you were supposed to save isn't there, because you already shot her. There goes one fragment. The hitman doesn't show because he killed the homeless man with your jacket. And the nice prison guard just lets you escape as a thanks for the dinner. This would be the ideal situation. However, because of finite resources, more likely the old lady would miraculously and inexplicably be there, the homeless man would never be seen again, and the nice prison guard you befriended would be shooting you just the same as every other generic guard.

Simply put, having true player agency AND a fleshed-out story seem rather impossible. I suppose a fitting compromise is the Dwarf Fortress/X-COM model, where they give you the bare bones of a story, then have various procedural and gameplay elements flesh out individual metastories. And that works pretty well. But they usually wind up lacking many of the fundamental aspects of a satisfying story: distinct and strong characterization (Let's face it. Urist is the same as Datan is the same as every other dwarf in your fortress) and story structure (Biggest letdown ever: Having the last funding nation drop support just as you go to hit the 'GO TO CYDOONIA' button.) especially.

It seems to me that there is a definite compromise that has to be made on any open world game. I don't know if anyone will ever actually read this considering the age of the post, but is there a way to resolve this?

gauss said...

A lot of good comments here, thanks for posting it. I would say that you've a good handle on the difficulties inherent to the problem.

My response would be that we've barely scratched the surface in the procedural/"X-COM" oriented approach. And yet we're still seeing the kind of gains that even these small approaches in this direction have yielded--Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, etc. Far Cry 2 went quite a bit further that I think any other major studio game in reconciling how this might work, but invariably railroaded into decisions you might not agree with--I, personally, still wanted to kill the Jackal.

So yeah. I think there's still a lot of tension between the two approaches, and we're likely to arrive at different solutions that could be plotted in various places on the spectrum between GTA and Dwarf Fortress (that seems an odd comparison but you know what I mean)--I am just concerned that we have steadily been piling all of our efforts into the game-as-movie-like-story-experience basket.

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