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“Story Engines” and Content Development

How do you ship narrative to a participant in a content-rich, nonlinear recreation?

This is neither a purely mechanical query (“non-player characters scattered through the open world will offer quests, highlighted by giant floating question marks over their heads”) nor a purely story-driven one (“the player is a one-man army, so he’s always getting orders and advice from military commanders”). It’s a query that needs consideration from the very beginning, and ties into every little thing from probably the most primary recreation mechanics to your selection of mental property.

Let’s speak about one specific way of thinking about this drawback. Let’s speak about story engines.

What’s a Story Engine, and How A lot Will It Value Me?

The term “story engine” is usually applied when discussing episodic television. It’s the part of a show’s premise that permits a new story and battle to be created every week–stories and conflicts totally different sufficient to cowl a wide variety of subjects and situations however comparable enough to feel like natural extensions of the present’s core. Comedies and dramas each use story engines–“mismatched office workers must serve under a wacky boss who’s constantly causing trouble” is as legitimate as “monster-hunters live over a small town’s monster spawning grounds” or “explorers in space investigate and learn about a new planet every week.”

Not truly a Story Engine (from The Legend of Grimrock)

These are, in fact, simplistic summaries–the “real” engine (observe: there’s not an actual engine) is extra complicated–nevertheless it provides an concept of what we’re discussing. Most good story engines can truly generate tales by way of a number of totally different methods (“sometimes the space explorers go to war with aliens, or experience conflict within their ship’s crew”), and not every story needs to emerge from the story engine (“this week, in a special episode, the detectives rally around a colleague whose mother has cancer”). Nonetheless, a robust story engine is what permits an episodic narrative to run for one hundred entertaining episodes as an alternative of ten.

With our terms outlined, let’s turn to games. Beginning with…

What games benefit from robust story engines? Your linear, level-based first-person shooter in all probability doesn’t want a lot of a sustainable story engine. (It’d! However it in all probability doesn’t.) Your 40-hour role-playing recreation, your quest-driven MMO, and your open world action-adventure set in a city full of duties and goals in all probability do.

Principally, in case your recreation has a variety of content–notably if that content material is consumed in discrete elements (corresponding to designated quests or missions)–and that content is offered in a nonlinear trend, you in all probability need to think about your story engine. With enough content delivered over an extended interval–e.g., a recreation with common downloadable updates–even linear games might profit (as we’re primarily in the tv model once more).

How does a recreation story engine work? A primary story engine should do the next:

Generate numerous player-oriented stories and conflicts. This may be a passive part of the story–the setting’s background may deal with this (“in Raceworld, every citizen wants to win the daily 100-meter dash… no matter what it takes!”), or it might be integral to the overarching plot (“the player’s goal is to become the most popular kid in school by winning over her classmates one at a time”). The era mechanism may be lively or mechanical (e.g., in a faction-driven recreation, a player’s progress may all the time anger one faction or another and create battle).

It’s straightforward to finish up with a narrative engine that’s too restricted or too generic. Can you actually get 50 tales out of a lone wolf’s battle towards mindless alien invaders? Does your protagonist’s quest by way of Underneath-Earth for the seven mystic talismans truly arrange anything helpful, or have you ever merely given your self a framework without ridding yourself of the burden of introducing a new story with each quest? How is your resource-scarce society continuously scrabbling for meals going to generate player-focused stories?

Use a dependable mechanism to interact the player with those tales and conflicts. This mechanism have to be supported both by recreation mechanics and narrative. It might be extremely simple (the participant character stumbles upon NPCs with dialogue that open up the story), virtually invisible (a pop-up tracker appears when getting into a brand new space, revealing a set of goals), tightly targeted (the player is inspired to commonly return to his home, where letters arrive in his mailbox pointing to new content), or incredibly intricate (the participant can watch crowds of NPCs to identify people exhibiting unusual conduct, then comply with stated NPCs into story areas).

This delivery mechanism has monumental impression on the sort and complexity of the tales you possibly can tell. If each piece of content is introduced by means of a prolonged conversation with a brand new character, your central conflicts might be very totally different than if content is introduced by way of a collection of delicate breadcrumbs or a small group of NPC supporting characters. Quest format dictates, to a big extent, quest content material; and how you open a quest is a vital a part of that format.

Permit the decision of stated tales and conflicts via regular gameplay. This one is pretty apparent, however nonetheless value noting: If the conflicts your story engine generates are all about reaching a given vacation spot in a short time, don’t pair them with a recreation oriented round patient, stealth-based gameplay. If your story engine creates tales about political maneuvering, don’t use it for a recreation and not using a conversation mechanic. And in case your recreation is oriented round fight, don’t construct a narrative engine that generates intricate meditations on philosophy and diplomacy.

Within the basic action / journey / technique recreation Star Management 2: The Ur-Quan Masters, the player explores and fights via an occupied galaxy to seek out alien allies towards the occupiers. Naturally, totally different aliens have their very own troubles with the occupiers that have to be resolved earlier than an alliance could be struck; these troubles might be solved by further exploration (finding more allies, discovering odds and ends on lost worlds, and so on.) and fight.

This can be a simple, elegant technique of producing stories applicable to the sport. It works if there are three alien races to seek out and it works if there are fifty. It keeps the participant on the middle of the story (the aliens, being oppressed, can’t manage on their very own) and allows for numerous variations (a number of the aliens have sinister agendas!) It feels natural. It feels obvious.


Upgrading a (non-story) engine in Star Management 2

However tweak it just a little bit and the engine abruptly becomes weaker. Change all of the aliens to people from a single society and your story selection drops significantly (until you spend loads of upfront effort detailing that society). Substitute the crucial to make allies with the more obscure have to cease the occupiers and the player lacks clear motivation and drive when encountering new characters. Change the exploration-based discovery of content to misery calls that can reach the participant at any time and you’ve instantly obtained the participant flailing to trace a dozen threads directly.

(Actually, Star Management 2‘s story engine is far more elegant and far less simple than this, but we’ll save that for a unique submit.)

It shouldn’t be onerous to check a narrative engine’s primary functionality. Take a look at your recreation’s setting, story, and mechanics as they stand. Can you crank out a dozen very brief and very fascinating quest pitches just about instantly? Are all of them totally different? Do they feel true to your narrative and not overly generic? Do they not require excessive setup? You then’re no less than on the right track.

Can a procedural content material era system work as a narrative engine? Perhaps. A superb procedural content era system in all probability does double as a narrative engine (see, for instance, Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system). It should create a diverse array of conflicts that all naturally emerge from the game’s premise and readily encourage the participant to interact.

But story engines are only a mental model for the artistic course of–they’re not a components. Identifying your story engine doesn’t mean you’ll be able to construct it as an actual piece of software program.

What are some superior story engine features? Along with the modular, episodic-style content material that story engines are constructed to create, most games even have a larger-scale throughline–a roughly linear overarching plot of some type. A superb story engine should feel like the natural consequence of this plot–conflicts arise because of the player’s overarching objectives, and resolving them pushes the player down the overarching path. (If the player needs to free the Earth from alien invaders, every mission to shoot aliens is a way of progressing. If the participant needs to turn out to be the Avatar of Virtue, then every encounter with townspeople during which she will exhibit fact, love, or courage contributes to the primary plot.) A poor story engine creates tales tangential to the primary plot (“Your goal is to kill the king, but you’ll need money to equip yourself. Fortunately, there are hundreds of ways to make money in this city…”)

In more complicated games, stories engines also can nest. Some conflicts and tales are larger-scale than others–a top-level story engine might boil right down to “The player must bring peace to a land in anarchy after a war by traveling to hotspots and preventing them from erupting into total chaos; the player receives leads on each hotspot from the heir to the throne back in his home garrison”; while each hotspot may need an engine of its own specializing in native considerations and utilizing totally different supply mechanisms.

Equally, a recreation may additionally use multiple story engines that run in parallel but open the identical content. This is usually a distracting mess if carried out poorly or completely invisible if dealt with properly. In the Star Management 2 example, a narrative-light useful resource gathering recreation emphasizes the necessity to discover. The process of resource-gathering naturally brings the player into contact with potential alien allies, while returning with assets to a central location triggers tips that could content material the player might have missed.

Advantages of Utilizing a Story Engine

In fact, you’re in all probability utilizing a narrative engine already–it’s only a query of whether or not you think of it in these terms. But by tuning the engine’s parts, listed here are a few of the clearest advantages:

Storytelling Shortcuts. A great engine helps minimize out the setup of every “episode” of story and get right to the conflict. With most of the story parts already clearly outlined and with the participant character already motivated, every story can give attention to what’s distinctive and fascinating fairly than getting slowed down in exposition.

Acquainted Type. Expectations are highly effective. An audience who understands that a victory happening too early in a narrative will soon flip bitter feels a dread and rigidity that provides to the expertise. Figuring out an audience’s expectations also permits a author to subvert those expectations for infrequent further impact.

When a participant understands the shape and themes of a recreation’s episodic tales, it permits a recreation writer to design to that have. A participant’s excited expectation when the normal quest-delivering radio call is available in is a strong device; whereas a recreation that delivers content differently each time denies the player that specific sensation.

Episodic Structure. Content-rich nonlinear video games are typically episodic even when the designers don’t intend them that approach. In follow, a participant’s play session is more likely to be bounded by the length of a number of “quests” (or other relevant story elements)–that’s the pattern he falls into, starting originally of one story and taking a break on the finish of one other.

In reality, for many gamers, the overarching storyline shall be secondary to the episodic stories–it’s rare for the majority of gamers to truly full a given recreation (there’s a lot of knowledge on this, but see, for example, right here). By focusing your recreation on these episodic stories and constructing a robust engine, you’re optimizing for the player’s true experience. You’re writing a guide of brief stories as an alternative of a novel because you already know your audience gained’t read the whole lot.

See also “Designing Stories for Nonlinear Game Segments” for extra dialogue of this and associated issues.

Modular Content. Recreation improvement is an unsure art. Content will get reduce and content material will get added with impressive regularity. In case you’ve acquired a robust story engine, you need to be capable of crank out further tales with out monumental problem when the call so as to add 5 extra hours of gameplay comes along; and when your recreation needs to be trimmed for value, you realize your tales are modular sufficient you can afford to forged them into the abyss.

A Few Examples, Please?

Let’s briefly contemplate a number of examples of story engines in video games and how they succeeded (or didn’t).

Mass Impact vs. Mass Effect 3. You may anticipate two games in a collection featuring the same protagonist to make use of the identical story engine. But while they’ve many similarities–including the participant character’s position as a type of militarized area cop (in the Lensmen / Jedi / Green Lantern mould)–these video games spin up their content in dramatically alternative ways.

Mass Effect 2

Still not a Story Engine (Mass Effect 2, by way of

In Mass Impact (BioWare, 2007), the player’s main objective is to seek out a rogue officer concerned in a mysterious galactic conspiracy involving historic but highly effective know-how. Chances are you’ll discover that that is a particularly specific objective, which is both boon and bane. It provides the player clear path for the primary plot, but–as we’ve discussed–the “main plot” is usually not nearly all of content material for a recreation of this sort.

Mass Impact integrates its aspect quests (the actual check of a story engine in an RPG) with restricted success. Most have restricted relation to the primary plot, as an alternative counting on the player’s status as area cop to contain him in smuggling schemes, salvage missions, and diplomatic entanglements. Most are acquired by stumbling into the right NPCs on the right time and place. For probably the most part, they feel applicable to the universe–but they all the time really feel like aspect stories and typically a bit poorly motivated. In any case, I’ve acquired a conspiracy to research. At their worst, they’re generic and impersonal.

Whereas Mass Impact three (BioWare, 2012), by focusing its story engine, creates a much more integrated feel. In this recreation, the galaxy is at warfare, and the player’s position is to steer a coalition to victory. The vast majority of ME3‘s aspect quests contribute on to this objective–the participant recruits new allies, acquires weapons, makes strikes at enemies, and so forth. The motivation for partaking in these missions is instantly clear; each story can give attention to what makes it fascinating slightly than on giving the player a cause to even care.

Mass Impact three additionally tunes its story engine on the subject of mechanics. A universal “Galactic Readiness” score rises every time the player aids the conflict effort. Extra quests than ever are delivered to the participant instantly from her residence base–delivered by means of calls or e-mails to her ship. The story engine creates content material that’s narratively applicable, instantly accessible, and mechanically rewarding.

Sunless Sea. In Sunless Sea (Failbetter Games, 2015), the participant is an explorer and merchant crusing by way of a mysterious world: discovering new islands and ports and assembly their unusual inhabitants. The participant is given little or no general motivation (a selectable “Ambition” determines sure win circumstances however in any other case performs no substantial position) and there isn’t a primary storyline–all quests, in impact, are aspect quests. Such a recreation requires an effective story engine.

Sunless Sea succeeds largely by virtue of the breadth of the kind of tales its engine generates. The game’s world consists of steampunk know-how, Lovecraftian monsters, sorcery, fire-and-brimstone-style demons, Victorian romances, pulp-style talking apes, and a hundred more oddities in addition to. With so many toys within the toybox, each aspect quest is ready to supply something new–the participant is unlikely to grow tired from seeing the identical themes too typically.

In fact, that very same breadth and lack of coherence signifies that a participant might lack the motivation and emotional stake that games like Mass Impact present. More than once I encountered a questline in Sunless Sea that appeared intriguing, but which I had no compelling purpose to involve myself in. (“Why would I risk my life to do that?”) Luckily, there have been lots extra questlines to select from.

Sunless Sea additionally makes a robust effort at integrating its story delivery mechanisms into the natural course of gameplay. In a recreation so devoted to exploration and discovery, it’s pure that probably the most thrilling moments of discovery (finding a brand new island, say) are most certainly to ship numerous new stories; but even the obligatory duties of refueling at ports and promoting off cargo may end up in new quests, because of a mechanic that “refreshes” opportunities after time away from a given island.

Sunless Sea

Look, this was a hard publish for instance. Okay? (Sunless Sea)

If we have been to make a television analogy, Sunless Sea is closer to Doctor Who (wildly careening from style to style, largely disintereted in ongoing storylines, and purposefully inconsistent in tone) than Mass Impact 3‘s Battlestar Galactica (tightly targeted thematically but capable of explore quite a few elements of its constrained setting).

Dismantling the Engine

A narrative engine is a thought experiment–a artistic device, helpful for modeling narrative prospects and generating inspirational templates. It isn’t prescriptive or a vital step in anybody’s course of. So why even hassle?

Because fashions may be useful, and assist constrain creation to the realm of the viable. The more individuals on a staff, the extra templates can lend clarity as to intent. And because it’s good to check whether you’ll be able to create a thousand fascinating aspect quests earlier than diving in.