News Post

I started thinking a post with an intended title of "Achieving diversity in storytelling" but I realised that I ought to discuss player control over character development first!

I promise to talk about diversity in a subsequent post but I discovered that right now I am more fascinated about how interactive storytelling can help built new, more realistic characters. This was driven by my own nagging feeling that whilst we are building a Choose Your Own Adventure game where "Choices Matter", it is important to balance two competing objectives: 1) player choices should cause significant changes to the story 2) telling a fulfilling and well crafted story Good story telling requires stories not to branch out into arcs that are not significant to the main character's development, passion, or trauma(s) unless they provide some pacing relief or insight into the character's motives (such the slice of life). On the other hand, adventure games (especially text based interactive fiction) that do not provide sufficient control of events, give us the feeling of being 'cheated'. Some games, such as the recent Disco Elysium or Fallen London, overcome this by providing a substantial number of subplots. We considered this but it would mean our game would also take 4–5 years to develop or would require to write procedural generation of content. Both approaches would certainly bulk up the 'choices' the player can make but it would not necessarily help evolve the character along a well designed arc. Worse, from a writer/programmer perspective it would make it exceptionally challenging aligning how fulfilling certain subplots (in a specific manner) links with 'real' consequences in the main story. Because it doesn't matter how vast your open world is, if you do not design real consequences for the player's action, you are also risking letting them down. So the decision came to be that we need to find something different, not necessarily new or groundbreaking, just effective. Some inspiration came from reading a book called Advanced Game Design: a System's Approach and also from being an avid (and annoyed) consumer of modern news media stories. One would be forgiven to think these days that the world is made of black and white views, a Manichaeism of 'for' or 'against', left or right, progressive or conservative, denier or follower, but reality is such a complex beast that it overwhelms not only our human brains but also machine learning training (i.e. what is often termed as artificial intelligence). When training a new algorithm, we use approaches such as clustering or thresholds to minimise 'noise' or complexity so that the results can be "useful", i.e. they can have an operational value. As someone who played a few computer games and now is leading the designing of their own, I strove to break away from the dualism of "us vs them" we find in the current entertainment industry. The difficulty of designing a game where there is more than one solution - as is common in 'choose your own adventure' games - however was that ultimately you can write a certain number of paths: Complexity does have to be distilled to something tractable for a writer. How did I choose solve it? Through a type of narrative design. The concept here is that you first determine what is the story you wish to tell, what you would like the player to think about after the played the game. The second phase is to implement some of the system design thinking that Sellers introduces in his book Advanced Game Design (or see an excellent post by the Frostpunk/This War of Mine lead). This centres around the feedback loops you would like the player to be exposed to and it includes a variety of goals and strategies, some are short term or tactical, some are long term or strategic, some are cultural, some are intellectual etc. These are not peppered throughout as an afterthought, rather they form an integral part of the design document that both guide and restrict the subsequent story writing.

For example, in our game "Eternity and the Human", we have four main pillars of outside influence, or hues if you will: technology/materialism, humanity, nature, and supernatural/mysticism. These hues are built up by the actions the player takes, effectively colouring the story to the player's own world view (assuming they initially make choices according to their world view but they can also rationally explore other view points). As certain hues come to dominate over others, the story adapts. If the main character is constantly fascinated by tech, for example, they are more likely to notice and be fascinated by technological solutions, they are more likely to ignore actions or environment where technology is frowned upon. In other words, as the player makes choices, the personality of the main character precipitates and crystallises, limiting the diversity of choices moving forward. This does not mean that we expect the main character to wholy espouse a particular world view but rather a mixture of each of the four axises. This central to the design: At the end of the game, the player is not only presented with an 'ending' but also with helping built part of the personality of the main character. In other words, they are responsible for forming a person. One would argue of course that these four pillars do not represent personality as it is presented in pop-psychology such as the Big Five etc. Sadly, as someone who cares about the meaning of words, this bugs me quite a bit because pop psychology has confused behaviour with personality. Most of these concepts as introversion vs extroversion etc are actually about someone's behaviour, they are not about their values.

Ultimately, the theory that this Eternity and the Human is seeking to test is that by providing the player with choices that allow her to evolve the main character's values, the player will feel more empowered and in control of the game, or at least a bit more than in some classic 'choices matter but they don't really' games made popular by a particular company. That's the theory at least! Hope someone will find this useful, a subsequent post will delve into the fifth pillar of the value system in the game called "self" which could equally be called "nothingness", inspired by some of the buddhist and philosophic traditions of nihilism. Till then, thank you for reading!

Posted in Devlog on Nov 05, 2019