Sunday, December 7, 2008

Game Length and Narrative Power

Let me describe to you what I believe the best format for a narrative game would be. First, a first time player would be able to be played through the game in around four to eight hours, with the length depending largely on the scope of the story being told. Second, the game would be broken into chapters, or acts, with each act taking around one and a half, to two hours to complete. So far what I’ve described sounds like a short novel, or a long movie trilogy. Playing through a game of this kind sounds like it would be about the same as watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the Star Wars series. But here’s the difference: to make the most of the interactive medium, these games would need to tell stories interactive enough that the player could play through them three or four times and have radically different experiences each time. I’m not talking about different meaning the first time I shot everyone on sight, and the second time I snuck past everyone. Or the first time I chose the evil dialog tree option, and the second time I chose the good dialog tree option. I’m talking about differences where the entire meaning of the story is changed from one play through to the next, by seamlessly integrating each of the player’s actions into the story, and reacting to those actions in an intelligent way.

That is where we will see the true power of interactive storytelling, each play of the game will render a different experience, but each shedding additional light on the story’s primary theme. As the player chooses different approaches to the game, the narrative would change and reflect the game creator’s views on the subject. Each play-through would show a different aspect of the story, with it a different view of the designer’s vision. Additionally different characters could be used for subsequent play-throughs, allowing the player to see the same events from a different perspective, and gaining even more understanding into the importance of what happened in the game. In this way the interactive nature allows the author to speak more clearly, not just showing or telling the player how they feel about the world, but actually making the player experience it.

There are a couple of reasons why a game of this type would have to be kept short. First, replayability. A game that takes forty or so hours to get through is going to be a difficult to play through multiple times. Further, at forty hours there is just too much story for the player to remember and be able to contrast across different play sessions. Second, development costs; highly interactive stories are very difficult to make, which is why a lot of games are very linear. In order to create a game story that is able to support player influence, it needs to be shorter than the average game. Fortunately, the cost of creating a deeply interactive story will be offset by savings in art assets. The player would still experience forty or so hours of play, by playing through to experience the different facets of the story, but each one would be done with the same art, meaning that the game would require around a quarter of the art a typical game requires.

In the end a game narrative that really allows the player to author the story with their choices would be much more compelling and satisfying than a linear story that lasted even four or five times longer. But more importantly, such a game would be able to be truly artistic in conveying important themes and ideas to the player. Such a game would be more than just an interactive movie, or mindless diversion, it would be a culturally relevant piece of artistic expression—that also happened to be a video game.

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At December 15, 2008 at 10:11 AM , Blogger Shelley K said...

Wow, this is a cool idea. It makes me think of world building in a book or for role-playing. When a world is built well, then all you have to do is put a character (or player for RPGs) into it and see what they do. Then you have the world react to it. If you could do programming that intense, that would be so cool! Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?

At December 16, 2008 at 8:07 AM , Blogger Darius said...

Something like that yes. Although as you said, the programming would be intense. You could scale it down a little bit, with some predefined paths through the world, and I think you could use some tricks to make it feel more open, but they would still be tricks.


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