Narrative Design

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.



Another month has gone by, and though a short vacation, a nasty little cold, and a number of other minor distractions got in my way, I still managed to make a little bit of progress.

First, and most importantly, I put quite a few hours into writing the music for the first boss of the game. I may have gone a little bit overboard on this one: The concept I wanted to pursue was a track with multiple phases that mapped to different parts of the boss encounter, bouncing back and forth between them until finally reaching a conclusion. I’m not sure if I can possibly create a boss encounter that stays interesting long enough to accompany this track, coming in at almost 9 minutes long, but it will be fun to try once the rest of the chapter is complete.

The phases of the track are:

0:00-1:47 Intro
1:47-4:13 The Chest
4:13-6:16 The Mask
6:16-7:49 The Heart
7:49-8:40 Conclusion

This one honestly ended up getting quite a bit out of hand, and I spent quite a bit more time than I’d originally expected to on it, but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. I also just enjoyed doing music work again! I’m going to carry on with composing the soundtrack even though I’ve effectively completed all the tracks for the first chapter of the game now, which is the part of the game I’m focused on finishing. The reasons why I’m going to continue doing music work, despite otherwise attempting to contain my efforts to this first chapter, are several-fold: first because, as mentioned, I like making music and I want to do more of it, second because if I can’t make this game in a timely fashion I can damn sure make its soundtrack, which is a discrete sub-creation that I can be proud of in its own right, and third because I find music so compelling that I think just having the soundtrack to the game will motivate me more to finish the rest of it. There’s also a fourth, more pragmatic reason: Inspired by UNDERTALE’s soundtrack, I’m really trying to integrate motifs from different characters and locations into tracks with a narrative connection to those characters and locations. It’s going to be really hard to do that until I know what those motifs, for later parts of the game, actually are! I’m not really going to be able to consider chapter 1’s soundtrack complete until I’ve written the rest of the soundtrack and know better what my overall thematic tools and goals are.

Anyway! Aside from music, I’ve been working on a few things. I’ve been feeling my way around programming the main narrative component of the game, the storyteller. This is going to be something pretty similar to what Supergiant does in their games with an ongoing narration element, except I would like to integrate these narrator lines a little bit more closely with the music, syncing the lines up with particular parts of the track and so forth. Additionally, I want to have text appear in the world synced with the audio, so it’s a bit like playing a storybook. Figuring out how I’m going to pragmatically handle the synchronization of these elements and making them play nice with a player who may or may not be interested in the narrative taking place is going to be a challenge, but I’m getting close to having a simple version ready to test so that I can iterate on it.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what the interface of the game is going to look like. There are really only two elements that need to be displayed under normal circumstances: The player’s current health, and how many sparks you’ve collected, which also maps to your max health. I could just have a red bar along one side of the screen, but that felt inelegant. A sphere that fills and empties like the health meter in Diablo might have been a bit more thematic, since there’s some sun/moon symbolism I’m playing with in the game, but it felt like a circle would take up a lot of screen real estate for how much info it would impart and probably wouldn’t look very good. What I’ve come up with instead is an idea that’s… actually a little bit difficult to express here. It’s basically a life bar along the left side of the screen, except it looks like an engraved stone tablet. Only a small part of the tablet is visible early on, but as you gain more power the tablet expands and you can see more of it, and the engravings on it. I can actually directly tie the health meter into the narrative of the game in what I think is a pretty interesting way. However, because you don’t gain power at a constant rate, but instead end up collecting more and more as you defeat more powerful opponents, I’m going to have to figure out a curve that reveals the tablet at a rate that’s satisfying over the course of the game. I have a logarithmic function in mind that may work well, but it will have to be tested. I’ll also need to figure out how to have the tablet build up in such a way that it feels satisfying, and ensure that no matter what its interim shape is it still gives satisfactory feedback as a health meter. This will all take a bit of experimentation, but it’s an idea I’m excited about.

Finally, I’ve been working on the game’s first animation. I mean, I’ve already built several animations, but this is the first one that will play in the game: The player character awakening, standing up, and taking her weapon at the very beginning of the game. I started creating this animation, and then had to start over after working on it for a few hours because my first take on it sucked. I think my second take on it has potential, though it’s still very rough the motion feels good to me.

The actual removing-sword part of the animation still needs to happen, and of course all of the detail and the tween frames need to be added, but I think I’m on the right track this time.

So, the plan for August is to finish working on these things, write the music for the first area of chapter 2 (I’ve already started), create more main-character animations, and maybe get some basic sound design in. Of course something else may capture my fancy and I’ll end up working on that, but as long as I stick to my big task list I think I can maintain forward progress.

We operate by symbols. Everything we think we see is, by the time we perceive it, converted from the light that enters our eyes into a collection of ideas, into symbols for objects and creatures we know – or, for those things we cannot readily categorize, into a vague description of form and color and behavior. Everything we think we hear is, as well, converted into discrete sounds and music, as best as we can wrap them with understanding. All this happened in our minds long before we ever came up with actual words to describe things: Only much later did we create verbal language to be another set of symbols, verbal symbols we could readily convert to and from these symbolic perceptions of objects and creatures in the world around us.

We navigate by analogy. That is, we have no contact with the world that isn’t mediated by our brain’s model of it, which is constructed out from symbols – we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, manipulating our reality at one layer of removal, always.

These verbal languages are fairly effective at describing the things we can perceive with our senses, but struggle to describe more abstract and ambiguous concepts and systems – so we have other languages and methods to approach these. We created mathematics, a whole new language, to describe the abstract idea of multiple discrete identical objects and how these operate in relationship to each other – when, really, no such ideal differentiated objects actually exist. And, in the same vein, we created fiction to be a meta-language, a language made out of our verbal language, to describe the social, cultural, and technological systems that quietly control our lives.

I’m using fiction in a very broad sense, here. One thing I would include under this heading, for example, is history: The main difference between history and fiction is that the former purports to portray the reality of a thing that has happened. However, this claim to reality is one that anyone can make, and which many spuriously try to. Even when the historical facts are well known and established, the interpretation of those facts – that is, the portrayal of the underlying systems that generated that particular chain of events – is very much a product of the author. Even an author attempting in all good faith to avoid influencing their interpretation with preexisting biases cannot possibly manage to do so: Our assumptions run too deep. Nevertheless, no matter how much empty space the author fills in, no matter how questionable the systems implied by their interpretation, the history takes on the authority of indisputable fact, suitable only to be challenged by other equally authoritative historians.

At one step removed from history, we have fiction that is intended to be ‘realistic’. The underlying systems of reality that govern the fiction are presumed to be the same as the ones that govern our lives, with the only difference being that the characters and situations are invented. In other words, the system, the machine, is intended to be a replica of the original, while the data set it operates upon is wholly fabricated. At another layer of remove there are science-fiction and other alternate reality stories, where the system of the world departs from reality in major ways – though also, usually, remains the same in several vital ways. Humans, or something very much like them, generally still exist in these stories, and they have cultures and laws and societies like ours. They still need to eat and to breathe, they still like to play and to fuck.

How much people tend to enjoy these stories tends to rest a great deal on how plausible they find these systems – that is, once we discount the obviously and acknowledged fantastical elements (suspension of disbelief), how closely does the remainder mirror what we understand reality to be? By replacing elements of the systems of reality with obviously fantastical ones, we can examine the remaining systems more closely, a way of holding a magnifying glass up to some aspect of our world, a way of color-coding the gears of reality. If the rest of the system that drives the fiction is shoddy, though, or if it otherwise fails to be plausible, the reader will reject it. Of course, this is the same situation as the external tensions I mentioned last week: What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible depends as much on the reader as the content. For some people, all robots being sapient is plausible. For some others, all humans being sapient is not.

Every fiction, though, carries an implicit argument: The systems portrayed in this story would create the results portrayed in this story. Because of this implicit argument, all art presents an idea of what the world is, could be, or should be.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how insufficient the idea of all stories being rooted in conflict is – actually, I mostly wrote about how our assumption that conflict is the core of stories affects the way we design games, but most readers seemed more interested in whether stories inherently need to be about conflict. While I never claimed the conflict model of storytelling was worthless, I raised questions about why it was assumed that conflict was regarded as inherently and uniquely necessary to create and tell a story. Discussing and thinking about this afterwards, I think we tend to focus on conflict because it’s the most readily available way to create tension, which is, perhaps, a necessary component of storytelling – or, at least, we can define tension in such a way that that’s a defensible assertion. And, reading this, you might say “okay, conflict, tension, same thing right? A rose by any other name yada yada yada,” and for many kinds of tension that’s basically true. In many cases, even if we split hairs about conflict and tension and which arises from the other and which is a better word for the thing we’re describing, it’s entirely a semantic argument. The reasons why I choose to say ‘tension’, though, are twofold: First, because ‘conflict’, though it can broadly describe any two forces in a story that work against each other, tends to push us towards the idea of interpersonal conflict – so the choice of words matters here. Tension is an inherently vaguer term with less power to dictate the form the action of the story takes. Second, because there are forms of tension that simply cannot be readily described as conflict – foremost among these are what I’m going to call external tensions.

As I see it, every story has internal and external tension. Internal tensions are the places where the forces in the story aren’t aligned and push against each other in some way – sure, there’s good versus evil, but there’s also Denise trying to make an early appointment versus traffic and daylight savings, or Gordon trying to clean his apartment vs his apartment being extraordinarily gross and also he’s still kind of hung over. These map fairly readily, albeit in a somewhat tortuous way, to the idea of conflict – whether “man vs man”, “man vs nature”, or “man vs self”, these have been described as conflict. I would argue that that’s not a very good or intuitive description, but I wouldn’t bother writing about it if that was my only critique of the model.

External tensions, on the other hand, are those places where the story and the reader’s understanding of the world we live in do not agree with each other. It’s why portrayals of flawless beauty or a utopian world are almost painful to experience, because they scrape up against our understanding of the limits and expiration of beauty and our knowledge of the deep and ugly flaws of our world. External tension is how a story can be compelling with nothing approaching what we would call conflict, simply by pushing against our expectations or beliefs in some way. When we look at it this way, stories begin to look like physics energy diagrams, where tension is never really resolved, just converted. Happy endings don’t erase the internal tension of the story’s conflicts, just convert that tension into an external tension against our knowledge of how much rarer and more complicated happy endings are in our world – that they are seldom uncomplicatedly happy, and never really endings.

However, because external tension is contextual, its nature depends on the reader. If the values of the story and its understanding of the world line up fairly closely with your own, you won’t experience much external tension, and if they don’t then you will. Unlike internal tension, external tension produces an implicit demand on the audience to consider why they feel this way and whether to change their understanding of the world, or their understanding of the story, to resolve this tension. This is why stories can be powerful agents of change, because of this implicit demand for action. However, the author can’t know exactly where this tension will fall or how it will be perceived, so attempting to change minds this way can be a risky business – A tension against fascistic elements in a story can frequently be resolved just as easily by embracing as by opposing fascism, and the same story may lead different people to either or neither.

In all likelihood, this is still a flawed way of viewing a story, flawed in ways I haven’t yet noticed, but it still seems at least more encompassing and accurate than declaring that a story is based on its conflicts. It’s a lens, a way of viewing a story: What here generates internal tension? What here generates external tension? And these start to map pretty closely to genres: Drama and suspense and action stories are built on internal tension, on the conflicts between the characters and their aspirations and the world. Satire, science-fiction, and comedy rely more on the external tensions, absurdity and surprise and commentary on real things and events.

The conflict model is valid inasmuch as it’s a smaller version of this model, which encompasses more story possibilities. It’s highly likely that this, too, is a small part of a greater whole, that this still shuts out a great number of possible stories, stories without tension. I don’t know what those look like, yet.

Well, I’m back to working on EverEnding. That side-project ended up being exactly what I didn’t want it to be, an excuse to work on a whole bunch of tools without ever making an actual game to go with them. We’ll call it a learning experience. What did I learn? I learned that I have a habit of avoiding the scary unquantifiable parts of a project in favor of working on parts that feel like safe investments – that I feel, somewhere inside myself, that if I pour my efforts into making tools and systems that that’s a safer gamble to me than pouring them into the actual core of a game. Art is scary! The more time you have to put into making it, the scarier it gets – in the first place, making art is like putting a message in a bottle and letting it out to float on the sea, and it only gets more stressful when you spend more than a year creating that message. The solution is not, I think, to spend another year developing new bottle and paper and ink production facilities to make creating each message that tiny bit less terrifying, but it’s an appealing option to take whenever it presents itself.

Oh, also in addition to those big existential questions I guess I learned a lot about making a scripting system and working with OpenFL. So that’s good too.

Once I decided I’d basically dead-ended, it was clearly time to head back to EverEnding. However, I’d left the project in uh… not a great place. I’d completed about half of the OpenFL port, and lots of systems weren’t running and I’d left lots of bugs in the systems that were running. Eventually, after lots of debugging and deliberation, I ended up rolling back a number of the changes I’d made and reverting back to Adobe AIR… for now. The reason for this is that switching to OpenFL would not only require me completely rewriting all my rendering systems, it would also make a couple of the special effects I’m planning extremely difficult. I really want to be actually working on a game now, so I figure rather than resolving all these issues right away I can defer them for a while. A big thing that enabled that is that OpenFL now supports Adobe AIR as a target platform, so with a few checks in my code to handle cases that are unique to OpenFL (most of which I’d already implemented) I can have something that can run on that version of OpenFL with no changes and, perhaps soon after, build to other OpenFL target platforms. Even if I’m not prepared to implement OpenFL just yet, with my experimentation here and with the side-project I think I have a pretty good idea how I’ll handle it when that time comes.

So, back to working on EverEnding: There were a few big design decisions I’d been deferring, one of which was specifically how to handle the narrative of the game and the other was creating some sort of special moves the player could unlock over the course of the game. I think I figured out a good system for creating a narrative in the style of sort of a story-book, with narration synced to music and text fading in – this is probably something I’ll want to prototype, though, to make sure it actually feels right. The special moves are like 75% figured out, but only the smallest slice of that stuff will be in the first chapter of the game, which is the one I’m focusing on right now, so I can figure out the last of that later. After I got that stuff basically sorted, I created a big task-list for creating chapter 1 of the game. I already had a task-list, but I made one that was bigger and more thorough, and had accompanying time estimates for each task. I tried to overshoot every estimate, but if they’re accurate than I have something in the region of 1300 hours to put into the project before the first chapter is complete. That’s a lot. Then again, I’ve put that much time into TF2, and I didn’t even make that game.

I have my work cut out for me. I’m going to start scheduling myself a bit more strictly again, though I may only get a few days to work to that schedule before I have to leave for a family thing, but with all this down and planned out I feel – well, not exactly optimistic, but determined I guess. I just turned 35, I’m starting to get the tiniest bit of grey in my beard, I got a blood pressure monitor for my birthday. I really do need to actually finish a project.

Games are, generally, engines for responding to player input. Whether the game feels good is largely a matter of how robust the response is – robust both in how closely it interacts with the player’s input and in how well-constructed it is. A systems-driven game would be primarily the former, capable of reacting to a wide range of different situations in ways which are individually rather shallow but, in interaction with each other, can be rich and complex. Linear narrative games, on the other hand, focus on the latter, only responding to a narrow range of inputs but responding with content that has had a great deal of thought put into it.

Let’s disregard linear narrative games for the moment, because what I’m interested in right now is that idea of responsiveness. Every time you, the player, takes an action within the game and the game responds to it, that just inherently feels pleasurable, the pleasure of a toddler dialing a fake phone or ringing the bell on a bike. Doing something, and something happening in response, is an intrinsically pleasing act.

Now, games try to be ambitious in all sorts of interesting ways, and one of the most popular is having some sort of morality system: Do Good things and good things happen, do Bad things and bad things happen. There are a whole lot of conceptual problems with this, some of which I’ve gotten into before, but a huge fundamental flaw with these systems as a form of messaging is that there’s no way bad things can happen in a game – that is to say, there’s no way that a game’s reaction to your decisions can really be ‘bad’ because the mere fact that it is responding to your decision is pleasing to the mind on a fundamental level. When you’re playing Deus Ex, you don’t get flustered or upset because JC Denton got in trouble with his boss for poking around in the women’s restroom, you’re just pleased the game noticed something you did. You can’t even really punish the player by making things more difficult to them, because at that point you’ve given them a challenge run – this is fairly directly critiqued in the genocide story path in UNDERTALE (I’ll avoid getting into specifics here for spoiler reasons, but you can read my thoughts on it, among other aspects of the story, here).

It seems that the best way to discourage a player from taking an action is merely to fail to respond to it at all, rather than punish them or shame them for it: After all, many people find punishment and shame quite enjoyable under safe circumstances. Perhaps this tendency, rather than actual narrative success, is what has preserved the morality system in games – but I digress. In Far Cry 2, there are various animals wandering the deserts and forests you’re exploring and fighting through. The developers didn’t want the players to hurt or abuse animals for fun, so they just made them so they dropped dead if anything happened to them. This lead to some amusing scenarios where a deer would occasionally get bumped with an open car door and immediately be stricken dead, but at least served the purpose of keeping the animals from being cheap physics toys for the players to amuse themselves with.

None of this is an argument to disinclude consequence or morality from your game: After all, we include these ideas in other narrative forms all the time, just with no expectation of the audience to feel personal shame or chagrin for the actions undertaken. I would relinquish any idea of making the player ever regret taking an action in a video game on the basis of that action’s consequences: There can be no such thing as punishing a player with the consequences for their actions when consequences are just so delightful, regardless of their intent.

They say there’s no story without conflict. I don’t really understand why this is said so often and with such confidence, but that seems to be how we teach fiction-writing around these parts because I’ve heard it a lot. I dislike broad structural declarations like this, since inevitably stories are warped to fit the lens rather than the lens being applied to better understand the story: If there’s no interpersonal conflict, then the conflict must be between a person and their environment or their own mind… this covers a pretty broad range. Yes, you can describe a plot this way: Nearly any sequence of thoughts or events could be vaguely described as a conflict, in the same way nearly any arrangement of objects could be turned into a physics diagram, but only occasionally would these be useful intermediary steps towards solving a particular problem. Likewise, only occasionally is the conflict-centered view of storytelling the most useful and interesting approach.

There are lots of stories! Stories of love and loss, of the unreliability of memory and the temptations of imagination and of hurt and exploration. It’s impoverished to regard these as a conflict between Man and Time or Man and Death. What sort of conflict is that? We are not in conflict with gravity or with the ground, we are suspended between them. Even if we fall, our death is not conflict with the ground. Things happen that don’t fit this conflict model, and they frequently make interesting stories anyway. It’s a bit terrifying that we’ve been able to tell the line that stories are based in conflict as a generally uncontested bit of storytelling advice for so long – that, itself, tells a story: It’s like science fiction, a culture that can only understand the world through fights.

Similarly, a popular description of gameplay, coined by Sid Meier, is as a ‘series of interesting choices’. This is broader and, in general, I have less direct criticism of it – my issue is more with what we regard to be ‘interesting’ and what we regard to be ‘choices’. Even in completely passive entertainment along the lines of movies we make choices – we choose which characters we like, we choose what to focus our attention on and choose from different possible interpretations of what’s going on and why. Even in a passive medium we are active audience members, parsing and digesting and translating. This process is much the same as it is in games, except games then ask us to take that interpretation one step further, to translate it into an action that then affects the state of the game.

Since we have culturally interpreted all fiction as being based in conflict, it’s then a short jump to interpret all ‘interesting choices’ as being based in conflict. And, when you frame a choice with conflict, it tends to be crunched down into whether it allows you, as a participant in this conflict, to come out on top. Every interpretation, every decision, becomes a way to navigate a way to victory.

To most people, this is what a video game is.

However, none of this is intrinsic to the medium. Stories don’t have to be about conflict, and choice isn’t just a way to win battles, and interest isn’t just the currency of problem-solving. Games structured this way are fine, and it’s great that they’ll continue to exist because I like shooting digital people with digital guns as much as anyone, but when you take a step back from any of these assumptions it becomes obvious how incredibly tiny this conception of what a game is compared to the massive possibility of what games can be. I mean, we’ve already cut off a huge amount of possibility space to explore in fiction by centering our conception on conflict, and we’ve further constrained games to be a subsection of that.

There’s so much resistance to seeing games as anything but engines for presenting choices that navigate supremacy in conflict, but they could be more. They could be anything.