Wishful coding: emergent story telling

“A game is a series of interesting choices.” – Sid Meier

To get people to play a game more than just once, it should be interesting and offer something new every time they start it. There are many ways to make game interesting for player: story, mechanics, promise of mastering the game and so on.

I have been playing Crusader Kings II quite a bit during the vacation and one aspect I really like about is how the game manages to tell stories, without them being scripted in. For example, when King Ihala of Finland was just a high chief of Satakunta, he had an affair with one of his vassal’s wife Maija. The vassal confronted him about this and despite Ihala promising to stop the affair publicly denounced both of them. Things were tensioned between them since then. Eventually Ihala united most of the Finland and claimed the throne. Years passed and then this same vassal comes to court to demand that King punishes Maija, who has been unfaithful again (this time not with Ihala). Because King had grown to be a just ruler, he was able to find a mostly amiable solution and let Maija sit in the dungeon for couple days.

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Former lover in front of the king

Another time Ihala wanted an observatory be constructed and funded it. When research required more sophisticated equipment, Ihala chose to spend even more money on it. Soon after this though, king passed away from the old age.

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the king is man of sciences

So, there was a high chief who made a mistake and his reputation and reign suffered from it. He tried to amend his ways and govern wisely and eventually rose to be the king. Then his past was thrown on his face again, but years had given him wisdom to solve the problem in a way that didn’t cause too much problems. He was a man who had interest on stars and was trying to understand how they move and if the current understanding of them is wrong. But, after spending countless of nights in the observatory and spending considerable amount of money on research equipment, he died of old age and research was cut short.

What fascinates me on this is that the story is told partly by the game, partly by the player. Obviously, the player makes choice of having or not having the affair and what to do when they are caught. The game system provides the pieces of the story and keeps track what has happened and what kind of possible story elements there are for the future. But this isn’t just a single story from the point of view of the game. There are multitude of different events that are presented to the player, who then chooses how to react to them. Some of the story arcs are progressing parallel to each other and none of them have lots of detail. This is like a good book, it provides enough of elements for the readers imagination to take over and fill in the blanks. The game doesn’t describe what Maija looked like or how his husband stormed into room of high chief Ihala. All that is left for player’s imagination.

None of these elements have really clear cut optional choice either. All of them have their pros and cons. Player is presented with some of them when he’s making a choice, but some of the long term effects are only shown much later. Normally I’m not a huge fan of “ha, ha, suprise, you screwed up without having enough information” types of moments in gameplay, but here they seem to work well enough. Effects are usually small and they do make sense when you think again. Like once I was funding an expedition and temple asked if they could have some priests to travel with me. In return, they would fund part of the expedition. Being greedy, I of course said yes and later got in trouble when said priests got into religious argument in a foreign country.

So, what does this all have to do with my small dungeon adventure?

I would like to write an interesting game, that would write stories together with the player. I can’t have an epic 20 book long story, because player who dies in the book 15, probably wouldn’t want to start from the beginning and play through the whole ordeal again. I also don’t want to write such a long story, because I simply don’t have enough skills or time for that. Instead of that, I would like to make a system that would generate interesting stories, time after time. These stories would have to be short, they would have to have lot of variation and they would have to be fun to read, time after time. Earlier I wrote about moral baggage and I envision this being on of the elements in story telling. Another might be some sort of chronicle at the end of the game that would show some of the highlights of the game and their effects on the world. Maybe some sort of character bio:

“Pete the Adventurer made far in the dungeon before finally dying in heroic combat. He was a bloodthirsty and never avoided combat. Countless were the rats and spiders that he killed, but the first fire beetle he encountered was too much. Pete wasn’t particularly smart character, he looted everything he could, but never even considered drinking any of his numerous magic potions.”

Granted, this is just an extension to Nethack’s end prompt that lists creatures vanquished by the player and their conducts. But it woudld do it with more flavour.

Another option I have been working since almost the beginning is to have a sparsely detailed world (remember, I want players to fill in their details and make world partly their own) and giving players access to it via fragments of diaries and notes. This is of course very passive method, requiring no input from the behalf of player, but it’s also probably the most low effort way of building the world.

The reason why system identical to Crusader Kings II probably wouldn’t work well is that in Crusader Kings most actions and choices are on strategic level, so it’s easy to have direct connection between the choice and the events it causes. In roguelike choices tend to be more on a tactical level. It is hard to have meaningful story generated from decisions like “do I attack the enemy?”, “do I drink this potion?”, “should I dodge behind that pillar?” and so on. For this reason, I probably will try to incorporate level of play that is not directly tied to tactical actions, but doesn’t feel like it has been tacked on the game. How do I do that remains as a mystery still. Maybe it will be an extension to the moral baggage system I was thinking earlier and will now and then give player choice to make, based on their previous actions.

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One thought on “Wishful coding: emergent story telling

  1. Pingback: Wishful coding: evolving language | Engineer's Journey

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