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Soapbox: Why These Stories Have Puzzles

posted by TelltaleGames Telltale Staff on - last edited - Viewed by 293 users
Heather and I have fallen into a comfortable rhythm with these blogs, and we seem to have adopted distinctly different roles. Heather handles meaty topics involving the theory, practice, and business of games, stimulating lively discussion, while I lean towards fanciful poetic commentary about the things that go on here in the office, resulting mostly in confusion and nervous chuckling. At one point I was thinking that this week's blog would be about my chair. But Heather's contribution last week got me all fired up, dealing as it did with a topic near and dear to me: interactive narrative. So I thought I'd pretend I know something about it.

Like Heather, I've often sat jamming pencils into my forehead while listening to people debating whether it's better to give a player total control over a narrative, or none at all, and like Heather I also think the most interesting area lies smack in the middle. Consider the word "interactive," meaning "capable of acting on or influencing each other." People often forget that interactivity implies TWO parties, in this case a player and a designer, each of whom is empowered to exert some influence over the other. Take it too far in either direction and you don't have interactivity, you just have activity.

But how do you accomplish a collaboration with someone you've never met? The Player is trouble. The Player is an untrained, wildly unpredictable pest who is going to come in and make all sorts of terrible decisions about where to go and when to do what. Or possibly not, but as a designer you have to assume the worst, and set things up so that your story, at least the parts you consider important, will bend but not break, no matter what The Player tries to do to ruin things. This turns out to be trickier than it sounds. There is a certain temptation to seize absolute control and force matters, an easy solution - but one which defeats the purpose of working in an interactive medium. The Player gets to mess with your story. Your pacing is at his mercy. Get used to it. If you don't like it, write a movie instead.

What it boils down to, mainly, is timing and structure. The activities of The Player prevent you as the designer from having strict control over either of those. This tends to really bother writers used to more traditional media, where timing and structure are the two major tools used to accomplish, well, practically everything.

A certain amount of flexibility is required, but you don't necessarily have to give up the whole pizza. There are things you can do to exert influence without seizing absolute authority. For example, one of my favorite wrenches is what we tend to refer to as "puzzles," though it's not important that they be particularly puzzley in nature, just that they be "things you have to do over here before you can do that over there." I call them puzzles out of habit, but I think I tend to think of them more as "dependent opportunities." From a story standpoint these serve a ridiculously useful and important function: they provide a way to structure the experience in a way that does not feel forced. Provided the player is given a believable reason that Event B can't happen until after Event A, say for example B involves a plane flight and A involves an airline ticket, then the ordering of A and B becomes a comfortable, logical feature of the world you've created, rather than an arbitrary imposition of the Tyrannical Story Overlord.

If you wanted to, you could put the whole story in a specific sequence by making each event dependent on the event you wanted to precede it. This is very orderly, but the more you do it, the more you restrict the actions of the player, and it starts to feel like there isn't much freedom. Because there isn't. Might as well watch a movie. Conversely, you could have a story without any dependencies at all, so that events can happen in any order. Now there's loads of freedom, but the story is completely chaotic and probably makes very little sense, in which case why bother with story at all?

Finding a good balance between the order and the chaos is, in my opinion, one of the key elements of effective interactive story design. Telling the story lies neither in narrating a specific sequence of events in a specific order, nor in giving the player the opportunity to do whatever he pleases. Rather, it lies in creating a network of interdependent possible actions, which result in a story loosely organized by the designer, but ultimately under the direction of the player.

See, game design isn't really all that hard.

OK, end of soapbox. In two weeks: we return to regular programming with a gripping tale about my office chair.

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