[iDC] story web

Stallabrass, Julian Julian.Stallabrass at courtauld.ac.uk
Mon Jul 3 05:31:06 EDT 2006

The Story Web


I've been thinking about the issue of computer game narrative, which currently seems at odds with the interactive character of games, their prodigious technical achievements, and the freedoms granted the player in such realms as movement and tactics.


Computer games are held back from greater narrative complexity by the problem of proliferating plot lines. If you allow the gamer a genuine narrative choice at some point in the game, one which will affect what follows, you must work out and write the different scenarios that follow. The more genuine choices are added, the greater the labour involved. The number of potential plot lines quickly outruns the capacity of any team of writers. So it is that most computer games are written as if they were film scripts, in a procedure which is deeply at odds with their interactive character.


Most games respond to the problem by allowing the player to proceed to the next stage of the plot by selecting a single right choice from the range of possibilities, and punishing other choices by the death of the player's character or another form of dead-end. Another tactic is to provide sub-plots that branch off the main story line but do not fundamentally affect it; the main choice offered the player is whether or not to bother playing them. 


Another strategy, which may be combined with autonomous sub-plots, is to join up some of the plot lines, so that different choices do not bring players to separate game areas but rather alter the order in which those game areas are seen. The effect here is to give a degree of narrative choice by shuffling the order of a relatively small number of episodes or access to particular game areas. It has been used in both the Deus Ex games, which also offered a choice of morally ambivalent endings, that luxury being on offer, of course, because each ending led only to the playing of an appropriate cut scene, and not to the continuation of separate story lines. Nevertheless, this structure does something to mitigate the basic problem: more choices can be offered, death need not be the consequence of less than optimum decisions, and moral complexity and ambiguity are easier to introduce. The disadvantage of this structure (which can only be overcome, once again, with a good deal of labour by writers) is that if the order of the game's episodes is shuffled, the game may appear deficient in memory of its own plot. For example, a character in an episode may be expected to treat the player very differently depending on how they arrived at a particular point in the narrative, but for that to happen the player's track to each episode must be accounted for, and this to an extent reproduces the problem of proliferating plot lines. Characters in Deus Ex may seem remarkably forgiving of a player who has fought against them earlier in the game, for example.


Players, then, are generally denied a sequence of meaningful narrative choices in games, and this fundamentally affects the experience of the game in terms of its potential subtlety, maturity, sophistication, and in the ethics implied by its narrative. The choices offered to players are generally stark, and the consequences of their actions simple and unambiguous. This may be part of what confines enthusiasm for computer games to particular segments of the population, and it certainly contributes to the widespread cultural contempt in which games are still held.


The basic proposal to solve this problem is a very simple one: to harness the energies of the online gaming communities (who already supplement games with a vast production of new game artefacts including weapons and clothing, characters, rules and standalone scenarios and plots) to write stories that will be integrated into the main plot. If you have thousands of writers at your disposal, proliferating plot lines are no longer a problem but an opportunity. At the moment, when these enthusiasts (modders) add new plot lines, these are as autonomous sub-plots to the main game, which may symptomatically ensure they do not interfere with the main plot line by confining themselves to an island off the shore of the main player area, for example. Most game companies have welcomed the contributions of modders, opening up their games to such creative energies, because they greatly extend the market life of their games.


The idea of the Story Web, then, is to create an Open Source program which would provide a framework to integrate the efforts of these communities into the main plot line of a game, allowing for the creation of new narrative lines, and offering players numerous significant narrative choices.


The advancing of a plot in computer games is achieved through various simple means, which can be placed into three broad categories: movement, tasks, player abilities and the behaviour of non-player characters (NPCs). Saved games log the states of these variables. The basic movement of objects and characters is quite simple to manage, and the collective labour of game enthusiasts could greatly augment the narrative richness of games.


The Story Web should work as a collaborative project, and while much could be achieved through online communication, there may be advantages to setting up a small team of writers and programmers to work on a pilot project with a particular game. It makes sense to choose a game for which there is a strong pre-existing community of modders, and also one for which plot is already an important element. An RPG such as Oblivion may be a good choice.


Let's take an example of a plot line from that game to get an idea of the possibilities. In Oblivion, the player is asked by a collector to steal an ancient crown from a house in the same town. The player can do so, or if s/he talks to the owner of the crown, is given the option of collecting a similar crown from a ruin, and warned of the dangers of giving the collector what he wants. When either crown is taken to the collector, the player asked to accompany him to a throne room in a ruin. Once there, if the original crown has been given to the collector, he crowns himself king and summons spirits to despatch the player (who is offered a typical choice of fight, flee or die). If the other crown has been given to the collector, he is electrocuted in his throne but similarly spirits appear to attack the player. This is the end of this plot line, and the player has no option even to talk to the owner of the crown about the events that have occurred.


It is easy to see that there are many new story and dialogue options that could be added here: at the very least, the player should be able to talk to the owner of the original crown; this could open a plot line in which the player could use the original crown in the throne room; it may be that the ancient sprits could be negotiated with rather than be implacable opponents; many branching story lines could be written that link back to and affect the main plot of the game or its very numerous (and autonomous) sub-plots.


The advantage of the Story Web is that many writers can 'fill' the proliferating branches of narratives without active collaboration, building on options to existing narratives, and initiating new ones. The system offers a flexibility rarely seen in computer games: characters from a sub-plot are usually confined there, and the 'bad' ones generally meet their deaths there if the player is successful. Characters that are found attractive in a modding community may reappear often in many story lines.


There are two kinds of difficulty in this project, and both are connected to the fact that game enthusiasts cluster about already existing games with a pre-established story line: they are disruption and incompleteness. New narrative elements should not prevent the main game from functioning (for instance, by killing off essential characters before they fulfil their role in the plot, or at least should not do so without the cognisance of the player), and new plot lines should not leave the player 'hanging' at the end of an incomplete story.


Naturally, one of the consequences of the use of this system is that narrative branches can be added at any point in the game, and that they may well be added to narratives that are (in the minds of their authors, at least) complete. So the system may offer a challenge to the notion of completing a story, and this may be one of its most important contributions in introducing maturity to computer games. 


Even so, both problems remain:


            Many players will not want to play 'incomplete' stories

            Most players will want the option of completing the designer's game


Both problems may be addressed with a 'traffic light' system, signalling paths in normal game-play (this is an option that gamers could turn on or off). In most RPGs, narrative decisions are taken through the dialogue options, so introducing such a system would simply be a matter of changing the colour of the writing. So:


            Green: the designer's narrative or autonomous sub-plot that leaves it unaffected

            Amber: a complete narrative but a diversion from the original plot

            Red: incomplete narrative


(There are accessibility issues here for the colour-blind but it is the principle of the system rather than its detailed implementation that is of importance for now.) Writers would signal when they considered a story to be complete; others adding stories to a complete one, would be obliged to signal it as new.


This system would allow the player some guidance through the branches of the story structure without actually seeing it in the game. Of course, the structure would be open to direct examination by all players. The automatic savegame system would be modified to save at every narrative branch; that, combined with a view of the narrative structure, would permit all choices to be revocable. Players could thus explore many narrative tracks without losing track of the game makers' plot. This solution also addresses the problem of unevenness of writing; in a collectively assembled narrative, there are bound to be more or less committed and able writers, so players need the option of moving back from a narrative line that they simply dislike.


The Story Web could work both with single-person games (where probably, for reasons of simplicity, a pilot should be attempted) and the introduced plot elements of persistent multi-player online games. Given that it would be subject to continuous modification, it would require either a continuous connection to the Internet, or perhaps a 'Steam'-like updating system of the kind used by Valve for Half Life 2 and their other games. 


If the plot lines of a successful Story Web are by definition too many and various to be written by a single individual, they may also be too many to read. Story lines would not only branch off from pre-existing lines but would also frequently reconnect with them (as in the Deux Ex model above but with many more options and not necessarily ending with a single scenario). This would be one way of completing a narrative line, turning its 'traffic light' from red to amber, and it would also allow, through linking back to the designer's plot line, a greater number of conservatively inclined players to try out added stories.


Reconnecting with other lines raises the problem of inconsistencies between stories. Games already manage the position, disposition and health of characters, the position of objects, locked and unlocked locations, the completion of tasks and a host of other variables. The Story Web would have to make this information available to writers as formal and tabulated data, as modders currently view it. Authors should also write brief plot summaries of their contributions, so that new contributors could get a rapid overview of a particular set of plots, and know whether and where they would like to add their own material. This would obviate at least some of the need to play through a plot line, or read back through it, before deciding to contribute. Writers who bothered to pen such overviews would be rewarded by the greater likelihood of having their stories added to and embellished by others, rather than dead-ending.


Authors can be expected to review a story, think about what it is plausible that its characters should do, and how it should develop. Yet in reconnecting it with others, they cannot be expected to manually review the very large number of variables between the two lines so as to spot discrepancies. So the programme must alert writers to inconsistencies, and forbid the joining of inconsistent lines. It should also be able to report to a writer all narrative lines that are consistent with the story in question, and those with relatively few inconsistencies. Those with only a few could be joined to by writing intermediate scenes in which, for example, a dead character is resurrected, two hostile characters come to an understanding, or an object is restored to its original location.


As for editing rights, there are various models to consider here, and their viability should be tested by experiment, a task for a pilot.


1. Mediated/ authoritarian

A central authority vets new plot strands and decides on their suitability according to set criteria, probably sympathetic to those of the game designers. The main advantage is the ability to set standards, blocking bad writing and attempts at vandalism. The (large) disadvantage is that such a system would be unwieldy, slow and very expensive in labour-time.


2. New lines allowed/ old lines stay in place

One a plot line is established, it stays as it is unless re-edited by its author. Anyone can add new branches as they like. The main advantage is that acts of vandalism and over-competitiveness between authors are limited. The disadvantage is that plot lines and dialogue of poor quality will tend to remain in place.


3. Wikipedia

Anyone can edit anything, the system being reliant on a core of enthusiasts who police it against vandalism and poor quality (as happens currently with Wikipedias). The hope would be that in an active community the collective effort would be to improve matters, so that clumsy dialogue would be re-edited to improve it, implausible plot lines rewritten, and popular, well-regarded narratives left alone. (Presumably game companies would insist that their pre-existing narrative be immune from editing.) The disadvantage is that this hope relies on the health of the game community, which would have to swiftly remove vandalism; also that there could emerge competition amongst writers who do not only improve their own work, but unnecessarily overwrite that of others.


I would be happy if option 3 did prove viable, but it may well be that different solutions are appropriate for different games and their enthusiasts.


Finally, to test the viability of the Story Web, in a pilot a single game could be selected as described above, and a team of programmers and writers could work towards producing a working beta model for the online gaming community. The final objective, however, would be to produce an Open Source programme (again improved and modified by enthusiasts) to which game designers will tailor their products, opening their narratives to all the complexity, richness and unpredictability that the online world can offer.


You can find another version of these thoughts, with some diagrams and more technical details here: http://molodiez.org/stallabrass.pdf <https://webmail.courtauld.ac.uk/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://molodiez.org/stallabrass.pdf> 


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