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David Braben on dynamic stories in games

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Gamasutra recently posted an interview with David Braben (notably a co-writer of “Elite” from the 80s as well as other games). In it, he discusses his upcoming game “The Outsider” where they are working on expanding the concept of dynamic story generation beyond the “branching storyline” feel of many of today’s games.

A selection from page 1 of 4 of the interview:

Most of [the companies that have moved gameplay forward] are quite subtle. We’ve certainly seen things like Oblivion where you’ve got all the side quests that make the world feel a lot better.

The Darkness touched on that a little bit as well, and quite a few games have elements of what you might call ‘side gameplay’ that help feed into the richness, but they don’t fundamentally alter the story: games like Deus Ex where you had branching story, and there was some slight branching in games like Indigo Prophecy. So, I think all of those things are positive, but a lot of them felt, to me, like they hadn’t done the trick.

The problem is, I felt they didn’t quite deliver on their promise. Their promise is not actually the fact that you can play it through and have a different story, because that sounds fundamentally irrelevant — you play a game through and think, “So what, I could have done things slightly differently”. That’s not the point. I find that once you try playing games in a slightly contrary way, you end up finding a lot of blind alleys, things that you just can’t do, which I think is tragic. If you offer that promise, you’ve got to deliver on it.

So it’s not so much the fact of the story being able to go lots of different ways. It’s the fact that you can try a lot of different things and you’ll find a way through. It may not be what you anticipated, but there is a way through. I think it’s that sort of thing — being able to experiment with the world in a fun way.

I would agree that there are a lot of things that could be done to move away from the linearity of gameplay in games. Certain titles that offer sidequests give the appearance of this as Braben mentions.

I played through most of Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2 – and did my utmost to complete all the side-quests. But I was well aware of the fact that a designer had dropped these quests into the game all over. They were smaller carrots than the main theme of the game, but they were dangling veggies nonetheless. I was also well aware of when I had completed all of them and had to get back about the business of the main plotline. Sure, I could wander about the cities and wilderness aimlessly like I was out for a stroll, but no one would have anything to do with me unless there was a quest attached to them. So what was the point? At that stage, I was merely procrastinating with what I was “supposed to be doing” as concevied and presented by the design team.

I think that about the closest we have to open game play these days is RTS and TBS games. Civ 4 is my latest obsession research project. All it does is give me the rules of the world and a variety of potential end goals (note: not just ONE end goal). After that, it turns me loose to do whatever I want. There is no string I have to follow through the maze.

The Sims, Sim City, and other “god games” are similar. “Here’s your sandbox – go make something.” But how does this get mapped succesfully over to the RPG – or even FPS genre? Heck, it took years for the MMO world to get over the chorus of “but what am I supposed to do? What’s the story?” The meek answer from the industry was “uh… make your own story…?

Part of the process will have to be making gamers comfortable with the concept. There are many people who want to be told exactly what to do next. They don’t want to think – they want to act. Until that mentality is softened up a bit, any game that lacks that linear component runs the risk of being critically panned by the media and gamers alike.

It looks like Braben addresses this somewhat in “The Outsider”.

The actual problem is, when you start making a story very flexible, you’re putting your hand in a mincing machine from a design point of view.

But also, you have to cater for a lot of different types of play style. There are still the sort of people who want a brain-off experience, and I think that’s a good thing — I don’t think that’s a criticism. You don’t want to have to think, “Oh, what am I supposed to do now,” because that’s the flipside of this, the unspoken problem.

[Objectives] should still be really obvious, but there’s something nice about when you go through doing what you’re told, and you think, “Wait a second, this isn’t quite right!” And it’s that same element with Outsider where you’ve got corruption, that it’s really quite interesting. Now, you can play through the [straightforward] route, and you end up with quite an interesting ending, but you can also break off at any second, and start questioning why things are happening the way they’re happening.

So really I like where he says he’s going with the game. It will be interesting to see how the implementation plays out (so to speak).

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