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Constraining Interaction to Create Emergent Narrative. Greg Costikyan CEO, Manifesto Games. Before 1973. People would have looked at you funny if you said something like “games are a story-telling medium. Chess? Monopoly? Candyland? Or even Afrika Korps?. In 1973, two things happened.

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Constraining interaction to create emergent narrative

Constraining Interaction to Create Emergent Narrative

Greg Costikyan

CEO, Manifesto Games

Before 1973
Before 1973...

  • People would have looked at you funny if you said something like “games are a story-telling medium.

  • Chess? Monopoly? Candyland? Or even Afrika Korps?

In 1973 two things happened
In 1973, two things happened

Colossal Cave:

...and Dungeons &


Interactive fiction
“Interactive Fiction”

  • Colossal Cave was considered “Interactive Fiction” from the start...

  • Though interaction is limited (few viable actions at each location)

  • And as fiction, it’s not that interesting.

  • Later games in the genre work better as fiction (e.g., Tom Disch’s Amnesia)

Interactive fiction1
Interactive Fiction

  • Text adventures no longer a viable commercial genre—but they live on as a hobby/literary movement (see

  • Graphic adventures declining in popularity, but some still appear

  • Leads also to “action/adventure hybrids” (e.g., Psychonauts, Fahrenheit)


  • Boom in tabletop RPGs in the 70s

  • Direct inspiration for computer/console RPGs (e.g., Richard Garriott’s Akalabeth, the precursor to the Ultima series, was based on his D&D campaign)

  • Indirect inspiration for MMOs (via MUDs)

  • Leads to LARPs

  • In 21st century, spawns the “indie RPG” movement of experimental RPG design

  • Still commercially both in tabletop & digital games

Cultural clash over role of story games from the start
Cultural Clash over Role of Story & Games From the Start

  • In 1977, the Game Manufacturer’s Association (collection mainly of tabletop wargame & RPG publishers) adopts the name “adventure games” for its field (over the objections of wargame publishers who prefer “simulation game”)

  • Every GDC (and before it, CGDC) conference has had talks debating the role of stories in games

And continues
...and Continues

  • Today the biggest debate among game scholars is between “narratologists” (who view games as a form of narrative) and “ludologists” (who maintain they must be viewed as formal systems)

  • No end in sight (despite by calls by some, e.g., Janet Murray, for a truce)

Basic problem
Basic Problem:

  • There’s a central conflict between the demands of story and the demands of games

  • Stories are linear. Though they can leap about temporally, they are experienced the same way every time.

  • Games are non-linear. Though they are experienced over time, game sessions are different each time.

From story to game
From Story to Game

  • You can put most games on a continuum from “story-with-minor game” to “game-with-vestigial story attached”.

Cortazar s hopscotch
Cortazar’s Hopscotch

  • Two Paths.

  • But really just a play with time (Proust/Remembrance of Things Past, Joyce/Ulysses, Vonnegut/Slaughterhouse Five)

  • These are hat-tricks—not going to see a genre of Hopscotch novels

  • But still interesting: This is the minimal branching narrative (one decision point)

  • More game-like than a typical story, but still a long way from a game

Hypertext fiction
Hypertext Fiction

  • Robert Coover, Eastgate Systems,

    afternoon: a story (Michael Joyce)

  • Multiple choices at each node, netlike narrative

  • Generally not a predefined resolution, instead strives for the reader to have an epiphany after exploring enough of the narrative

  • But… not necessarily a good way to tell stories…

  • And… no goal, aimless browsing—not a good game


  • A/k/a “Choose your own ending” or “which-way” books

  • Fighting Fantasy

  • Branching narrative, sometimes rudimentary game system

  • Lots of dead ends (but at least one ‘win state’)

  • Basically the same as hypertext—follow a link to the next bit of text…

Solitaire adventures paragraph system boardgames
Solitaire Adventures & Paragraph-System Boardgames

  • Solo Adventures are similar to gamebooks, but use the more complicated rules of a tabletop RPG, thus more potential outcomes

  • Para-System: Boardgame, leading to occasional short gamebook style adventures with resolution. Tales of the Arabian Nights.

    • Considerably more replayable

Dragon s lair
Dragon’s Lair

  • Arcade analog to gamebooks

  • Two paths at each decisionpoint, one leads to death.

  • Popular when introduced (1984) because the first game with cinematic-quality visuals…

  • But sequels failed, because this sucks as a gameplay concept.

Text graphic adventures
Text & Graphic Adventures

  • More free-form: Not predetermined paths, but limited game spaces until new ones are opened (beads on a string concept)

  • Free combination of game objects within spaces

  • Not that different from a gamebook, except that the ‘text’ can respond interactively to you—new paths opened/items available

Graphic adventures
Graphic Adventures

  • Characters (but limited decision-tree interaction)

  • Cut scenes (but when overused, kill gameplay—e.g., Tex Avery: Overseer)

  • At best, this is a happy compromise: Compelling story, entertaining gameplay (e.g., Grim Fandango)

  • All games are structures—but graphic adventures quite constrained—necessary to ensure excellence of story

Pc console rpgs
PC/Console RPGs

  • Ultima, Final Fantasy, Zelda, etc.

  • Intimately tied to story, but far more freeform on a moment-to-moment basis.

  • Often multiple ways to overcome obstacles

  • Some choice of spaces to enter

  • Character growth

  • But one (or a handful) of outcomes, story experience not much different from player to player.

Pc console rpgs con t
PC/Console RPGs (con’t)

  • PC/Console RPGs still highly dependent on story—but a greater degree of freedom—more “gamelike”

  • Limited repeat playability because tied to an essentially linear story


  • Large-scale environment, thousands of players

  • Sometimes a “story of the game,” but players have no impact on outcome—linear story irrelevant to gameplay.

  • Mini-stories in the form of quests.

  • Since the game goes on forever, and it is hard to allow players to meaningfully impact the world, real story is impossible.


  • To add story, you need to bring the game to a conclusion: A Tale in the Desert…

  • Or allow real changes to the world (but hard to do in a multi-server environment)

  • These are “story settings”—but have almost lost the connection to story in exchange for becoming good social environments as well as good games.

Tabletop rpg
Tabletop RPG

  • Game system very similar (sometimes identical) to PC/Console

  • --but vastly more freeform: since there is a GM, players can do anything he deems physically possible.

  • While there are “adventures” (=pre-written stories), most GMs create their own stories for their friends.

Tabletop rpgs
Tabletop RPGs

  • True ‘roleplaying’ for the first time—showing off for friends.

    • (“Roleplaying” in MMORPGs is bogus, because no possible impact on game outcomes… )

  • “Stories” are created through play, and for participants, can be if anything more powerful than the ones they receive through interactive media…

Tabletop rpgs1
Tabletop RPGs

  • …but are invariably dull as hell if told to non-participants (expedition write-ups suck).

  • Many RPGers don’t give story a second thought: more interested in roleplaying, problem solving, or character advancement (the Blacow player types).

The continuum
The Continuum

  • Thus, you can view the continuum between story-with-minimal interaction (Hopscotch) through the game-with-some-story-connection (tabletop roleplaying) as an attempt to find compromises between the highly linear nature of story and the inherently non-linear nature of games

Constraining gameplay
Constraining Gameplay

  • I used to think that was all there was—there was only one dimension along which “narrative games” could lie...

  • But maybe a better way of thinking about it is that to tell a satisfying story, gameplay must be constrained to ensure that story does emerge....

  • And reducing gameplay to interaction within “beads on a string” is only one way...

Embedded stories
“Embedded Stories”

  • Multiple stories embedded inthe game—each linear, butencountered by players indifferent orders, thus improvingreplay value.

  • MMO quests.

  • “Paragraph-system boardgames.”

  • True of some (not all) console/PC RPGs

Beads on a string but multiple paths within each bead
Beads on a String—But Multiple Paths Within Each Bead

  • Asset development for digitalgames is expensive—hard to get away from “beads on a string”...

  • But you can allow multiple ways to solve each problem—and multiple ways to shape a character (fighter, sneaker, hacker)...

  • And multiple outcomes (victories of different game factions).

Ending the mmo
Ending the MMO

  • The “never-ending”MMO with multiple shards essentially cannot permit players to shape the overall arc of the story, if any.

  • But if you end the game, you can. ATITD has two possible outcomes: the players accomplish the tasks necessary for Pharaoh to triumph over the Stranger, in 1 year of play—or not.

A tale in the desert con t
A Tale in the Desert (con’t)

  • And high degree of player freedom during that year.

  • Commercially risky—you lose a big piece of the player base with each game end.

  • But artistically worthwhile.

My life with master
My Life with Master

  • Narrative arc is explicitlyfixed (the villagers willdestroy Master).

  • Game explicitly played in scenes with beginnings, middles, ends.

  • No dierolls for individual actions; actions are unconstrained.

  • But a die-roll is made to determine whether the player “succeeds” or “fails” in this scene—and he must roleplay the results.

The constrained narrative rpg
...The Constrained Narrative RPG

  • In other words, the game specifically constrains the players to an explicit narrative...

  • Which can, however, vary greatly in detail from playing to playing.

  • And unlike traditional RPGs, the burden of storytelling is shared among players and PCs.

The narrativist rpg
The “Narrativist” RPG

  • More generally, a new breedof experimental “Narrativist”RPGs work to share the waythe story is shaped among players and GMs

  • E.g., Ron Edwards’s Sorcerer, in which all players have paranormal powers, which they can use only by unleashing their inner demons—always at a steep personal price

  • Not so much “games as stories”—but “games as theater”

Gamist narrativist simulationist theory
Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist Theory

  • Evolved by Ron Edwards and other participants at The Forge

  • Attempts to few RPG gameplay as motivated by a desire for accomplishment (gamism—”I want more EP”), a desire for exploration and verisimilitude (simulationism—”that’s not realistic!”), or a desire to participate in a compelling story (narrativism).

Bartle yee player types
Bartle & Yee Player Types

  • Interesting overlaps with the Bartle (achievers, explorers, socializers, killers) and Yee (relationships, immersion, grief play, accomplishment, leadership) player types...

  • But the motivation behind GNS theory is mainly to try to understand how to design games to shape narrativist gameplay

  • ...And it all ultimately boils down to figuring out what set of constraints on gameplay allows for a high degree of player freedom, and forces the emergence of a coherent narrative.

Can this be done digitially
Can This Be Done Digitially?

  • It’s hard to see how (most) GNS-inspired games can be modified for use in digital media... Since they depend (as all tabletop RPGs do) on the creativity and flexibility of a live gamemaster (and live players)... But...

Constraining one place is okay if you free up somewhere else
Constraining One Place is Okay if You Free Up Somewhere Else

  • From this, we can learn at least one important thing: You can impose strong constraints on gameplay (e.g., determine in advance the outcomeof a scene) if you free up player action in other spheres (no die-rolls for success/failure of individual actions) thus giving players the sense that they still have freedom of action within the system

How else can we constrain gameplay to force a narrative to emerge
How Else Can We Constrain Gameplay to Force A Narrative to Emerge?

  • Worth thinking about.

  • We need to get away from “beads on a string”—I think we’ve basically rung the changes on what can be done with that approach.

Approaches to consider
Approaches to consider... Emerge?

  • Breaking the narrative into discreet chunks that can be encountered in multiple orders

  • Having more chunks than will be encountered in a single play-through, so there are still surprises with repeat play

  • Imposing a defined arc on the narrative (beginning and ending fixed) but allowing high degrees of freedom in between.

In general
In General... Emerge?

  • Conceive of gameplay and story as discrete entities, and look for non-traditional ways for them to interact with each other.

  • Finding different ways to grant players “freedom of action” while working within a constrained narrative—or ways of constraining player freedom in one area while freeing it in another to produce an emergent narrative

References Emerge?

  • Colossal Cave:

  • Interactive Fiction Competition:

  • Graphic Adventures:

  • Dungeons & Dreamers, Brad King & John Borland, McGraw Hill-Osborne Media, New York, 2003

  • The Forge:

  • Game Manufacturer’s Association;

  • Janet Murray’s DiGRA 05 talk on narratology/ludology:

References con t
References (con’t) Emerge?

  • Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar, Pantheon Books, New York, 1987 (originally published in 1966 as La Rayuela)

  • Robert Coover:

  • Eastgate Systems:

  • afternoon: a

References con t1
References (con’t) Emerge?

  • A Tale In the Desert:

  • My Life With Master:

  • Sorcerer:

  • GNS Theory:

  • Bartle player types:

  • Yee player types: