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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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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 fiction5
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 rpgs24
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...
  • 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...
  • 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
  • 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)
  • Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar, Pantheon Books, New York, 1987 (originally published in 1966 as La Rayuela)
  • Robert Coover:
  • Eastgate Systems:
  • afternoon: a
references con t43
References (con’t)
  • A Tale In the Desert:
  • My Life With Master:
  • Sorcerer:
  • GNS Theory:
  • Bartle player types:
  • Yee player types: