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Telling Tales

February 14th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Design

Neil Sorens has written an interesting article for Gamasutra about the place of stories in “sandbox” games. I’m not sure that I would put grand strategy games like Civ and Europa Universalis in the sandbox category, but that’s a semantic distinction I don’t want to dwell on for the moment.

Like many observers, he pays homage to the stories that gamers tell themselves. But, he notes, not all gamers are thinking in narrative terms because the game doesn’t help them think in that way.

The problem that sandbox games have is that their stories are not obvious. The average player, when asked about the story in a sandbox game, would probably reply, “There isn’t one.” Since we know this to be untrue, the disconnection between player and story must be an issue of presentation. Players do not realize they are creating a story because the game does not communicate the story in a way they understand.

So he is most interested in having developers create in game tools that both make stories easier to see, and, most importantly, provide feedback to the gamer through narrative devices. AARs, after all, require a dedication and discipline that few gamers have, and take a lot of time to do well. Sorens notes that Europa Universalis 3 has a rudimentary “what your monarchs did” end game summary, but it doesn’t really serve much story telling purpose. In fact, reading it gives a very poor understanding of what the completed game was about or what happened beyond colonization and conquest. It’s an outline, not a story.

His advice for sandbox stories, with excerpts from the article:

1. Present data and events in narrative form

“O great and bloodthirsty one, now that we have crushed our ancient enemy, the Carthaginians, in the Thousand Year War (2200 BC – 1240BC), our military is unrivaled in the known world! Perhaps our invincible Berserkers should be loosed next against the mewling Zulu in response to their arrogant demands for our gold.”

2. Present analysis of cause, effect, and possible future consequences.

For example, SimCity may tell a player that they are out of funds. But how did that happen? Did the player splurge on an airport without enough reserve funds to cover a budget deficit? Did the city borrow so much that it could no longer keep up with interest payments?

3. Focus the player’s attention on the “cool stuff”

The complexity and open-endedness of the typical sandbox game means that designers must be creative and cover wider ground in detecting these noteworthy situations. For example, in the game Hearts of Iron 2, a player with the handle “Comrade Brian” infamously lost a fleet of Soviet transports to the Tibetan Navy, quite an unusual circumstance given that Tibet was both landlocked and militarily inadequate.

4. Use goals to provide dramatic structure

Objectives must be designed to be story-worthy, as well. “Collect (or kill) 100 foozles,” with no apparent purpose or connection to anything else in the game, does not lend itself particularly well to a story. However, “Collect 100 Philistine foreskins in order to marry the King’s daughter” could be more intriguing.

5. Give characters human qualities

Contrast [the Total War system] with the one in the Civilization series, where the player is represented by an immortal, abstract avatar with no in-game presence other than a title, a name, and two generic personality traits. Even the personality traits are abstract and un-human; they have no effect on the game beyond the pre-ordained mathematical benefits. The citizens of the cities are no help, either; their humanity is a flimsy façade that does next to nothing to cover their true identity: One Unit of Productiveness.

I’ll have more to say about this article and this issue in a few days, but I thought I’d highlight it since it’s one of the most interesting summaries of the problems and potential of strategy gaming narrative I’ve read in some time.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • Corvus

    That mirrors a lot of my design work for the HoneyComb engine. Interestingly enough, I’ve come at the issue from the opposite direction (not adding storytelling to the player controlled game, but strictly enabling audience guided storytelling) and wound up in much the same place.

  • Vic Davis

    I remember that Stars! Supernova (Genesis) was going to have an html hyperlink like newspaper that recorded all the trial and tribulations of your space empire. At least I think that was the game. It always seemed like a great concept. How many players would really read the narrative? I bet you would have to seriously ask yourself if it was worth the effort and do a cost vs. benefit analysis. Just musing.

  • Jason Lutes

    Thanks for pointing out that piece, Troy — I love that sort of thing. “Emergent narrative” or whatever you might want to call it is the thing I think about most as an armchair designer, and near the top of th elist of things I appreciate most about a gaming experience, whether tabletop or desktop. Drawing the player’s attention to (and to some extent, structuring) the unfolding story of a good sandbox game is something I’d like to see more devs attempt.

    Anyone know if the touted “Epic Generator” ever make its way into GalCiv? I was curious to see what Stardock would come up with, and have fantasies of seeing it adapted into their MoM remake.

  • Michael A.

    The need/drive for narrative structures in games is clearly observable in games like Europa Universalis; who (IMO) really kickstarted the “AAR movement”. It’s a pity that there has never been more of an attempt by PE to support that aspect of their play-base.

    Personally, flicking through the post-game replay in Civ is a part of the end-game enjoyment for me. King of Dragon Pass (one of my top games of all time), actually went the full step and creates a full “saga” for the player with each savegame:

    “We raided the Squat Oaks and eluded their patrols. Umathkar realized that the enemy were being attacked by Orlanth’s spirits of retribution, the impests, who must have meant to punish them for breaking Orlanth’s sacred vows. Umathkar hurt the enemy terribly, slaying many and wounding others. We drove the Squat Oaks from the battlefield, and were able to plunder their tula. ”

    Definitely (I seem to join the others here), in saying that supporting this kind of emergent narrative is the kind of thing that is high on the list of my design priorities. I think pretty much all 5 points mentioned in the article have been elements I’ve worked with for Imperium at some point or other (especially #5).

    Of course, Vic asks the critical question. Adding narrative support is costly. It probably gains you some “artistic recognition”, but does it gain you any sales?

  • JonathanStrange

    I would love further game developments of this sort. I’ve already am the sort of gamer who does create his own mental narratives for certain games; whether it’s a grand strategy game or a small-scale tactical squad combat game. For games that seem to just be one mission after another – for example, like UFO Extraterrestrials – I often note the death of a veteran trooper, unusual heroism or luck of a sergeant, the first appearance of a new enemy, etc. I think my assigning of names and stories to a game goes back to my childhood and plastic Greek and Roman soldiers: named after Argonauts, historical figures, and mythology.

    As for practical implementation, for a start: why not some more elaborate statistic or historical record-keeping akin to a Hall of Fame screen “Lt. JStrange, MIA, Seti Alpha V” or a chronology screen. We’ve seen this before, but they’re often forgotten in games where they’d work equally well. Are they that hard to add?

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  • Jimmy A. Brown

    I liked that Tropico had a basic version of this at the end of the game. There were a limited number of phrases the flattering voice would say, but it provided an encapsulation of the player’s administration.

    I actually like the sketchy nature of the player avatar in the Civilization series because it means I can set my own course with greater freedom; but a more narrative summary than the timeline could be a refreshing change. The timeline is fun to go through, though.