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Tour Guides and Wanderers: The Replayable Narrative Dilemma
by Ben Serviss on 03/04/14 12:04:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

The Teylers Museum in the Netherlands.
The Teylers Museum in the Netherlands.

Ben Serviss is a game designer and producer at NYC indie developer collective Studio Mercato. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Dennis Crow
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A blog post that's a game on a website about games. So Meta... (nice job Ben)

Alfe Clemencio
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Haha... you need a "Skip previously read dialogue" option if you want to improve usablity.

Kai Boernert
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Ok, this was unexpected, but somehow quite entertaining

Patrick ODay
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Wonderful presentation. Just great.

Personally I love games that give the alternate paths (or the illusion of them) but I can't imagine the amount of effort that people have put in that I'll never see. Games like Kotor, Witcher, Mass Effect, Suffering have tons of content that I've chosen to not experience. I could go back and replay the games but they generally feel repetitive, usually the names in the cut scenes are changed while the plot remains the same or switching out some items, instead of a grenade launcher the player now has a med kit. But it's still the same environments with the same enemies with the same AI.

But then procedural death dungeons like FTL, Spelunky, binding of isaac, rogue legacy, etc don't create an emotional attachment. No matter what happens in those games there is always another play through waiting with different challenges.

I can't wait until someone can reconcile the issue of procedural content generation and the emotional attachment from the guided tours.

Ben Serviss
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Thanks Patrick! I know exactly what you mean when it comes to replaying games with slight variations depending on how you make decisions. I wouldn't say that the problem of reconciling those two extremes is impossible, but it remains such a gigantic challenge that it's doubtful we'll see something approaching a true solution for a long while.

Jake Forbes
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For the past year, I had the privilege of working with Emily Short and Richard Evans on the Versu platform where we explored the potential for social simulation to drive emergent experiences that still retain the potential for empathy and drama. While the platform is sadly cancelled for now, we learned a lot from both the released stories and the R&D work that I'm hoping will add to the discussion for years to come.

A few relevant observations to the wandering vs guided experience:

1) NPCs that exhibit free will, interacting with each other and not just the player can be delightful and a source of surprising emotions. Unscripted strings of behavior can lead to the player/reader feeling pity, jealousy or contempt.

2) Broad actions and reversals play better than nuance both because it ensures that players register that drama is happening (instead of exposition, which we tend to associate with text in games, and frequently gloss over). It also gives players social (or anti-social) goals.

3) In the absence of goals, players lean towards anti-social behavior or romance as it leads to the most dramatic outcomes.

4) Very few people "get" the notion of a narrative sandbox. Without either explicit goals that make the experience gamey, or heavy handed authored plot (branching or not), most readers aren't satisfied.

5) Tolerance is extremely low for repeated or broken text. Whereas it's easy for humor to emerge from glitchy avatar or physics behavior, when rendered as prose, everyone becomes a copy editor.

I see fan fiction as a major inspiration for where freeform narrative games could go -- and still find a commercial, not just academic, audience. If you look at the thousands of stories written about the casts of Harry Potter, Twilght, Dr. Who or name your nerd poison, often as not the plots are incidental. The joy of fan fiction comes from exploring relationships -- who gets shipped, how far it goes and how the world around them reacts. And the great thing about fan fiction is that authors don't need to be skilled with character building and plotting -- the groundwork is laid so that they can focus on wish fulfillment. I think we'll reach an emotionally satisfying synthesis between the sandbox and rails narrative experiences before we do with original IP.

Ben Serviss
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Thanks for your thoughts Jake - I'd love to see your point of view on this from working on Versu in an expanded post. I have a feeling many people would extract a lot of value from those five points alone.

Jake Forbes
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Thanks, Ben. I really enjoyed your piece and the clever format. Absolutely, I plan to write more fully about my my learnings on Versu. Thanks for the encouragement!