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Story-Centric Design Approaches
by John Mawhorter on 01/06/12 02:16:00 am   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.

 

The way I see it, if you're going to tell an interactive story well, the mechanics must harmonize with the narrative. There are two approaches to this that immediately jump out at me.

One is to craft the narrative space, block out the actions required of the controllable characters in order to navigate that space (or the actions possible in the space), and design mechanics in order to allow those actions to occur. I hereby name this narrative-first design.

The other is to come up with a set of interesting/fun actions, then design a narrative space for which they make sense. I hereby name this mechanic-first design.

Now most projects probably switch back and forth between the two modes of design depending on the current needs of the project, the stage of completion, and the whims of the executive producer. But for argument's sake I'm going to list a couple of examples that I think fall clearly into one or the other camps.

Dwarf Fortress takes the approach, since it's only display mode is ASCII, of using all the processing power not used for fancy graphics to simulate a complex series of interlocking systems that make up its world. The open-world free-form approach allows for a variety of highly entertaining (and often retold over internet forums) narratives to occur, all because the basic simulations are interesting and solid. I would call this mechanic-first design. The counter-argument is that (I'm making this up here, since it is nearly impossible to know designer's intent from finished products) the creator had in mind at least the basic game premise, a fantasy world in which you control a colony of dwarves who build things, which in turn restricts already the possible simulations and narrative spaces. But I'd say it's at least 70-30 mechanic-first.

Inform 7 is a text adventure engine. It essentially provides, along with a bunch of free downloadable modules, a basic interactive framework of real-world-ish systems on which to craft your narrative. Doors open and close, rooms are moved through, objects go inside containers, people move around, etc. The point of this system, it seems to me, is to allow for easy narrative-first design, which makes perfect sense in the context of the interactive fiction genre. I would argue, also, that most of the graphical and text adventure genre have been designed in a narrative-first manner.

When thinking about your personal or collective (if a company/team) design process, what type of design strategy is followed and when? How much importance does the flavor, atmosphere, genre, story have in dictating mechanics and vice versa?


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Comments


Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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While i think that your two approaches might be accurate for indie/niche titles, the AAA studios probably employ a third one which i call:



The Experience Approach



The dev decides first what the experience of the game for the player should be. I.E. for example he wants it to be a "visceral, action packed shooter" and then designs mechanics and narrative on top of it.

While this is closer to your "mechanic-first" design, its not really dealing in mechanics, but in experiences.



I can only speculate, but this is what I get from games like RAGE or Bulletstorm. They seem neither to be interested in mechanics nor the narrative in their design-process, but rather with the experience itself.

John Mawhorter
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Good point. I think this approach can work well when done right, but when it fails neither the story nor gameplay are quite good enough and you get an average/mediocre AAA game, which seems all to common these days.

Steve Mallory
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Another suggestion:



The story is either explicit stories, implicit stories, or a hybrid.



So, take a game like dwarf fortress. The story is implicit, that is, it is implied to exist, but its characters, arc, etc. are not established by the game itself, rather, by the outcome of play. The player creates the details of the story using the assets provided by the developer.



Using the Inform 7, or, say, a game like "Alan Wake", would have an explicit story. The mechanics serve to advance the character through an explicit story in a very directed way. The developers have already created the characters and details of the story, and the player is along for the ride.



Using Aleksander's comment, there is a third type - the hybrid. These are usually the open-ended, open-world games (Fallout 3), or more recently, cooperative shooters (Left 4 Dead / Left 4 Dead 2). There is a general narrative that fuels the world, with characters provided by the developers that suggest a broader, pre-generated narrative until play begins. Once play begins, the narrative is driven by the performance of the player within the boundaries of the game world as defined by the developers.



Using Left 4 Dead 2 as a personal favorite, the implied story is that the survivors are making it closer and closer to New Orleans and escape - this establishes the connection between each "zone" of maps - but whether or not the characters actually do is dependent on the outcome of play.

Roger Tober
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Story centric games have mechanics tied to the story and therefore must be designed after the story is created. The mechanics become impediments to the player that must be overcome in order for the story to proceed and must blend a little better with the story than when mechanics are taken first. I think, ideally, any game that has an explicit story should be designed that way. The other mechanics for side activities should be added later. The problem is those side mechanics are still extremely important to the game and in a good one should stand on their own and still make a fun game even if the player decides not to take the main story path.

Joshua Darlington
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I was a hater of cut-scene based game story dynamics until I played LA Noir. By the end of the game I was really moved and fell in love with the genre. I see this form as an exciting progression of feature films. Ultimately, there are a variety of tools for creating player experiences. Entertainment/engagement is the first concern.


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