Benmergui's newest title, however, is much more "gamey," to put it in his own words. Storyteller isn't a game about evoking emotion, but rather about playing with stories, and rearranging narrative devices to solve puzzles and advance through a series of challenges.
The game presents players with a simple story premise, and players must rearrange characters and props within a comic-style framework to make the characters bring those stories to life. It's a unique system that pushes a player's imagination and fully rewards creativity.
The game has recently been nominated for the prestigious Nuovo award at the 2012 Independent Games Festival, and Gamasutra spoke with Benmergui to learn more about the game and how it has affected his approach to indie development.
What background do you have making games?
I made Today I Die, I Wish I Were the Moon and now I am working on Storyteller. I studied Computer Science, worked at the mainstream industry for a few years, and became a full time independent developer almost four years ago.
How long have you been working on the game?
Almost a year, but I also worked on other prototypes in the meantime. In the end, only Storyteller seemed worth pursuing right now.
Can you describe how the game works?
The game presents you with a story description, a few comic panels and several "actors" with a basic behavior. All you have to do is drag them into the panels to build a story that matches the description. The challenge is that the game automatically fills in what's happening based on the behavior of actors, putting constrains on how the story can unfold. The game abstracted time away, so you can experiment with chains of consequence immediately, allowing experimentation without waiting for stuff to happen.
How did you come up with the concept for the game?
In 2008, I made a very limited prototype of what Storyteller is today. Since then, I tried twice to make a more "systemic" version of the original without success. But this year, right after reading Propp's "Morphology of the Folktale" and Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," I figured a way to solve two of the biggest problems I had: being interesting as a game, and avoiding combinatorial explosion of possibilities to implement.
Propp's book gave me the idea of using "roles" to split the behavior of game actors: the villain does evil things, the lover falls in love and the saint resurrects. That prevents having complicated rules and UI to teach the player, while at the same time providing a challenge of constrains -- for instance, "How do I get this villain to be in love?"
Understanding Comics provided the concept of "closure." Most attempts at interactive storytelling I have seen try to model every possible interaction between characters. Storyteller goes the other way, and leaves it to the player to fill in the gaps, eliminating combinatorial explosion. If there is a breakup in Storyteller, the game does not even bother to explain why the breakup happened. It also allows the game to model more general stories (breakups, treason, betrayal, infidelity, etc.) without burdening itself or the player with details.
Your previous games such as Today I Die and I Wish I Were the Moon explore some very emotional themes. Will Storyteller follow that trend?
Storyteller is very different from everything I published so far... it's more "gamey," it has levels, and emotions have a role but are not the experience itself.
That said, the game is in a very early stage, so a lot will change between here and the release. It might end up being an art-game after all!
It seems the game relies very heavily on a player's imagination. What design choices are you making to accommodate that?
There are two layers in Storyteller: stories and actors. Available actors are predefined and have clear rules on how they work. Stories are the game "levels," and each story has a set of conditions that must be met for it to be considered "solved". The story does not care how you met those conditions, and actors don't know anything about stories... they just act according to their nature.
This means that many stories have different solutions, many of which I did not expect when making them. The latest version has a way of detecting certain variants of some stories that are interesting, so if you feel like trying different approaches to the same story, the game will acknowledge you for finding them.
How much has the final game strayed from the initial vision?
Storyteller is shapeshifting continuously. During GDC 2012's "Experimental Gameplay Sessions, I will show the earlier prototypes and how I kept incorporating deep changes into the game as problems popped up.
What would you say has been the most difficult part of developing Storyteller?
I want Storyteller to be as universal as possible while at the same time retaining the quality of making the final stories visually interpretable by people that didn't play the game. Each rule I add into the game must make sense with every other rule and also not feel arbitrary. These constraints make both core mechanic design and story design tricky. The fact that I don't want to have any filler stories makes matters even more difficult. I want each story to feel special in some way.
What are your plans for the title going forward? How do you hope to see it evolve?
I hope to make more stories, improve the ones I have, simplify the core rules, experiment new modes of play, have a good story editor. I might even make a small RPG using Storyteller's mechanics!
In the end, what do you want players to take away from the game?
I want Storyteller to be about playing with stories. I find myself chuckling sometimes when playing around with the actors, and at times the game itself surprises me. I am trying to make each story have something special about it, about the experience of trying to solve it.
At the same time, the game makes use of some narrative devices that are used in real-world comics, so each story also helps you understand that form of storytelling too!