Wednesday, 5 December 2012

High-Level Storytelling Design

Introduction
I recently started to play the demo for the upcoming adventure game Primordia. I really like the art-style, the setting, themes and the characters (perhaps with the exception of a somewhat annoying companion). Despite this I am finding myself not being that engaged when playing it. The main reason for this is that the game is in a very traditional point-and-click form, which means that it is mainly all about solving puzzles. Despite some good design and an in-game hint system, its gameplay back-bone is holding it back.
Note: This does not mean that Primordia is bad game though, more on this in the end notes.

At the same time we have currently been in the middle of going over some design thinking in our upcoming Super Secret Project. We have been trying to evolve the type of high level design we have used for our previous games and in that process encountered a few problems and come to a few intriguing insights.

The problems I had with Primordia and the issues we have had with our own project are closely related and deal with the high level design used for games focusing on story-telling. This sort of design is what this post will be about. I will start by going over the basic problems, then cover more recent advancements and finally outline our own approach.


The Immersion Conjecture
Since the middle of the 90s or so, the image of adventure games as the kings of videogame storytelling has slowly dwindled. Instead they have given way to more action oriented titles and nowadays most of the major storytelling efforts lie in the action-adventure genre. What has happened is that the puzzle-centric design has been replaced by one where some sort of core mechanic makes up the bulk of the experience.

I think neither of these approaches is a good way to properly do storytelling in a game. The problem with both are that they have a strong focus on the competitive aspect of games. In both of these designs the main goal is not about being immersed but about beating challenges. I have discussed this to great lengths in the paper The Self, Presence and Storytelling. The points important for this discussion are the following:

  • Challenge-oriented games have a core design which I call "black box design". This means that the main goal for the player is to intuitively figure out the game's underlying systems and to beat them.
  • When the focus is on a system of a game, it detracts attention from, or even directly contradicts, its fiction. As a result it diminishes the story aspects of the game.
  • The main focus of  games with storytelling should instead be on creating immersion or, more precisely put, a sense of presence. This is done by having a strong continuous input-out loop between the player and game.
Before going into high level approaches that focus on immersion, the normal adventure design need to be discussed. 


The Puzzle Approach
This approach is pretty much how all of the classic adventure games are built. In essence, they are made up from a set of interconnected tasks that need to be completed. In order to get to A you need to B and C, C requires that D and E are done and so forth. The entire game basically becomes a big puzzle for the player to solve.

This approach has its root in the very first adventure games ever made: Adventure. The game started out as a mapping of a cave system that the author, William Crowther, had been part of exploring. When making an interactive version of it, various puzzle elements, partly inspired by D & D, were added. Apparently the author did not find the virtual exploration of the caves engaging enough on its own. Something more was needed, and the puzzle elements was added to fill that void; a decision that would go on to influence the coming decades of adventure games. (I wonder how different history would be if Crowther had added some Dear Esther-like narrative instead!).

The reason why this approach is so successful is because it makes it very easy to weave an interactive environment together with a story. The puzzles always give the player various tasks to do which provides motivation to go forward. More importantly it serves as a mean for the player to become part of the game's world. It makes it meaningful to converse with characters and it forces players to understand how the virtual world works.

This comes as a cost though. Because the focus is on constantly providing riddles and quests for the player, the game must have a story that support this. There must be a reason for the player to question characters, ways to provide clear goals, plenty opportunity to set up obstacles and an environment that support clever puzzles. The result of this can be seen very clearly; most adventure game are either some variation on mystery/detective story or a classic, fairytale-like, grand quest one.

On top of this comes the problem discussed in the paper, namely that the constant scrutinizing of the game's world eats away on the player's make-belief. It is simply not possible for players to let story-engagement be their main focus. If they fail to stay in a puzzle solving mindset the game will refuse them to advance. This often leads to the somewhat weird situation where playing the game with a guide is more enjoyable than playing it the proper unguided way.

These problem have been known for quite a while, and in recent times some games have popped up that try to do things differently. I will now discuss the most widely used, and most successful, alternative.



The Linear Plot Approach
The basic premise for this approach is to craft the game like a normal non-interactive story. One then looks for parts were it is possible to insert some sort of player interaction and add these to the otherwise passive experience. (This is not how would go about creation such a game exactly, but it describes the type design quite nicely.) The first game I know that did this was Photopia, and it used it very successfully. It is widely regarded as a highly rewarding and emotional experience. The approach has been more popularized by Fahrenheit, which unfortunately got a much more negative response. More recently the approach gained a lot of success in Telltale's adaption of The Walking Dead and here this approach have really showed its advantage to a bigger audience. I think it is by far the best usage of a linear plot design done so far. To The Moon is another, and different, example that also uses this approach to great effect.

What makes this approach so effective is that it is much better at keeping up the narrative momentum. When using the puzzle approach, it is highly likely that players will get stuck and taken out of the experience. With the linear plot approach this happen very rarely since the game is so focused. Right before it is time to give the player control, the protagonist can pretty much explicitly state what is needed to be done without it feeling out of place.

What I find striking about this approach is the very strong scenes that the games let you take part in. Heavy has the basement capture and self-mutilation scene. Walking Dead has the staircase stand off and mercy killing scenes. By having a very strict and controlled path throughout the game, it is possible put the player inside very specific scenes that would have been hard to set up in other kind of games.

Another big advantage is that it allows for a lot more diverse stories, as there is much less pressure on building everything into a puzzle structure. The approach has focus on the presence building qualities of the game medium instead of the competitive (black-box) aspects. Games like Photopia and Walking Dead clearly show how effective this is and there is probably a lot more that can be explored here.

Of course all is not well with designing a game in this way. There are some areas that are really problematic. The main issue is that there is not really much interaction, especially when it comes to building a sense of presence. The basic premise of the approach is just this, so it is really an intrinsic fault and not that interesting to discuss. However, more subtle, and intriguing, problems arise when it comes to picking the actual parts where the interaction happen. Two main issues arise here.

One is that it is very hard to have some sort of consistency in interaction, partly because activities can be so diverse and partly because they happen so rarely. Heavy Rain went the route of QTE's and the result is not that good. While there are some really good scenes, as a whole there are just too many arbitrary button presses. Walking Dead does it a lot better with having a few types of more intuitive input, such as aiming a cross-hair and mashing a single button. But the infrequent usage and not always clear functioning makes this problematic still. Dialog usually work better, but that interaction lacks a tight feedback loop instead. (However, an interesting way in which both games try and make this more immersive if by having a time-limit and banging on about how every choice has consequences).

The other issue is that much of the sense of exploration evaporates. Whenever players are given a space to explore it is very confined and static. The cause of this is that the game always need to make sure that you can go back into "cut scene mode" after an interactive section is over. There is a bottleneck that needs to be reached with very specific requirements met. This means one has to be very careful about moving characters, changing the environment, and so on, in order for the next cut scene to feel coherent. There is also the problem of keeping the quality of characters when starting a less controlled section that lack the tightly polished look of a cut scene. This means only so much can be done with characters during these more open sequences. Finally, because you need to have some overall unity in the control scheme, any open sections can only have the simplest of input. Usually only movement is allowed and the rest handled by some sort of menu like system (basically like a point-and-click game). In the end interaction during these part come off as clunky and contrived.

There is also a big problem when it comes to production. Simpler games like Photopia and To The Moon do not suffer so much from this, but in a game like Heavy Rain it is very evident. Because much of the game is not actively played but passively watched , the need for high quality cut scenes is a must. It needs to be made sure that the player can be engaged when the presence-feedback loop is weak or completely missing. This means tons of assets, which in turn requires the game to be planned far ahead. For instance, Heavy Rain had the complete script written before the production started. And then all motion capture and voice recording needed to be done before gameplay could be tried out. When it comes to making the actual game there is little room for change and iteration, and one basically has to stick with the script. This is a big disadvantage for interactive media as much of the real good stuff can come from unexpected directions.

While linear plot design gives a better sense of flow in the narrative and a more coherently immersive experience, it still feels lacking. The main problem is that there is so much interactive down-time and great loss in the feeling of exploration. There needs to be some other way of doing things. For our upcoming Super Secret Project we wanted to try a different route and craft an experience where you play the whole time.



The Scene Approach
The design that we have come up with is something I will refer to as the "Scene Approach". The basic idea is that you give the player an area, a scene, where they are free to roam. When appropriate players are able to leave and enter the next scene. Each scene should have a strong focus on some form of activity and/or theme  and be self contained. Moving on to the next scene should be evident, either by a very simple interaction (e.g. opening a door), some form of activity (e.g. starting a generator) or by reaching some sort of state (e.g. waiting for a 2 minutes). The same underlying base mechanics should be used throughout the game and interactions should behave in a consistent manner. The wanted end result is to have an experience where the narrative flows throughout the game, but retains a tight interaction loop and a strong sense of agency. It is basically about taking the better interactive moments from the linear plot approach and stretching them out into scenes with globally coherent interaction.

Is this really possible? The moments in the linear plot approach have been carefully set up and are normally extremely focused and contained. Is it really possible to recreate this in a more open environment and without any cut scenes? The scene approach cannot possibility recreate every situation found in a linear plot game, but if done correctly it should be possible to come pretty close.

The first requirement is that the levels need to be designed in such a way that players are rewarded and driven towards behaving in certain ways. For instance, in early designs we tried to give tons of freedom in what players could do, but much of this freedom resulted in actions that went against the narrative. This is negative freedom. Instead we have tried to limit actions into "what makes sense for the protagonist to do" and do so without breaking any sort of consistency. This is positive freedom. The goal is then to eliminate the negative freedom and maximize the positive one, which is very simple to say but have proven hard to do in practice.

Even with a neatly designed scene, all is not set. There is still the problem of communicating the goals. Early on I thought that it was just a matter of having an interesting enough environment and players would partake in the activities provided. The problem is that the larger the environments become the harder it is for players to figure out what is of interest and what is not. It is also very easy to loose ones sense of direction and become unsure of what to do next. This problem is even more severe now that we pulled back on the problem solving focus. Players are not in the mood for constantly looking for clues but are instead focused on soaking up the narrative and having an immersive experience. This is how we want them to be, and should thus not be something that hinders progress.

To get around this, we have had to made sure that the larger a scene is, the more clear and obvious your end goal becomes. Also, any activity in a large area should always be optional unless it is closely related, both spatially and conceptually, to the object or state that makes the game progress to the next scene. Whenever the player is required to carry out some activity, the scope of a scene need to be decreased. The greater the freedom is in terms of possible actions, the less actions must be compulsory.

The scenes themselves are not the only problem though. A perhaps even greater concern is how to connect them. At first I thought this would not be a big issue and that you could get away with pretty loose connections. Problems arise very quickly though, the main being that the experience simply stops making sense for the player. There must be some sort of logical connection and narrative flow between each scene. If not it becomes increasingly harder for player to figure out what they should be doing. This means either lowering the degrees of positive freedom or to have more set up for each scene. The first option gives something like Thirty Flights of Loving and the second is basically to use the linear plot approach. We do not want to do either, so having clear connections is a must.

This results in an a sort of curious conclusion. One of our goals in storytelling is to rely as little as possible on plot in order to give an experience with a strong sense of agency. However, in order to provide as much positive freedom as possible, it is essential that the scenes are put together in a very tight and engaging fashion. In other words, on a scene level there is a great need for a strong plot in order to have as little plot as possible in the actual scenes.

In turn this limits what kind of scenes that are possible. Now that the connections need to make sense, it is not possible to simply fill the game with scenes that lends themselves very well to our core mechanics. So far we have to been able to pull this off quite nicely, and we are slowly wrapping our minds around these concepts.


End Notes
This is not some final verdict on how to improve upon the adventure game genre. It just summarizes a bit on the design direction that we are taking for our next game. Nothing is final yet, so I am not sure how it all will turn out in the end, or how much of the above we will be actually using. This is at least our current thinking and what we are working on now.

Also have say few ending words on adventure games in general. It might sound in the beginning like I loathe traditional click and point games, but this is not the case. I have enjoyed playing a lot of adventure games, and using puzzle approach for high-level game design is a very valid one. The best adventure games really take advantage of this, for instance Monkey Island and Broken Sword. These games are made in a way that makes the design really works and creates a really memorable and unique experience. However, for some games, like Primordia, my main draw is not to have this kind of experience. In this game I am more interested in exploration and getting immersed in the world. The classic puzzle design does not do this properly and I feel as if my experience is not as good as it can be. Primordia is still a good game and it uses the setting nicely to create some interesting puzzles. But it feels like they could have taken a lot of the game's essence and packaged into a form that would have delivered it much better.



60 comments:

  1. Excellent article (albeit riddled with a fair number of typos).
    Often I find myself disinterested in a very well made game simply because it has not immersed me in its world.
    There are many ways to tell a story. Through straight text, dialogue, environment etc. Music can help the player understand a lot too, such as the mood of a scene.
    What elements would you say are key to delivering an immersible experience to the player and what have you been paying special attention to in your upcoming secret project?

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  2. Nice article again.

    What do you think of the narrative architecture in games like Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Human Revolution? I see perhaps similarities with what you are suggesting.

    -Miika P

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    1. Hah, I was going to ask this too! While reading this blog entry I was thinking the scene approach sounded a lot like how Deus Ex works, and it's the greatest game I've ever played. Absolutely amazing design, so I'm incredibly keen for more info on Frictional's upcoming project.

      Could we be getting an immersive sim from them?

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    2. I have not played Deus Ex that much, only the demo, but I think I know what you are getting at. It is a bit hard to compare directly because Deus Ex is a game that has gone the storytelling route of basing everything on a core gameplay mechanic and challenge, that is it has gone the "action adventure" route.

      That said, I think you could say that this is a bit similar to what we are trying to do, but at smaller and more condensed scope. Immersive sims is something that has been an inspiration since the Penumbra days, and it is still something that we use as a reference.

      I was actually going to discuss (but cut to not make the post too long) that one could see the a level in a game like Dishonored, as one large scene. There is always a very clear goal, and along the way lots of optional stuff to do. On top of that the theme and goals are quite focused. A problem with Dishonored is that the game has very little distinction between negative and positive freedom and pretty much have equal parts of both. And of course, as with Deus Ex, it is not possible to compare directly because of the focus on challenge based gameplay.

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    3. You are wrong. The first Deus Ex has a solid, organic gameworld that opens up to many approaches, allowing the player to be creative. You really should play Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock 2 if you haven't. I do think that immersive simulators are the way to go.

      But if you completely removes challenge, what remains?

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  3. I think, I presume the great approach to the real feeling of a freedom could be the ability to skip whole levels and everything withing them. It's possible when you have the main storyline hardly divided into a couple of independent short stories. And every short story has it's proper structure with a beginning, culmination and final. But at the same time all of those self-contained short-stories are parts of a bigger one, main storyline. The more short-stories you walkthrough the better you will understand the main storyline. But even if there's, for example, 10 short-stories-levels, and you walkthrough only 3, even then you will understand what is all about.

    I have never seen anything like that in game-storytelling-industry as long as it's extremely expensive to build up 10 levels (for example) and do know that the player will be able simply to skip them, not to visit at all. It sounds like a real big-big-big waste of a hard-working on levels. But... but that is what I presume could make a game a really immersive, because it would allow to completely merge yourself with the protagonist and really choose what to do. At the same time it's quite a hard task to write such a story that would perfectly work, that will truly satisfy, even if the player will see-experience only a 3/10 of it. But that's possible.

    P.S. I do not know where it's better to post any comments, right here or at the forum. So I have duplicated that comment at the forum...

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    1. This is a possible way of doing things and the episodes in Walking Dead sort of does this (but skipping of course leads to bad stuff since they are meant to be played in order).

      However, if we want to do something using the scene approach this does not help at all. All of these levels would need to be split up into sublevels because they would contain so many different things that all could not possible fit into a single scene without ruining the concept. Only way to do it would be if each independent level (that is scene), did not have a full plot arch, but was sort of just a "slice of life". But in order to make this work, you end up the the loose connection problem discussed and would either have to do a Thirty Flights of Loving game, or switch approach and do a linear plot one instead.

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    2. Well, skipping one or two levels when there are many levels is not that bad - these would then be some sort of "reward levels" for the more exploratory players; however, making every level skippable would mean that most of the dev effort goes to waste in the general gameplay scenario. Also, I'd like to point out that your "scenes" don't have to be physically separate levels connected by level doors/transition events. They can exist as conceptual areas within a single larger level ("composite scene"), where then you can use the level to define a plot point (in the same way you envisioned a scene would do), but then execute the plot point via the subscenes, some of which might be skipped (or simply never activated), depending on what the player does. This way you have variety, but the story's progress is not in jeopardy.

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    3. - "Also, I'd like to point out that your "scenes" don't have to be physically separate levels connected by level doors/transition events."

      A very good point! In the beginning of the project I was way too attached to the scene = level thinking and that hindered some of the design. It is much better to think of scenes as sort of narrative pieces and that you transition from one to another whenever needed.

      I am also think of "sub-scenes" as another useful concept. This would simply be any minor event, conversation, etc that takes part in the scene but still sort of relies on the same rules, but at a much smaller scope. And that of course is contained inside another scene, and must make sure to support the focus that the parent scene has.

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  4. By the way Homers Odyssey can be done in such a way. You have a main storyline, the idea of ​​returning to the beloved woman and growing son. That basement is already extremely dramatic. But at the same time we have a lots of absolutely independent adventures - the Sirens, the Cyclops, the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, the trickery goddess Circe, the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, the lusty nymph Calypso, etc... and it doesn't really matters at all if you will visit only 1 island or all of them. You will get your returning home and a beloved wife kiss. Of course, it's an action story. But as an example of what I mean I hope it's OK.

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  5. Heavy Rain is a linear (plot/story-wise) game, huh?

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    1. You mean that because the story branches it is not linear? Branching does not matter because the sequential order of all events (in cutscenes) are highly predictable. This is very evident in the fact that most of the game can be outlined in a standard script. This would not be possible for most games.

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    2. And even in TWD, the branches don't really have significant consequences - whatever path you chose, it somehow hooks back into the main plot fairly quickly.

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  6. I was just watching this video (it's about setting goals in life versus 'wandering'/living without goals) and while it's not about gaming I thought it fit in fairly well with this blogpost. A lot of these ideas are translatable to the tension between freedom in games vs. plot and/or linear progession. Might be interesting to watch (it's only 18 minutes or so):

    http://vimeo.com/53629816#

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  7. I don't know if you played an old adventure game called The Last Express, but if you have I'd love to know what do you think about the things it was trying to do and how is that similar/different to what you are trying to describe here/do in your next project.

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    1. I have read quite a bit about it, but not actually played it. I need to buy it for ipad and give it a go.

      Judging from what I know about the game, our project will not be similar. The Last Express is one long continuous moment. Our game is more smaller more focused moments (the scenes)

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  8. I never played classical 2D adventures, because I prefer a 3D free character movement in a real 3D world. To have a real 3D world is a main aspect to have immersion for me. The best adventure I ever played was "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine". That's not similar to the Tomb Raider adventure series, it's more decent (not action oriented).

    Where we're talking about high-level story design, I have to mention the Gothic series (mainly the first two), a mixture of RPG and adventure.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CjflND1fk8


    Gothic is by far the best EPIC RPG in history. Better than The Witcher or the Skyrim hype. It's not an RPG like all the others, NOT designed to fight back "monsters", get XP, skill your character etc. This is why I love Gothic so much. Story, gameplay, atmosphere, plausibility, dialogues are first class!!!

    Here a video of some puzzles:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPvayz5yjYY

    and a bit of gameplay:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Net1PQErUeY


    I think, there's also the complexity to make a good game, that the player need to think himself instead of get a hint what to do (what the Mementos in Amnesia did often wrong). That you need to learn and use interactions to get forward.

    Thomas, do you know Gothic?

    It's a game where you have to employ with world and story. You are not the superhero, you are a normal poor guy who gets thrown into a mining colony (a prison) where nobody would be able to get out there. Your first weapon is an old rusty pickaxe, not really able to fight back. It's an RPG with adventure elements (puzzles, interactions etc.).

    You really should try this.

    Nice blog Thomas! Looking forward to your next game...

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  9. What to you think about STALKER game and how they decided to tell their story? There's a very intriguing main storyline, where you're supposed to find and kill someone Strelok (if I remember it right). At the same time you're free to roam game-space and do nearly whatever you want. And every new level meets a player with a new characters and memorable scenes. Somehow it's similar to RPG exploring system, but on the other hand the scenes on every levels are completely different. I mean you can directly influence on the world, surrounding you, and that's making game-world very immersive. As a result you can choose to hepl here, kill there, walk by out there, and finally you will get the unexpected final. Not so unexpected, be honest, but at least until the final scenery you really feel yourself extremely free.

    And by the way there's a lot of places, environments that are just for their own. There's nothing out there. Just decorations. This is also makes the whole game-world a lot more realistic and finally immersive, because you never know will you meet anything at all at that house or this is simply just an empty house.

    What do you think about Stalker and their approach of story-telling?

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    1. Stalker does some interesting stuff, especially atmoshere wise. But in the end, most of the game revolves around on challenge-based gameplay. Which means the game is much more related to the action-adventure route than and of the ones that I discuss in the post.

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  10. The way I understand your description of the scene approach is similar to The Longest Journey, where most of the time it was about finding clues and not being faced with puzzle-devices. The plot itself was fairly linear since you can't deviate from it.

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    1. I'd say that The Longest Journey is much closer to the standard Puzzle approach. Pretty much every area you are in is a big puzzle to solve.

      The sequel Dreamfall is a bit different and has a bit of the scene approach, but is mostly a mix of puzzle and linear story.

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  11. I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your article. I did have to stop a few times to rest my eye while reading this however, since I found the text a bit too high contrast to comfortably read at length. Would definitely love to read more of this sort of thing in the future though! Kudos

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  13. From time to time you're using word "narration". But what exactly do you mean by that? For example, here's a quote of your own:

    "...The wanted end result is to have an experience where the narrative flows throughout the game, but retains a tight interaction loop and a strong sense of agency. It is basically about taking the better interactive moments from the linear plot approach and stretching them out into scenes with globally coherent interaction..."

    But what kind of narration do you mean? Narration like it was presented, for example, in Dear Esther is NOT helping to immerse. It's more about to force player to unravel the blurry storyline.

    Or maybe you are talking about something what we've seen at Penumbra: Overture? Where was some kind of what I could call textual-narration. I mean when player was approaching some areas or looking at some object some sort of protagonist textual-comments appeared, just like: "I've never seen such a big spider". It felt like unpronounced protagonist thoughts. And it was immersive.

    And finally, maybe, are you talking directly about the protagonist voice-over narration? The best example I remember are the voiced-over jokes and thoughts of the Thief series protagonist. That was even more immersive then textual-narrations.

    Or I am completely wrong and you're talking about something absolutely different. Because the word "narration" itself has a lots of meanings.

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    1. The answer below by Anonymous is pretty much correct. I know that these sort of words are really fuzzy and I almost should have some sort of dictionary at the start. I mean these days even "game" is kind of fuzzy.

      I hardly never use the word "narration", but I do use "narrative", which I think is what you meant. My definition of "narrative" is basically the holistic sense of story-telling (which in turn basically means an experience with setting, characters, themes, etc) that the various mechanics give rise to.

      This should not be confused with the word "narration", which is how the the story is told (think unreliable narrator, etc). And while a connected concept is not the same thing.

      Hope that makes it clearer. I am trying to use terms from film theory (as Anonymous suggested below), but I am far from an expert in that field so I am bound to use some words badly and fail to use some other word instead. I am very thankful if this can be called out. (for instance I used narrative instead of plot before, which got really confusing).

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  14. @n0b0dy: Thomas explained earlier that by "narrative" he means the way storytelling devices are used (not necessarily narration, but any kind of mechanic that has some value in constructing the "story" - audio-visual, gameplay-based, overt or subtle stuff, etc..). Narrative as used in film theory.

    @Thomas: I like your "scene" idea. One way to pursue the "plot, but no plot" concept is to exploit the natural urge of the player to explore - especially because exploration is allready encouraged. Certain subtle (or not) events might draw attention to a certain location, where the story can be advanced, or augmented. It would be also beneficial if a system could be devised that would track the player, but not in terms of just location, but that could analyze what the player is doing and how the player is approaching the exploration - at least in broad strokes - and use this info to construct the narrative (or elements of it) on the go.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

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    1. I think exploration can be good or bad depending on the scope and the game. If there is too much to explore, I get frustrated because I feel like I am missing things. For example in The Path the exploration didn't really feel good. I was just wondering around not really knowing if I'm finding something new or what and it felt so pointless. If I'm playing a game with a strong narrative, I don't want to have that kind of downtime and I certainly don't want to be punished because I didn't explore some big area as well as someone else. However reading interviews about the upcoming Ether(the interview is up in Rockpapershotgun), I feel like they are going to do exploration right. Maybe.

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    2. - "One way to pursue the "plot, but no plot" concept is to exploit the natural urge of the player to explore"

      This was actually our goal at first and the idea was to simple have open and interesting environment where the player could sort of just go along with the story. It turns out this is not that simple though, as you have to deal with the fact that the game lack specific and goal oriented mechanics.

      So because of this, (as sort of hinted in the article) we have had to rethink the approach, and tried to condense it a bit more. Make it more straightforward for the player in terms of what they should be doing.

      We still have parts with a lot of exploring, but they require that the end conditions are sort of open too. So there are some parts of the game that cannot be reproduced in these sort of environments, but require a tighter focus.

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  15. What about "Hitman Absolution" and upcoming Outlast(advanture horror game)

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  16. Great post! Thx for the inspiration!

    The scene approach is like rogue-like dungeons: Each level is independent from the other, the players are able to freely roam on them and advance when they want... and in addition to local quests there is usually a main storyline that glues all together.

    The magic here (and also the power of the scene approach) is that players tend to create their own emergent stories due to the given freedom, using their perceptions of the entourage and their image of the main character and the enemies for that purpose.

    Good point!! Great post (again)!!

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    1. I do not think these can be compared really though. The issue is simple that rouge-like games are very much about the competitive games systems. There is no need to have an elaborate set up at each scene, the player will know what to do strictly based upon how the systems work. Any story related goals are only secondary and while they help are not crucial.

      The designs I talked about in this post (and something I should have been much clearer on) are those that reject having any competitive system at its core. It is games where the story is the game, where living through a narrative is the main purpose, and not some additional booster.

      So while there are similarities, like you point out, it is not fair to compare really, because the problems faced are a bit different. That is not to say that these types of games cannot learn from one another, but I think it is a bad to take any connections to far. In fact, doing so very likely a reason why it has been so hard to break out of the "games must have some fun respective task at their core!" that you hear a lot.

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  17. I also think that exploration made for the very sake of it could lead to a frustrating experience during the gameplay.
    Lets consider an advance 3D engine capable of rendering and supporting huge environments. Is such an engine mislead the developers to make a game with one huge scene, place the player in the middle of it and have it wonder for hours without knowing what to do, finding a key for a door that is from another town. I think that exploration should not be mistaken with big space. One can make a very fulfilling exploration even in a small room designed and populated with cool stuff. A proper engine could support a bunch of such small areas in relatively compact space, avoiding the player to walk miles and hours for the next interesting place. Actually, this is kind of how Penumbra, Amnesia and lots of other games work.
    If Amnesia was made with an engine that supports huge outdoor areas, forests, towns etc. how it would work ? The quests more often were related to opening a door to reach the next level.
    Can you imagine quests like that in a huge level, where the player simply wander for hours - there is no direct and obvious goal - there is no locked door in the near proximity that prevents them to play forward. Such a game would look more like an interactive tech-demo.
    Even Dear Ester with it's huge island prevented the player to walk out of the narrow path.
    I think Amnesia/Penumbra like quests aren't suitable for open areas and huge spaces!

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  18. A few other things I forgot..
    Let have a look how Bioshock is made :
    1.The action takes place in an underwater city, that is itself part of the story and offers the desired restriction to the player. If the player can't open a certain door, it's because the ocean lies behind it, not because level designers forgot to place something behind it. :)
    2.The world is divided into buildings with floors-like levels.
    3.These buildings are connected with train-like system and can be visited as soon as the player reaches certain plot-points.
    4.All these plot-points make up the linear storyline.
    5.In addition to plot-point, there are subplots, that tells a story, a tragedy of a character. At the end of these subplots, sometimes the player meets the actual character they are all about like in Medical Pavillon.
    6.The train system that interconnects buildings helps narration during progress.

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  19. Creating and analyzing an interactive experience must cause one to look to the purpose of art and escapist entertainment.

    While reading what you wrote about Adventure, I visualized the game designer exploring a cavern system, then coding the same experience to its binary complement. I could easily put myself in that kind of exploration / adventure mindset. It's like life!

    But it's not. It falls short. So we add distractions and diversions.

    If we make the game too open and life-like, it's actually pretty boring. Like our lives most of the time. Drudgery and tedium. Hours of listening to the black wind in space polishing the stars.

    So, we make it more interesting. You ever see that graph of the Hollywood blockbuster movie experience? I couldn't find a link, but imagine a 2 dimensional graph, the x axis is time, from 0 to 120 minutes, and the y axis is something, can't remember, but let's say emotional state (oversimplification). When you make a graph of the 100 or so most popular blockbuster movies, they all follow a very similar form; that is, there is some template or topological sameness to their structure. It cannot be refuted, they tend toward successful entertainment. If you try to make an 8 hour movie about the black wind coursing through space, polishing the stars, you don't have as much success.

    Now, before this becomes a debate about the merits of art and commercial success, let me stay on the point: there are certain formulaic patterns that trigger successful emotional/entertainment responses. Really, in an ideal world, we would try to master both the artistic and the entertaining. Be creative artistic geniuses and make some money from creating something a lot of people love.

    This leads to the crux of the immersive storytelling game evolution. How much can you import the "formula" without sacrificing the great strength of the medium, open-worldness? The two are in tension; it seems if you add more of one, you must sacrifice more of the other.

    I have no answers, but watch with great interest.

    How do you make a game that doesn't demand winning? That doesn't require character-state checkpoints for advancement? That doesn't bottleneck you? How do you do this, but still demand the player's engaged involvement?

    Perhaps open-world populated with AI with realistic imperatives (nonplayer active nodes), and interaction logic. Allow player actions to make waves throughout fabric of open world, upon the nonplayer active nodes, so that the cascading effects make the open-world seem random or unpredictable. Give the player alternative imperatives, so it's not just one "win-state".

    Yeah, super vague. Sorry. Watching with interest!

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    1. I think it really depends on the mind set of the player himself choosing to partake in the experience. Some people wouldn't find this interesting, but others will. Making a game that isn't hard or have any competition doesn't mean the game will be boring or not engaging. What makes a movie so fun to watch? You just watch as everything unfolds and you sit on your butt the whole time, and a ton of people like movies. Games have done the same thing and they have their players that really enjoy it. Games like The Walking Dead, Heavy rain, and so forth.

      I think Thomas has a vision for a different kind of experience. Anything that has heart and soul will always attract peoples interest. Maybe not all of them, but no game pleases everyone. Even the highest selling franchises in the world has its crowd of dislikers. I guess Thomas has something different to say to his audience. All that matters is that is has heart. As long as it does, people will always be drawn to it. It might not sell a ton of copies, but I don't think that really matters to an artist.

      You might be totally puzzled at these decisions simply because you might not be the kind of gamer that can understand this kind of game. A game can be more than competition, it can have a message, a theme, a purpose, deeper things. It might not be all about concentration, or blowing things up or competition. It can be about something else. People have always questioned game designers making these kinds of games, perhaps because they call them games. Maybe the term "game" isn't the proper word used to describe what this experience is.

      Amnesia the dark descent was successful because of these aspects hes talking about now I think. I think a lot of gamers want to just experience something other than a challenge. Get lost in a fantasy so to speak, an emotional journey. I know I do, I love this kind of stuff. You can use interaction to do much more than just make people work hard. It might not make sense now, but this genre is so new and young, it might take some time before it really starts to take its true shape and start really showing its colors and what its capable of.

      Not very many people try to push these kinds of things forward. Frictional Games, and TheChineseRoom are really the only people I have heard of that are trying to make a dynamic feeling emotional journey. Every other game doing this kind of thing has some sort of logical, or technical aspect for the player to focus on. Like I said, this is a very young genre of game. None of it really makes sense now, but if it becomes a success it will really start to spread around. Of course Thomas will probably have to go around and give lectures in order to make sure people understand how it all works, lol.



      -Jesse Platt

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  20. I find it odd that Botanicula wasn't mentioned here. If I understood The Scene Approach correctly, then Botanicula is clearly the best Scene game I've ever played. Here's how I think they pulled it off:

    -Keeping story to a minimum, and telling it through non-verbal means: There is no dialog at Botanicula, everything is revealed to the player in-scene or through some short and really nice looking cutscenes. Also, the plot really is minimalistic: a spider-vampire creature is sucking the life of a tree. Five little tree creatures grab the last seed and run for it, traveling through several environments in order to take the seed to a safe place. The spider-thing spots them running and launches a pursuit.

    -Each of the aforementioned environments counts as a scene. Technically, the game is linear, because everyone plays through the scenes in the same order. But inside each scene the player has complete freedom. The scene boundaries are usually determined by some sort of 'vehicle' that, once used, takes the main characters to a new scene and becomes unavailable for further rides (effectively eliminating backtracking) and an obstacle that must be cleared in order to reach the next area. The removal of said obstacle occurs by collecting a number of items; the nature and quantity of items are revealed to the player at the beginning of each scene by a NPC.

    -To collect items, the player has to interact with other NPCs, each more interesting than the last. Except for the items needed to complete each area, there's no inventory, and once each item is grabbed it sits quietly in the inventory until the player has collected them all and is ready to move to the next scene.

    -This point might be the hardest to understand if you haven't played Botanicula, but it also is the most important: The scenarios in Botanicula are REALLY beautiful. Writing about it doesn't make them justice. It truly is something that must be experienced first-hand.

    -Combining all these things, Botanicula (in my opinion) excels at immersion: we have these large, literally bursting with life, gorgeous scenarios with NPCs that fit perfectly. The story doesn't get in the way but still manages to be around, and when we advance it we discover new areas and characters, which is a reward in its own The puzzles are easy and yet avoid being boring, which means that you don't need a deep 'search for clues' mindset, and it is perfectly possible to manage solving the puzzles while paying attention to the world and the characters ate the same time. Everything in the game goes along smoothly, none of them detracting from each other.

    I don't know if I was clear, but I think Botanicula is a glorious early attempt at The Scene Approach, and everyone with an interest at this approach should take a look at it.

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    1. Sounds very interesting, I will head off and buy the game right now! :)

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  21. About high-level story telling, I think Gothic is one of the rare games who would be worth to be called this category of gamedesign ideology. The english synchronization is bad compared to the german original one who is really one of the most effective things for the deep atmosphere of the game. But perhaps you can ignore bad synchronization and enjoy the game itself.

    As I know, you are also playing RPG's, Thomas. So, do you played the Gothic series? It's better than The Witcher or Skyrim, it's like Penumbra & Amnesia, made for a special niche and not for mainstream action casuals.

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  22. Thomas, Have you ever played an old game called Realms of the Haunting?

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    1. Not played it but watched videos of it.

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  23. The issue many games seem to face when aspiring to "high level storytelling" is that the mechanics (gameplay, interface, rewards systems) and the story (characters, lore, plot) are at odds with each other somehow. The key word to your approach, 'scene', deserves examination in that regard. It connotes a certain seamlessness; for a scene to exist, a variety elements must perform together in some narrative context to form a concise whole.

    As mentioned by Bruno, Botanicula is a good example of this, however it is first and foremost a game of aesthetic, with a simple narrative concerning a band of characters, each with a particular strength, attempting to save the day by joining together. The world is rich and interesting, but in a childlike, abstract way. I love the game, but the emotional journey it takes you on is rather traditional, somewhat like a folk tale, and I believe the scene approach is capable of something more unique.

    Within Amnesia, we can see examples of this seamlessness. Health isn't a number or an amount, it is blood on the screen, seeing red, and/or a short description; barely conscious, a few cuts and bruises. This invites the player to imagine their wounds. Instead of cutscenes, we have flashbacks, a running account of the past that gives context and allows the characters and plot to develop without taking control away form the player. Much of the story exists as scraps of text, found objects and audio which the player is encouraged to assemble. This lets the player take on a much more active role, as the revelations of the plot feel achieved rather than dictated, and are experienced as a puzzle or mystery to be solved. The gameplay and story in Amnesia don't 'work together'; in fact, they are almost one and the same.

    From what I can tell, I think this is the essence of the scene approach. Put simply, scene game is one in which the story and gameplay are merged. Rather than the story being a passive experience and the gameplay an active one, both must become a singular active experience.

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    1. "Put simply, scene game is one in which the story and gameplay are merged"

      Exactly. The narrative is played out as the player performs actions in a scene. The big problems is coming up with basic mechanics that allow for this and coming up with ways to connect the scenes. One could actually argue that a game like Uncharted actually use the scene approach, but in these games almost all scenes are shootouts and the connections are made up from lengthy cut-scenes, where the bulk of the interesting narrative actions take place. On top of this the gameplay itself relies on a competitive design, which brings along a lot of problems (explained for in "Self, Presence & Storytelling").

      Another interesting problem is that of goals. What goals should the player have in order for her to have focus on simply being part of the narrative? How should these goals be told to the player? I will probably write a blog post about this.

      I played Botanicula a bit, and while really nice in some ways, I think that Thirty Flights of Loving is the best use of the Scene approach I have seen.

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    2. I'll check out Thirty Flights of Loving, looks intriguing.

      In regard to goals, perhaps a move to purely narrative based consequences for the player's actions would be suitable? Justine did this rather well at times; instead of a 'game over' when you failed to keep a prisoner alive, you just had to accept it and push on. The game didn't punish you for it, or even acknowledge a failure or success. The same things happened whether you saved them or not, and it was left to the player to find meaning in those actions. You felt bad for not saving them, or good for managing it, because of your emotional investment in the story alone.

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  24. I played all your games and what I liked the most was the atmosphere. However, your games are somehow challenge oriented too because the player has to beat is own fear to progress. While playing Amnesia, a part of me would stop playing because it was creepy, but the other would like to brave this and become stronger. I think that it works exactly the same way as any other game, except that the challenge is more psychological. At the end of Penumbra and Amnesia, I felt better, stronger, etc. I was happy to finish. When we are kids and teen, we play video games to have this feeling. We kill the boss and we feel strong. But this feeling disappeared with the age and now I only play few games, very rarely, because there's no magic anymore. In Penumbra and Amnesia, it's different, I still have pleasure to play because the only enemy is myself. But don't neglect puzzles, it's always good to have some brain challenge and to feel clever when we solve them ! It's a part of the satisfaction too. As you can see, there is many challenges in your games, and I don't see them as pure story telling - atmosphere experience. I hope that you undertsood, I'm not english, sorry.

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    1. Very insightful comment, I have the same thing going on with me. I rarely play that many games now because I don't get much feeling anymore, but when I play games like penumbra and Amnesia I get that magical feeling like I used to get. I wonder why that feeling goes away over time. I remember growing up with games like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. Those games were one heck of an adventure growing up, but now a days I don't get that experience anymore. Amnesia was the first game in many years to take me back to that state of mind I had when I was a child playing games. I was really on an adventure playing Amnesia. It was quite an experience to say the least. I am very happy to have had that experience again. hopefully I'll get it again with whats coming up next from frictional games.

      Oh, and Thomas, speaking of that magical, adventure, immersive feeling. Is that the kind of experience your going for with your next game, if you don't mind me asking?


      -Jesse

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    2. Jesse: Glad to hear! Becaue that is how I feel too. I also have a problem of feeling immersed in games like I used to and something our games have aimed to fix. So very happy that you felt we achieved this. And yes our next game will be no different in this regard.

      It is also an interesting question why this feeling was lost. I think one reason is that you cold put up with more crap (like repetitive gameplay) when younger. Another is that you did not demanding much of a story back then, something you can easily see when rewatching a favorite cartoon from ones childhood :)

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    3. I think your right actually...fascinating. It seems a bit more complicated than that at fist glance however, but I think that is a good explanation and you understand the gist of it, very neat.

      I think it also depends on how you approach games growing up. When your young you don't know how games work, so its really easy to suspend your disbelief in what you see. Action and such games didn't have you thinking critically like we do now, I think because we didn't know any better. FPS games towards the mid 90s were much more focused on exploration and not on linearity and really fast twitch skills as they are now so that helped a lot. The shift to more confined game spaces and competitiveness now a days might actually explain a lot of this.

      I think its very possible to bring back this magical feeling if you can change certain aspects(somthing you already had talked about). Though, I honestly think that you can also bring it back through more realistic looking games. The more people relate to a game, the better the effect. If you can convince people what they are seeing and thinking in their head is some form of REAL reality, you have a much larger space to work in for evoking feelings in people. However, if you really want to break it down ever further you probably could get around that if you made your world behave in a dynamic unpredictable nature and make the player see that factor in the game world. If you are making a horror game, this is especially important.

      If you do plan on doing anything like this. Feel free to let us know. I think the majority of your fans are hoping you'll add a small sandbox element to your future games. Though, obviously the challenge would be balancing it. If you ever need insight on that, I advise you look up a game called left 4 Dead. That game is a pretty much a total sandbox environment except for the map spaces.

      If you ever want a play tester with a ton of gaming experience to try this kind of stuff out, I am your man. I promise you that :) I study game design on my own time, though I have not a clue how to use an editor as funny as that sounds, but I do have extensive understanding on how game designers use interaction to create an experience, such as balancing and spawning tactics. That is why I am your man, if your game could get me immersed despite what I understand you would have a winner. If you could convince any REAL game designer of your world then you would be on to something incredibly powerful. Though, I think you would have to step up your game quite a bit further past Amnesias design to get that far.

      The first time I played Amnesia it was fantastic :), but for many people, they figured out that how enemies work and function down to the smallest details before the game ended. It was actually your games that made me so curious to how you did what you did. If you ever need a play tester that knows your greatest weaknesses I am your man :). Either way, I do look forward greatly to your future endeavors. Good luck with your next game.


      -Jesse Platt

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  25. Hello! What are the chances of the Penumbra series and both Amnesia games getting a GoodOldGames.com release?

    Kind regards,

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    1. If your looking for a non DRM version. You can get them right from the frictional games store.

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    2. Thank you, that is indeed a good option but Gog.com always includes additional bonus content (such as OSTs, wallpapers, etc.) together with the software itself: more bang for the buck.

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    3. That is of course because of the permission from the owners of the content. Most of those games on GOG are out of commission and are returned to sell by the GOG.com owners.

      There are some goodies that do come with Amnesia the dark descent by default actually. There is concept art, level art, and I think there are a few wallpapers. There is even alpha and beta footage from the game inside, and all of it comes along with the game by default. There is also a prequel story that you can read that comes with the game, and its illustrated by the original concept artists and its written by the writer of the Amnesia storyline. All of it is authentic material from the creators, the frictional games team.

      The only thing I am unsure of is if it comes with is a wallpaper or two. The soundtrack you do have to buy separately but they are extended and are mastered for best possible quality you can get. The format is FLAC, which is a loss-less format, and it can be converted into anything you want for whatever usage you please.

      In order to access that bonus content though, you have to beat the game and unlock it through a password sequence that appears in all endings of the game. If you bought the game and the soundtrack from them, the total price would be $32.

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  26. Looks like a great game.

    Downloaded the demo, unfortunately haven't gotten past the menu screen as LFE doesn't work.

    But looks like it would have been an enjoyable game anyway.

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  27. Kind of offtopic, but i wonder if Frictional Games is aware that there is actually a speedrunning community for Amnesia.

    Here is a video of a speedrun http://www.twitch.tv/speeddemosarchivesda/b/354924379?t=11h42m30s

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  28. Have you had a chance to try Kentucky Route Zero? It's ostensibly a point and click adventure, but it's intentionally focused more on atmosphere than on problem-solving, and even the dialogue options serve more as a form of cooperative storytelling than puzzling. http://kentuckyroutezero.com/

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    1. Yup! That one I played through! Atmosphere was great but I was not that fond of the dialog tone. Will make sure to play the other parts still though.

      So how do you categorize this one in terms of goals? I would say it is a mixture of on-rails and puzzles. The puzzle being very simple, but definitively there: start generator, find mine exit, find this place, etc. You are constantly given missions to achieve whenever you have chance for some more open ended interaction. And the rest of the game does not matter how you play it, but you simply insert flavor with dialog options.

      So as you say, it is pretty much a point n click, but with toned down emphasis on the puzzles.

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    2. Damn, I thought this was another blog post :)

      Anyhow, how terms of the higher level approach, KRZ is not that far off from the scene one.

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    3. I have a question about the scene thing: Isn't it ultimately still linear, though? Any game with a truly authored storyline, regardless of level of branching, is still ultimately linear. The only way to really get away from that would be to have procedurally generated storylines that produce an exponential number of possibilities, no?

      In the scene situation, you might have x choices in any given scene, but, once you move on to the next scene, you probably only have y choices there, not x^y choices, stacking upon what you did previously.

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    4. On a global basis, the scene approach is linear, but on a local basis it can be quite open. The only thing a scene requires is for a certain end point to be reached. But yeah, as you said, you can only carry so many of these states from a scene with you.

      It is not possible to have an truly open game anyway. You will always need to collapse the experience at some point. Also, an open structure adds complexity, which adds chaos, which makes it harder to control the experience. This means that any game that is really open, must have thematic that can cope with chaos. You can see this in GTA, Simcity, Dwarf Fortress, etc and all of these are made to thrive on that. There is only a small subset of stories that allow for this.

      This is one of many reasons why I advocate having the immersive qualities of videogames as the main feature of their storytelling. Then it becomes not a matter of making games as open as possible, but making them open enough to maximize the immersive qualities. I think this is a much better goal.

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  29. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  30. As an aspiring writer I found this to be very helpful. My approach is a bit different, but I guess that's more a thing of individual taste than of good or bad style. I learnt a lot not only from this post but from the references you made and I'll happily embark what I learnt to develop myself further. Thank you.

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