Monday 15 March 2010

Storytelling through fragments and situations

Stories are something that is very important to us humans and also a crucial part of many video games. In some games the player is the author of the story, for example in Civilization where you are given some basic start resources and are then free to decide how your story will play out. In other games the designer has the most control of the story and the game mechanics do their best to guide the payer through the narrative (which may dynamic or linear).
While the player-as-author stories are interesting, what I will discuss here is the type of stories that have been designed. Some people have argued that games are inferior at telling these kind of stories, something I do not agree with. While the games out today certainly do not compete with stories found in books and movies, I believe that the problem is that the medium is simply not been used correctly.

Plot-based Stories
Most games that are story heavy tells a narrative using a linear plot; in other words a string of events tied together by sections of gameplay. Most games that have been celebrated for their story such as Half-life 2 and God of War use this design. The concept is basically to force the player into doing certain actions by limiting the amount of interactivity.

Because this type of storytelling is based around forcing the player, it often comes with a very high amount of cut-scenes. Whenever a plot event requires an environment or situation where the player has too many choices, it is no longer possible to keep it within gameplay; all (or most) player control is taken away and a cut-scene is used. Some games (like Resident Evil 4) try and keep interactivity by using quick time events, but this has always felt like a cop-out and unneeded trial-and-error to me . In other games, like Half-life, these moments are handled by blocking the player in some way until the scene is over. In all cases, the normal gameplay is restricted and players cannot progress until the game lets them.

I believe that plot-based story telling has reached its limit*. A fusion of gameplay and story-telling the story can never occur unless it is some type of action scene or in other ways tightly connected to the gameplay. Whenever some emotional and story intense scenario is needed it is showed as a cut-scene. Interactive scenes only consists of very strict and standardized gameplay.

Plot-based story telling is not without its merits though. It fits very well with how it is done in movies and books and one can very easily use practices from these. This makes it possible to plot the different parts of the story early on and have things like characters arcs and tempo quite easily. It is probably because of this that plot-based storytelling is so widely used.

However, I personally find this way of doing it very problematic as it clashes directly with the unpredictability of games. For example, when we did the "meeting of Dr Swanson" event in Penumbra Black Plague, it was very hard to make it all playable and had to have doors mysteriously closing and the like (click here to see, spoilers ahead!!). When making Penumbra we had several other similar problems all due to events that had to happen at specific occasions in a very specific way. Every time we had to sacrifice some part of the gameplay in order to solve it story-wise.

This is troubling! When the most emotional and story-wise important scenes need to rely on taking away interactivity something is very wrong. I think the problem is simply that this type of storytelling is not the best way of doing story in games.

Fragmented Stories

This type of storytelling is evident in games like Bioshock, System Shock and to some extent in many RPGs and normal adventure games. It is about having a certain background story (or similar) spread out over the world. The player must then find these fragments and piece them together. These fragments usually come as notes or character dialogs, each giving a piece of the "puzzle". It is this kind of storytelling that we have mostly used for Penumbra and are using for our upcoming game Amnesia. It is also where I think the future of interactive story telling lie.

Fragmented storytelling allows for much more freedom as it is possible for the player to pick up fragments in different order and even to miss certain fragments without ruining the story. Some kind of order is usually wanted to though, and normally it is solved by not having all fragments available from starts, each level/section of the game containing certain fragments. It is also possible to solve by procedural generation of fragments. This can simply mean that the order of the fragments are independent of the actual interactions (e.g. first note picked is always a specific fragment), something we are using in Amnesia. It can also mean more advanced ways such as generating documents to fit the player, for example censuring certain information in case the player has not found out about other things first. This kind of procedural generation seem very exciting to me, yet it is very unusual in games and I know of no other games that are using it

Fragments does not only need to be text-heavy information such as dialog or notes. It can be graphics in the environment, sounds, character banter, interactions, etc. In Amnesia we try to use as many different types as possible and do our best to create a game where playing and exploring brings forward the story without ever removing control. The great thing about the fragmented design is that it is never in the way of the game and helps the player immerse, instead of the opposite (which cut-scenes might do). When designing Amnesia we have also made sure that pretty much everything is optional and instead of forcing the player to take part of certain story elements (fragments) we have made sure to make the most important things are really obvious (and hard to miss) and the less important more hidden.

While the fragmented story design is used quite a bit (especially as notes and dialog), I think that its potential is severely underused. There is a lot more stuff that can be done in this way. For instance, by interacting with the world the player can find out things, not just about the environment, but about the character too. How will the protagonist react when you try to eat meat (vegetarian?), why does she gets scared when in confined spaces, etc. It can also be about the environment itself, for example how different things work (machines in a sci-fi story) or how the ecology behave. It does not need to be related directly to the background story either, but can be a way of showing character motivations, increase understanding of the game world or just simply to set a certain mood or convey a theme. In books and movies this usually take up large part, almost always using plot-based story telling, and I think that a large problem lies in designer trying to copy this design (something I have discussed before) instead of using techniques more suitable for games.

Plot-based story telling does not need to be thrown out though and can still be used effectivly. The problem with fragmented story telling is that it only is only about the past and never about the present. Here plot-based design can help to spice up the story telling. For example, Bioshock, an otherwise pretty free-roaming game using fragmented story-telling, has an important cut scene (check here, spoilers of course) that even use the lack of interactivity as part of the story. The same is true in Penumbra where the infection-with-voice, Clarence, sometimes take control over the protagonist in cut-scene-like sequences.

Situations instead of events
As stated above, the problem with fragmented storytelling is that it is just covers things that HAVE happening and not what IS happening. This does not mean that one has to resort to the plot-based design though and instead of forcing on certain events, one can create situations instead. Creating a situations is large part of our story telling design since Penumbra and way of thinking we have found very effective. It might seem a really fine line between an event and a situation, but I think it is a really important one and will explain why.

In an event (as in a plot-event) one wants something very specific to happen, often including a protagonist action. For example, if a monster enters a room the protagonist hides in a closet. In a situation, one creates a some sort of outside pressure and then it is up to the player on how the protagonist should act, never stopping the normal mode of gameplay. The line between the two can get pretty vague, since a situation can be about getting the player to hide in a closet when monster enters a room, although in a situation this is never forced. A situation is not just a cut-scene + the interaction though and it is more about exposing the player to something and letting them deal with it. Also, situations are more complex to setup as one does not want to lock down the player and let the normal gameplay remain intact.

If there is a certain section of the game where the player should be exposed to a new enemy, but never come too close, this will be done differently using events or situations. In an event, it can be that the player notices something in the shadows and then a cut-scene shows how the player hides. Using situation design, this creature can be roaming certain parts of the map, making sounds and always staying a certain distance. This means that the player may sometimes spot the creature but never face it directly, achieving the same goal. The map can also be set up in such a way, that when spotting the creature, there is always a room nearby where the player can hide, trying to indirectly "force" the player into behaving in a certain manner.

By using situations instead of events, control does not need to be taken away and it is possible to add story elements that happen in the present (and not just in the past). When designing Amnesia, adding interesting situation that connect with the story has been a large design goal. Usually entire maps have been used as the place for the situations and designed around it. We have only started scraping the surface of what is possible though. By focusing on situations instead of plot-events we have come up with many things that have a lot more freedom than events we did in Penumbra, but still communicate the same feelings and story content. We will continue to use this kind of design in the future as it has been extremely helpful so far and we feel that there is a lot more to explore.

Using situations is a bit of a gamble though and one can never be sure that all players will get the intended experience. That is just something one has to live with though. When it comes to interactivity, risk are always involved as it is impossible to plan for every possible outcome. One should of course make sure that the player cannot get stuck, but I think it is well worth sacrificing some security for greater interactivity and possibility of a deeper experience.

End Notes
The more game designers start going away from creating stories that emulate books and movies, the more the medium can evolve. It is only by focusing on the strengths of the medium that we can make make stories only games can tell!

What is you thought on stories using the fragments design? And how are your feelings regarding situations vs events?

*It is probably worth mentioning that Heavy Rain is making some kind of progress in the plot-based design. However this is done at the expense of player interactivity.


  1. Good read.


    Does Dr. Swanson have a textured face, if yes, can We (I) see it?

  2. Halfway through reading this post I started creating a counter-argument in my head, but then I continued reading and found that the exact kind of storytelling I was about to argue for was what you were ultimately arguing for. You call it "situations". I was actually kind of disappointed to learn that we're in agreement, since I think my argument would have been pretty good. :D

    The only thing I must disagree with is your insistence that this is the only way for storytelling to go in the future. I think there's plenty of potential for games which limit your options and interactivity tremendously, but make sure that each and every interaction means something. In "situations" the character becomes the player unless a considerable amount of abstraction is used. For instance, using world design or music or other such non-literal methods of exposing what the character is feeling as you're playing. For stories where the character is someone very specific, it makes more sense to lock the player in to very limited options. None of what the player is allowed to do will be what they'd personally do in the same circumstances, but that gives the player a sense of what it would be like to be a different person.

    It's not really the same as movies and books, if used correctly. Of course it's closer to movies and books than expressing the whole story through repetitive or established kinds of gameplay, but there's a lot the limited interactivity offers that noninteractive media cannot. A book can't make the reader choose. A movie can't make the viewer personally invested. You could argue that in a "situation" such qualities would be brought out no less, but what you get in a more limiting game is the greater presence of characterization.

    So there's more than one way to go here. Just saying.

  3. I am so happy to have been able to read this article.
    The fact that video gaming is a medium that still needs to be fully developed, in order to provide a unique and peculiar way of telling stories, is true.
    I am so happy to have been able to read this today, while multiplayer games, in their whole fun, yet so story-lacking, are spreading so much.
    I am really looking forward to play Amnesia: I watched the Teaser trailer with bated breath. It really made me want to take the reins of the story, to develope the situation, where the player finds himself in the trailer, in my own way, literally, to play the story, even though it's just a 3min gameplay.

    Really, thank you for making such good and inspired works.

  4. R:
    Perhaps some things are best left for imagination ;)

    Mory Buckman:
    Yeah, limitations can be nice at times! I just think that it should be part of the game's flow and not just be a way of removing all control.

    For example in Penumbra and Amnesia we use a special look-at feature in order to hightlight important things in the environment. The player is still in control of all normal gameplay movements and the force movement is more like an emulation of a reflex. In Amnesia we also slow down the speed of the player when they are hurt and similar as a way of projecting the protagonist's feeling on the player.
    Also, the Bioshock example is a great moment when a cutscene really is fitting.

    So I am not against limiting, I just think that one should consider the best way to bring forward the wanted emotions, content, etc.

  5. Very interesting. As usual :)
    I love the way the story is told in Bioshock and Bioshock 2.
    About the whole situations vs events thing you really should check out the game Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason that came out last year for the PC. It reminds me a lot of Penumbra, it's just not as good as Penumbra though. They use a lot of situations and events to tell the story. Ultimately the story becomes weird and makes no sens by the end of it, but it's still very much worth a playthrough. It also has some very interesting mechanics in which it tells the story.

  6. Crom:
    Saw the first 10 mins of a playthrough of it and really liked the flashbacks! Too bad my computer cannot run the game :(

  7. If i understand it right, Penumbra and Amnesia aswell are "Fragmented Stories" somehow. At least you call them that. And you wrote, that Amensia will have even more freedom than Penumbra already had. That's 90% of what i wanted to hear/read. Great stuff...

    Anyway, i still have a question about the process itself. Actually it's a question about the order. As we know the main plot of Penumbra (Overture) is Phillipp's (that was his name if i'm not wrong) search for his father. So we could say that all other happenings, all other "situations" are also part of the story, but more somehow "the road" that brings you to the end of your path, to the end of the main plot.

    The question here is: did you start with the idea of this main plot and built the "situations", like you call them, around the main plot?
    Or did you begin with these ideas and wrote later the main plot around them?

  8. PS.: As i know from some filmmakers, the story can change even within the process itself. When they film the movie they suddenly decide, that they want to change something, to change a specific event or scene. I think you work also somehow like this, because in such a long working process it's very difficult to keep the original story from the beginning to the end without changing anything.

  9. Mario:
    We try and keep it fairly dynamic so it changes as we go along. With both Penumbra and Amnesia, we started out with the backstory and then a goal and start for the player's journey through the game. The backstory fragments where then scattered throughout the game and situations added. During this last step the backstory changed a bit.

    With Penumbra it was quite a messy process since the games where kinda episodic, we brought along Tom (writer for Penumbra) pretty late when doing Oveture, etc.

    With Amnesia, the background story is more firm, and has not change as much as happened in Penumbra (at least not when production truly started). Also with Amnesia, we have a much more clear "meaning" to the game and use this as a sort of guiding rod for what events that should take place and how the story should unfold. This has been very helpful and lets us have a sort of measuring stick that we can use to evaluate the story (and gameplay!) content with.

  10. WOW! this is very interesting reading:)

    I have been hoping to see this approach to the interactive medium for a long time. sure some games have done it, Bioshock is fantastic, but not many games have it.
    Back when I saw the first gameplay videos for Half-Life 2, I thought that the "GroundBreaking" physics would make games in the future better. Make the player improvise his/her way to the goal. Build a barrier for cover, move a chair or crate to block the door, drop a tv from the 5th floor on your neighbour;) But most of the time is it only used for creating nice explosions...and you can shoot the palm tree...yeay:| (crysis) Improvisation is the keyword for me. I want to be put in the situation, and then improvise my own way to succes. It doesn't matter that the scenario is small, that you have to search for keys to open doors, and the story is fixed. As long as the player have the freedom to find his own way to accomplish this. (of course with the help of some conveniently placed tools ;)

    So I loved so much the penumbra experiences for connecting the puzzels with the physics:)

    A big misunderstanding today is also that you have to earn "points", "experience", "Medals" whatever, to give the player mativation to play. That's BS! Some games can do it, but to often is it implemented in the 'wrong' games. You don't play a racing game to unlock the next car or track. You play, because how likely is it that you will get to drive a freaking Lamborghini in real life!!!:D it's the action itself that should be rewarding. not the goal. or not ONLY the goal;)

    I'm a big fan of Far Cry 1. I played it a lot. the story is crap and unimportant. The gameplay is: -cutscene- go from A to B -cutscene- A-B... But how, you tackle the situations 'IS the story'. The later part of the game where there are both mutants and merchenaries is really fun. I have played some of the places 10 times maybe. Each time trying a different approach, and each time ending up with a complete new experience. So the actual gameplay, mixed with what i felt, could be writen into a story. Improvisation!

    I believe also that we have reached a point were the old type of storytelling in games have been perfectionated as much as they can be. Like Half-life 2 as you said, and also new games like killzone 2 and uncharted 2 wich I very much enjoyed.Wich doesn't mean there's no place for that anymore. But I am very much looking forward to see what the future will bring, and I hope your ideas will inspire other developers to try this approach more, now that you have proven it can be done:)

    omg I have been rambling on way too long. sorry but I just thought I was the only one that felt this way about games. glad to hear that someone who actually makes! games! feel the same.


  11. Man, you're my favorite game developer ever. You have the daring, adventurous spirit of an indie developer *and* the skill to make games that look and play like many AAA titles out there. And on top of it all, you're investigating gaming as a storytelling medium by treading the exact same path I've been waiting game developers to explore further for years.

    Not only do I agree wholeheartedly with stuff such as: "The player must then find these fragments and piece them together. These fragments usually come as notes or character dialogs, each giving a piece of the 'puzzle'. (...) It is also where I think the future of interactive story telling lie.", I actually said those same words (more or less) many times when discussing storytelling here or there.

    Another point I usually bring up in favor of this method is that there's an immediate gameplay payoff, as you're rewarding a thorough exploration by uncovering certain story details (or sub-stories or whatever you feel like) via more or less hidden notes. Some of the best audio diaries in BioShock are not really necessary to understand the story, and can only be found by the nosiest scavengers (that'd be me =D ).

    I also agree when you say: "While the fragmented story design is used quite a bit (especially as notes and dialog), I think that its potential is severely underused.", and I like that you don't just stand there (as much as I love BioShock, storytelling-wise is the same as System Shock 2 --hell, even the main set pieces are exactly the same), but you're actually, actively pushing it forward into new directions.

    Granted, there is bound to be a lot of trial and error in this process, but that's to be expected, as what you're trying is nothing short of groundbreaking. At least theoretically the ideas you introduce (the procedural generation of fragments and not limiting yourself to notes are two that stand out for me) are quite interesting.

  12. Interesting. At Tale of Tales, we have always considered "situation" as the starting point and basis of virtually all of our games. And a situation for us simply consists of a character in an environment. So it's more open-ended than your work. We simply try to provide a tool to help the player imagine what it would be like to be character X in situation Y. But I guess that's not even a story.

  13. Hi!
    I'm just thinking about your article.
    I'n not really fond of the "oh, I found the 177th fragment of the story" method... it sounds to me like the "find all the pigeons" quest on GTA IV... :D
    I hope you don't give us too missing letters to read. If I have to read a 1000 pages diary story I prefer to read a book instead of playing videogames. ;)

    Anyway, I just preordered another game, the new Sam&Max series, (I also preordered Amnesia, don't worry :D). There's a little piese of interview with a designer, Chuck Jordan, about linearity in videogames. Just wanna share it:

    Chuck Jordan about linearity in videogames:
    "Everybody's got his own take on it, and you know that kind of thing's one of BioWare's main selling points. But my own take is that I hate any kind of "branching" content at all, whether it's as big as an alternate ending or as seemingly small as using one item instead of another to solve the same puzzle. Some of that's practical: I don't like the idea of making content that half of your players aren't going to see; I'd rather have the team spending their time on stuff that's guaranteed to be in the game.

    Even if you had infinite time and money, though, I still wouldn't like branching paths or alternate solutions. (Unless your story's specifically about branching paths or alternate realities). The reason is that it seems like "fake" interactivity -- it's letting players do a bunch of different things instead of the one most interesting thing. I think that your goal when designing an adventure game shouldn't be to come up with whatever solution works, but the best, most interesting, most clever, or funniest solution to a situation. There's usually a moment in the design meetings when somebody suggests a situation and you think "Yes! Brilliant, that's it exactly." I think the goal of a game designer should be to get the player to that moment, instead of presenting you with a situation where there are three things that work equally well. It's all about guiding the player to make the most interesting moment happen."

  14. You're right about fragmented story-lines talking about the past and never the present - this is certainly something worth remembering. And yet, Iji uses procedurally generated notes referring to the player's actions: for example, if you kill everyone you'll find notes referring to your murderous rampage.
    When you think about it the present doesn't really exist. I mean this both literally, there's a delay of a few milliseconds between something happening and you perceiving it, and more metaphorically: the present is the frontier of memory, and like all frontiers it's really just an imaginary line.

    Also, is a situation any different from an event if, to take your example, the player *not* hiding in the closet results in death, and their having the restart? I know you don't want to have death, but failure may be the only way of applying the necessary pressure, to make the player do what you want them to do...

  15. Stefano:
    Regarding our Journal, our motto is "short n sweet" and "show rather then tell". We do not want the player to read stuff npn-stop. Also, we provide voice acting for everything that is more important for the player and keep it shorter. Player's can also skip more detailed notes and not loose much of the story.

    Do not fully agree with the Chuck Jordan quote and the reason is flow. I do not think a game should be a challenge in figuring out the designers thoughts and instead the game should try and adapt to player choices. This is why I like multiple solutions, it is simply a matter of letting the player succeed on the first try and keeping the game flowing. If there are several ways to get around an obstacle, it is always good as many as possible are accounted for. I know he says that the game should guide the player, but skipping multiple paths and alternate solutions is skipping some very valuable tools.
    Thanks for sharing though! It is always interesting to hear what other designers think. Also, I do agree with some and I do not think that all games need to be a sandboxes where everything is possible. More choices and branching will always take a away resources from elsewhere.

  16. wilbefast:
    With present I mean things that happens or has happened during actual gameplay. I like your idea with notes describing player actions using auto generated notes. "Why did he have to destroy my precious vases?" and stuff like would be fun to add in notes picked up :)

    Regarding hiding in closet:
    It is a vague line at times. I would think the normal event with closet would be like the scene in Silent Hill 2 where the protagonist hides from Pyramid Head (ie totally scripted when player enters room).

    One could then go a bit further and only trigger the event if the players interacts with closet (and then play cutscene and kill them otherwise. This is still an event.

    Further towards situation is that the player must perform certain action in a very exact order to hide, but is playing the entire time. Any wrong move will mean death. I would say this is an event, but it is awfully close to a situation.

    If we take it a step further still and gives the player some more leeway. Perhaps it is possible to escape the monster in other ways, but the absolutely best is hiding in the closet. This I would call a situation, since there is no direct forcing of player action, but implicit forcing.

  17. Thank you to you Thomas, this blog is wonderful!!!

    I think that every game has its own goal, and decision about branching is nowadays vital - even deciding to not have branching. It's all about the designer's approach to the game and what's the final purpose of it. There are games that are funny and don't even have any branching or story - think about tetris.

    What's important to me is to motivate the player to go on - it could be an increase of difficulty like in tetris (not the fake diffulty increase of fps where they give you stronger enemies but also mor powerful weapons) or a twist of the story, or a new ambience unlocked...

    PS: Just wanna say, as Chuck Jordan himself asked this, that the quote I took from him comes from the private message board only for the ones who preordered Sam&Max.

  18. Well, i'm "addicted" to those notes and diaries in games. I really love them. And i think they are really useful and important, because they tell you more about the (background)-story. "Alone in the Dark - The new nightmare" for example used it very well. There was a book with over 50 pages somewhere in a library. I know, there are many people who are too lazy to read it, but damn... i loved every part of it. Oh... and they had photos in those books and diaries... that's something i haven't seen in many games. The only problem was, i think, that you _had_ to read them for the puzzles. Without them it was (almost) impossible to continue. Anyway, using them to tell the story somehow is a good thing, at least for those who're interested. What do you think?

  19. I'm a sucker for notes and the like, but it depends on the game. If it is in an action game or any other game where I do not really care about the story, I do not feel like reading. I also feel notes should not be too long. I thought that Undying had some notes that where too long + the pacing of the game made you not prepared to read longer texts.

    I also like it when notes bind together environments and events so as you explore notes help as a way of adding more details and atmosphere.

    That said, notes is the simplest of fragmentary storytelling design and we are trying to come up as varied stuff as possible for Amnesia.

  20. The last "Bonus Round" on might be very interesting at this point, because some guys from BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age) and Eat Sleep Play (God of War) were talking about the stories and their importance in games.


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