I may have just created a new theory in game design: the situation. (No, not the guy from Jersey Shore.)
Stories tell a single narrative. Situations are more like a setup for a story–the story plays out from there.
This is the difference between scripted TV and an improv performance.
Situations allow the player to create his or her own story, not just play out the story the designers have chosen. “Winning,” in this case, is not reaching or completing a specific endgame to which the designers have led the player, but reaching one of several possible outcomes, each the natural result of the player’s choices. The completion of a specific end will alter the nature of the game in some way going forward into the next situation.
No game designer can anticipate all the things a player might choose to do, so the player is still limited by what the game designer has created. However, the goal of the designer is to create the illusion that the player is creating the story.
The designer must create several outcomes for each situation. For example, if the situation is a treasonous conflict led against the lord of a castle, the outcomes of that situation may be:
1. The lord wins, the traitor is identified, and the status quo is returned
2. The traitor wins, the lord is assassinated, and the traitor takes control of the castle
3. Nobody wins. Both the lord and the traitor are killed, and the castle is damaged or destroyed. The power vacuum drops the surrounding towns and villages into anarchy.
The situation is the setup; those are the outcomes. The story is the myriad choices the player makes to respond to the situation. Each choice the player makes will reveal further story in the form of new choices. Likewise, every choice the player makes has the potential to block various story paths completely.
In the case above, several tasks or quests may be available in the setup of the initial situation. The lord may seek help identifying the traitor in his midst. The player may accept that task, which leads the player to the traitor. The traitor attempts to entice the player to join the treason and assassinate the lord.
This is a cusp–a moment of decision for the player, that affects the story that follows. What side does he join? Each choice creates further story.
Let’s say the player joins with the traitor. He may be invited to train in the traitor’s secret lair, meet the traitor’s minions, and become a full ally to the traitor.
If the player chooses the other path, and arrests or kills the traitor, then he may receive a reward from the lord, and be invited to investigate the traitor’s secret lair–in which those same minions are now enemies to be dealt with.
The decision the player makes is neither right or wrong. It is simply the story.
Either way, the story drives forward, with the same content (the minions in the lair) adapted to the situation. Likewise, the local townspeople will react to the player character differently: He may be seen as a hero who saved the day, or a scary dude not to be messed with, which will affect the quests available from the NPCs, vendor prices, or even if they want to talk to him at all or challenge him to a fight.
The training the player was to receive if the player took the traitor’s side–let’s say some dark magic killing spell–may be lost forever, or for some time until the player encounters another NPC who knows it and is willing to teach it to him.
Conversely, the lord may reward the player with a spell of his own–a white magic healing spell–that the player never would have learned if he had killed the lord.
I don’t know of a game that does this–and it’s no wonder. There are plenty of reasons not to make a game this way:
1. Games that tell a single story, and tell it well, like The Last of Us and Gone Home, are popular.
2. Designers don’t want to create content that won’t be available to the player. Content costs time and time is money. The player should have access to it all.
3. Many players like an “on the rails” experience. Many players like to be led through a game. Too many choices may be confusing.
On the other hand, there should be at least one game that truly gives the player choice and adapts to that choice. One game where the player really does control the story, and gets to play the story they choose, with actions that have consequences.
Here are my arguments in favor such a game:
1. It hasn’t (to my knowledge) been done. It would be unique.
2. Open world games like Skyrim are very popular. The biggest criticism of Skyrim was that its story was weak. Imagine an open world game like Skyrim with an truly open story.
3. It would be a challenge to create. One climbs a mountain because it’s there.
4. It would be a challenge for the player. There would be no way to create a “walk thru” guide for this game.
5. Replay opportunities are endless, if every choice changes the story.
6. It’s the game I want to play.
I believe in this game.
I want to see it happen.
It is my intention to make this game. Keep in touch, because it’s happening.