Tobold's Blog
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Thought for the day: Story

While Dragon Age offers choices in dialogue which will lead to minor variations in the story, ultimately all these variations lead back to one main story line, which never changes. If I were to play through the game a second time, the same major plot elements would happen, and there would be nothing I could do about lets say getting betrayed a second time. While better storytelling especially in MMORPGs would be nice, it all ends up with us being trapped inescapably in stories we already know. Is story the death of replayability?
What if you read a great book for the second time? Is story the death of re-readability?
I think not, developers need to have the forsight to create multiple stories with multiple endings, it might take a little more work but it's not rocket science. MMOs on the other hand, are a whole other kettle of fish.
I think replayability is very, very overrated. If it's a good game, you may play it again even if it has the same story. Storytelling mechanics get very complex if you want to add several branches and choices for everything, so the best that most games manage is six different endings depending on how much of a dick you were to people while playing the game. Great. Some people call this replayability, but it doesn't change anything about the story.

It's the same problem I see with linearity. There's nothing wrong with a linear game! Yet many reviewers seem to think that quest-lines-in-open-world is the only game design that should ever be used, just because GTA and WoW use it. That's bull. Look at Uncharted 2, linear, but riveting story elements and great level design.

I'd even go farther and say that to offer a really deep and interesting story or really well-designed levels, you have to be linear and you have to offer little choice.

Games that do this differently are modern text adventures/interactive fiction. There you often find games that play totally differently depending on your choices. But those game designers put a lot of effort into exactly that, and here it's just text, text is "cheap" to produce. Think of how much more work it is to do this in a huge game like Dragon Age.

Go, linear! Go, no-choices!
If the story is the sole reason you're playing, then it's not much of a game.

But the thing is, some plot things will always happen but others might not. You can take different party members, try different approaches.

It's just a consequence of having the computer fake being a human GM. But a human GM wouldn't let you say 'OK, so what if I do decide to do something differently there?'

If you want a totally separate story on each playthrough then you really want to play something like a roguelike. The randomising does guarantee you different encounters. But if you want the beautifully presented and crafted storyline, then maybe you expect too much if you want something totally different the next time through.
Also, re: replayability in MMOs. Does it really make the MMO more replayable if it has no storylines but you always end up grinding on the same mobs for xp with every subsequent character because it's most efficient?

I'd say any static world has the same issue. But the story can mask the grinding a bit.
So let's talk about player-created-content (-stories) :).
Playing World of Warcraft a second (or third) time with a different class or faction can be a great deal of fun. I think a good thing to do as a developer is to conceil some parts of the main story from the player and give them the possibility to experience what happened somewhere else during the events he already knows.
An offline CRPG is, essentially, an interactive novel and interactivity has both advantages and drawbacks for the narrative form.

Allowing the player/reader to participate to some degree in the unfolding of the narrative can create a greater sense of participation, even ownership, than one might get from reading a book or watching a film, for example. On the other hand, using a "game" format to tell a story can be cumbersome and slow.

I don't believe that the existence of narrative, or story, of itself acts against "replayability". Many people routinely watch movies several times, re-read novels and comics again and again. Those narratives never change, but our experience of them can change profoundly, as anyone who has revisited a favorite book a decade later can testify.

The problem with using CRPGs as a narrative form is essentially that it requires a much greater commitment of time from the player than almost any other narrative form. It takes a couple of hours to watch a movie, a couple of days to read a novel. A game like Dragon Age is advertised as having 40+ hours of gameplay.

It's asking an awful lot for any story to bring you back for a second 40 hours and a third. Unfortunately few, if any, CRPGs offer a narrative in that 40 hours that competes on any level, emotionally, intellectually or aesthetically with a first-class movie. You can get a deeper and more satisfying narrative experience in two hours with a DVD than in twenty times that with a game.

Of course, CRPGs aren't only, or even mainly, about narrative. They are about problem-solving, puzzles, surges of adrenalin, hand-to-eye co-ordination, quick-thinking, collecting, exploring, satisfying curiosity and so on. The narrative is often not much more than a peg to hang all these other activities on.

MMOs really stand outside this. They aren't a narrative form at all. They contain some narrative elements, often poorly conceived, poorly realised and poorly received, but the huge part of most MMOs carries on without any recourse to narrative at all.
Do you throw books away after you've read them once?

More to the point, if the mechanics of a game are entertaining enough that you would play a story-free version of that game more than once, then why would it matter if the story added to it is only interesting once? The first time through you enjoy both the mechanics and the story; the second time you ignore the story and just enjoy the mechanics.

If a game can't hold your interest for multiple playthroughs, it's far more the fault of poor gameplay than poor story.
Story might be important as a good story deepens the immersion, but I suspect Bioware far overestimates the value of story by making it a defining pillow of the game.
I do place some trust in this company for their former good work, but their philosophy for MMO-design sounds flawed to me.
It's why adventure games have such a low replayability. You still know everything that will happen.

A good story doesn't have to mean low replayability. But then you have to offer a lot of different branches in the story which quickly becomes too much work. And you're creating content that 90% of the players won't even play so is it worth it?

In the end it all comes down to: "will having replayability sell you more games or in case of an mmo play longer?". For Dragon Age I'd be happy to just spend 80 hours with the game and leave it at that. For an mmo you're forced to offer replayability. You can level two characters in WoW without seeing the same region twice. I've tried it in the Outland expension. Both characters leveled to 70 in completely different zones. But WoW doesn't offer much of a story anyway...
Nope, have a look at Persona 3/4 . Just needs more work and mutually exclusive story branches. If the branches are interesting enough and contain enough story, people wouldn't mind getting railroaded back to main events.
As a sidenote:
That's why I am not especially hopeful for the next Jedi MMO.

To concentrate a MMO on story is nice, but not the next step. It's certainly not a pillar of MMO design.
To heck with replayability. There are too many good games out there and too little time to play them all. Give me a superb game with strong story that I can play through once and enjoy. Sometimes I might even replay it on a harder difficulty level or as another character if that option is available but don't assume that replayability is essential.

[Rant] Don't even get me started on the damage mmorpgs have done to gaming. They have created the impression that infinite replayability is a good thing. [/rant]
You know historically story has not been spoiled just because you know the ending.

Just like little children love to hear Hansel and Gretel over and over again and pick up their favourite parts ("push her in the oven" they scream) our ancestors knew the plot of most of the stories they listened to.

This is in fact still done in classical opera where the show is directed on the assumption the audience knows the plot.

The most striking example of it was a pastiche of Lord of the Rings. Someone wrote a story where a yokel in a village was revealed by a mysterious magician (accompanied by a warrior who was secretly a king of a broken kingdom) to be the saviour of the world. Our reluctant hero has to flee his village as dark riders begin knocking on doors asking after him. He had two friends called Merry and Pippin, sorry, make that Matt and Perrin, same difference.

The book? The Wheel of Time, regarded as the greatest fantasy epic since, erm, Lord of the Rings.

Unless you're reading Agatha Christie style detective novels it doesn't matter if you know the plot.

Unless you let it bother you.
I think A really good story is worth repeating.

One of the nice things about Dragon Age is that there are subtle variations to certain quests, so while you can essentially play through one BIG story in one specific manner, little details will be subtly different depending on what you did, and if you're playing a specific type of personality, some actions may become more memorable than others. :)
You can't realistically expect a completely different story from a game every time you play it. Even in games that offer tons of choices like Mass Effect still ends up revolving around the same main plot elements.

Sure you can decide things that happen in those plot elements but you still face the same ones no matter what choices you make.

If the story is truly good however, your going to replay it just to see what tiny differences do happen...or in a game without choice, just to see the entire story again.

Hell even if your playing a table top old school rpg with a human GM your still likely to play through the same videogame tropes and idioms. Your going to have a Big Bad, a Dragon, a Five Man Band, each player is going to have a Crowning Moment of Awesome, etc. (If you don't know what those are a quick search on tv tropes will fill you in)

In fact I'll go out on a limb here and say that most player created games are often times waaaaay more trope filled and unoriginal then a good videogame's story.

So I guess it all boils down to personal preference. For me a game with a good story will double or triple the amount of time I spend on it, even more if I have choice or even the illusion of choice in the game.
Bioware has always provided me with the most replay value.
I always rush through the main story/game once with a character, ehtn replay at a more leisurely pace, doing side-quests and such which I may have missed.

What gives it replay value isn't so much the basic story, but playing it as a different character, with a different personality, and different romatnic interest usually.

This concept of playing out different characters/personalities is something which sometimes is referred to by a quaint name: Roleplaying.

I'd say the Roleplaying element to Bioware games gives the greatest replay value, whereas the story becomes the platform on, or framework within which to do so after your first time through.
If you ever played Chrono Trigger, you'll know that it's possible to have multiple endings within a story arc, but it's really hard to have a consistent story without having certain "check-in" points in the story. (i.e. event Y happens at some point after event X, and before event Z.) I think (mutually-exclusive) side-quests and other optional parts of the story probably make for better material to boost re-playability -- the major events can even be tweaked a bit depending on your previous choices.
A totally linear story is indeed the end of replayability and the DEATH of an open ended game that MMOs are.

But if the story lets players some freedom of variation, it can work.

This is how SW:TOR ideally turns out. If it ends up with "must do this" storyline all the time and the only difference is the various origins and a different starting experience of your char, then it will suck... HARD.

The bottom line is that neither a linear scripted storyline nor a sandbox are the only, binary choices. I still tend to lean towards the more open-ended approach for MMOs.

P.S.: Nothing against player creativity and player driven events and stuff, but player created content is 99% suck and 1% win. ;)
Guild Wars has a story, but it does not limit my freedom to do what I want whenever I want. In general. Some chapters "gate" content a bit.

Just to name a game with good story and replayability. ;)
Quite the opposite: If not for story you'd quickly realize that 99% of actions are repeats. There would be no larger framework to say "you're doing something different" and as a result, it would all be reduced to mere button clicking. If that button clicking failed to be your exact preference for fun, it would quickly become too boring and repetitive.

However a completely rigid story would hurt replay, I will admit that. I somewhat like the parallel rails approach taken in kotor which will take you through the same overall events, but due to your actions and alignment they will play out with important differences, not the least of which is your perspective. In this case story is sustaining gameplay while being flexible enough to accommodate total replays.
It's even more basic, Take for example every couple of months or so I replay my favorite final fantasy Games. Yes I know the story by heart, yes It's linear as all hell. But with RPGs, the best I can say its like watching one of your favorite movies again. Yes you know whats going to happen, but you appreciate the characters and epic story so much it doesn't matter as long as it is well constructed and interesting game/story/movie.
Maybe. But perhaps replayability is overrated. When enjoying a good movie or book i do not think or even worry about the merits of a second visit. That said, ive seen my all-time favorite movie (Carpenter's The Thing) countless times. It never bores me, even if i really (think i) know it by heart. In fact i enjoy discovering new small details in the n-th viewing. The only games i played through more then once are BG and PST.
A funny thought, because as I am playing through Dragon Age, I have been constantly thinking about what choices I will make differently in my next playthrough, which is not something I normally do. DA:O offers so many ways to go about most actions that is above and beyond what I am used to for RPGs. Yes, the overarching story is always the same, but they made the traditional "Side with X faction or Y faction, both accomplish Z in the end" work really well in this game, since there are lots of ways they matter down the line.
I think that the worst part about that part was how obvious it was that you would be betrayed by *person*. As soon as I saw him it was, "Oh, yep, that's the guy."
This is why the content patch was invented; they only problem with this band-aid approach is that users consume the content much faster than the developers can create it. One possible solution could be procedurally generated content; however, the content generated by the game engine can be hit or miss, since it would lack the spark of human creativity or QA. In any case a game needs to be evolving to hold our interest for extended periods of time and offer some form of replayability.

I am afraid that you are using a poor example of story to build an argument against it.

The story in dragon age is very poor. It is basically a (SPOILER ALERT) rip off of lord of the rings with internal betrayal (wormtongue like characters) and the thread of the "blight" aka "mordor".

The problem is that the characters are uninteresting and poorly written, the dialog options are often uninspiring and dull.

If you want to look at games with good story-lines and interesting exposition, play BG1 or 2 or Planescape Torment. You can play through torment (without any cheats) several different ways, and while the outcome is roughly the same, what vastly differs is the way in which events are 'framed'. Perception of such events changes immensely based on what options you explored and how you built your character. As a result the experience itself feels different.

In the case of dragon age, what we have is somewhat interesting combat framed by a story that is at times intrusive on the player. I don't want to have to go to a silly cutscene for every quest, if the quest giver is some insignificant uninteresting townsfolk, a simple window with text would do.

If however its a more interesting NPC and a more influential/significant quest, then by all means blow me away with lovely exposition.

Its funny but I used to denigrate WoW so much...until I played it and realized what makes it stand apart is that it doesn't force anything onto the player, but lets the player choose what he wants.

One of the biggest gripes I have with dragon age is being able to make HUGE mistakes when building your character the first few levels resulting in a gimped character with no option to respec, retalent, learn a different tradeskill etc...

Don't force decisions on me that could result in a huge mistake before I know enough about your system to make an educated decision...
Depends on the game, really. Some are better than others - The Fallout series is notable for its flexibility, and Arcanum followed suit with that (Fallout is somewhat like Dragon Age, though individual results can vary a lot more, and Arcanum is the same except that the plot can diverge pretty wildly at about the 3/4 game mark depending on whether you're playing a good or evil character).

There are other games that have dabbled in more flexible plotlines - Indigo Prophecy tried it (I think it's called Farenheit where you are), though a lot of complains about that game are about the fact that about halfway through the plot becomes the same no matter what you did in the first part.

Alternatively, sometimes stories are just well-written. A big problem with RPGs is so much of the story is just pure EXPOSITION that it's tedious to sit through it all again, because you know all this stuff already. More action-oriented games tend to be easier to play through again because of gameplay, or character driven games like Psychonauts can also be fun to play again just because the dialogue is so entertaining.
The game is got nothing to do with Replay values. It is a good game with deep storyline, play it once enjoyed it , looking forwards to more Solo RPG games like this in the future. I think tolbold gets hung up in the MMORPG universe for too long.
I'm playing both DA:O and Torchlight right now and I've been struck by what an either-or pair they are. DA:O is all story, limited replayability, while Torchlight has a paper-thin story and infinite replayability. It's not a 100% either-or proposition, but it is striking.

To have an experience that offers equal story and replayability, I imagine you'd need a dungeon master simulator, an automated mind that acts on the game lore like a physics simulator acts on individual particles.

Easier said than done, of course. Also, I wonder what sort of affect this sort of system would have on community. Can we talk about this new kind of game around the water cooler, when Lord Guy is an evil bastard in my game, but Lord Guy is a saint in yours?
I rewatched one of my favorite anime series literally a week after I finished it the first time. I have read every book in my favorite book series at least 3 times each. However, I can't think of a game I played all the way through again for the sake of seeing the story again. Halo is an example of a game I played through a couple times, but I would say it was because I enjoyed playing the missions; not because I wanted to see the story through again.

There are a couple explanations for this difference. One, there simply aren't very many games out there with stories that I'd consider comparable to a good book or show in quality. Two, the interactivity in games may create a certain unreasonable expectation in the player: that they can control the outcome to a significant degree, and so if they choose differently they can make the story go a different direction.

Let's put it a different way. Story is absolutely NOT the death of replayability. Instead, it might be unhelpful for replayability. In other words, very few game stories are worthy enough to make someone want to experience the story itself again. However, there are plenty of games that are quite fun to play through again because the play itself is worthy of replaying. Story doesn't hinder that.
Reading through the comments I wonder how MMOs got associated with replayability.

Either you play games and enjoy them enough to replay them or you don't. Some people that made comments play a game once and they are done. Their goal is THE END.

For me, the goal is enjoying the game. Currently I'm replaying Chrono Trigger on the DS. I'm the kind of person who likes to do things again (like watch a movie again, re-read a book, or listen to a song again).

Despite small variations that can be done in the game, replaying it now has nothing to do with seeing a different ending or doing thing differently. I like playing the game, and I like seeing the story line and characters unfold.

If a game is good enough, people will play it more than once, storyline or not. What a storyline can do with a game is either add depth to it, or bring you more into the game.

If all you have is a game you might like it or you might be bored with it, but it won't matter unless you care about the characters in it. Even in a puzzle game like Tetris, you are facing the game. It's your story.

In that sense, MMOs are alot like Tetris, the story is simply your adventures out and about the world. It seems that people underestimate the story their mind creates for their character as they slay 10 boars.
Many people above have made some very important points regarding replayability, and I agree wholeheartedly.

However, isn't the concern here really that the dialog tree system actually kills playability?

The idea behind the dialog tree (nowadays) is to help shape and forward the player's narrative. It is also meant to help immerse the player in the game universe. But if I as a player sense that my answers have no real consequence, the result will be that I start using the dialog tree as a game mechanic rather than a narrative tool: I exhaust all options just to see what happens, quick-saving and quick-loading back if necessary. Or worse, I simply click through without thinking. Either way, I stop caring about the story.

So, it seems to me that there is a very real risk that increased choice actually risks reducing the immersion and the player's involvement with the story. That goes directly to playability. It's not entirely unlike the Civilization games or what Tobold previously has described about Empire: Total War. Once it becomes clear that the playing field is not level between the player and the "AI", you lose interest.
Hmm, so story is a limiting factor in how much fun you have in a game?

You can only experience the Onyxia quest/story line once on the same character, yet how many people have only killed Ony that one time?

What? You mean that people are forced to kill her again and again so as to have a chance at a specific reward(drop)?

Can we at least agree that there are disconnects that occur due to other elements of a games design that prohibits a narrative from being as effective as it could?

Why does a boss have to die? How is it possible that mortals can kill a God in the case of C'Thun?

While better storytelling especially in MMORPGs would be nice, it all ends up with us being trapped inescapably in stories we already know. Is story the death of replayability?

Tobold, I'm confused. In another, more recent thread, you stated that Lore was not important to the success of a game such as WoW. But doesnt STORY establish lore? And if the STORY is told better, wouldnt that also increase the level of understanding a player would have about the Lore, leading to a more wholesome and gratifying gaming experience?
I'm confused. What exactly were you expecting Tobold? DAO is an improvement to the role playing genre in terms of story telling and game play. Did you really expect a developer to create several completely different story lines never connecting? While that might be very fun, its simply not possible. Having multiple ending is perhaps the only option we have.

Replayability in DAO is about the various companions you travel with and the conversations you have through out the game. In this aspect, they succeeded I think. My elf mage is getting different dialogue compared to a Dwarf Noble Rouge, not 100% but about 30%+. Mostly nothing game changing though.

Also to Anonymous Max, you're entitiled to your own opinion but I think you're crazy. I love the cut scenes and taking screenshots of my entire adventure. Its one way to tell a story rather than just having Dialogue trees in BG series. And if you want to classify everything as a LOTR's remake then that's your loss. I will admit however than the Forgotten Realms (BG setting) is very rich and detailed, but its also had countless people building it for over 2 decades (which was recently destroyed with 4th Edition but that's another rant.)

I love DAO, so much more than open ended RPG's like Oblivion or Fallout which seemed like a cop-out. I'm level 12 and doing my 2nd major quest and discovered that one of the towns which I visited has been completely desimated so there's no going back there. The world of DAO is "living" because of very complex and detailed storyboarding. Not perfect but the best I've encountered yet.

The thing about Old Republic is that it's really 8 stories. You have the Jedi story, the Smuggler story, the Sith story, the Bounty Hunter story. According to BioWare, there isn't one repeated quest in the game. When you play through as a Jedi, and then go back and play through as a Smuggler, you won't repeat one quest.

I'm sure the stories will interweave and there is a larger Galactic story arc that all the stories will intersect.

Story is clearly a major part of a good RPG. It is yet to be seen if it's a pillar of the MMO. BioWare's experiment will certainly be an interesting one to watch.
Storyline? Replayability? How many times did I listen to Ragnaros' drivel before we set upon him with furious anger for his loot.

Storyline in MMORPG's have become an afterthought. The real story is in the set behind the scenes.

Whether it be on group, raid or solo level. Your personal experience is the story, their (the games) story only sets the stage.
Anyone who actually thinks DA:O is particularly indebted to Tolkien for its plot must be relatively ignorant of the rest of the heroic fantasy subgenre. DA:O is influenced by Tolkien in places, absolutely (sometimes it attempts fairly hard to subvert the Tolkien paradigm, with mixed success) but it also borrows from the Jirel of Joiry stories, Stephen R. Donaldson, Robert E Howard, and E.R. Eddison.

Not only is the tone not especially Tolkien derived, the plot and pacing and most of the fantastic elements are relatively free of the Tolkienian bombast.

Saying DA:O is a Tolkien ripoff is basically saying "I assume all fantasy = Tolkien" and it's simply not so. This game plays like Eddison, Howard and Lieber as much (if not more so) and they all predate Tolkien.
What seems to be the only way Bioware can really go forward with their single player experience, in terms of plot and overall game flow, is in my eyes to scrap the idea of "keystone events".

Now, in order to avoid having to deal with an infinity of universes, they would have to look into the inevitability of fate and prophecy.

Say, for example, you could prevent a certain trap early on in the game by eavesdropping on a conversation, and warning the right people, and thus saving the lives of two major NPCs. However, this would not simply mean the end of the story, ala Chrono Trigger.

Instead, fate will stick to it's (non-temporal) predestination, and someone else will assume the role of midboss (not quite finished yet, but I assume a certain black-haired fellow is such an archetype).

This would of course end up being very archetypal, with the plot only linking together loosely at only a few choice points.
So, instead of forcing a role unto a character, instead it would force a role unto the plot. It is only determined that there will be a villain, trying to attempt this and that, who it is would be determined by the character.

DAO already accomplishes this to some degree, so this is basically just an extension to the design of DAO's scripting and plot. And on a small tangent, the scripting could in be better, as it can sometimes cause... peculiar situations, when it assumes you have experienced something you haven't yet (for example, if you discover the goal of a quest, before finding the questgiver, the game will sometimes give you dialog that assumes you already are introduced to the quest).

This is of course a massive undertaking, both in writing, designing flow charts, scripting and voice acting, though if certain facts are established beforehand (eg, There will be a fight on a volcano), it can be done parallel to other stages in the creation of the game.

While it certainly seems doable, it would take the brightest minds of the industry (for example Bioware) to do it in a realistic timeframe. The question remains, however, is this dynamic story something players would appreciate (and we all know drool factor equals sales) enough to warrant the effort, or have we reached the height for scripting complexity in a story of this large a scale?
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