Tag Archives: Heather Albano

Balancing Narrative Design and Player Agency: Part Two

The Philosophy of the Branching Railroad

By: Heather Albano

“Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available.”                                                                                                                                                        – Clive Barker

“There’s no way…any company would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats.”                                                                                              – benjaebe, www.giantbomb.com

It is not possible (today) to design to Clive Barker’s ideal. There really isn’t any way a company operating in the real world would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches accordingly.

But more importantly, that is not the no-pun-intended path to good narrative design. The more branches you are dealing with, the less of a chance you have of doing any of them well, and the less distinct they will be from each other. Designing your game as a branching railroad does not mean allowing the player to do whatever they like and branching the story accordingly. It means allowing the player to go through multiple (not infinite, but not singular) distinct and satisfying emotional journeys based on their choices. Under this philosophy, player agency dictates which one of multiple well-designed narrative arcs is experienced—i.e., whether the railroad takes them to Awesometown, Awesomeville, Lake Awesome, or Awesomeville Heights.

All Roads to Awesome-1

Let’s take a simple example first. If I were going to make the “star-crossed lovers” game with two possible endings, the Claudio and Hero one and the Romeo and Juliet one, the first thing I would do is look for the choice that caused the difference. I think there’s a good argument that the first story plays out happily and the second plays out sadly because Friar Francis is a whole lot more careful than Friar Lawrence when setting up his conspiracy. Admittedly, neither friar is a main character, which weakens this argument a little, but both are absolutely active characters, actors who affect the stories in which they dwell—what Shakespeare might have called players in their dramas. The friar-player takes an action (makes a choice) that determines whether the narrative arc is a tragedy or a comedy.

It happens well before the end scene, but the story doesn’t branch there. The game wouldn’t need to branch there either, only set a variable that remembers what the friar did. So you’d design it this way: At the point where the friar sets up the conspiracy, the game stores a variable recording the level of care. The rest of the game proceeds linearly. And then, at the very end, the variable is called, leading to one of two end scenes—one that makes the story a comedy, one that makes the story a tragedy.

The game designers would not need to craft two completely separate branches, only a single additional scene. All the other scenes—falling in love, beset by external forces, separated by those forces, clever plot, everyone thinks the girl is dead, all seems to be lost—are exactly the same. The despair on Claudio’s face is the same as the despair on Romeo’s. But in one arc, the moment of “all seems to be lost” is the suspense before the happy ending; in the other, it is a beat in the tragic downward curve. The two different endings change the player’s perception of all that came before.

Now let’s take a more complicated example. (Serious spoilers for Choice of Broadsides follow, but the game’s been out since 2010, so…)

In Choice of Broadsides, a game I co-wrote with Adam Strong-Morse and Dan Fabulich, you play a naval officer of the Napoleonic era, in a secondary world, fighting for “Albion” against the “Gauls.” A secondary world Horatio Hornblower, essentially. Very early in the game, you are involved in taking an enemy prize ship, whereupon you meet Lt. Villeneuve. In the middle of the game, you meet Villeneuve again, during a temporary peace between your countries. At the end of the game, you face Villeneuve in battle. These points are hardcoded.

In the first encounter, you can treat your prisoner as well as honor demands; you can treat him even better than honor demands, so very well that your crew objects; or with polite chilly distance; or very badly and dishonorably indeed. Depending on what you choose to do, a variable is set.

In the second encounter, that variable affects what choices are open to you. Your actions here can take the beginnings of a friendship or enmity and dial them back to chilly polite formality, or your actions can deepen your mutual friendship or mutual hatred. At one extreme end of the scale, encounter 2 ends with you and Villeneuve fighting a duel at dawn; at the other, you and  Villeneuve end up banding together to fight off footpads. Depending on how you set your gender and sexuality variables up front, the footpad fight can even end with the option of a love affair.

So depending on what you do in encounter 1 and encounter 2, when you meet Villeneuve in battle in the climactic scene, you are facing either your star-crossed lover, the person who could have been your dearest friend if not for the unfortunate fact of war separating your countries, your oldest rival (in an intellectual sense, mostly functioning as “the face of the opposition”), or your bitterest enemy with whom you have many personal scores to settle. All four of these are recognizable narrative arcs that feel satisfying; all four of them feel distinctly different from each other; and all four are driven 100% by upstream player agency.

The climactic battle scene is the same scene for all four arcs. The player has the same options within that scene no matter how they got there, they have to perform the same actions to win the encounter, and the same stat checks determine whether they won or lost. But it looks completely different to the player who comes at it from the “star-crossed lover” path than it does to the player who comes at it from the “I’ll make you pay if it’s the last thing I do” path.

Encounters

As Daniel Greenberg phrased it at GDC 2014, “The game world does not exist on the screen. It exists between the ears of the player.” The player’s perception of any given scene is influenced by their previous experiences; their recollection of earlier scenes is influenced by the one they’re in. This shifting perspective is a tool that the designer can consciously use.

If you plan it out ahead of time, you can make the same scene function as a certain beat in one arc and a different kind of beat in another. The “oh God, she’s dead” moment functions as “the darkest moment is just before the dawn” in Much Ado and a downward step in the unrelenting tragic arc of Romeo and Juliet. The first and third encounters of the Villeneuve arc are the same no matter what you do in the second, but the variable nature of the second changes the entire story.

If you default to designing for reuse, you have more flexibility to briefly branch in the places it matters, with an only incremental—instead of directly proportional—additional cost of production resources. However, this does mean you have to architect the whole thing up front—the entire game and all arcs through it—and that task carries its own complications.

We will talk about the nuts and bolts in the third and final installment of this series.

Heather Albano is a storyteller. Sometimes she writes traditional fiction and sometimes she makes games, and she finds the line between the two growing fuzzier all the time. Her most recent game, A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, incorporates all the principles talked about in these blog posts, and is available here.

If you want to know what she’s doing next, or just follow the random thoughts that wander through her head, check out www.heatheralbano.com.

Balancing Narrative Design and Player Agency: Part One

The Train To Awesometown

by Heather Albano

In September of 2013, I had the pleasure of being in the audience of the Narrative Design panel at the Boston Festival of Independent Games, listening to Brian Moriarty, David Lebling, and Terri Brosius talk about the craft. The quote that got tweeted the most afterward was Brian Moriarty’s “Games are the art of choice.” It’s a great sound bite, and it made me particularly happy, given that Choice of Games, the company for which I do most of my work, has based its entire business model around meaningful player choice. In Choice of Games games, the choices made by the player absolutely affect the player character, the game world, and what happens next.

Awesome quotes are often even more awesome in context, though, and “Games are the art of choice” was part of a really fascinating larger exchange. If I recall correctly, it was David Lebling who responded with something like, “It can be really hard to balance player choice with the desire to tell a coherent story. You might want to communicate a really strong narrative about the prince of Denmark who comes home from school to find that his uncle has taken his father’s crown, and what he does about that. But on the other hand, you want the game sandbox to function realistically for the player, and the player may want to say, ‘Let Uncle Claudius have the throne. I never wanted it anyway. I want to go be a pirate.’”

And that, of course, is the essential tension in the narrative designer’s role: the need to balance player agency and good narrative design.

We are accustomed to viewing these elements as a trade-off. On one side of the spectrum, there is the kind of game that functions like a railroad, prioritizing narrative at the expense of player agency. If the narrative design is good enough—if it matches the beats of a classic narrative arc, if it resonates with the player on an emotional level and leads the player to walk away feeling satisfied—then many players won’t mind being unable to make narrative-affecting choices. In the words of a member of my college LARP group, “I don’t mind being railroaded if I’m on the train to Awesometown!” But players who place a premium on having agency will be disappointed; it doesn’t matter to them how awesome the destination is if the train goes there no matter what they do.

On the other end of the spectrum is the sandbox game, which allows complete player agency, and where the only narrative is the one that emerges organically as the player interacts with the system. And whose narrative design is by definition nonexistent, since the unfolding of the story is randomly generated rather than consciously designed. It’s possible for a randomized emergent storyline to match up to the beats of a classic narrative arc, sure. Given world enough and time, players interacting with a State of Denmark sandbox will indeed create The Tragedy of Hamlet through their choices. But in any given playthrough, it’s not the way to bet, and while you’re waiting, you get to suffer through a bunch of weak, wandering story arcs. And players who place a premium on narrative design will be disappointed in that.

“Railroad” and “sandbox” are of course not the only options—it’s a continuum, not a binary. For instance, you can have a sandbox with a railroad running through it, where there’s one main mission with a good strong satisfying narrative arc and a bunch of other stuff you can do if you want; or a sandbox with lots of self-contained railroads in it; or a situation where choices are offered, but they ultimately all feed back into the same narrative railroad; or—perhaps most interestingly—a situation where the player gets to so heavily customize the car they ride that the railroad feels different each time, even though analysis may prove it to be the same railroad.

Sandbox 2

Spiral Railroad

These shades of gray aside, we generally conceptualize player agency and good narrative design as tradeoffs. “We” is the game-playing community, not just the game-writing community. When you see players online complaining that their choices didn’t impact the story, you also see responses along these lines from other players:

“Partly due to production constraints and partly due to the writers’ desire to tell a coherent story, most games like this don’t have dozens of varied endings.” [KOTAKU]

“There’s no way…any company would have the resources to make a game that fully accounts for every player decision and branches the story accordingly while still hitting the same story beats….” [GIANTBOMB]

(Both of these quotations happen to be in reference to The Walking Dead, but this isn’t me beating up on The Walking Dead. They were simply the best quotations to illustrate my point. My italics, in both cases.)

The statement, “We can’t incorporate all player decisions and still keep the beats of a good narrative arc” carries the implicit assumption that you can only create one good narrative arc out of given story’s building blocks. That if you have story elements A, B, C, and D, the only good, satisfying, recognizable, emotionally resonant arc goes from x to y to z in a parabola. Anything else will be unsatisfying, and therefore bad narrative design.

Or, in other words, it’s a railroad where one branch goes to Awesometown, and the rest wander off into empty prairie.

Not So Awesome

There’s a lot of critical intellectual support for this conviction. A memorable 2007 exchange between Roger Ebert and Clive Barker used Romeo and Juliet as an example, with Ebert maintaining that the building blocks of Romeo and Juliet are set up to be a tragedy, and it would be completely stupid (my paraphrase) if it suddenly had a happy ending.

He has a point, and this is what I mean when I refer to classic, recognizable, emotionally resonant narrative arcs—the ones that spark a feeling of “Oh, I’m the protagonist of that story.” When you have a play where a boy and girl fall in love at a masked ball, then the boy and girl are plagued by outside forces trying to drive them apart, then the girl engages in a deceptive plot with a friar to make it seem as though she is dead, then the boy hears the news, believes it to be true, and is heartbroken—at that point in the narrative, you really have to end with the poison and the tomb to have a satisfying conclusion. If the boy discovered it was a ruse before he killed himself, and he and the girl lived happily ever after, that’s just childish, right? A refusal to grapple with the inherent darkness of the story. If it ended that way, it wouldn’t be Shakespeare. Right?

Except that’s the thing. It wouldn’t be Romeo and Juliet. But it would be Shakespeare. That’s the plot of Much Ado About Nothing.

In Much Ado, Hero and Claudio are deeply in love, beset by jealous outsiders. Claudio believes an ugly slander about Hero that is backed up by a truly evil piece of theater staged for his benefit, he leaves Hero at the altar, and the word spreads through the city that she has killed herself. Claudio is distraught, hates himself for what he’s done, would do anything to change it back if only he could, but it’s too late—whereupon the ruse is revealed. Claudio begs Hero for her forgiveness, and they marry. Benedick and Beatrice also sort out their problems and marry, the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, and everybody else lives happily ever after. It’s a Shakespearean comedy.

But the first time I saw a performance of Much Ado, I didn’t know the story. And as Claudio berated Hero at the altar in front of her friends and family, and she sobbed out protestations of innocence and pleas for understanding, I found myself tensing. Then came the friar and the feigned death, and I’m thinking, “I know this story. This is Romeo and Juliet. I thought this was a comedy?” It was. It is. But a Shakespearean comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy are not always distinguishable until you know how they end. You can create two very different, emotionally satisfying, deeply resonant narrative arcs using the same building blocks.

In fact, if you select your blocks carefully, you can use one set to create many different, emotionally satisfying, deeply resonant narrative arcs. We’re not talking about a pure sandbox here, since emergent storylines don’t reliably equal emotional journeys. And we’re clearly not talking about a single-branch railroad.

We’re talking about a railroad with branches to multiple destinations, each one its own solid and compelling and distinct emotional journey, each one hitting recognizable and satisfying story beats.

All Roads to Awesome

Next time we’ll talk about how a branching railroad can be constructed, in the context of real-world constraints such as development schedule and production cost.

Heather Albano is a storyteller. Sometimes she writes traditional fiction and sometimes she makes games, and she finds the line between the two growing fuzzier all the time.

If you like steampunk time travel, check out her novels Timepiece and Timekeeper; if you like Victorian gaslight fantasy, Napoleonic naval battles, medieval court intrigues, or zombie apocalypses, check out her Choice of Games titles; if you like James-Bond-style spycraft and/or interactive radio dramas, check out Codename Cygnus. If you want to know what she’s doing next, or just follow the random thoughts that wander through her head, check out www.heatheralbano.com.