Some Principles for a “Story Now” Video Game

June 2, 2011

Over on SG, I objected to Jamie’s claim that “what [indie roleplayers] know [about storytelling in games] can’t be done on a computer yet,” saying that “Complex, emergent, player-driven stories are totally possible on a computer RIGHT NOW. Heck, they were possible 10 years ago.”

Johnzo called me on this, saying he was “a little skeptical. Can you do a thought experiment on what something like this might look like?” And I’m not one to pass up an opening like that, so here’s a few basic principles — drawn from 10 years of involvement in indie roleplaying — that I’m going to attempt to apply to video game design, at least in this imaginary exercise.

1. “Don’t repeatedly hand the players a fish; teach them to fish.”

A “story now” video game doesn’t tell a story to the players; it gives the players the tools and support that they need for telling their own story. This is a fundamental shift in design orientation and was the grounding principle of LowFantasy, the imaginary iPhone app I sketched out for Christian Griffen a couple years back.

2. “The game is not the GM or the other players; its just the rules.”

Likewise, the game text (in this case, interpreted as code by the computer) cannot substitute for the other human beings that you need to play the game, even with the best AI programming people can turn out these days. And you can’t just play the game with yourself due to issues like the Czege Principle (which says that creating and resolving the same conflicts often isn’t very fun). Similarly, bouncing a ball and catching it isn’t nearly as fun as playing catch or some other game with other people. Video games, at least as they are now, aren’t really that different.

3. “The most important interactions are not player-game, but player-player, mediated by the game.”

Derived from the above, the core of the game is not the players interacting with the “rules” or the “text” or whatever you want to call the computer-rendered content. Rather, the core is players making choices that affect — through the medium of the game — other real, live people and their choices. Really, in a way much more than most existing video games, this asks the game designer to leave the room, metaphorically speaking, to take themselves out of the equation and let the players talk to each other rather than commanding all the attention on the beautiful thing they’ve created. Sure, it may be super beautiful, but if it doesn’t facilitate interesting interactions between the players, it’s not doing what we’re asking it to, in this particular case.

4. “To naturally constrain a story, limit its scope.”

Games like Breaking the Ice and The Mountain Witch demonstrated pretty clearly that limiting players’ options doesn’t feel confining if there’s a relatively specific experience that they’re coming to the game for. You don’t need to allow players to go anywhere and do anything. Why would that make sense in the story? Why would they even want to do that? Instead, make them choose between the options that are actually available to them. Furthermore, if “story now” is about addressing the premise, then it’s critical to have one and have most things in the game point directly at it or at least in its general direction. Speaking of premise…

5. “Ask a question with your story, but leave it to the players to answer.”

In Apocalypse World, this is called either “leave yourself some things to wonder about” or “play to find out what happens.” Don’t answer the question in the rules or the players won’t get to answer it themselves. This requires both a lot of trust on the part of the game designer and often for them to sit on their hands. Don’t answer the question! Don’t even rig the game to reach specific results! Don’t do it!

Anyway, there’s my starting point.

4 Responses to “Some Principles for a “Story Now” Video Game”


  1. This seems to be the IRC/skype/infrno/maptools/sleep is death direction – where we’re using the computer mostly as a tool to play a game over the internet, but the computer is not arbitrating between players, which allows them to do as much crazy stuff in the fiction as they want, the only limit is their imagination, but also requires a lot more of them.

    Over on the other end is Diablo or WoW, where the computer does all the arbitration, the fiction is almost entirely in the game code, is limited to a few verbs (kill/cast spell/buy/sell/equip), and whether you roleplay or not or imagine that your character has a cool tattoo under their armor is irrelevant.

    I personally haven’t played Sims Online or Second Life – but I think there’s sort of a middle ground there – the players have tools to create elements in the fiction and collaborate but there’s no “You’re dead! Am not! Are too!” problems.

    Another game in the middle-ground is Neverwinter Nights with its “GM” mode – it arbitrates game rules, but there’s a GM who can play NPCs … oh, it was so close to being awesome …

  2. Tim Jensen Says:

    Where do you think
    * Mass Effect
    * Red Dead Redemption
    * Minecraft

    each lie on the spectrum?


  3. Jamie: Yeah, it’s really too bad that Sleep is Death was so unaccessible and didn’t provide enough structure for people to really feel empowered to do great things with it.

    I’m definitely not thinking about multi-player games beyond, say, 5-7 players at a time, though. Honestly, one of the games that best represents the kinds of things I’m thinking about here is Left 4 Dead. The zombies are not characters, really, just a medium for the PCs to explore their relationships. It maybe doesn’t provide as many opportunities for the players to express their ideas about the characters, but otherwise it does a lot of these.

    Tim: Just going on what I know of them… Mass Effect is all pre-programmed plots, not player-generated material, so it’s not anything like this. Red Dead, like a lot of the stuff in the GTA tradition, has the illusion that you’re pursuing your own goals, because of the range of pre-programmed missions, but it really only gets close to what I’m talking about here when you’re riding around with a posse of other human-controlled characters. Minecraft I know even less about, but it’s hard to say. My sense is that it does have player-generated plots, but I don’t know enough about how the multiplayer works for the rest. Also, what question is it asking? Unless maybe it’s Brecht/Weill’s “What keeps a man alive?” (from Threepenny Opera).

  4. Chiaroscuro Says:

    do you guys know Sleep is Death??? http://sleepisdeath.net/ it might be along the lines of what we are discussing about.. more as a toolkit than a finished game.


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