Stories often take the backseat in games, and more often than not, people don’t play games for their gripping stories – Planescape: Torment and the Telltale games notwithstanding. While some of the best games I’ve played have stories that complement the main gameplay experience, it is also true that many great games could stand almost entirely on the gameplay alone. In the case of Forged of Blood, we’ve decided to shoot for a strong narrative with meaningful choices and consequence as a main design pillar to complement our core gameplay loop.
Traditionally, when we think of a narrative, we naturally think of the stories we’ve read as novels or the movies we’ve seen on the big screen. Generally, this sort of storytelling does not work well for video games as pacing and exposition will be up to the player’s discretion. The ability to pause, save, and load also inherently diminish the impact of death and loss in a game. Furthermore, in a game the actions of the digital hero are restricted to the gameplay mechanics, while the paperback hero is limited only by the whims of the writer.
On the flipside, the defining advantage that a game has over the traditional narrative is player agency – and we as players are especially good at coming up with our own stories. For an extreme example, think of the last game of chess, monopoly, or even basketball that you had (or Minecraft, Counter Strike, you name it…). By design, these games do not contain a story in and of themselves but the actions of two players can turn any flat surface into a vicious battlefield of wits, a pit of betrayal, and set the stage for the heroes and villains to rise and fall.
Traditional or not, authored or born out of player action, narratives give an interactive medium like ours an incredible edge. Games are experienced and not read, and therein lies the visceral difference between between games and any other narrative format. For games, the narrative doesn’t have to be linear and in the best of cases it must account for player input in their design. For our studio and for Forged of Blood, the strong narrative design pillar dictates a narrative that will straddle the two extremes between the traditionally guided narrative and a wholly open-ended experience.
We will approach the story element of Forged of Blood as a bit of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style narrative that is driven by player decisions across the strategic, questing, and tactical layers. This way, we will be able to provide a more defined structure and backdrop to the player’s agency in the world we’ve created, but still make the experience unique to the player’s actions. That said, we will still have to keep an eye out for story creep and manage the number of different story paths in order to fit our production budget and timeline. There are various ways to mitigate the explosion of choices and companies like Bioware and Telltale are famous for having a “quest hub” structure where the player choice diverges and converges. This blog post covers many other ways story structures and be made if you’re interested in reading about it in greater detail.
The underlying issue with a more structured story is that players will ultimately follow the options set by us as developers – and even the largest AAA games have to narrow down their story endings to only a few options. Here too lies the issue of in which certain story branches might be more interesting than the other, but until the time where we can develop an AI that is smart enough to make decisions on the fly like a real Dungeon Master, this is the best option we have.
Ultimately, we do feel that the strong narrative is an incredibly important aspect of the player’s experience, and our design goal is to find the happy medium between traditional storytelling and incorporating player agency – especially in tying in to our first design pillar of “Meaningful Choice.” That’ll be it from me for a while – next week I’ll let Igor cover how we’re approaching the narrative design in greater depth.
Thanks for reading,