[Originally seen at BlackShellMedia http://blackshellmedia.com/2017/07/25/balancing-act-gameplay-story-roguelikes/]
Streets of Rogue supplies a random character with a random occupation with varied skills and abilities and plops you into the game world. Your goal is the same, but with procedural generation your path will always be new.
Story Taking Priority Over Gameplay
Traditional Approach to Story
- The first act should be designed to be played through once. At the very minimum, it could simply be an introduction cutscene. A more accessible idea would be to design this as a tutorial to introduce the player to game basics and mechanics. The importance however of this first act is to set the stage for the player. This should be designed to be played once and it needs to stick with the player so when they jump to the second act they know what the game is about. The smoother this part of the game goes for the player the more inclined they will be to continue playing. If it is too slow or uninteresting then you might be in for a shock when reviews start rolling in. The player is usually savvy with the basics for the game they purchase, saving time on not explaining common sense will likely be a smart move.
The second act will symbolize the core of the game, this is where all your gameplay lies but beside that each sequence that play out will progress the game story. The intention however is to be able to tell your story without bleeding into a third act. Writing in subplots within the story can create a clear characterization of the playable character. Through these subplots players can connect with their playable character, understand their motivations and personality and maybe establish a connected identity with them. By the time player's reach the third act there will be more of a personal aspect to the game.
The third act is more complex but more traditionally a turning point for the player. The goal here is to implement a conclusion. This can be done more simply with a last stage/biome or boss event. Endings don't always have to be straightforward however. You can save the world or you could default the final boss but end up causing characters more trouble. A game can end whichever way a developer wants, this is their choice and the only limit is their their imagination.
Three Act Structure Mockup
Mechanics at One with Story
The struggle with writing an immersive high quality story within a roguelike comes from trying to keep the gameplay intact. This kind of balance requires a developer to constantly analyze how each part of their game is made and where focus will be put.
There are many approaches to take when merging the two aspects of a Roguelike. One approach to take is to implement the key aspects of the genre and make them a part of the story. So for example the aspect of permadeath can be embedded into the story as a timeloop, similar to that of the movie Groundhog Day. However the specifics as to how this occurs are down to the personal choice of the developer in charge of the story.
Another example is the mechanic of Procedural Generation can be disguised as a curse that has affected the games levels or even the world that the games characters exist in. Each time a location changes on each run, it is a side effect of the story elements, rather than having no reason at all. This gives something players will normally recognized as just a genre standard and turns it into something even more special.
A great technique I personally think helps roguelikes succeed is using emergent narrative when creating your game. An emergent narrative can be a story that isn't constructed by any person. It is a story that emerges from interactions between players and the system or systems that govern gameplay. This is the driving force of a player experience. The game should have a strong introduction, ending, and gameplay mechanics that don't distract from the quality of the game. Poorly designed gameplay, combat that doesn't have weight or impact, bad sound design, or many other elements can ruin this approach to emergent narrative in a roguelike. Compared to a big budget cinematic and linear cutscene heavy games, a roguelike can be a lot more gameplay orientated but the way to make story work is to focus on the player and how they can interpret it.
An example of this could be one harrowing playthrough a player has, where they start the game as a blank slate, but through a series of randomly generated locations and random NPC encounters, a backstory and character starts to develop based on the character's experienced. You could even tie in special stat bonuses/penalties based on the character's experiences to further cement this emergent gameplay. Or, you can randomly generate backstory like SanctuaryRPG!
Lore Makes a Huge Difference
On top of balancing gameplay to suit your story, something that will deeply benefit it is in-depth, detailed, and well-written lore for everything in your game. Many roguelikes will come with a Journal or some sort of Codex system that logs down everything you interact with in the game. This is sort of expected for the genre as it would become frustrating if there were no information to accompany the various elements within a roguelike. The recent release of Caveblazers is a very simple semi-clone of Spelunky and includes a journal that the main character uses as a way to jot down everything the player encounters. It contains all the information the player needs and can refer to at anytime. It becomes a necessary resource if one wants to survive up until endgame.
Slow Reveals and Quests
Balance, in All Things
Usually, story is handled quite well in many of the titles that I have played. Only rarely will it hinder my game experience. Once in a while, titles I play will have gameplay that doesn't fit the story or inbalances between the two which results in a lack luster experience. Those games will end up being forgotten at the bottom of a game shelf or in a bargain trade bin at a game store. It is important for developers to take the time to formulate mechanics that suitthe story they are writing but also make sure there is a balance of the two. Games solely focused on story tend to have lower quality gameplay, and games that focus solely on gameplay have nonexistent or uninteresting story elements. Never be afraid to pack in as much detail as you can within game lore. Also don't be shy when adding difficulty ramps to your end game. When ramping difficulty after a certain point in your game, as long as it makes sense to you then it will make to the player also. Look at what other developers have created. Many games developed today take inspiration from other titles. There is nothing wrong with that as much of the time developers end up bringing new ideas to the table as well as refinements to common roguelike mechanics. Story can be implemented with gameplay in many ways, whether allowing for player stories to form naturally with solid plot anchors or with a more traditional narrative here the game is split into main acts. The one thing to avoid is straying the path when constructing a roguelike. If the game shifts too much with gameplay mechanics or pacing it will most likely turn off players on release. A goal to strive for when balancing these the elements of story and gameplay is to strike an accord with how you want your player to perceive your game. Your story needs to interest them but also offer a challenge through well designed gameplay. Adding meat on the bones of your game allowing for them to return over and over again, all whilst focusing on immersion and interactivity. This will ensure the player will have something to come back to. Finding the best of both worlds and implementing them into your game is a part of your goal amidst many goals when developing a roguelike.
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