Sponsored By

Featured Blog | This community-written post highlights the best of what the game industry has to offer. Read more like it on the Game Developer Blogs.

This is the third post in a 6-part series on Designing for Interactive Story. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Greg Johnson, Blogger

February 8, 2016

12 Min Read


As we mentioned earlier (um… I think), there are quite a few games out there with variations on this path structure, and some rare story-games that deviate from it entirely. Before we talk about some of the approaches these games take, let’s have a moment of silent appreciation for some of the great Path-Structure games that have been made.   In our noble quest for the Holy-Grail of the Immersive Interactive-Movie experience we don’t want to blindly rush past these great achievements, some of them truly inspirational and… dare I say it? …works of art.  Two of my personal favorites are ICO and Journey, although every gamer has their own favorites, often games that changed the course of their life and perhaps even launched them into a career of making games themselves.  There is a lot that can be done with a simple formula, and sometimes limiting your variables so you can focus on doing fewer things well, is exactly the right choice. 

In the next few pages we’re going to run down a list of some of the techniques existing games have used to promote a sense of player-involvement in story.  We’ll start by looking at a few variants on the Path Structure, and then devolve into a grab-bag list of some techniques people have been using to enhance story immersion and involvement.  Lastly we’ll list out a few newish concepts that are just starting to be explored.  It’s worth noting as well, that individual games generally use more than one technique.  Designers may do this without thinking of them as specific ‘techniques’ per se.   Whatever works, right?  Still by pulling them apart we can hopefully empower designers to achieve their goals with greater clarity and efficiency.

A disclaimer:  Examples of games are listed under the concepts below.  These examples are meant to help readers understand the concept, and aren’t meant to be exhaustive by any means.

Structural Path Variants:

  • Open World Sections

These games intersperse their constrained path areas with, wider, more open spaces, often cities or towns.These open areas usually have some light simulation element to them to make them feel alive and populated with NPC characters and enemies. (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, Mad Max, Red Dead Revolver)

  • Branching Paths, and Networked Paths

Sometimes players will come to a crossroad where they must choose one path or another.Usually these new paths will re-converge along the main path.In a story sense they represent “optional” story threads.Sometimes games will allow players to re-traverse unlocked paths later, giving a sense of a bigger open world but still constraining players in their initial play through.Some games create a network of paths and apply these to a map, so that players can go from place to place but still always be on a constrained path. (Fable, Magicka)

  • Embedded Paths and Areas

Players moving along a path will sometimes find a doorway leading to an ‘embedded’ path, or open area.This is similar to a branching path, except a branch is a choice (path A or path B) and it lets you out in a new location, while an embedded path is an addition, and it brings you back to your entry point.

  • Maze Paths

Many games will make a path feel less linear by turning the path, or parts of the path, into a maze.It is still a constrained path, but it’s not a straight line.If we replace the word “maze” here with “dungeon” it becomes easy to see that it is commonly used. (Skylanders)

  • High-Level Maps, and Side-quests

Many games will have an overarching map that players have some means of moving freely on.When they get to destinations on the map they drop into ‘embedded’ paths or open areas.Occasionally, these may, in turn have their own portals that drop you into new ‘embedded’ paths or open areas as well. (e.g. going into a building). Usually, in a story-based game with a map players need to unlock sections in some order that allows the story to be told in sequence.Usually there are optional areas players can go to in any order, and these are called side-quests. (Nino Kuni)

A Grab bag of Additional Techniques

  • Multiple Outcomes and Multiple Endings

One of the most common, and powerful ways to give players a sense of impact on an unfolding story is to allow their specific actions to alter the conclusion of the story.The wonderful thing about a conclusion is that it doesn’t lead to new branches of the story.Often, if designers are super clever (and if they have an adequate budget to create content) they will add in multiple outcomes to player actions that happen midway along the story.This might be something like causing the death or saving the life of some NPC character, and thereby changing some aspect of the story. The trick here usually, is to figure out how to make it feel like you’ve really impacted the story without changing the course of the main story – at least not until the very end. (Deus Ex)

  • Player Reputation, Being Good vs. Being Evil, and AI Memory of player actions

Some games will build some simple AI into the game’s NPCs that allows them to refer to things the player has done or “said” earlier in the game.Sometimes this NPC impression can be widespread and result in what feels like a growing ‘player reputation’. NPCs might become more impressed or appreciative, or more afraid of, or angry with the player.Some games focus on giving the player choices that take them down a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ path, with consequences and a reputation that affects the ‘flavor’ of the story experience.(Fable, Black and White, Fallout, Mad Max, Doki Doki Universe, Animal Crossing)

  • Random NPC Generation

A few games have taken the approach of creating random NPCs with different appearance or behaviors.This allows subsequent play-throughs of the game to feel different, and it allows different players to have slightly different, ‘customized’ story experiences.Shadow of Mordor put a lot of work into a system like this and called it their Nemesis system.

  • Companion NPCs

Occasionally games will provide players with an NPC character who becomes their travelling companion.This can be an effective way to build emotional connection with an NPC.These characters don’t need to be super smart for this connection to be effective.By having a companion character in a game with a more traditional structure (e.g. path structure), it allows the designers to put as much or as little effort as they want into the NPC’s AI, without requiring it to bear the entire weight of the game. (ICO, Last Guardian, Never Alone, 2 Brothers, Brutal Legend) 

  • World Transformation

Some games take the approach of gradually changing the appearance of the environment or the state of some main characters, based on how the player chooses to act.  This choice usually takes the form of good actions vs. evil actions, or light vs. dark.  (Black and White, Fable)

  • Barren World Fiction

This isn’t a technique so much as it is a ‘side-step’ strategy.Many games create a fiction of an “empty world” that the player travels through.This has the wonderful advantage of not needing to create a lot of intelligent-seeming AI-driven characters.It can also lend itself well creating a certain tone of somber loneliness, and give an epic, mythic mood to a game. (Journey, Rime)

  • Branching Video

This is a technique that has been used to great effect by a company called Telltale, as well as a few others.Players watch a high quality movie-like story, and make choices as the movie plays by clicking on things.As they do this, the story branches.A variety of other techniques can be applied to this approach, such as limiting the time players have to make choices, requiring players to search for the choices, etc. (Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, Kings Quest)

  • Persistent Time

This technique involves allowing time to pass in the game world when the player is not present.This can allow a player to gain resources when the game is off, or make players feel missed by NPC characters, or let players return to see world or character states having changed.It can lend great believability to a game world, but it poses a number of design challenges (…that we’ll conveniently ignore right now).(Animal Crossing, Seaman, Mad Max)

  • Multi-Player Companions

Some games are built to allow 2 or more live players to go on a journey together in an online story-adventure.This is an effective way to bring really high-quality AI into the game. (OK, fine, it’s not Artificial Intelligence, it’s RI …“Real Intelligence”).Feeling like you are not alone in a world can connect people emotionally and make the entire experience feel more meaningful, even if the world itself is devoid of other characters. (Journey)  The down side here is that it’s hard to control what other players do in the story, and they may not want to role-play the way you want.One stratagem for dealing with this, is to severely limit the amount of actions or input they can have, still this has obvious downsides and only works if it fits your fiction.

  • Open-World Structures

An Open World game is one that tries not to constrain players in terms of where they can go.In a truly open world game the player has access to the entire world right from the beginning. Often, there are still locked areas, or factors that limit the player’s access to new areas, such as tougher enemies, or resources needed to travel. Open world games pose challenges for story sequencing – i.e. controlling the flow of events or narrative. (We talk more about this below).

  • Light, Heavy, Local , and World Simulation

Light simulation is when NPCs do simple looping behaviors that make them appear alive and busy.These AI’s are only minimally reactive, but they provide a backdrop that feels less static. (Fallout2, GTA,) Heavy Simulation (or deep simulation) is when one simulated NPC (or creature) affects the behavior of other NPCs.This creates causal chains, (or cascading behaviors) and worlds that feel much less predictable and more alive.This is harder to control from a story perspective. Heavy simulation can also mean more sophisticated NPC reactions to the player as well. (Dwarf Fortress, Spore, The Sims) Local simulation refers to simulation that is tightly controlled in a small space.This can have big payoff for relatively little cost. (Assassins Creed) World simulation is when the entire game world is part of one big connected simulation. (Animal Crossing, The Sims)

  • Sandbox Play

This is not very different from Open World, but it’s worth a mention.Sandbox worlds are ones that offer players interesting consequences to their actions, but don’t require players to satisfy goals in any order.Players are free to explore at will and experiment in a giant virtual sandbox.(Minecraft)By creating a world filled with interesting consequences to player actions it’s not hard to allow players to create their own stories.Still it becomes very difficult to create a system that yields sophisticated or satisfying stories.

  • Conversational Interactions

It’s difficult to imagine a compelling story from a book or movie that doesn’t have any conversations.Sadly, this is one of the most difficult things to pull off in a videogame while maintaining a sense of player freedom.The most common way to handle conversation is with conversation trees.These offer players fixed choices of a sentences, or sentence fragments, and then after players make their selection, NPCs deliver their sentences in response.There are a few other techniques used, such as ‘emotional posture’ selection, non-verbal communication action selection, or conversation chunks.This last approach involves breaking conversations into pieces and allowing players to access these in a non-specific order. (Starflight, Doki Doki Universe)

  • Ongoing Story vs. Back Story

It is worth being aware of the difference between ongoing story and back story because they have different requirements for delivery.Ongoing story is a story that is unfolding as the player plays. (i.e. the perception is that the events in this story are happening due to the players actions). Back story is a story that has already happened, possibly long ago.With ongoing story there is the expectation that the player’s actions may be able to affect what happens, and because the story feels like it’s happening “now”, there is a much stronger requirement that the story unfold in some logical order.Back story, on the other hand, can be useful because players don’t have any expectation of affecting it with their actions, and it can be revealed in a much less controlled order.Most mysteries involve discovering and uncovering back story – (i.e. what really happened to this civilization, or how did person X get killed).Players may find clues to this in a random order.This may not be as satisfying as ‘living the story’ but it’s a great way to give players the ‘sense’ of compelling story.(Destiny and Mass Effect)

  • Creating a Network of Dependent Gates

One approach to structuring an open ended interactive story game is to create a network of dependent story-gates.One does this by starting at the final player-goal (we’ll call that “D”) and working your way backwards in a big networked chart.In order to get D you must have “C”, in order to have C you must have “B”, and so on.To get “C” you can go to location 7, or location 8.At each location there are conditions for how to get the thing you need.In order to know how to satisfy these conditions, or where to go, you piece together bits of back story that you learn as you travel about. Finally, you limit the player’s ability to get to these locations by needing resources for travel, and by placing increasingly tougher enemies in the outlying areas.This is essentially the formula that some very old-school old open-ended space exploration games used.It is a very open-world structure and has no paths in it (though one could certainly embed paths).It relies heavily on back story. (Starflight, and StarControl 2. )

Read more about:

Featured Blogs

About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like