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Lost in Game Space

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes certain game deficiencies that lead to player frustration and how better storytelling may provide the solution for one of the problems.

[This article originally appeared on the blog, Game Design Aspect of the Month.]

In the past few years, I have served as a judge for multiple game festivals and competitions. There are several reasons why some games don't make the cut.  Beyond the technical complications of not being able to get a game running, I find a similar failing may be in not having a strong enough tutorial, i.e. a player shouldn't be confused about how to play a game.  Struggling with controls or an interface is just frustrating and not the experience you want for a first-time player.  I recall there's an infamous transcript of a WWII Online player griping that it was easier flying a plane in World War II than trying to do the same in a game!

In other games, I find a beautiful world that I would like to explore, but I am directionless as to what would be my goal.  Free-form exploration and self-direction are fine as long as there's enough interesting content to support it indefinitely.  In most cases, due to production costs, this is simply not true.  Therefore, there needs to be a way to guide the player to the more interesting content rather than leaving the player to trod through the same loop of scenery.

A prehistoric storyteller describes a hunt.

Luckily, stories provide context and player motivation.  If I know I have to find a way off the island, then I'm not going to spend my time admiring sparkly fish.  Moreover, human beings crave stories.  Even in prehistoric times, cave dwellers conveyed tales of great hunts.  Stories tell us about ourselves and the human condition.

In this age of game making, it might seem like emergence or AI is the solution, but it's not enough.  Emergent stories could be interesting, but they could also be not interesting.  As Alex Toplansky said at the panel, Writing for Horror Video Games, even in systemic games, "a writer needs to come in and stack the dice."  Dramatic storytelling, whether linear or non-linear, is a crafted experience.   

As for AI, while there have been advances in computer algorithms generating stories, poetry, and news articles, sometimes a human touch is warranted.  To escape the redundancy of randomly generated "Rescue X at location Y" quests, players of the now-defunct The Matrix Online banded together to create an epic storyline that gave their characters more motivation.  While the quests did give the players specific goals to complete, the randomness did not generate an interesting story for players.

What's the lesson here?  As I have written in my article, Towards More Meaningful Games, don't leave your narrative design choices to chance.  Yes, a game still needs to feel open enough to allow for meaningful player choices but that doesn't mean that players should be left confused as to what they ought be doing.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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