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Mutual Storytellers

The best thing about the old tabletop role-playing games is the Game Master concept. wonder if we can make this work in games?

Tynan Sylvester, Blogger

February 23, 2009

7 Min Read

The best thing about the old tabletop role-playing games is the Dungeon Master concept. The Dungeon Master is a person who creates and presents challenges to the other players. Since the DM can essentially do anything that a fictional world could do, he can spin, together with the players, emergent stories of incredible richness and variety. The breadth of experience creatable by a good DM is astronomically greater than in any other form of gaming.

The system works because it depends on the players making things up to entertain each other in real time. We don't even need to think of it as a game, really. One could easily imagine it as a structured mutual storytelling activity. This mutual storytelling concept is what I want to talk about.

In some sense, all multiplayer games use the mutual storytelling. Some people say that Chess is a series of puzzles that players pose to one another. Games like Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike essentially consist of two teams both trying to present the most interesting challenge possible to the other team. In Chess or TF2, the back-and-forth of challenges and solutions creates a story.

Still, we haven't seen computer games that really focused on mutual storytelling. Left 4 Dead pushed this a bit further than before (as I mentioned in my Design Technologies 2008 article) by placing two totally asymmetrical teams in a rich narrative framework. The Infected team isn't that far off from a Dungeon Master in D&D. The main difference is that their goal is still to kill the survivors as fast as possible, not to entertain them like a DM. But the idea of mutual storytelling has still never formed the core conceptual framework of a game.

I want to figure out if it's possible to create a digital game where mutual storytelling is the core idea that drives the entire design. Is it possible to design a game where:


  • Players construct dynamic experiences for each other in real time


  • Players get points for constructing better experiences. Victory by force isn't the goal, but victory by superior storytelling

The first mental model that comes to mind is to simply take Left 4 Dead and give points to the Infected team based not on how fast they kill the Survivors, but on how profound an experience they create for the survivor players. This reveals the core difficulty of this story trading game concept: how do we judge story effectiveness?

The first option is to create an AI story judge that will rate the storytellers on the effectiveness of their story. This is problematic. It starts to get into the hard AI problem of having an AI understand real-world human concepts. I think we could get an AI to rate action pacing, for example, but what about all of those more human storytelling elements? If the storytellers can place corpses or write things on the wall to imply history to an area, for example, how does an AI rate the effectiveness of this? Say that a message scratched in a wall foreshadows a challenge which the storyteller will present later. Computer can't read or decode language, so they couldn't judge the effectiveness of the foreshadowing device.

We could try to step around the problem by only including storytelling devices that the computer is capable of judging. This is a pretty narrow range of tools, though. And under this system, it's not even clear that an AI judge judging a human storyteller wouldn't be better than just using an advanced AI Director like Left 4 Dead. I think the AI story judge idea is dead; we'd be better off just investing more resources in a more advanced AI Director.

The second option is to allow the players who experience the story to rate how cool they thought it was. This can only work if they don't have any other incentives to rate the storytellers low or high. For example, it won't work if they are in direct or implied competition with the storytellers. This is difficult to pull off because multiplayer gamers tend to be so competitive. I think it might be doable, though.

Here are a couple possible models:    

  1. MMO Framework: The first way is to have players compete not just with the people in the current game, but within a larger framework. Imagine an MMO in which you gain experience in two ways: first, through the traditional method of playing with your character, except that now the challenges are presented to you by other players. Second, you gain experience by creating great story experiences for others, who will then judge you highly, thus giving you experience points. This doesn't necessarily need to be tied to character advancement either. Players could simply be assigned a permanent, persistent storyteller score which is very visible to everyone, like an eBay seller's rating. Nobody will want to play with someone who has a poor storyteller rating.


  3. Forced Points-Giving: The second way is to force players to give a fixed amount of points to dole out. Imagine a game with six players. At any time, four are storyplayers and two storytellers. The game will proceed in three rounds. Each player is a storyteller for one round and a storyplayer for two. At the end of the game, players are forced to vote on which of the two stories they played was more enjoyable. This clear choice between two experiences may be workable for most players. The "voting up your enemy" problem still exists, though. You might be afraid that the better story will be voted better than yours and thus vote for the worse one. In order for this system to work, the culture and presentation of the game would have to be very non-competitive.


  5. Eliminate Storyteller vs Storyplayer Competition: The third way is to only have storytellers in competition with storytellers, and storyplayers in competition with other storyplayers. Imagine a game with one set of storyplayers, who are always storyplayers and who, within this game, only play stories and rate them. There are also a set of storytellers who are in competition with each other, and who get to take turns telling stories to the storyplayers. Whoever pleases the storyplayers the most wins. Since the storytellers and storyplayers aren't in competition with each other at all, storyplayers are more likely to rate their enjoyment of the stories honestly.

I'm really not sure exactly how to do this. There are still many questions to be resolved. I want to discuss this concept with anyone and everyone. So consider this an open call for discussion. Please, if you're reading this and you have an opinion or idea, write it in the comments or email me!


  1. Is there any precendent for multiplayer games that are scored based on players judging each other instead of objective criteria?


  3. Is there any significant proportion of players capable of or interested in creating an interesting storyline or accurately judging one presented to them?


  5. Is it possible to do this non-competitively while maintaining player interest? Could this fit into a larger noncompetitive framework, a la The Sims or Second Life?


  7. How much power can we give storytellers? If we give them unlimited power will they simply abuse it? How many tools can they handle?


  9. Can normal people really fathom the concept of constructing an experience for someone else? Is it possible to train them to do it using various tutorials and tooltips or an AI advisor?


  11. Do we need more time than a normal game session to create a really compelling story? Does this mean we need a broader framework which can spread games out over several days?

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