So what do we mean when we talk about a game s story? Many game developers consider a game s story to be a predetermined series of dramatic events, much like the story one would find in a novel or a film. These events are static and unchanging, regardless of players actions in the game-world, and the story is typically conveyed to players between gameplay sections. For example, in Command & Conquer , players are told the story of the conflict between the GDI and Nod forces through cut-scenes between the different missions. The story determines in part where the missions take place and what players have to do in them, but typically once players have completed a level, the story can proceed in only one direction. The only potential endings to the story are success and failure, with success coming after players have completed all of the predetermined goals in all the levels, and failure coming at any point where players let their forces be overwhelmed by the opposition . Some games allow some simple branching in their story lines, but each branch is still predetermined by the game s designer, and usually the branches are fairly limited in scope.
But there is an altogether different type of a story associated with a game. If what I have just described is the designer s story, we can call this other type of story the player s story. Returning to the example of Command & Conquer , each time a specific player plays the game, she generates a new story unique to her. Indeed, each level makes up a mini-story of how the player won or lost that level. For instance, let us say that the player started out her game on the GDI side, building a large number of Minigun Infantry, Grenade Infantry, and Humm-Vees. These forces, however, were nearly wiped out by an early Nod attack, during which the enemy s Flamethrower Infantry proved to be too much for the player. The player, however, was able to exploit a vein of Tiberium she found nearby and build an Advanced Power Plant and some Barracks. The player then concentrated on building only Rocket Infantry and Mammoth Tanks. When the Nod Flamethrower Infantry next attacked , the player was easily able to run them over with her tanks. A number of the infantry started retreating, and the player directed her tanks and Rocket Infantry to follow them back to their base. There the GDI infantry were able to bombard the Nod structures from a distance, with the Mammoth Tanks taking out any resistance they encountered . Thereby, the player won the level. This is the player s story.
Now, when many game designers talk about storytelling in games, they are most likely not talking about the player s story such as the one told above. However, the player s story is the most important story to be found in the game, since it is the story the player will be most involved with, and it is the story in which the player s decisions have the most impact. This is the story they will share with their friends when they talk about the game. Though the story may not be very interesting to others, it will be extremely interesting to the person telling it, who lived through it. In most cases, once players have defeated the level using cunning tactics, they will be much less interested in the pre-scripted, full-motion video (FMV) designer s story that comes up between the levels, explaining the next level to be played . There are certain advantages to having a designer s story, of course. It can contain interesting characters and situations and employ traditional storytelling devices such as building to a climax, creating tension, foreshadowing, and so forth. The designer s story can add meaning and relevance to the actions the player performs in the game. For example, taking the One Ring to Mount Doom to be incinerated and taking your trash to the incinerator are roughly equivalent activities, except in the former case the story gives the action meaning and importance, while in the latter the banality of the activity makes it thoroughly uninteresting. Unfortunately, the use of these devices is often at the expense of the interactive nature of the story. On the other hand, depending on how a given player plays the game, the Command & Conquer player s story told above may not have much drama or narrative tension to it, and as a result may be somewhat limp as a storytelling experience.
The ideal for interactive storytelling is to merge the designer s story and the player s story into one, so that players can have a real impact on a story while the story retains its dramatic qualities. There are two good examples of the ideal interactive storytelling experience. The first is an example Chris Crawford is fond of using: that of a parent telling a child a story. The parent has in mind a story to tell including what characters it will involve, what surprises it will contain, roughly how the story will unfold, and approximately how it will end. But as the child asks questions about the story, the parent will change the tale accordingly . The parent may use a book as a guide, but will stray from that guide as necessary. For example, the story might begin: As the princess wandered through the dark forest, she was frightened by many different things she saw, including a large newt, a dark cave, and an old shack . As the parent tells the story, the child may ask questions. What color was the newt? The newt was a strange shade of yellow, a color the princess had only seen in the royal spiced mustard. What about the cave? From within the cave came a terrible smell, reminiscent of the smell of sulfur burning. Maybe there s an old sorcerer in there, making potions. Does she go into the cave? She did enter the cave, taking each step carefully in order to avoid stumbling in the dark. And as she went deeper into the cave, she started to see a light, and a voice shouted, ˜Who is it that enters my cave? And as she got closer, the princess saw an old wizard with tattered robes There may not have actually been a sorcerer in the story as the parent had initially intended to tell it, but as the child asks questions, instead of answering you can t go that way or there s nothing special about it as a poorly designed computer game might, the parent adapts the story to the child, adding detail and introducing new characters and situations as necessary. The overall story arc and its main protagonists may not change that much, but the child has had a real role in determining what exactly happens in the story.
Another example of truly interactive storytelling is found in many pen-and-paper role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons . In a game of D & D, the Dungeon Master (DM) leads the game, guiding the other players through the game-world and telling them the story as it happens. The Dungeon Master plans out in advance the locations the players will be exploring, has some idea of what characters the players will meet in what locations, and probably knows what major conflicts will be presented. The players, though, are in control of what parts of the level they investigate, and how they conduct themselves with the different NPCs they may meet. For instance, theDM probably does not have a script of what the different NPCs will say when approached. Instead, she knows what their personalities are like, and how they are likely to respond. When players ask an NPC a question, the DM is able to come up with a reasonable response on the fly. A cleverDMwill never have to say, The NPC does not understand your question. As with the parent-child storytelling experience, theDMwill be able to keep the players on track with the overall story she wants to tell, while allowing the players a considerable amount of freedom in how that story unfolds and perhaps even in how it resolves.
Of course, the problem in creating a computer version of an interactive storytelling experience such as the ones described above is that both require a human to be telling the story, since a modern computer will never be able to dynamically come up with story developments as well as a human can. So the best a game designer can do currently is try to recreate such an interactive storytelling experience, but, in lieu of dynamically generating the story line, anticipate all of the questions players might ask, places they might go, and lines of dialog they might want to say. Of course, this is a Herculean task, and no matter how much anticipation the designer employs, she will never be able to think of everything players might try. At the very least the designer must try to allow for different playing styles and levels of inquiry into the story-world, instead of pigeonholing players into one way of playing the game and exploring its story. If a designer is interested in truly interactive storytelling, it is her responsibility to make the designer s story flexible enough to allow it to become the player s story as well.