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  • Out Of Weakness, Strength: The Three Ds of Narrative Design

    - Danny Allen
  • Every storytelling medium has unique intrinsic strengths. Books are free from budgetary, design, or time constraints. Movies and TV rely on visual spectacle to sell an emotion. Graphic novels use page layout to emphasize key moments. The zoetrope exemplifies life's endless cycle of futility.

    Over the years, video games have earned a bad reputation as story vehicles, and not just from snooty literary critics. I've heard many gamers boast about skipping cutscenes as proof of their commitment to hardcore gameplay and nothing else. I've had co-workers from other departments tell me that story always comes last. And while I agree that story should always defer to gameplay, I would argue that open-world video games have an incredible advantage to affect audiences in a way that no other medium can. 

    Dale Carnegie taught that "names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language...Talk to someone about themselves and they'll listen for hours." He also emphasized that "the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated," citing a hilariously dated study that the main reason "runaway wives" abandon their families is due to "a lack of appreciation." Who would have guessed!

    But how does this relate to video games? We're not selling steak knives or deserting a thankless spouse (I hope). But we can use human self-interest, along with the player's ability to freely interact within the game to complement the strengths that already exist in video games. Story relies on the Four Ps: People, Place, Plot, and Purpose, but I argue that video games contain an additional Three Ds, and I'm not talking about dimensions, har har: Dialog, Decision, and (i)Dentity. Hey, it works well enough for the Three Rs.

    I have arranged the Three Ds in order of directness: Dialog choices are immediately recognizable as a choice the player can make. Next, missions should present the player with some sort of decision, giving them an investment in the outcome. And overall, the player should feel that their gaming avatar is an accurate reflection of their personality, or the one they wish to live through the game. These criteria are only available through video games, and for that reason I believe games are the future of storytelling.

    I can't show anything I'm working on so instead I'll use examples from recent games I've played and a few classics. I am writing this article from the perspective of a narrative designer, and writing it specifically for other narrative designers. Also, I will not try to address the storytelling methods of linear games from studios such as Santa Monica Studios or Naughty Dog, who have created excellent and engaging stories while ignoring every point I am trying to make here.


    One of the most direct ways to give the player a voice is through branching dialog. This has been a staple of RPGs for about as long as the genre has existed.

    Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity: Gotta find those berries.

    Fixed protagonist games such as Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 use innovative branching dialog options as well.

    Press O to ask a stranger, "Did you swap your face for your ass?"

    Regardless of the genre, dialog should provide a breadth of options to match all player personalities, but the options should also be subtle. Life is subtle; the grey area is much larger than the black and white. Gaming stories should reflect this when possible.

    That brings us to one of my favorite recent games: Obsidian's The Outer Worlds. The dialog is written as a compelling mix of dark corporate satire and intimate, intertwining character arcs. In many conversations the companion characters interrupt to offer their own opinions, sometimes significantly altering the conversation. Obsidian has long held a reputation for sharp, memorable dialog, and The Outer Worlds shows why.

    In the above example, the player is given five options, all of which will end the conversation and lead to a fight against marauders. Three of the options are skill based, meaning they are only available to the player if their skill trees are high enough. The remaining two lead to the same thing: the player volunteering to fight solo. This gives the player the option to inject their personality. Is the player heroic or more of a smart alec? Will they risk antagonizing the stolid Lieutenant or will they defer to her authority?

    I like how the dialog options vary with the conversation. When the player enters the Unreliable, the game's shuttle between the different planets, they have this conversation with ADA, the ship computer. ADA questions where the captain is, who was accidentally crushed by the player's escape pod. The player is given three response options: assertive, sympathetic, and rude.

    You can see the same template here, when meeting Vicar Max, a future companion character: assertive, sympathetic, and rude. There is also a fourth option for players who care less about the local chaplain's job performance than he does. These options give the player a familiar path to follow. If they were too different from each conversation, it would be difficult for the player to nail down their character identity.

    But now look at the options. The NPC is preparing to offer a side quest. The player can ask several questions: practical ("How much am I getting paid?"), expository ("Why would a cleric like you  want a forbidden book?"), or just a sarcastic retort ("This is a sketchy favor, isn't it"). And for the players who aren't interested in the character's quest, there is an exit option.

    This is the first conversation available with Junlei, the space mechanic. Notice that the options don't match the standard template either: honest, secretive, or snarky. These options are more interesting and relevant to the question than the assertive/sympathetic/rude template. The Outer Worlds establishes a clear dialog template so that its players know what to expect, but it isn't afraid to break its own rules for the sake of a more interesting conversation.

    For players who set their character intelligence to low, there's even a "dumb" option:

    And sometimes the dumb options beget even dumber responses:

    The Halcyon System did not receive Earth's best and brightest.

    I've seen proposals about starting the game with a personality test and using the player's results to determine the dialog for the entire game. As a writer, this sounds like a herculean amount of extra work, but the result could be really cool. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this so far is ZA/UM's Disco Elysium. It features an unprecedentedly complex Thought Catalogue system for branching dialog that would require a separate in-depth analysis. The final script is over a million words long! But the intro-personality test has been done to an extent already by an earlier Obsidian game, Fallout: New Vegas:

    Thank the mod community for the third option.

    Providing the player with compelling dialog is important, but there is more to gaming than just conversations. As we learn from a very reliable source,"Words are wind, Jon Snow. Faith without works is dead." Or something like that. To truly engage gamers in the story, they should have power over more than just what they tell an NPC when they accept a mission. They need to have a say in the mission itself.


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