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  • Storytelling In Games: Time And Space

    [06.07.22]
    - Robert Renke

  • The third ordering device is the blockage. Blockages can be things like locked doors, to which a key has to be retrieved, guards that won't let the protagonist pass unless they receive a favor, or security cameras that need to be disabled. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Sylvester(2013) mentions skill gating as a softer ordering device. Other common gating techniques are level gating or time gating.

    Skill gating is categorized as a soft ordering device since players can access all the content from the first moment. However, some of the content requires to exercise skill before being accessible. Players end up experiencing the content in rough order as they progress along the skill range, even though the content is technically available from the start. (Wei et al., 2010)

    Level gating on the other hand does not make the content available from the start. It still allows for a customized player experience, while enforcing order based on the avatar's level rather than player skill.

    Time gating makes use of the dissonance between playtime and event time. With time gating, content is released based not on progress, but on real-world time. This serves a variety of purposes depending on the situation. For example, a game such as Life is Strange could be released episodically, allowing players to experience the content while the next episode was still being developed. It can also serve to limit progress in repeatable quests through cooldown. For example in World of Warcraft, some quests can be repeated to gain reputation. While daily or weekly replayability also serves retention, the ability to repeat those quests without cooldown would allow the player to level up beyond the according range, skipping relevant parts of the content and damaging the difficulty balancing by not receiving other rewards.

    Narrative order devices:

    • Levels: Content is locked by blocking access on a topological level
    • Level gating: Content is unlocked by increasing the avatar's level stat
    • Skill gating: Content is locked using difficulty
    • Time gating: Content is locked using real-world time
    • Quests: self-contained mini-stories within a larger game world
    • Encounters: softer, responsive version of quests using game state variables
    • Blockages: locked doors, guards, etc.

    Ordering is not limited to high-level narrative structure but also concerns the many pieces of information that are released on a micro-level throughout the experience, such as elements of the world narrative, or flavor texts like in item descriptions. (Mehrafrooz, n.d.)

    Figure 7: Mehrafrooz, B., (year unknown). [screenshot from Dark Souls III, FromSoftware Inc.]. The Ultimate Guide to Game Narrative Design. Pixune Studios. https://pixune.com/game-narrative-developing-a-story-that-works/

    Narrative ordering is furthermore a method for controlling difficulty. The next screenshot shows a tooltip from a "shadow attack" in GoodGame Empire. While the story of shadow mercenaries is unrelated to the overall game's story, the event introduces a new mechanic to the gameplay, which first has to be learned. Here, level gating is used to make the event unavailable to newer players, avoiding cognitive overload.

    Figure 7: GoodGame Empire. GoodGame Studios. https://empire.goodgamestudios.com/

    Branching and the butterfly effect

    Another common nonlinear technique is branching plotlines (Wei et al., 2010). The issue with branching plotlines, according to Sylvester(2013) is that the number of timelines rapidly explodes.

    Figure 8: Sylvester, T. (2013). Designing Games. O'Reilly. https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/designing-games/9781449338015/ch04.html

    The problem presented by Sylvester is best illustrated by the notion of magnification in chaos theory. In Love, Death, and Robots, episode 15 "alternate histories", the spectator is put in a first-person role and is advertised the fictional app "multiversity", which applies branching plotlines to real-world history. At the beginning of the 6-minute-long episode, we are presented with 6 alternate timelines included in the "demo". Starting from a clear causality, the episode proceeds to further illustrate chaos theory(E.Lorenz, 1963), commonly metaphorized as the butterfly effect.

    In classical mechanics, the behavior of a dynamical system can be described as motion on an attractor. The mathematics of classical mechanics recognize three types of attractors (regions or shapes to which points are pulled): single point (steady states), closed loops (periodic cycles), and tori (combination of cycles). A strange attractor displays sensitive dependence on initial conditions. On strange attractors the dynamics are chaotic. It was later recognized that strange attractors have detailed structures on all scales of magnification. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021)

    We can see how Alternate Histories shows how (non-)linear the effects of seemingly similar events can be due to the magnification effect. Indeed this episode goes so far to display different degrees of (non)-linearity, based on May's(1976) logistic map. As narrative designers, we can make use of chaos theory to define to which extent a given event should affect our story's timeline and find a common ground between credibility and available resources.

    This notion should be considered when writing our flowcharts in the case of branching plotlines. Any player decision, as small as it can be, can have "unpredictable" effects on the outcome of the story!

    Through careful planning and reasoning in the early stages, we can create sense while limiting our narrative's scope to a conceivable complexity.

    Sylvester(2013) argues that the only situation in which branching plotlines are a feasible structure is if almost all content is generated emergently. If events are predefined to any significant degree, it is necessary to reduce the number of branches.

    Sylvester proposes to retain some of the choices by using devices such as side quests and story convergence(foldback).

    Figure 9: Sylvester, T., (2013). Designing Games. O'Reilly. https://www.oreilly.com/library/view/designing-games/9781449338015/ch04.html

    A popular example can be seen in Life is Strange: Here, options have individual probabilities on the outcome, however, those probabilities are themselves altered by previous player decisions. (Nekumanesh, 2016)

    Following an overall foldback structure, the occurrence of the storm(climax) is unavoidable, as it is the effect of magnification of the initial state(Max saving Chloe). Not only does this limit the project's scope to a reasonable level, but it also drives the spectator towards the emotional highlight at the end, which although reducing replayability, is clearly the intention as the final scene pretty much conveys the core sentiment of the narrative.

    Hudson(2011) proposes an amplitude-alignment scale to bring order into this chaos. According to Hudson, if we understand these smaller events, we can estimate a realistic effect.

    Hudson, K., (2016). Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qie4My7zOgI&t=483s

    By feeding information to a database and having the game understand causal relationships, the game can organically react to the player's actions over time. According to Hudson, this is often done especially well in strategy games. Doing so strongly affects the emergent outcomes, rather than being considered as branching storylines, since the game organically reacts to the player's actions instead of having a finite list of outcomes.

    Figure 10: Hudson, K., (2016). Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qie4My7zOgI&t=483s

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