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What are good ways to reconcile a desire to allow the user to have freedom of choice and have their choices affect the world, with the desire to be able to have a story without the player 'ruining' it?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Why is linear vs. nonlinear narrative something that has to be "reconciled"?

Some games tell great stories. The two most oft-cited memorable moments, the death of Aerith and the death of Floyd, were both completely out of the player's control and happened in non-interactive cutscenes (or equivalent). Nothing wrong with this.

Some games let the player tell their own stories. The Sims series takes this to a rather extreme level, and the series has done quite well for itself, thankyouverymuch. Sure, a lot of the stuff players make is worthless... Sturgeon's Law and all that... but the flip side is that you've got a few real gems in there from really creative players, expressing things that just couldn't be done in a linear game.

Some games split the difference, giving the player a choice of several paths or stories, so you can think of this less as something where each game lies along a continuum with "fixed, hand-designed experience" on one end and "player-driven sandbox" on the other. Some players prefer one, or the other, or anything in between. So I think the real question here is: what kind of game do you want to make along this continuum, and how do you make it the best game you can?

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One relatively easy pattern I've seen several games use to a varying degree of success is to have the player change something about themselves instead of something about the world. Red Dead Redemption is a good recent example of this. Basically the idea is that you try to structure your player's goals in a way that they can choose to do "good" vs. "evil". The end result is mostly the same (or if it's different the difference doesn't affect much outside of the little area of the world).

The way the player feels like the world is changing is then solely due to the semi-emergent behavior of the NPCs reacting to the player given his notoriety. You set up your NPCs to say random things to the player and have good and evil player chit-chat banks. You might even go so far as to start structuring the major quests' wording depending on how good/evil the character is. Maybe you set up some kind of ancillary "faction" system where if the player starts down one path they can reinforce it with a separate (but smaller and therefore more maintainable) set of quests to accomplish.

Of course it doesn't have to be good/evil. You could do stealth/action, or whatever kind of choice dichotomy you set up for your player.

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IMO, most of this describes Fable to a tee. – JustBoo Aug 11 '10 at 21:17
This can be dangerous narrative-wise though since it can lead to the main character feeling disjointed from the story or the actions they take in scripted events or cutscenes seeming counter-intuitive to the character they've built. I've read about this being an issue in Red Dead Redemption specifically. Not saying that this is inevitable just something one may want to look out for. – lathomas64 Aug 27 '10 at 13:03

Writing branching story-lines is effective but time consuming and doesn't account for player autonomy to do random things. Players will enjoy the ability to change the story but will still know they are on a planned path. Mass Effect is a good example of this.

Separate story elements from player autonomy like Red Dead Redemption as Tetrad pointed out. This makes it difficult to allow players to change the story and is very "Theme Park" design.

Honestly playing a game where you could ruin the story would actually be kind of fun, but you would have to have an appropriate response from the game for doing that though.

It all comes down to how well you plan out your story.


Game Career Guide just released this article on Nonlinear Narrative.

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Out of all the "systems" I've seen, new and old, implemented in games, I think Morrowind got very close to achieving a solid balance of freedom coupled with a reason to play the game.

That is, an extensive, entertaining, epic main-quest and lots of side-quests. And the main-quest actually meant something... as say, compared to Fallout3, yawn.

For example, Borderlands could have been something very special if they had realized this. Oh, and in Morrowind, you could easily ruin the "story." Bug or Feature? :-)

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what did you do for the rest of the game if you ruined the story? – lathomas64 Aug 13 '10 at 14:26

Look at Deus Ex and the Ultima series for examples of games that have a strong storyline but give the player plenty of leeway on how to achieve their goals.

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Ever try playing a Way of the Samurai game? Your decisions change how the world reacts to you as well as change the story. The caveat though the usually use active time constrains and short time for each play through this way they can minimize the variations available.

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Way of the Samurai? no I'll have to check them out. – lathomas64 Aug 13 '10 at 14:24

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