Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Modular Plot" will be the next big innovation in gaming

New changes in the way we see plot could lead us to more interactive worlds to play in

As I sit in my living room watching my wife play Bioshock Infinite (and occasionally chiming in) and having an amazing experience, I can't help but notice the story unfolding in front of me and think about the things that Ken Levine (Infinite's lead developer) said in an interview with Polygon last year:
 "Look, I've been thinking about narrative a lot and the future of narrative and how to make narrative...I've been working on a concept I call narrative LEGOs which is how do you take narrative and break it down. What are the smallest part of narrative that you can then remix and build something out of? Mix and match."
Now I haven't seen any sign of what his next project is going to be, but this statement in the interview excited me. Think about all the possibilities of a world where plot points don't exist to merely develop a story. A world where you aren't inexorably thrown toward a predetermined course and given only superficial choices. When every choice has a deep and profound consequence on not only your world but the story of your avatar, what would you do?

My interest probably boils down to reading too many choose-your-own adventure books as a child. I loved to see where my choices took me, and how they could end the story in an instant on the next page. Everything mattered and there were no pigeon-holed points where I needed to pass through to reach an exciting conclusion. The suspense was palpable and consistent. It's only too bad that games these days fall short of something that was perfected 20 years ago in written word.

The problem with modern gaming plot is exactly what I just mentioned, pigeon-holed plot points. Plots these days are meant to tell meaningful stories through the narrative of specific points of the game. An emotionally impacting event or a menacing enemy all add up to develop the characters and story in order to reach an exciting climax and conclusion. Both of which are most likely also predetermined in some fashion or another.

This is your standard plot in modern games. There are choices but the eventual outcome is a straight line.
Take an example of two games that claimed to hold choice, but both based their conclusion on a final choice; Fable and Mass Effect 3. The endings of those games were vastly different based on your choices (namely the last one you made). However you still reached that point in space and time, where that choice was made, and your character made it to determine what "ending" you would see. What might happen at the end of the game where you aren't at the tipping point of the world/galaxy? Where a choice along the way makes your characters plot bypass that exciting climax entirely! In the cases I mentioned, the world would have ended, but isn't that an ending in itself?

That may not sound exciting initially, but if you consider a world where these plots were intertwined, and the entire world did'nt depend on your performance or influence, then the world itself could develop around you. The influence of the main character would become secondary to the development of the world unfolding based on it's history and current events.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. Think about when a single event happens (like a battle where you might have the option to go and assist) and there is a lack of your characters presence; the entire battle would tip in the oppositions favor based on your preference. Those differences would reach back into your chosen plot line (by a visit from a broken and shattered man who is one of your friendly contacts) and show you the changes that were happening in the world around you where you might have had an effect (now that the entire community has been wiped out, plot lines that may have had a way to direct you through to that climactic conclusion of the biggest story are gone, and you must make due with your current life).

Bethesda has almost mastered this in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, except for their major plot points. No matter what you choose during your time, to complete the most rewarding parts of the game and see the reason you have been "chosen" you must pass through specific trials that are predetermined as your destined path. You can slay anyone who may have a job for you, or just wander the forest as a hermit. However choosing the obscure way of playing has no reward since it was added as a feature and not a plot device. The actions you take and their effect on the world, is different than having an effect on a successful plot.

See, a plot is hard to construct without control (or if Ken creates it, minimal control). Essentially, in a games plot there needs to be three major themes/events: the rise of the story, the climax, and the fall of the story following the climax. To build to that climax successfully, you need suspense, foreshadowing, character development, and intellectual and emotional investment from the audience. Without a definite climax or fall, building a plot rise to ambiguous points is difficult. Which is why all developers include plot or space-time chokepoints in their stories to develop the plot successfully no matter the characters choices.

Now imagine a world where there are not specific plot points you must reach to move YOUR story along. Where predetermination is generated from within the gamer instead of by the developer. Where the smallest portions of the world are ready to be attached in a tapestry and the thread is held by the gamer. You may care about helping the needy, or fending for yourself, but both lead you in different directions entirely. There is no "final boss", only those people and beasts that act as obstacles to the goal that you set for yourself.

Simplified, this is what I imagine the plot lines of Ken Levine's modular plot driven game to look like.
Unfortunately this kind of world building, would take a very long time and require massive resources; unless you could find a way to make these choices act in a modular way. Where you could control portions of the plot, but not the eventual outcome for the player. Where you could master the art of "Plot Legos" and deliver a world where outcomes of some plot modules either restrict or open other plot modules in an inconspicuous way. And eventually deliver you a story that is at least partially unique to you as the audience.

If anyone can break this barrier and introduce the gaming community into a new era of gaming based on choice, I believe that Ken Levine can. Even as I watch my wife get slaughtered over and over in the tale of Booker Dewitt, I know that somewhere out there she may have chosen a different path, and sadly she might never have played Bioshock. Now isn't that exciting?

"Heads or tails?"

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