One of the most exciting talks that came out of GDC last month was that of Ken Levine on the topic of Narrative Lego. In this talk he outlined an idea for how different NPCs within a game world could interact with the player and each other. Best of all, he was happy for anyone to take away any of the ideas and use them for their own games. The idea itself is not completely revolutionary – many other companies are using similar ideas in tightly scripted games, but the beauty of Levine’s method is that a main story may not need to be written at all.
Imagine starting in a world with two villages, Orcs and Elves. Each village has its stars that the player will interact with, the rest are all drones that make up the general population. Each star has three passions that are completely transparent to the player. When a player performs an activity within the world that a star has a passion about, it will move a bar for that passion, positively or negatively depending on the players action. How much a star likes the play depends on how much the player has influenced that stars passions.
This may seem like loyalty systems that have popped up in RPGs over the years. Yes, at a base level it is. Performing quests for the Orcs would make the Elven village hate the player, and visa versa. These other games would have had scripted events that trigger when the player has increased their reputation enough. Levine proposition was that the events that arise from interaction with stars should not be scripted affairs, but instead should offer interesting scenarios for the player.
Let us imagine that we have been helping Romeo the Elf. When the Elven villages gives us a quest to spy on the Orcs, we are told to take Romeo along because out of everyone in the village, we get along with him best. During the quest, Romeo divulges that he has a secret fourth passion, Juliet the Orc. Should something go wrong on the quest, orcs could discover the player, but what if one of those orcs was Juliet? Does the player slay all the orcs and risk souring his relationship with Romeo, or does he spare her? Leaving a survivor would surely mean that the orcs know who had spied on them.
The above example is just one possible outcome of the quest. The player could potentially have taken any of the Elven stars with him and deepened their relationship. Juliet may not have been amongst the orcs that showed up to investigate, or perhaps the players companion would have only been to happy to kill Juliet. As Sid Meier once said, games are a series of interesting decisions, and throwing the player into these situations throws up many decisions.
This is what is born out of having just two villages. What happens if Dwarves and Goblins are put into the game as well? Maybe a single individual in the Elven and Orcish villages care about what happens to other races, but soon there too many interactions for the player to keep track of, and this is a good thing. Some games would allow the player to appease every faction in the game before completing it. This would not be the case in Levine’s vision because any action could have unforseen consequences. This is know as a zero sum game, because the player cannot make everyone happy. An action in favour of a particular character may be frowned upon by another the player has not even met yet.
This is where other games have guides to tell the player how to keep the right NPCs happy. That would not be the case here, because the passions could be randomised each game, adding replayability. Each star would have a list of passions that could be chosen for the game. Maybe the game could be simulated for a varying number of years before the player is dropped into the game. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet have managed to sneak away together and no longer have the same passions because they have made a life together.
What players should look forward to in the future is a better way of delivering content to us. Most expansion packs are add-on content where the player is given a new area or new story to explore. What we should be demanding is add-in content that does not necessarily extend the story of a title, but instead gives more options to the game when starting it over. Think along the lines of Enemy Within for XCOM which added new enemy units, a new resource and more ways for a player to develop their characters without actually extending plot at all.
The solution for better characters in games is not one that will be met with better technology. Too many games try to simulate a person rather than their character. Physics engines were not developed for a single game, but were gradually improved upon over the generations. When we start to see a company take up the challenge of developing these ideas, then maybe others will take the next steps to bring us a world where we no longer need to follow a main quest.
Do you think these ideas will be implemented in this generation? Do you think they can be applied to all genres? Do you think they are even necessary? Let me know in the comments!