Editorial: Narrate My Lego

This would be ideal for the next Fallout.
Linear narratives work for most games today, but there must be a better system in the future.

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.

Creating stories on the fly.
Each village has its own stars. These characters fuel the narrative for the player.

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!


  1. There’s definitely a place in video games for less structured storytelling like this and for linear narratives. For my money, I vastly prefer games that are more linear than ones with open worlds and a ton of room for exploration. This is partially because the storytelling does suffer a great deal in most open-ended games, due to the difficulty in making compelling storylines that can branch off and intertwine in so many ways and for so many different situations. The other reason is that linear games just so much easier to finish quickly and get that satisfying story arc completed, which is a huge deal to someone with little free time to spare. So, to that end, I’m not sure I agree that a “better” system for storytelling even exists (for my tastes).

    More than that, I’m not convinced that Levine’s method can accomplish what I would want out of an open-ended game (because complexity and randomness does not necessarily lead to good narrative), but the more complexity and character they can add into interactions, the more realistic those interactions become, which can only serve to improve all types of narrative. So, I’m all for him trying to shake things up.

    The current approach for most games seems to be to simply write complexity and depth into the interactions of the characters to create a more realistic narrative, which works very well if the writer is good. This Narrative Lego approach relies more on the randomized personality of their stars and their zero-sum system of affection toward the protagonist to create complexity and depth within the narrative. I suppose this will create some very interesting results and almost endless replay value, but I’m not sure I see how it will necessarily lead to a better narrative than just writing one really good linear one. It just seems like it leads to more narratives, and obviously with more narratives, there will be a dilution of quality, unless significantly more development time and money is spent and/or some technology gets created that can help with the process.

    I guess when it comes down to it, I would really rather just have a good storyteller spoon-feed me a story than have to create my own story, no matter how good the process for creating my own might be. I can see the appeal in having unpredictable things happen in the game, but that always wears thin after all the unpredictable things have been seen. So, really, I can see this becoming just another gimmick that hack developers use to give their games the air of having a larger, more complex world. Hopefully they have the sense to use this as a tool, or building block to a new style of storytelling, and not a crutch.

    This is all just my opinion, obviously, and this was largely off-the-cuff, so I will be more than happy to be shown the light by someone who sees this in a different way than I do. This was a great choice for a post (and it was well executed, to boot), Imatanis! Even though I kind of shit all over this concept here, I really do find it very interesting, and I do think it can lead to some much-needed advancements in the way video games are able to tell compelling stories.

  2. I played linear games and no linear games and I like them both. This narrative I would like to see in a game like Oblivion but not being the case in a traditional Jrpg, since I like those games being linear with a rich storytelling feed giant spoon .

    I agree with everything Brettsuo said specially that complexity and randomness does not necessarily lead to good narrative . I think a good narrative comes from having great imagination and the ability to put that into words in an well executed manner.

    I greatly enjoyed reading your article Imitanis.

  3. I didn’t know about this talk, so thanks for this article, Im! I’ve been thinking a lot about this type of design, although not exactly in the same direction that Levine is. I think there’s a way to combine linear narrative with the learning process that defines good gameplay. The game should react to the way the player plays, but the player should also react to the way the game plays.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys. I really appreciate it, even if each of you don’t necessarily need this type of narrative in your games.

    I’m hoping something like this system pops up in an Elder Scrolls or Fallout title somewhere down the line. Perhaps it could even handle post-game content in games with more linear narratives.

  5. @Imitanis: I really like the idea of the compromise between linear narrative and the Narrative Lego system, where the linear narrative comprises the “main” storyline and the Lego system handles interaction between lesser NPCs, and/or during sidequests and end-game stuff. It would add a nice bit of depth and flavor into the more generic characters and serve as a welcome distraction from the main storyline for those who are looking for a reprieve.

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