Chasing artificial creativity

I’ve read more than a couple of times the sentiment that games won’t reach their maximum level of expression until they evolve into “procedural storytelling” where an AI crafts a specific story taking into account every action of the player. That absolute player agency is the holly grail that we as an industry should be aiming for. That interactivity is what differentiates games from every other medium and so it should be the primary and maybe even only aspect to focus on.

Certainly this sentiment is very popular due to the increasing number of “cinematic” games that tell a linear story at the expense of the actual interaction. Quick Time Events being the absolute worst trend to ever hit this industry and a symptom of the impossibility of trying to tell a “story” within an inherently interactive medium. So stop shooting your companion in the face, stop jumping over the tables at the bar and sit down to listen to the damn story, dangit!

The argument seems to become even more clear when even games that try to embrace interactivity to some extent by offering branching paths in the story turn out to be not as effective as one would hope.

It’s natural to conclude that games weren’t made to tell carefully crafted stories. They were made to let the player craft a story of their own. Through procedural storytelling.

Yeah, I don’t buy that.

The identified problem rings true, but the solution is way too extreme to even consider. Sure, it would be a nice thing to have, but I’m not sure that it’s the only solution. If you had a flamethrower, you could bring a tree down with it, but that’s not the only (or even the best) way to do it. Some may even call it overkill.

It all depends on the level of freedom being given to the player and the level of response delivered by the game. Infinite capacity for response and infinite freedom being impossible unless one were to actually develop procedural storytelling. Like turning lead into gold is impossible unless one were to build a very complex lead-to-gold machine and feed it a tremendous amount of energy.

It’s a utopical and not very practical way of solving the issue. Procedural storytelling feels more like a dream than a real system that could be built. Dreams are made of wonder and are mysterious in their inner workings…. while what we need is a real solution that could be actually achieved at some point. To define what’s the problem in order to define what’s the possible solutions.

Getting to the point: The problem is that completely linear stories don’t translate very well into games. That’s it really. So let me offer a simplistic and practical way of dealing with the issue: Just don’t tell a linear story.

You’d have to tell a story in such a way that the player isn’t forced through a sequence of events that must happen. That is to say, give the player the freedom to do what he wants within the context you’ve given him.

One of the simplest ways is by embedding the story within the gameworld and letting the player discover it at his own pace. A great example of this is the original two Fallouts, where there is no actual “story” per se, but there are characters and locations with their own little details that the player can discover. Nothing is forced,  everyone can be killed if enough lead is pumped into them and even then, the “ending” is still achievable at all times. The story being told is the one that the player drives, but the designers are the ones that created the world and framework where that type of story can exist.

And that is only one of the ways it can be done.

The environments themselves can tell a story of their own. The disputes and rivalries between factions could be randomized. The NPCs could be driven by a system that dictates how they behave based upon player action, which given that player verbs are limited, can be solved by a finite state-based AI (The Sims is a great example).

Saying that it simply can’t be done until we achieve X or Y is just lazy. We can solve these issues now, we don’t have to wait for some miracle technology to appear.

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