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[Guest post] Narrative Physics Part Two: Story Now

By Failbetter, September 19, 2010 · Tagged with

[This is the second part of a guest post by writer-designer Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat. Part one is here.]

Previously, I discussed the concept of narrative physics, and talked about two different creative agendas: the Right to Dream, which is exemplified by Echo Bazaar, and another one called Story Now. The idea of Story Now is that it is a story, with a character in an untenable situation that moves through crisis into resolution (or another untenable situation), and that it’s a story that you the player are telling, right now.

Let’s talk terms:

Narrative Structures: things like the Midnight Staircases et al. that the Failbetter Blog has so eloquently discussed are narrative structures. They are the basic frameworks that dictate when information is revealed, and the maximum number of choices a player gets with every discrete decision. Visible, open mechanics that the player is aware of— the tagging qualities of EBZ, for example— are all narrative structure.

Black Box: the black box is home to mechanics that are not immediately obvious to the player. This includes secret randomizers, invisible tags or qualities, and opening or closing the gates to branches of the narrative structures without telling the player.

Player Choice: it’s just what it sounds like, which is the ability for players to make meaningful decisions that affect their experience in the game.

For a game like Echo Bazaar, the Narrative Structures and Black Box mechanics swap places: the player gets to choose which variables enter the black box, with the option of discarding the ones that have less appeal to their Dream.

So what happens when narrative structures feed the black box? Let’s imagine for a moment that Echo Bazaar (being, presumably, the game everyone reading is sure to be familiar with) were a Story Now game instead of Right to Dream[1].

Within the Narrative Structures, every storylet might have a full number of options, allowing each of the four stats to influence how you react to the situation. These would feed into a black box, which— for the purposes of this example— would contain a randomizer that chose two of those stats. The player would then get a choice between those two options, instead of all four. The result would be that every time you replayed a storylet, the options you had to choose from would change dynamically, reinforcing the idea that the world was dynamic and changing, and that each situation was fresh and new, even if the basic content had already been played through. Then, the player would make their choice between those two options, and advance within the narrative structures.

So that’s what it would look like in the mechanical space; now let’s talk about the narrative space. Terms!

Escalation: Escalation is shorthand for “Escalation and Resolution.” The core tenet of Story Now design is that it is always about a motivated person in an untenable situation. Since it’s called Story Now and not Story In A Moment[2], there can be no plateaus: every spin ‘round the triangle must either escalate the situation at hand, or resolve the situation and segue into a new, untenable place.

Surprise: When the game’s systems do something a player is unaware of, in a way that meaningfully affects the player’s experience. Surprise is necessary to keep the player’s experience fresh and dynamic, and to give the feeling that the engine is reacting to their input.

Agency: Giving the player authority over their character, its actions, and its motivations. By offering the player clear choices, they’re able to feel a sense of ownership over the narrative, even when the choices they’re given are restricted to a menu of options.

When Agency feeds into the Escalation, it allows the player to directly influence the path the story will take; and when Surprise exists between the Escalation and the player’s Agency, it gives the experience a flexible, dynamic range. Going back to the previous example: if you as a player repeat a bar fight storylet, and instead of the choice to talk your opponent down or knock him over the head with a chair, you’re given the choice to run away or throw someone else in front of his fists— that will create enough of a differentiation in your mind to turn the experience into a new barfight with a new belligerent patron every time. Likewise, once the situation is defused and the patron talked down, there’s a lot of narrative mileage in having said belligerent patron decide that you’re his new best friend, and his mouth keeps getting him into trouble. That’s resolution turning into escalation, and movement from one untenable situation into another[3].

You’ll see from my footnotes and the general tenor of this post that I’m not presenting ways to improve Echo Bazaar, but instead, a theoretical outline for a different type of game. Why not incorporate both playstyles into Echo Bazaar? The key thing to remember is that it is nearly impossible for a game to support multiple creative agendas; EBZ supports the Right to Dream extremely well, and in order to support Story Now effectively, it would have to support Right to Dream less (ie, change the way discarding works). I’m not saying EBZ should do this; rather, the fact that the game supports a playstyle that had heretofore been only supported in tabletop RPGs acts like a torch, illuminating the narrative landscape and showing the possibilities available to new games which have not been made.

1: This would lead to problems were it actually implemented in EBZ, of course: disgruntled players who were asked to choose between non-optimal stats might simply discard the cards and refresh them, getting irritated in the process.

2: Story In A Moment is a necessity of “freemium” games that don’t want to go under financially. Story Now would have to be the domain of pay-to-play games. Plateaus encourage people to go the extra mile for the premium content in freemium games, but provide a loss-of-interest point in pay-to-play content.

3: Again, not always necessary in an EBZ-style game with multiple narrative threads happening at once; the idea of resolution and escalation works well when storylines end, as long as there are still other untenable situations hanging in the balance.

 

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Cesar Apr 7, 10:43pm

Is there a board game or a printable card game of echo bazaar?

Herm Sep 21, 6:39pm

Thanks for this article. Will there be a part three? I enjoy reading about this kind of thing. Narrative studies is completely new to me, but once I get my head around the many new terms, I find it's illuminating things I've previously half-thought. Which is particularly meaty brain-food for me, a traditional storyteller with a sideline in cooperative roleplaying.

Elizabeth Sep 20, 5:05pm

Jonathan, I totally agree. For example, EVE Online is all player driven and has some of the most interesting and dynamic emergent properties I've seen in an MMO, but there's no narrative meat there. Likewise, the more scripted a game is, the less room there is for those emergent properties to evolve. I think once there's more exploration of the middle ground, that will be very interesting indeed.

Jonathan Walton Sep 20, 10:26am

It's also worth noting that surprise can also result, not just from the game system, but also from interactions with other players, since the choices of all players, taken together, constitute a unpredictable system in an of itself. This is partially what player-driven plots in multiplayer games do (text-based, MMORGs, whatever). But a lot less design work has been done that allows players to create story through complex interactions with programmed elements. Instead, there tends to be a pretty sharp split between player-driven stuff and system-driven stuff. But I bet that's going to change in the future.