Storylet Alchemy


critical paths

Every week, Richard Cobbett writes about the world of story and writing in games.

There was a trend last year that really struck a nerve with me, though it's admittedly one with a long history. Part of the problem of telling stories in games is that it's easy to get caught in old-fashioned ways of thinking. Grand Theft Auto for instance offers a huge, staggeringly wonderful open world, yet as soon as anyone opens their mouth and asks for something, we're immediately back in scripted missions and mission chains. Dragon Age Inquisition attempted to open its boundaries by borrowing from the likes of MMOs, but again soon revealed itself as a pretty linear chain with lots of Stuff around the side for padding.

This has been a bugbear of many developers for ages, and there are always projects underway to try and bring us something new. Bioshock's Ken Levine for instance is talking about 'narrative Lego', where procedurally generated pieces would create a world that flows properly - a little like Shadow of Mordor's boss system extended across a whole game. Chris Crawford meanwhile has been chasing the procedural narrative dragon since 1992, when he announced a project called Storytron/Erasmatron and then pretty much vanished from the world to go and work on it. One day, things like this may lead to something really awesome. There's good reason to hope so, if often not to be entirely convinced that the engineering triumph is going to lead to a better story. After all, as awesome as Shadow of Mordor's boss system is, how many times have you reloaded the game to see what emergent action comes from its latest orc armies? The hook comes from knowing it's there.

Storylets are wonderfully unpredictable. They might lead to nothing. They might lead to disaster.

Last year though, a number of developers really impressed me with what they were doing with the storylet form, where a game is less a linear sequence of events as a matrix of possibilities - Inkle's 80 Days for instance. Your goal is to recreate Phileas Fogg's journey around the world, only this time the world is steampunk in design and considerably more cosmopolitan. At first glance, it might seem relatively simplistic, if impressive in size - most, if not all cities, have a little story that you can play through that might lead to something as simple as a new route or as complicated as going on an expedition to danger and discovery. It's intended to feel that way. Under the surface though, items that you're carrying, people you've met, decisions that have shaped your personality and other such elements often bubble to the surface - being told about a particular character for instance will give you options that you'd never have known existed in another playthrough. The effect is fascinating, because it lets you tell your own story, while still having the guiding hand required to keep it moving forwards and pacing it out properly for the sake of drama.

The word 'storylet' in this case then means a chunk of contained narrative that in someway interconnects with others, where choices in the past affect the present and those in the present affect the now. Beyond that though, it's pretty open. Storylets can be full adventure style, like Inkle's own Sorcery, where they're simply connected by a map. They can also be there to back up and supplement another genre, like being bursts of narrative in something like FTL's space adventure. They differ from conventional plot points and decisions in that you're not simply working through them in a largely defined order. Mass Effect for instance isn't storylet driven, even though you can choose which order you do missions. They can be navigated by means of player agency, such as choices. They can also be entirely random. They can be the core of the experience. They can be flavour that adds the character to something otherwise fully mechanical. They're pretty open.

Other storylet driven games in the last few years include The Banner Saga, The Yawgh, and Sunless Sea (Disclosure: I'm doing some guest writing on this one, so while doing that has obviously informed my thoughts on this, I'm not going to be talking about it here), and the Lone Wolf game that hit Steam at the end of last year, each of which take the basic concept of story-bursts linked by other things and put a very different spin on it. Of older games to give the style a try, the obvious progenitor is King of Dragon Pass - recently re-released over on GOG.COM. Unfortunately many of the new ones are mobile only so far, but still. Here's a long video of Sorcery 2 in action - a game that wears the trappings of Choose Your Own Adventure, but with a lot of emergent elements.

In most cases, the core is story through an RPG filter, overtly or otherwise - your skills and items being as important as your raw decisions, unlike a conventional piece of interactive fiction. A basic gate can be that you won't be given the option to kick a puppy unless you've demonstrated that you're the kind of person who would. It might not appear, or it might simply not be available until you've gained 10 Wouldkickapuppy points, either overtly or otherwise.

What makes it so flexible though is that both writer and player get a measure more control over the experience and how the character develops. By being systemic, the writer can provide more options without having to get too fractal in terms of detail - responding to things like player repeatedly kicks dogs rather than having to write ten different crying children going "Momma. he kicked my dog!" The player however gets both the satisfaction of choosing a path through the world and having it react.

Oddly though, one of the biggest draws I've found with the games that use this style has been the locked options. Normally, that's a bit of a game design no-no; you don't want to constantly be showing the player what they can't do because it feels like railroading them down a particular path. Instead, good design is typically making them feel like the path they chose was the right one, and responding accordingly.

Text allows for ludicrously scaled games, as seen here in Masq.

Text allows for ludicrously scaled games, as seen here in Masq.

By seeing the paths not-possible-to-travel however, those decisions made up to that point suddenly become more meaningful. You're aware that things could have played out differently, that you're here not because you chose the 'good' or 'bad' path, but as the culmination of many decisions made previously. Inkle's Sorcery is particularly interesting for that because its decisions stretch out through what's going to be four games, and already the range of character choices is amazing. (It's possible for instance to finish the second game, City of Traps, by just walking to the exit and leaving the place to burn. It means you'll start the next one painfully underequipped, not to mention cursed by an angry god, but you can do it!)

This to my mind encourages replay better than almost anything else; that it's not simply a different cutscene at the end of the game that awaits, but potentially a whole sweep of other decisions. On the one hand, it's artificial; it locks down the possibility space. On the other though, it encourages 'what if' type thinking. What if you'd played as a bastard throughout a game, and so were strong enough to take out the dragon at the end of the game? What if you'd never rescued the character who helped you out? A particular bonus of these games being text is that they can typically spare the words to actually cover those options properly, whereas a choreographed AAA game usually has to keep things relatively close to the rail.

Now, I'm not saying that this is the only, best, or any other adjective way to tell a story. It tends to be best for very specific kinds of narrative; broad strokes with the illusion of narrow focus. By that, I mean that the decisions tend to lack for subtlety, but the writing compensates by filling in a lot of the blanks. However, it is a style that I've become very interested by of late, and I'm really hoping we see more of in 2015. Like most narrative techniques, it's in its infancy. There are problems. There are things I don't think quite work in all the games I've played that use it, even the ones that I really admire. It's also unfortunate that so far, most (though by no means all) of the best examples are on mobile rather than PC specifically. Still, as an approach beyond simple linear treks with flavour decisions, it's one very worthy of attention.