September 29, 2005

Sticks-and-Rubber-Band Story

by Andrew Stern · , 2:57 pm

1up has posted an extensive post-mortem about the recently-released, cinematic Indigo Prophecy, aka Fahrenheit. The post-mortem is written by the game’s writer/director David Cage. I haven’t played Indigo Prophecy yet, but definitely plan to.

Clearly Cage and his Quantic Dream team have design goals in line with what some of us at GTxA proselytize and develop, as several people at various conferences who were following Quantic Dream had hinted to us over the past couple of years. Cage writes:

I like to call this game an “Interactive Drama”, which in my mind suggests the fact that the player acts and interacts in a narrative and emotional experience.

Cool, good to see that descriptor being used more, and it seems appropriate for this piece. That said, while they had the people-power of a team of 80 in production for 2 years on it, I see the project’s biggest obstacle as interface: their design was constrained by needing to run on console machines, where the controller is only a few buttons and two analog sticks. I.e., interactive drama with an action title’s interface mechanics. The post-mortem vaguely describes how Cage came to some sort of Dance-Dance-Revolution-like interface design, which to me seems like an odd match for interactive drama, but was perhaps the best one could come up with under those constraints. (Never mind the CPU constraints of console machines, for AI purposes.) I’ll have to play it to understand the interface better; I assume for dialog they necessarily went for menu-based dialogs, which while almost universal in games is also quite limited, of course.

About narrative structure, Cage describes his concept of “rubber band stories”:

Last but not least, our experience would have to guarantee the quality and the pacing of the storytelling whatever the player does. No good or bad story depending on player’s choices, but always a consistent and “dead-end free” experience. This is how I started working on what I call “Bending Stories”. I think of my story as a rubber band; the player can stretch or deform the rubber band through his actions, but whatever he does the backbone of my story is always there. The player can have the feeling of playing with the story, almost in a physical sense by stretching it, but he can never break it. His choices can have very tangible consequences, but within the boundaries of a well-written narrative. Each scene, each action, can be considered like a rubber band itself, and each rubber band can stretch another rubber band later in the narrative, which can in turn impact the overall story. Possibilities are limitless and allow the writer to remain in control of the tale that is told.

This writing technique is similar to the “Choose your own adventure” books in a certain way; except that there are many more choices involved, and each choice can trigger consequences at any point in the story. Possibilities are truly endless.

I don’t want to set wrong expectations: Indigo Prophecy and the rubber band story idea is not a proposition to generate dynamic storytelling. All events are scripted and the range of possibilities is pre-established, but this writing technique allows us to open a real narrative space within the story while maintaining its pacing and quality.

Consequences managed with this technique can be very significant for the player: in Indigo Prophecy, scenes can be played several times with different outcomes that may in turn affect other scenes. Two players playing the same scene can see or totally miss different parts of the game although both will experience the same overall story.

On high-level these design goals sound good (except for the “possibilities are truly endless” bit). The qualitative feel of Indigo Prophecy‘s particular implementation will have to be experienced to be understood, of course. I’ll be getting a hold of it soon. I’m kind of curious to compare the console vs. PC version.

10 Responses to “Sticks-and-Rubber-Band Story”

  1. andrew Says:

    Reading some of the reviews of Indigo Prophecy, which generally like the game and think it breathes new life into the dying adventure game genre, the interface is described in more detail by Gamespot:

    “For the most part you’ll be moving your characters around in the third person, like you would in a typical non-point-and-click adventure game. When in an environment, you’ll frequently be invited to either look for hot areas that can be examined more closely or look for objects that can be picked up or used. The interesting thing about Indigo Prophecy’s methodology with this style of gameplay is that all your actions are mapped to the analog sticks. You move around with the left, and whenever you encounter a door you can open, a mirror you can look into, an object you can pick up, or anything of that nature, you’ll see an icon at the top of the screen that shows you a directional pattern in which the right analog stick must be moved. Press forward to open that door or up and then around 90 degrees to take a drink from a coffee cup, and so on and so forth. It’s an odd concept to get used to at first, but it becomes second nature as the game goes on.

    It might seem weird at first to be playing an analog-stick-based game of Simon to engage in an action sequence, but surprisingly, it works.

    This same method is used for the conversational portions of the game, too. You’re often presented with multiple dialogue choices during any situation. A small bar quickly diminishes as time progresses, limiting the amount of time you have to make a specific choice. Simple inquisitions often give you the opportunity to eventually get the majority of questions asked over time, so the time limit merely impacts the ordering of said questions. However, when playing as Lucas you’ll often have to make more-important choices with your questions and responses, as bad choices can often have negative impact, and in some cases they may make those you’re talking to suspicious.

    However, Lucas does have an advantage in many of these situations. See, Lucas is a bit on the psychic side. How he comes to be this way we’ll leave up to you to find out, but with this ability Lucas can concentrate and hear what the person he’s talking to is thinking about. Concentration actually becomes a minigame in and of itself via two colored circles that appear onscreen. Like a somewhat bastardized version of the game of Simon, the colors will light up, and it’s up to you to press the left and right analog sticks in the corresponding directions that match the colors. Do so correctly and you’ll be rewarded. Fail and, well, you can guess what happens. These rhythm-based minigames come during other sequences as well. Many of the most-action-oriented fight scenes and escape scenes place the progression of the action entirely within the scope of how well you handle these little rhythm games. Believe it or not, it works. Even though all you’re doing is rhythmically hitting these timed lights, you do it in such timing that it feels like you’re actually in control of the scene. Plus, because of the way the lights are positioned onscreen, you never feel like you’re missing the action because you’re forced to concentrate on the lights. They blend together–and well at that.

    The other rhythmic minigame in Indigo Prophecy is actually more of a button masher. To simulate strenuous activity, the game will often challenge you to mash the right and left trigger buttons as fast as you can, and you must sustain this for sometimes lengthy periods. In some ways, this approaches the level of ingenuity demonstrated in the other minigame, as you’ll often be doing this during particularly stressful times–like, say, when you’re pulling someone up who is dangling from a ledge or when you’re running as fast as you can while a helicopter’s chasing you. Unfortunately, it does wear on the fingers quite a bit, and there are times when the game puts too many of these minigames in succession. Still, it’s a neat idea.

    These crazy analog stick movements and rhythmic minigames simply have a natural feel to them that you just wouldn’t expect. And that’s what makes them so great overall.”

    Tell that to this guy, er, grandma.

  2. Snarkmarket Says:

    Indigo Prophecy Released

    Remember that awesome-sounding game called Fahrenheit Indigo Prophecy I told you about last June (and updated you on in April)? It’s finally out, and fortunately, it still sounds awesome. And it’s got a super-respectable MetaCritic score of 85. Sadly…

  3. andrew Says:

    ClockworkGrue at game girl advance gives a positive review of Indigo Prophecy — he’s not put off by the Simon-like interface.

  4. mark Says:

    I wonder if we’ll eventually find out what goes on in the internals. Of course there’s the usual game-industry secrecy, but one can hope. The rubber-band idea sounds intriguing, but with these things I’m always skeptical that the high-level description is a bit more grandiose than what is actually implemented (I can’t count how many games have had some sort of “revolutionary” AI that turns out to have been implemented by Yet Another Hard-Coded Finite State Machine). It doesn’t mean it’s not a useful conceptual contribution, but I’d be even more interested if there was some sort of innovative architectural realization of the concept.

  5. andrew Says:

    Idle Thumbs gives it to us straight.

  6. thomas Says:

    its too long

  7. Grand Text Auto » Machinima Made Easy, Within a Tycoon Sim Says:


    This has been a unusually prolific year for computer-based drama; in addition to Indigo Prophecy and Façade we have last week’s release of Lionhea […]

  8. Grand Text Auto » Lessons of Indigo Prophesy, part 1 Says:

    […] tory. Cage’s ambitions in this area have been discussed by Andrew in his more timely GTxA post on Indigo Prophesy. Cage’s goals might be considered a l […]

  9. Grand Text Auto » Indigo Prophecy through Simon’s Eyes Says:

    […] @ 11:15 pm

    A lot has been mentioned on here about Indigo Prophecy already – by Andrew, by Noah (1 2), and by commenters who followed up those posts. I want t […]

  10. Heavy Rain & the Player Character Says:

    […] Overall, it’s clear Quantic Dream took much care to structure scenes in ways that would allow multiple outcomes with minimal impact on future scenes, to support as much player variation as possible. David Cage compares this storytelling structure to a “rubber band; the player can stretch or deform the rubber band through his actions, but whatever he does the backbone of my story is always there” (from 1Up’s Indigo Prophecy post-mort via Grand Text Auto). […]

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