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.