“… I’ve been thinking about how you make narrative replayable. And that’s not a simple problem. It’s fairly complex. The combination of content and technology – I’ve been thinking about that.”
So I saw this Ken Levine quote pop up on a couple of articles and I think I’ve got a very ham-fisted response that involves a couple of design ideas I’ve had for a while. I don’t really want to spend ages defining narrative, because I think we all have a vague idea of what Levine means when he says narrative games. I personally love a lot of narrative-heavy games, and them not being re-playable isn’t really a big deal. Where replay-ability matters more, I think, are games like Dishonored, or Deus Ex, or any of the Bethesda action-RPGs, where you’re given the opportunity to build different types of characters. I think Fallout: New Vegas did a good job of providing really meaningful narrative branches that made starting again not just a matter of playing through the same story with a different set of skills. Elder Scrolls games, on the other hand, are infamous for not constraining players enough; allowing them to join every faction and learn every skill in a single play-through.
One obstacle is that a lot of RPGs and action adventure games don’t differentiate between finishing “a game” (session) and finishing “the game”. One way to combat this is to drastically reduce the intended playthrough time and to only allow players to see a small portion of the game-world each time. The first Dragon Age’s “origins” stories where a great innovation, but can you imagine if the rest of the game followed a similar pattern? Imagine a DA:O with identical content, but where the narrative only allowed time to visit one of the allied races/cities and maybe one or two side-quests before the endgame? Shorter, yes, but with lots more replay value.
Permadeath is another way to differentiate between completing a game and finishing a game session. Spelunky would be a drastically different game if it saved at the start of every section (i.e. Mario Bros.) and having such a feature would make the procedural generation of levels unnoticeable and redundant. Similarly, in Levine’s hypothetical game, the more time a player spends in one session, the less likely they are to appreciate how different the game is each time they play it, and I think that same thinking can be applied to either the procedural generation of terrain, or to the random or semi-random branching of a story.
My ideal open-world RPG sort of fits the bill for what Levine is describing. Firstly, imagine an Elder Scrolls or Fallout game. Now, add permadeath. Lock the player out of the quests for all but one guild, and use a morality system like Mass Effect to prevent them from making wildly out-of-character choices. Make the end-quest for each guild feel like some sort of epic, world-changing event. Now (and here’s the clincher) you create a historical timeline where each character’s actions affect the world inhabited by the next (completed quests are unavailable to all future characters). That way you cut out a lot of repetition and draw a line between finishing “a game” and finishing “the game”.
Maybe I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick about what a “replayable narrative” is. But I’m part of a growing population of aging, time-poor core gamers who would probably throw lots of money at the sort of game described above. And I think the key to making any game replayable is making each playthrough short enough so that replaying doesn’t feel like a massive effort of geekdom. Also: