Monday, March 12, 2012

Using Scene Flow in Video Games

A good, well flowing story scene usually contains six steps (you can break this mold, just like everything else, but since we are using these six steps, bare with me): Goal, Conflict, Disaster, Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. The point of these is to clearly point the protagonist at something, watch them fail, then watch them do something about that failure.

In a well written story, that doing something amounts to a new goal in which they no go towards. Even if the disaster does not full impede them, it still prevents them from reaching the goal. An example of conflict that is resolved but does not lead to the goal, is Mario stomping on a goomba. Though it resolved the conflict of what was happening then, it does not exactly get him to the end of the level. The game doesn't end at that resolution.

In a story, you would see the hero stop the bad guy from killing someone, but the bad guy would get away. So lets go into each step as it relates to passive story telling mediums.
  1. Goal - The protagonist, or POV character in the scene (if you are doing a scene with the bad guy POV), wants something. This is what they are trying to accomplish in the scene
  2. Conflict - This is something that is preventing the goal from occurring. The POV character is being stopped by this conflict, either self, person or environment, etc.
  3. Disaster - This is the point where the character fails the goal. This should continue until they get to the end, at which point disaster is flipped. This does not equate to character death, but it should cause the current goal to no longer be viable.
  4. Reaction - This is where the story flips from being about external factors and focuses in on the POV character. What does the Disaster mean to them and their Goal?
  5. Dilemma - With the Goal no inaccessible, what are the choices presented to the POV character.
  6. Decision - This is where the POV character decides on a choice presented in the Dilemma. They should choose the least bad choice of what to do next (in a comedy they would choose the worst choice).
Now, I'll go through these and break them down in parts and moments of a game. Lets try Mario 64. Don't forget, it may not have every aspect of this, and some of it (especially, the last 3, tend to be internalized with the player).
  1. Goal - At the start of a level, Mario is presented with the goal, get to the star.
  2. Conflict - The environment and enemies are stopping Mario from getting to his goal. This is not a disaster yet, because the goal is still within reach.
  3. Disaster - This does not exist in the case of a Mario 64 level. It does occur though on the level of the player attempting to get through a portion of the level.
  4. Reaction - This is the player's feelings at failing to get through a challenge.
  5. Dilemma - These are the options that the player has after failing to reach the goal (in cases are catastrophic disasters, this may be restart from a previous save).
  6. Decision - Again this is usually put on the player, they decide to keep playing, try their new tactic, or quit.
A good game level, will allow for these six steps to repeat enough times before the character has failed enough to make the goal something to cheer about, but not so many times, that the goal ceases to be viable.

Breaking the steps in half, reveals that the first three steps tend to be external, while the final three steps tend to be internal. This is true in both scenes and in gameplay. Switching back and forth between these moments is what allows the consumer (movie goer, reader, gamer) to keep interested in the product.

Applying this into an MMO scene, we can see where people have issues with quests and missions in MMOs. A scene in this case will be the quest. The issue with quests is that the Disaster has occurred already. The actual event that is happening for the player is that someone else has reacted to the disaster, experienced a dilemma, and found that asking the player for help is the best decision.

All of the internal player stuff is being done by the NPC. The decision of what to do about something is out of the player's hand. They are not making a decision about how to solve the disaster, instead, they are living out an NPC's decision. The only control the player has is rejecting the decision, which means that no quest, therefore no scene occurs.

To change this, The Old Republic tried making the player part of the decision making process. This works sometimes (Commando quest where the guy asks to kill the pirate instead of rescuing him). At these moments, the game succeeds in fixing bad questing.

Yet this step is not without constant and ever present failures. Quite often the game's dialogue options lead to no changes at all in what is going to happen as far as the decision goes. The issue continues to be that the more choices that are presented to the player as valid for progressing their story (not the game's story, but the player character's story of adventuring), the more time and energy and resources that get lost, and eventually the smaller the game will feel (though each play through would allow for countless choices, how far you could follow them would continue to diminish due to how expansive the choices would have to be).

So how can games allow for players to make the decision on how to deal with a disaster? One way would be more ambiguous quest directions. That means, that instead of killing 8 boars, the quest should be to thin their numbers in the forest. Then provide different ways for the player to interact with the boars.

They could kill them, trap them and sell them to a farmer or lead them away. The key is to allow the player to experience those internal steps: Reaction, Dilemma and Decision.

Scene info taken from Randy Ingermanson's website.