Two Fold Immersion.

Having now read Patrick Redding’s Austin Game Developers Conference presentation (“Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories That Flow”) it’s interesting to see how dissimilar our thinking is on the matters of flow and story.

It seems Patrick believes the role of the story is to help with flow itself, something that serves liable to make the story entirely subservient to play. Specifically he says that story should be used “as a tool for illuminating control and challenge” which sounds like it would place significant limitations upon the role of story within a game.

To clear up some definitions before I go any further. When I use the term story I mean all elements of story and storytelling, including the content and style of the story itself and the means it is presented to the player. I include therefore those elements not generally considered part of the plot itself: aesthetic level design and lighting; character design, animation and behaviour; along with sound and music.

I consider flow to be a manifestation of the linear, pattern matching, side of our brains, whereas most of the non-plot specific aspects of story are things more closely associated with the sensory, holistic, right side of our brain. Whether those divisions actually exists, the conceptual framework they provide is useful for such a discussion.

I agree that elements of story can help enhance the flow experience, Team Fortress 2 is a very good example of this. The aesthetic design has been used to promote affordance and provide clear feedback. Character models are designed with a distinct lighting gradient and silhouette so as to make identification of their class, team and weapon as easy as possible.

However instead of using story exclusively to enhance flow, we should be trying to engage both sides of the brain at once; if that is even possible. We should seek to develop a form of story flow to complement left-brain centric concept of flow we already have.

Imagine a game with systems designed to enhance the sensation of flow and systems designed to enhance story flow, systems that could monitor and adjust the presentation and content of the story based on player actions. Jordan Thomas (Creative Director at 2K Marin), talked about his work on the ‘Shalebridge Cadle’ level for Thief: Deadly Shadows and described how he used a central choreographer to modify objects in the level at run-timed. Imagine such a system tied into all story elements across the game. Working on feedback gleaned from the player’s actions such a “puppet master” could adjust the presentation and feel of the story itself to keep it within each player’s personal “flow zone”. Designs and writers therefore would not script the exact structure of the story but instead shape the coverage of the flow zone. They would provide the limits of a system within which players would be free to play with the story.

With such systems in place and gameplay aesthetics that reinforced the themes of the story games could be created that would maintain a player’s sense of agency across all elements not just those concerned purely with logic and pattern matching, but those of tone and style as well. Maintaining a sense of flow in both logical and sensory terms would lead to players experiencing a two-fold immersion, as both sides of their brain became immersed in the experience.

But could such two-fold immersion work? Would the logical experience override the sensory or vice verse? Or would they cause a positive feedback loop, with one augmenting the other?

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  • Kark says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about a specific implementation of this over the last couple years (that bad habit of mostly thinking about one game idea), where the environment itself is dependent upon the main character’s mind, and so the worse the player does in the game, the more trauma experienced, the more the environment dissolves and takes on a sentience of its own, and the more the player succeeds and asserts themself, the more the environment shifts towards a normal, more passive reality.

    I’m pretty sure that that’s ultimately what people like Warren Spector are going for: a game where the gameplay skill and choices of the player are reflected in the narrative, and the narrative in turn enhances and impacts the player, and by extension the player’s gameplay choices.

  • Justin Keverne says:

    Though not exactly on the same lines, there’s an interesting cross-over between that idea and the Call To Arms entry of Manveer Heir, “Bereavement in Blacksburg”.

    Impementing an AI director to modify the state of the world based on the characters feelings of grief would be an interesting way to handle player feedback; the world itself noticably changing as players sunk deeper into their dispair.

  • Kark says:

    I tossed around that idea for a while, trying to keep track of the player’s emotional state and altering the character’s actions/aptitudes/dialogue based on it, but I gave up on trying to figure out how that’d actually work out.

    From all my thought experiments, allowing the player to act in inconsistent ways if they choose to, and letting them roleplay if they want to be more realistic, is far better than trying to ‘guess’ what’s going on in their head and alter their dialogue as a result. If you want the player’s choices to impact their actions, let it actually impact the *player’s* actions, otherwise you run the risk of limiting the character’s actions in a way that doesn’t reflect the player’s actual train-of-thought. Far, far too messy.

    I ended up just streamlining that concept into the environmental change, which would be much easier to implement, and it’s far easier to come to a consensus that seeing a loved one die is negative than it is to determine whether or not to count drinking as good or bad or neutral, depending on if you’re alone or with friends and how much you drink, and then have different results of communicating with your girlfriend whether the drinking was good or bad or didn’t happen… bleh, is far too messy.

    The key to player-impacted narrative in games is not, and cannot be, x-number of branches of possibilities, unless you want a game to take 10 years to make with an hour of content as a reward.

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