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?