Putting players behind the story wheel

GDC 2011: LucasArts' Kent Hudson describes a method by which games can truly capitalize on their interactive promise with player-driven narratives.


Who was there: Kent Hudson, of LucasArts, believes player-driven stories are important. In a panel at this year's Game Developers Conference, he explained why.

Hudson started to put his method into motion with Deus Ex.
Hudson started to put his method into motion with Deus Ex.

What they talked about: Hudson began his presentation with a quick rundown of his credentials. After working on games such as Deus Ex at Ion Storm, he took a position working at Midway on a game that was ultimately canceled. He then moved to 2K Marin, where he worked on BioShock 2 and the new X-Com project. Now, he is working on a new LucasArts project with Clint Hocking, who helmed his own GDC panel on the idea of meaning in games earlier today.

To the topic of player-driven stories, the problem, as Hudson sees it, is that games aren't taking advantage of what makes the medium what it is: interactivity. He believes that game developers are currently just telling linear stories that could be told more effectively in other mediums. "We aren't letting the players build narratives," he said, arguing that players aren't driving the story, even if the character they are playing is leading the way.

The goal, he said, is to have "players make influential decisions that create a unique narrative that is not prescribed by a designer." He called out three key words in this phrase: influential, create, and narrative.

Hudson then introduced the idea of self-determination theory, which basically says that when people are seeking happiness, they want autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is making decisions that matter, he said, and is equivalent to the commonly used word "agency." Competence is the idea of being good at something, where actions taken affect the environment in a positive way. Finally, relatedness is the desire to connect to and build relationships with other people.

Tying these two sections together, he said that agency (or autonomy) maps to influential, competence maps to create, and relatedness maps to narrative.

Delving into each of these concepts individually, he first introduced the idea of disparate agency, where a player has a limited set of abilities compared to what the character in the story has. "It's almost as if the story is subtlety telling the player that they can't really do anything," he said, noting that the big important events are often sequestered away in cutscenes. A player's job, then, is to keep the avatar alive to get to the next cutscene trigger.

He then argued that designers should be striving for unified agency, in which the character and the player can affect all systems in the game. "We need to get rid of player-excluding dynamics," he said.

One game that does this well, he said, is The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. In that game, the main quest giver is Caius Cosades. Because players have a high level of agency in Morrowind, it is entirely possible to kill Cosades. If he is killed, the game prompts the player to either reload from a previous save or "persist in the doomed world you have created."

Hudson was particularly impressed with the fact that while killing Cosades deeply affected the game's direction, its action in the game was simply hacking away as if the quest giver were a piece of wood. He argued that giving the player the agency to make such a decision, even if it isn't accompanied by a super deluxe cutscene, is just as important and meaningful.

This scene is then contrasted with the bathroom scene in Splinter Cell: Conviction, in which Sam Fisher is afforded myriad options for getting information out of an enemy, but ultimately there is only one way out of the bathroom. He calls this concept chasing reality and argues that as fidelity, such as in the Conviction scene, goes up, player agency goes down. Designers do not need a high level of fidelity to create emotionally compelling content, he argued.

He then broke down what goes into cutscenes: voice-overs, custom writing, environments, modeling, and animation. He then applied these elements to Passage, which is a five-minute art-house downloadable game with low fidelity but high emotional impact. In that game, there is no voice-over or custom writing, and there are five character models, three animations, and three environments. Yes, it is far from a AAA-budget title, but the Passage example demonstrates how high emotional impact with real agency trumps fidelity.

Hudson then offered a few practical tips on how designers can more efficiently use cutscene elements to lower the fidelity without sacrificing agency. Voice-overs, he said, can be isolated by separating them from animation, such as was done in the original BioShock. The thing about custom writing, he said, is that as long as a game signifies that it is reacting to the player, it doesn't need to be literary art. The agency is more important, he emphasized.

For environments, Hudson said that the best rule is to reuse when possible. As for modeling and animation, restraint is best and designers should first try to find a better way to express what they are attempting to say.

Hudson emphasized that these methods aren't just making things on the cheap for cheap's sake. Taking the example of Sucker Punch's Infamous, one of the opening sequences quickly accomplishes a good deal of backstory through comic-book-style 2D art and disembodied voice-overs.

Tying the idea of agency to competence, he brings up Valve's critically acclaimed Portal. The story of that game is to figure out how to escape the nefarious science facility. In that game, each of the player's actions were tied moment to moment with the character's actions, which is to say, when players are making their way through the levels, it is in the pursuit of the character escaping the facility.

Hudson then said that it's important to tie game mechanics to story and that they need to be communicating seamlessly through systems. By this, he meant that actions should have both a story utility and a gameplay utility. As an example, he presents the idea of hacking in Deus Ex. In some instances, a player hacks to get money from an ATM, and in others, the user is hacking to gain access to story-advancing e-mails.


Core mechanics can also be used to express impactful story moments, he said, saying one of the best recent examples came from Rockstar's acclaimed Red Dead Redemption. In the climactic scene accompanying protagonist John Marston's death, Rockstar forced players into the Dead Eye mechanic, turning what would otherwise be a cut-and-dried cutscene into something more powerful. "You felt like you were going to lose, not watch him lose," he said.


Hudson then says that without relatedness, agency and competence devolve into a "systems soup." To add a sense of relatedness, he said that a game needs to understand which choices the player is making have meaning. "The game has to listen to what the player is doing and figure out what those actions mean," he said.

To illustrate this, he presents a chart where the X axis captures alignment and the Y axis measures amplitude. As for plot points, feeding a homeless person would be high on good alignment but low on amplitude, while snubbing the mayor would be only slightly negative on alignment but mid-range on amplitude. As for extremes, killing a dictator would be high on good alignment and amplitude, while killing a best friend would be highly negative and also an important event.

With this chart in mind, he said that games can track and learn from the choices that players make. To a large degree, this mechanic can already be seen in strategy games like Civilization V, where international relations are a closely tracked activity.

However, when telling stories, tracking and learning are useful only if important moments are triggered by them. He gives the example of BioShock 2, where how a player dealt with Little Sisters impacted the end of the game. This interaction also triggered the arrival of Big Sisters. Importantly, the arrival of a Big Sister wasn't triggered by an event in the story; rather, it emerged from data collected through the interaction with Little Sisters.

Hudson concluded by saying that to achieve stories that are unique and worthy of the gaming medium, designers are best served by doing whatever they can to get out of the way.

Quote: "Games aren't taking advantage of what makes games games," Hudson, on the importance of player-driven stories.

Takeaway: To reach the true happiness space with player-driven stories, it's important to let "players make influential decisions that create a unique narrative that is not prescribed by a designer." How this can be achieved is through linking player autonomy, accomplishment, and cohesiveness together.

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