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Weaving Narratives into Procedural Worlds, Part 2: Characteristics

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In Part 1 I shared several areas where I believe roguelikes can benefit from the inclusion of story elements. Then comes the hard part: actually doing it :)

Because there are certainly a number of ways story can worsen a roguelike experience, the next step is to identify the characteristics of a good roguelike narrative, to show that permadeath and a procedurally generated world don’t have to be completely incompatible with a rich story.

The Story

Of course, at the foundation here is the need to have a compelling story in the first place! That’s kind of the whole point--if it’s going to be a boring, generic story, then the game may as well get by on the merits of roguelike gameplay alone. Having that strong focus is good, but it would be really nice to tap into some of that value mentioned before. What type of story can achieve those goals?

As in all things game design, consistency is key. A story that makes sense due to its consistent internal logic reinforces the whole world building aspect (Part 1). With only partial familiarity, an observant player begins to intuit things, like where to find some object or actor, what impact a particular course of action may have, etc. by filling gaps in their knowledge with what seems reasonable. They may not always be right, but at least that path is available, and it’s an enjoyable process for some. Plus being wrong is fun, too. Because surprises :)

So the most useful story in this regard will be one which makes heavy use of cross-references between the game’s different forms of content and NPC dialogue, attitudes, behavior, everything… to strengthen player intuition and general understanding. Just like solid mechanics anchor the gameplay, so can a solid story anchor the content.

Cross-referencing also makes it easier to avoid one of the bigger pitfalls that can detract from the value of story: linearity. Unless it’s somehow part of an intentional underlying theme for the game, a linear story is almost certainly bad for a roguelike. It works against the freshness of each playthrough intended by the use of procedural generation (not to mention the annoyance of having to repeatedly face the exact same story content on each death!). Instead, make sure the story is easily split up into smaller chunks that can just as well be experienced independently of one another and still be interesting and meaningful (more on that below).

A complex plot with multiple interconnected threads will also naturally be a lot more replayable.

cogmind_major_NPC_encounter_visualization

Abstract visualization of Cogmind’s potential plot-related encounters with major NPCs, colored by faction. The beginning of the game is at the left, and it progresses to completion at the far side. Many of these encounters have implications for later encounters, for the player, or for the world in general.

Notice that the story plays a lesser role in the early game, which as the most commonly replayed segment could grate on the player if there were too heavy an emphasis on static elements. This especially makes sense for Cogmind because there is no initial character generation phase, though other games could even attempt to use the very beginning to introduce a wider array of story-related options.

Story-Gameplay Integration

Story encounters shouldn’t simply be meaningful in a lore sense, but have real implications for the rest of the game, basically giving the player’s actions consequences on a higher level. Most roguelikes have a relatively short feedback loop--fight a battle, rest up, maybe raise a level, then explore until the next battle. Story elements large and small can be integrated into the gameplay itself, adding a unique kind of replay value by being elements the player can choose to engage with as part of a long-term strategy. Depending on what the player decides to do, the plot might affect later events in a significant way, have no impact at all, something in between, or maybe just cause some immediate effect. As the player becomes aware of static elements within the plot, on future runs they may or may not want to trigger certain events depending on their plans, condition, and where they happen to be.

So the story is not there simply for story’s sake, serving as the basis for additional long-term feedback loops. For this reason I try to ensure many aspects of Cogmind’s story have useful (or at least interesting) consequences for the player. This extra dimension to the world creates gameplay deeper than the average pure dungeon crawler, and despite the static elements the approach has proven resilient in the face of many replays. Plus there’s always room to expand the number of options! Even a modest number of interactive elements can lead to a large variety of combinations and outcomes.

cogmind_major_NPC_encounter_visualization_longterm_impact

The same major NPC encounter visualization from earlier, showing those with a direct effect on some later encounter (arrows), as well as those with a relatively significant long-term impact on gameplay (bracketed length).

It’s Optional!

Despite everything said so far in this series, one of the most important characteristics of Cogmind’s story is that it is completely optional.

The game should be enjoyable without requiring that the player make sense of the story to progress, or pay any attention to it at all. Players new to the game can go from beginning to end on no more than the idea that “okay, I’m a robot and there are robots out to kill me… dakka dakka boom.” In fact, every single dot in the diagrams above can be avoided or ignored.

Not shoving the story in the player’s face helps decrease the tension between those static elements and the procedural world, giving the latter plenty of room to breath. Many people enjoy roguelikes purely for the gameplay, or prefer to do their own procedural storytelling, and there’s no need to take that space away. One of Cogmind’s best players played for over a year without interacting with the story, though more recently said he gained a new appreciation for the game after beginning to dig deeper.

At the same time there are other players who from the outset put the most effort into uncovering every bit of the story, lore, and secrets they could find. For the vast majority of the lore and story elements, the player has to actually be curious enough to seek them out, and keeping it optional accommodates two very different types of players.

From a content perspective, technically Cogmind’s narrative is not centered on the player, making it much easier to be optional. This is probably an important factor when developing a rogeulike with story, as it doesn’t need to be annoyingly pervasive if the player holds some lesser role.

Another important characteristic is that the player is spoken to but never says anything in return (no obvious dialogue choices, either). Conversations are short one-way affairs, outside of which the player can simply express their intent through actions and by where they travel. Design-wise this can be a rather limiting factor, but besides keeping the experience streamlined (and easily ignorable!), design restrictions tend to lead to more creative solutions, so I’ve enjoyed working with it.

To recap, in my case the ideal roguelike story presents a compelling, consistent narrative linking much of the content, one that has a meaningful impact on the gameplay, but interacting with it is still an optional way to enjoy the game. Other roguelikes with different goals could certainly take an alternative approach to story elements, or leave them out entirely, but I aim to create a deeper experience than “just another dungeon dive,” both in gameplay terms and with regard to telling interesting and meaningful stories. I believe Cogmind has succeeded at that so far, but there’s still more work to do!

Part 3 of this series is coming next week, to talk about concrete methods for integrating a non-procedural story into an otherwise procedural world (of course taking Cogmind as an example!).

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2 Comments

  1. ukulele
    Posted November 12, 2016 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Awesome. Love reading this blog, I read every post (and often several times)!

    I’ve been barely getting to grips with the fun gameplay and have this lore and story to look forward to, too. This to add to the emergent gameplay of roguelikes.

    I don’t know if you ever read any of the “SF Masterworks” series? But with your chosen theme of AI/Machines, you could have a belter of great sci-fi storytelling infused into the game!

    • Kyzrati
      Posted November 12, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Glad you’re enjoying it! I have definitely read some of the books in that series as a kid, and absolutely loved them. I recall our cool Junior English teacher in high school even had the class read Dune, one of my favorites :P. Ringworld is also awesome. I’ve read a handful of the others, but not nearly all of them.

      It’s cool to give everything a little more purpose and intrigue by having an epic sci-fi story as the backdrop. It also means there are a wealth of fun ideas to explore in possible future sequel(s) :D

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