Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Choose Your Own Enemy

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 9, 2011

I’ve expressed thoughts on story (at least traditional storytelling) and games a few times similar to Paul Spooner’s guest post this week. But we’re so tied to the concept of linear narrative that it’s very hard to come up with viable alternatives. It’s a holy grail that pretty much changed Chris Crawford’s career forever… I think he’s been tackling the interactive storytelling thing for longer than he was ever actually making games.

But a thought struck me today about the concept of the hero not by what he represents, but by his antithesis. Sometimes the villain is the inverse of the hero – the polar opposite. Other times the villains are often mirror images of the hero, someone sharing many of the same features – even virtues – of the hero, but at some juncture the hero takes the path of “the good” where the villain failed to do so. And the struggle of the hero against his nemesis is the championing of that one virtue that led to that different path. Superhero comics tend to show this in the broadest strokes, but it’s common in literature and cinema as well. The relationship between protagonist and antagonist is perhaps the most important one in a story, even if it may be indirect.

So it seems that if we’re talking non-linear, interactive storytelling, this should be an area we should explore.  Who is our “big bad?” Wouldn’t that be even more important to defining our hero than choosing their stats in an RPG? Of course, choosing a different enemy  could have massive repercussions throughout the entire storyline. Done right, this would have a much bigger impact than a few meaningless alternate endings.

That’s kind of the whole idea, isn’t it?

Imagine, if you will, a game where the story isn’t simply a branching linear narrative, but made of narrative pieces with not only decision points and multiple meaningful choices for the player as the hero, but similar meaningful choices for an AI-driven enemy “character.”  This “big bad” of the game is partly constructed at the beginning of the game as a shadow of the player’s own character generation decisions, but parts of their backstory are retroactively “filled in” as needed, algorithmically created based on the player’s  in-game decisions.

In a sense, the player’s progress through the game ends up being something of a narrative chess-game with many of his opponent’s moves being veiled at the outset. The villain AI is in effect competing against the player, if perhaps indirectly. Okay, maybe chess is too much. I’d settle for narrative Tic-Tac-Toe at this point.

Going from abstract to concrete, let’s take as an example an Ultima-style question-and-answer session as part of the character generation process. At the end of the process, the player chooses compassion over the next-highest virtue, honor. From this, the game can pull from eight “stock” villain archetypes – the one exemplifying the player’s second-highest virtue, honor, but perhaps lacking in some other areas. But the algorithmic addition to the mix is that this villain greatly lacks compassion.

Can a designer create a game with a number of additional “choices” or situations to be sprinkled into the game to change the storyline or landscape based on this villain’s decisions?  While the player is completing his first newbie mission, can the game  wipe out a small castle  the player has not yet visited (and now never will, at least not in this play-through)  in a situation that mirrored the player’s final question — the castle lord got uppity in desperation for his people, and rather than negotiate with a former ally to relieve him and his people, the bad guy took the challenge and completely demolished the castle and nearby village, killing everyone.

One or two set-pieces like that could really make a game (albeit at significant cost in terms of designing alternative states), but perhaps there’s room for more generic, algorithmic changes as well. Text-based backstory items. The types of monsters inhabiting certain dungeons. The types of enemies likely to be faced among the enemy’s forces. The types of algorithmically-generated quests some NPCs send the player off to tackle. That kind of thing. We’ve seen the potential here in many games, particularly the indie RPG Din’s Curse. Throw in some better narrative tie-in so that the algorithmic events don’t feel quite so random, and there is some really interesting potential there.

This wouldn’t be easy – I’m not suggesting that it is – but I really do think that something akin to this approach may be what’s necessary to really reconstruct storytelling to that it will work better within games.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Patrick said,

    I created a similar concept for my Shadowrun-based Design Document. The arch-nemesis in the game has his/her own goals, but is always created as a mirror to the player – right down to what abilities he or she posesses and even how the final showdown takes place.

    I didn’t totally think about virtues (not a big thing in the cyberpunk genre) but I love the idea. It would make the best sense in an Obsidian or Bioware style game, of course, since they have strong narratives and moral choices.

    Another issue to consider is whether there’s an in-game reason for it or not. Games love to have “chosen ones” (it means there a reason why you happen to be the one chewing through henchmen like a rabid beaver through trees) and this could give a good reason. Fate/gods/cunning manipulators selected the player and perhaps the villain for this showdown, precisely because they’re alike, or the villain perhaps lets the player go early on (setting up the inevitable conflict) because they’re so much alike.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Excellent idea, Rampant. This is the kind of out of the box thinking games need to pursue. The ONE thing games can utilize in their narrative that no other medium can for a story is the interactivity between the player and the story. I liken it to a someone telling a story in person, changing where they place emphasis or what happens by observing the reactions of their audience.

    I would LOVE to see your idea in a game. The closest to this kind of thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve mentioned it before, is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I keep bringing it up because it really is, in my vast experience, one of the single best uses of narrative in a game EVER, precisely because it does a version of what you suggest here.

    In all the Silent Hill games, the town itself is the real villain, the bad guy that morphs, changes, and adapts its horrors based on the specific personalities and hang-ups of each game’s protagonist. So what Shattered Memories does is truly brilliant and subversive. It takes the stance that this guy you are playing as – Harry – is just an avatar. Of YOU.

    YOUR actions and personality are what it observes and twists things around. It is amazing all the things the game watches and notices about how you play and act. Did you rush over when you heard someone scream for help? Or did you proceed cautiously? Did you pause and fuss with your inventory first? Did you hesitate or even turn away?

    It also notices things like how long you look at things and WHAT you spend the longest looking at. Did you stare at that swimsuit calendar a long time? Did you call those numbers on the bathroom stall? Did you try and peek at that NPC undressing when she asked you not to? Did you stare or even zoom in on her dirty panties on the floor after she left? Well, player, the game has determined that you are likely a perv and Silent Hill will start reflecting that.

    It is all beautifully subversive and subtle, to the point where you have no idea it is happening. Everything seems natural, and the game gets more and more antagonistic towards YOU as it ramps to the finish, before delivering such a scathing finishing condemnation on your personality that is so eerily accurate a lot of gamers just freaked right the hell out. And . . . BOOM. Silent Hill … just … got … in … YOUR … head.

    The developers studied a LOT of psychology, and the game is basically one giant personality test that gets more accurate the longer you play it. And it is done so well that you can play the game again and do completely DIFFERENT things with the AVATAR you are controlling, and still get the same scenes and ending because your personality hasn’t changed. To see alternate versions of scenes, characters, the town, and the different endings you have to change how you THINK as you play the game.

    It represents one of the best stories in gaming simply because it is a story that could NOT be told in any other medium but games. The story doesn’t work without interactivity. People think the story twist at the end of Bioshock was a clever and brilliant use of the medium, and it was, but it feels cheap and gimmicky in comparison to Shattered Memories.

    I think there is a whole new frontier in game stories that make use of the idea you suggested, Jay, and what Shattered Memories has done. I believe it truly represents the next step and evolution of the genre, because these types of stories cannot be done in books, or movies. Only in games, and when games leverage that, the stories can be even more impactful than a movie. A movie or book can condemn the actions of a protagonist, but when a game story can condemn YOUR actions, when a game can point out that YOU are a bad person and YOUR personal character flaws caused all this and you can’t deny it because you where in control the whole time and all the evidence and effects are laid out before you? That is AWESOME, and teaches lessons and themes other stories can only brush the surface of.

  • jwmeep said,

    Well put.

  • LesserEldritchStarspawnOfBob said,

    @ LateWhiteRabbit: That was a pretty intense comment.

    Having the villian reflect the player’s choices (as in the above Silent Hill game mentioned) is a wonderful idea. Or at least having the villain make choices and “progress” through the story themselves – only to adjust their actions if the player intervenes – would also be great to see.

    At the very core I think games (rpg games in particular) will always be branching stories. The branches presented in the stories may begin to adapt to changing conditions in the game due to player choices or may be written before hand by the writer. What I’m wondering is can you have a villian (or a storyline for that matter) as memorable and engaging as Sarevok, Funfrock, Kerghan Cefka, Irenicus or Sephiroth if they are generated?

    If you do away with linearity, don’t you also get rid of the depth and detail that often goes with it?

    Speaking of villains… One of my favourite villains in Planescape Torment was the previous incarnations of your own character. This idea would be great to develop further.

  • Motoki said,

    I wonder to if the idea of a villain or any antagonist at all is even necessary and that maybe non-linear gaming experiences could be freed up by not being tied down to defeating a big bad in the end.

    Ultima IV I think is a good example of this. There’s no big bad, you simply are striving to meet a goal of becoming a paragon of virtue, to set an example for people in the land. It was one of the first RPGs to have your actions as a player make a difference and to have the game world react to things that you do in any sort of way. It also, I think, took a lot of expectations and went the other way. In most RPGs before (and after!) stealing everything that isn’t nailed down is to your advantage; in U4 it is completely counter to your goal.

    The other thing is, I wonder if a game really even needs to have an end at all? Of course, you want resolution to individual quest lines and good stories and dialog for the quests helps too, but does a game need an actual end? I have seen plenty of people claim to have played the Elder Scrolls games for hundreds of hours and never got to the end.

    Of course neither of these are examples of games with a really strong narrative but I think it’s possible to do one within that sort of framework. I think we’re all trained to expect that ‘a game needs x, y, & z’ because of experience with past games and that can be difficult to break out of and conceptualize when you don’t have a lot of examples to fall back on.

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  • Yo'el said,

    Interesting… I really like this idea.

  • Readings: Conflict Management | Line Hollis said,

    […] Choose Your Own Enemy, from Jay Barnson of Rampant Coyote, discusses the possibility of extending a morality system to shape the villain of a story in reaction to the hero’s actions. In theory, this could make the story more meaningful by presenting the villain as everything the hero opposes, or create a Batman/Joker scenario where the villain is a dark mirror of the hero. Its a clever twist on the idea of the hero’s actions affecting the story. More importantly, it’s a very gamelike approach to a classical storytelling trope. I’d love to see this implemented, even in a small way. […]

  • Readings: Conflict Management said,

    […] Choose Your Own Enemy, from Jay Barnson of Rampant Coyote, discusses the possibility of extending a morality system to shape the villain of a story in reaction to the hero’s actions. In theory, this could make the story more meaningful by presenting the villain as everything the hero opposes, or create a Batman/Joker scenario where the villain is a dark mirror of the hero. Its a clever twist on the idea of the hero’s actions affecting the story. More importantly, it’s a very gamelike approach to a classical storytelling trope. I’d love to see this implemented, even in a small way. […]