Computer adventure games can be broadly divided into two categories, single-path games where the player is guided through a more-or-less fixed sequence of encounters, and open-world games where the player can make choices that lead to avoiding encounters entirely or approaching them in many different orders.
Single-path games lend themselves to story-telling sequences where a layer of dramatic fiction is overlayed on the game events. Story telling is obviously much harder with open-world games because stories require a more-or-less fixed sequence of events, but it is not impossible. Here are some thoughts on how to do it.
First of all, a fixed story is clearly out of the question, but the idea of a story where the reader makes choices is an old one. There used to be printed books where the reader would be asked a question like “offer to help her?” and you would be given different page numbers depending on whether you answer yes or no. In print, this didn’t work very well, but computers can do it better.
However, for a game to be a story instead of just a sequence of encounters there must be some structure to it. How can you set up a branching timeline to tell a story and to have a traditional structure with a sequence of difficulties ending in a climax and a resolution?
Here is one way: write a single climax and provide a number of different events that can lead to the climax. No single event leads to the climax but many different subsets of the events can lead to the climax. There are several different hints that can be followed up to lead to the dragon’s cave. One hint takes you to a thief who stole a dragon’s scale and he can be bribed to take you to the home of the old warrior who was the only one to survive an attack on the dragon’s lair. Another hint takes you to a scholar who collects dragon stories and will help you search his collection if you can get a local gang boss to leave his daughter alone. Another hint takes you to a town where there are old stories of dragon depredations and an old woman who once loved a young hunter (now an old hermit, leaving deep in the haunted forest) who helped the doomed dragon-hunter expedition track the dragon back to its lair.
Then you need to find a way to scale the cliffs, leading you to search for wall-climbing magic or levitation magic or a ride from a flying beast, or a portal spell. Unless you found the old warrior or the hermit, who know of the hidden pass, but to pass that way, you will need to be able to defeat or sneak by a tribe of ice goblins. Then there are various ways to kill the dragon, all of which require sub-adventures to acquire.
When you have killed the dragon, the outcome depends on how you got there in the first place. You were too open about your plans, the king found out about it, and his wizards swoop in to tax you at 99%. You had to promise half of the treasure to the mob boss to leave the girl alone (and maybe now he tries to take it all). You have no way out because you snuck by the ice goblins but they are now alerted.
An open-world game can consist of many of these scenarios involving
- a goal
- a climax that precedes the goal
- a set of paths that lead to the climax
- a set of triggers scattered around the game that alert you to various goals and the beginnings of a path to the goal.
Current MORPGs have something like this except that there is usually just one path to the climax, but they don’t work very well to immerse you into the story. They can be improved in several ways.
First, game mechanics usually encourage the player to take up every goal available and to follow them all at once. This dilutes the significance of each individual path because there is too much going on. I don’t know how to fix this with changes to the game mechanics, but you can alleviate it by designing the paths so that they will not be successful if you are doing more than one at a time. Frequently there are urgent missions where you are told that you must hurry, but you can go off on a side adventure for days and come back to it, and it will make no difference. That kind of thing must be fixed. An urgent mission must fail if you take too long (in game time) to do it.
Second, there should be significant hints in the story elements. Most missions in current games can be completed without reading the story elements, just following the summary that you get in your log book. If you are searching for an NPC who fits a description, you should have to spot him visually, not be led directly to him by your compass. This does require a bit of extra work in game design because the descriptions have to be useful and that means that the description writer has to actually see the scene to describe it well, and so do any translators.
Third, the events need more variety, and that means better game mechanics. The game mechanics of WoW are too simplistic to allow for a large variety of challenges. The enormously over-used “kill n of this kind of creature” is about the only one that can be done well in WoW. Search missions are the same as kill mission but n is a variable. Escort and defense missions are frustrating because you don’t have enough options to do them well.
Fourth, there should be obvious hints to keep players busy but also hidden and secret hints that the players can discover by general exploration. I used to spend a lot of time exploring the “uninhabited” areas of WoW hoping to encounter something of interest, maybe a hidden monster with a special treasure or a cave with an old skeleton carrying a decomposing courier’s pouch that can be delivered to its original destination for a reward. Even a nest of five mining rocks would have been cool. But no, even single gather nodes are rare when players get off the beaten path in WoW, and there is certainly nothing else of interest. For PCs with the right skill set (such as thief or rogue) exploration should include breaking and entering into buildings that are otherwise inaccessible.
Fifth, MORPGs should take a hint from shooters and puzzle games like Portal and have places that you need some cleverness to get to. Again, this requires better game mechanics. There could be game items that would remove the difficulty in some cases; for example, you don’t have to figure out how to lower the draw bridge if you have a jump spell that can take you across the moat.
The open-world computer RPG is a fairly old art form at this stage, but it could be improved with some better story-telling techniques.