Procedural Storytelling 3: Narrative Pacing

I finished up talking about how you don’t want to tie your adaptive difficulty directly to your player’s progress.  In the intervening time, I’ve run into a number of examples of this.  Left 4 Dead continues to impress.  I’ve always done this work with adventure-action games and I totally missed the horror application and it’s a great fit.  Seeing how their using it to enhance their art is, well, vindicating.  It shows the holistic nature of this problem and solution.  I’ve also gotten reengaged in the study of Flow, which is still fascinating, and still under appreciated.

Flow in games by Jenova Chen

An application of Flow theory to games explains why procedural storytelling is so important.  If you believe the goal of players is to reach and maintain Flow state, an AI director serves an important role because Flow depends on an explorable accessible safe space.  An AI director is uniquely positioned to dynamically serve this.  In fact, it seems to be the only such dynamic system proposed.  But this shouldn’t be its only purpose.

There’s storytelling and narrative.  It just so happens that they require the same structure as Flow.  Looking at the chart here, the ever ascending challenge, but also the ever ascending involvement, the investment, and the comprehension.  This is also how stories are built.

I’ve finished reading the D&D 4th edition guides recently.  I’ve never been a big fan of D&D, but I give them a lot of credit, they’ve really taken it back to it’s roots and done a great job.  Role-playing has always been about both games and stories, even in a combat-focused game like D&D.  They go into great specifics on how powerful each fight should be in an evening, and you can see it in their sample adventure.  A setting introduction, 2 easy fights, a moderately difficult fight, and then a boss.  The fights all ramp up in difficulty, following the pacing curve, until the players triumph and the current story resolves.

This pacing arc is everywhere, in your 5 minute reward cycles, your 1 hour, your 1 year campaigns.  But it is always consistent.  Intro, Conflict, Climax, Resolution is the heart of drama.  An AI Director can explicitly provide this narrative structure to your story as part of the adaptive difficulty requested by flow.  In my experience Flow doesn’t require a straight increasing challenge=ability line.  Flow need buildup, comprehension, tension, release, and those little times for breaks.  Look at the classic flow activities: sports, dancing, running.  Just like stories.  Just like games.

It’s not a straight line, it’s a wiggly fractal.

It’s pacing.

We can implement pacing in our games, and it doesn’t even need to be dynamic.  The AI Director can help, but lots of games do it with tried-and-true fixed techniques.  We do it naturally.  Flow requires variation, and as we vary our designs, we increase our challenge.  Diablo 2 did it with character levels.  Super Mario Bros made its jumping puzzles familiar but harder.  Halo steadily improved its AI and difficulty.  Portal’s creators playtested the crap out of their product.  All it requires is treating the player’s play experience like a unified entity, like a narrative experience, like a flow experience.  Then you can bury narrative in your gameplay, the unified grail, if that’s what you’re searching for.

I’m going to branch this narrative.  There’s still a lot more to talk about with procedural storytelling.  Branching vs. open.  Building story connections dynamically.  What should be altered dynamically?  And I want to start talking about Flow.  What kind of variation does it need?  Has does it impact the classic definitions of games?  What is a chunkable piece for Flow (and procedural storytelling) ?  How does Flow interface with learning?  Is Flow the ultimate goal or are there other human desires games should also accommodate?  Phew!  I hope I can get to all of that.  But there’s been enough theory talk so far.  I’ll be taking this series into more specifics.  What should be physically represented?  What algorithms are running?  What does this mean for the rest of your gameplay systems?  How do you tune it?  Once done, practically, how can we help the player notice?  Should they be able to notice?

As always, feedback means I write sooner.  Cheers!


2 thoughts on “Procedural Storytelling 3: Narrative Pacing

  1. Pingback: Game AI Roundup Week #32 2008: 10 Stories, 1 Video, 2 Quotes —

  2. I’ve been looking for Game Theory articles, one’s I can understand, which are rare. This one is perfect for me. I’m writing a novel about a game developer whose game becomes subversive when its players start pushing for the game’s final objective – the replacement of our current government with an automated system. This solves the ultimate problem of governance, corruption. Well, until the sequel. I don’t know anything about game theory, but I sure am interested. Thanks.

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