Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Four Years Later

In early 2008, I was engaged in the second of my two college semesters abroad in Montreal.  I took part in a class called “EGD-310: Interactive Storytelling,” a standard part of the curriculum for Game Design students.  Studying in Montreal, however, carried with it a separate perk.  Our instructor was, at the time, working as the lead writer on a recently-announced project for a brand new studio.  While she declined our half-joking requests to be taken onto the project as her brain trust, she was able to share with us her knowledge and experience from years of writing for video games – knowledge and experience that was being put into action a few blocks away.

Though it’s been nearly four years since I was first exposed to those lessons, I’m now able to see them in action and get a more complete picture of what everything means.   With Deus Ex: Human Revolution finally available, I’ve once again entered a classroom with Mary DeMarle, and it’s interesting to see some of her lessons in action.

This blog post is serving dual purposes.  On the one hand, it serves as a [very] limited review of some of the aspects of the narrative for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  On the other, and more importantly, it analyzes those aspects in an effort to understand the challenges associated with nonlinear narrative development.  As the game is still a somewhat recent release, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.

The Basics of Interactive Narrative

Writing for a game is unlike writing for any other medium.  Even a highly linear game demands much more flexibility and depth than a comparable movie or television script.  Most of the issues involved with writing for games come back to one overarching concern: THE PLAYER WILL NEVER DO EVERYTHING YOU WANT.  As a result, every bit of freedom allowed to the player will alter the game narrative in some way.  Player personalities become projected onto characters and a player’s skills and tactics alter a story’s pacing.  Thus, the individual player’s interpretation of a game character’s interaction with the environment – in a way, the plot – will vary depending on the subject concerned.  As more and more freedom is provided to the player, this sensation grows more pronounced.

The above relationship can apply to either implicit or explicit narrative.  When referring to implicit narrative, player freedom refers to the openness of in-game actions.  A greater number of play styles being available indicates a greater level of freedom for implicit narrative.  When referring to explicit narrative, player freedom refers to a diversity of predetermined story elements, i.e., a branching vs. non-branching storyline.  A non-branching storyline provides one set of established plot points which will always be followed in the same sequence.  In contrast, a branching storyline provides the player with these established plot points, but these plot points don’t always link together, or at least not always in the same way.  A branching storyline is still based upon player choice, but unlike with implicit narrative, the established story points play out in the same way for each player.

While level of rigidity can, and often will, be similar between implicit and explicit narrative elements, it doesn’t need to be by any means.  An open explicit narrative with a rigid implicit narrative is similar to a text adventure or a choose-your-own-adventure novel.  Story progression and endings can be changed, but the path to each will play out similarly any time that story path is followed.  An open implicit narrative with a rigid explicit narrative is similar to what you find in a lot of stealth- or action-based games.  While there’s only one core story to follow, there are a fair number of options for how to progress between each one.  Player actions will have minimal bearing on how the explicit plot plays out, but the player’s interpretation of the story will be highly individualized.

This description is very generalized and may come off as a bit confusing.  For that, I apologize.  In the basic sense, though, what matters is that an open explicit narrative will change the plot for ANY player.  An open implicit narrative will change the way the plot is interpreted by an INDIVIDUAL player.

So where does Human Revolution fall in the spectrum of implicit and explicit openness?  The entire concept of its narrative is centered around a high degree of explicit openness.  There are a range of side missions to choose from, branching dialogue tracks, and a variably open world is provided to allow players the option to complete some mission objectives in differing sequences.  Likewise, the implicit narrative is provided a large degree of openness via a combination of stealth and action tactical options, lethal versus non-lethal weaponry, and an RPG-style upgrading system that changes the gameplay style, but has little direct bearing on how the explicit narrative plays out.  The result is a game with a high level of freedom in both implicit and explicit narrative elements.

By its very nature, implicit narrative is something a game writer has little control over.  The most a game writer can really do is leave gaps in the explicit elements to allow room for interpretation.  Layout for implicit narrative falls more in the hands of game designers, level designers, and artists.  Therefore, for the purposes of this discussion, any further reference to the game narrative will refer to narrative of the explicit variety.

Characterization & The “Hero’s Journey”

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Player Character: Adam Jensen, Security Manager at Sarif Industries, a biotech corporation that creates cybernetic prostheses for various purposes.

Character Traits: Well, he’s male.  He’s sort of…thirties-ish.  A bit of a Matrix character look about him.  Incidentally, sounds a bit like Keanu Reeves.  And, emotionally, um…well…it depends.

One big challenge a writer of an interactive narrative may face is the prospect of developing the main character.  A character’s personality is illustrated through actions; choices made in a given situation, styles of interaction with other characters, and measures taken to solve (or not solve) a problem all combine to give an image of who a character is.  In a game, the main character is a combination of two personalities: the player and the avatar.  Since the actions taken by individual players, i.e., their personalities, are impossible to predict and player choices dictate how the avatar character interacts with the plot, it’s extremely unlikely that a character will develop as both the writer and player desire.

One solution to this problem is to remove all personality from the avatar and allow the player to start from scratch.  This approach is used in many MMORPGs.  The character created is the creation of the player.  This technique, while effective in the open, unending structure of MMORPGs, doesn’t lend itself well to more traditional “beginning, middle, and end” plots.  A plot based around a three-act structure is expected to build and evolve, and that evolution is shown through the characters.  As a result, the characters are affected by events in the plot – affected in ways that the player might not be.  So how do you generate character traits and development for a character whose behavior is affected by actions that can’t always be predicted?

Deus Ex makes use of a highly structured system of narrative branches and dialogue tracks to dictate what sort of range of options the player has for the type of person Adam Jensen will be.  For instance, the various choices made available in dialogue tracks, which may read as “Cold, Empathetic, Confrontational”, are not absolute.  While they yield different results to accommodate different play styles, each option keeps within the range of the preexisting character traits of Adam Jensen.  Each piece of dialogue expresses the advertised inflection, but is worded so as to lead back to the core character.

Despite the tendency of the dialogue to rein the character back towards the center, enough action in one direction or another will, in the long run, shift Jensen’s character towards one end or another of his established range.  To put it another way, if you stretch a rubber band enough, it will eventually start to lose its elasticity.  The ultimate range of characterization that can be reached is limited to fit within pre-scripted (and often pre-rendered) cutscenes at key points in the story, but it’s enough to create the sensation that the player does have control over the character development process.  For the most part, it seems to be relatively seamless; the player isn’t left with the idea that he’s done something wrong or strayed from the intended character.

The same concept applies to the game’s portrayal of the “Hero’s Journey”.  Human Revolution’s practice of continually driving players back towards key plot points is the main tool used to ensure the integrity of the character development process and the evolution of the plot.  While the narrative structure is based upon branching, it still focuses on classic narrative elements.  Players still progress through a story about a “hero” who is pressed into action by an inciting incident, discovering that not everything is as it seems while facing ever more challenging threats, until he finally uncovers the truth and eliminates the primary threat that led him into action in the first place.  The basic elements of progression and character development are all still there.  The variability lies in the manner in which players move from point to point in that sequence.


A game with a highly interactive narrative runs into the same problems as one with highly photorealistic graphics.  It’s the classic balance of believability versus realism.  In game that is very realistic in the visual sense, every detail matters.  A low-res texture or an object placement that doesn’t make sense aesthetically becomes all the more noticeable as the visuals reach more and more towards reality.  What might normally be a minor inconsistency that players accept and ignore becomes a glaring error that players note and view unfavorably.  It doesn’t fit – players don’t believe it.  The illusion of the game is broken and a degree of immersion is lost.

In the case of interactive narrative, we run into the same concerns.  Real life has no narrative structure; it is infinitely variable.  We can say or do whatever we want, and those words and actions have different consequences based on the situation and people involved.  Human Revolution attempts to capture a small slice of this interactivity through variable dialogue tracks.  Choosing the right dialogue track for whatever outcome you wish to produce is based upon evaluating the personality of the receiver.  Limits are set in place in terms of how often the player can speak in a given conversation (typically around 4 to 8 times, give or take), how many dialogue choices there are at any one time (no more than 4), and also by the range to which character traits can be maintained.

For the most part, this system blends together well, depending on play style.  Since the believability of the conversation is dependent on the player’s familiarity with the character of Adam Jensen, however, it can take a while for the player to settle in.  The player’s exact choice and inflection of words can’t be reflected entirely accurately, so what a player might think is the best thing to say in a given situation won’t always be available.  As players grow more comfortable with Jensen’s style of speech and ways of thinking, it becomes easier to predict the direction of a conversation and accept a more secondary role in the decision-making process.

Some lines of dialogue do tend to feel a bit unnatural when combined together.  For instance, you might be attempting to convince someone to do something important.  You say exactly the right line towards convincing someone to do something.  A second choice appears, and again, the right choice is made.  The subject is almost ready to do what you want.  Then, you select the incorrect line.  The subject calls you an idiot and thinks you’re being manipulative.  Another choice appears, and you select the correct line again.  Instantly, the subject forgets that you were being ignorant and manipulative, realizes how wrong he’s been, and gives you everything you want. 

Now, in most cases, a situation this minor would easily be interpreted as “fitting into the rules” and would not interfere with the believability of the game world.  However, since the act of pressing through the conversation is centered around a mechanic as undeniably real as human emotion, it becomes easy to notice that something is off.  When something isn’t quite right about someone’s behavior, it’s hard to miss.  

Actions can also interfere with the believability structure, such as in the situation when I ran up to the “boss” character, David Sarif, in the middle of a crisis situation.  With my gun drawn, I engaged him in conversation.  A small cutscene began, and his immediate response was, “What are you doing?  Put that thing away!”  After holstering my gun, I spoke to him again.  Another cutscene began, with David Sarif walking up to Adam Jensen as though he had just entered the room – as though he hadn’t just spoken to him three seconds earlier.  “Oh, Adam, thank God you’re here!”  It seems a bit strange that your employer, for whom you are employed as Security Manager, would be offended that you were carrying a gun in the middle of a life-threatening situation, and apparently so much so that he wouldn’t acknowledge your existence until you put it away.


In the end, what Deus Ex: Human Revolution illustrates about interactive narrative design is that control is key.  Though the game may offer a wide range of story branches to follow, they are all very carefully regulated and deliberately placed.  The degree of freedom players have is far from infinite, and measures are often put in place to ensure that players remain on the Golden Path and keep moving towards the next vital plot point.  Yes, it’s a game about choices and their consequences, but those choices and consequences are all regulated cleverly.  The idea is to provide enough flexibility to generate the sensation or illusion of player control while subtly ensuring that everything eventually leads where it needs to.  In short, the folks at Eidos have done a very good job of tracking and controlling the variables.  The places where the narrative falls down demonstrate a conflict between player and developer control – elements of non-sequitur generated by behaviors that can’t be fully accommodated.

I’ve truly only scratched the surface of the issue of nonlinear narrative design.  I spent the better part of four months learning about it and still can’t quite grasp it all, so I don’t expect to explain it effectively in one blog post.  What’s always interesting, though, is the process of analysis.  It’s always a learning experience.  For instance, four years later, Mary DeMarle is still teaching me about narrative design.