Rethinking Collaborative Storytelling, Part 1

A long time ago, I tried redefining games–especially role-playing games–as “collaborative storycraft.” Since then, there have been countless articles about how video games have transcended the realm of the hobbyist and have since become an artform that rivals film and literature for dominance in the cultural spotlight. I’m not going to go into that too much, as everyone else seems to have done so–rather, I want to talk about stretching collaborative storytelling in games into places it hasn’t gone before.

Storytelling in Games These Days

Most storytelling in games is done in the following format:

  1. Developer creates a story framework
  2. Player chooses how to navigate the story framework
  3. Developer tells a story through the framework. Player tells a story through navigation.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes developers railroad the player by creating a framework where there is only one choice at each decision point, but for the most part modern games allow for multiple decision points. Even Super Mario Bros allows for multiple decision points–with some effort–if the player chooses to explore the worlds as they tell their story.

Fire Mario is dropping in to the 4-2 Warp Zone.
Mario has discovered the 4-2 Warp Zone!

We’re also seeing a trend towards the meta-stories that players tell each other. As streaming, competition, and speedrunning all have become more prevalent in the community, we’ve seen developers consequently open their random number seed generation and create in-game mechanisms to tracking achievements and time. This publicity is lucrative in that streaming is free marketing, so I think it’s perfectly fine that most developers stop at this level of interaction.

This is a Cuphead results screen, showing time, their bonuses, and a grade of A, demarking a brand new record!
Cuphead’s results screen gives the player in a nutshell everything they need for streaming, speedrunning, and achievement-hunting.

However, a few games broke that model much further, but it’s risky and difficult design space. Undertale is probably the quintessential game that breaks the standard model of gaming. The most famous of these design decisions the player makes in other save states still affects outcome of the game, as the game design is conscious that the game is being replayed. In a way, this is an iteration on Radiant Silvergun’s looping storyline (spoiler alert) that depends on you reseeding humanity at the end of the game after obliterating everyone, only so that the humanity that you reseed also ends up resulting in the obliteration of everyone.

Undertale: Chara, in the darkness, finds Toriel again, only to be asked "Why do you keep coming back here?"
Toriel knows you can’t stop playing this game…
Stage 1 Title Card for Radiant Silvergun: "Link" 100,000 BC July 13, 18:06. "descent point somewhere in time"
Radiant Silvergun sends you to the past at the end of the game only to obliterate you…

Thus, it’s important to iterate and to branch off. Undertale doesn’t have nearly the competitive scene as modern-day streaming games like Valorant, Fortnite, or Super Meat Boy, but it certainly gets streamed enough because of the story it lets the streamer (player) tell.

How Do We Plan to Iterate?

This is the question that I want to come back to over the next couple of months here at Root Veggie. I don’t really want to make the next Undertale: Toby Fox is doing a perfectly fine job with that with Deltarune. Even though one of the games I made as a kid was a Shoot-em-up, I frankly don’t have the dexterity in order to create a good enough game in that genre. Instead, it’s important to look at this from more of a literary level than a programmatic or formulaic level.

I think the key here is that we want to have the player to have more control over the story they tell, without relinquishing the amount of control the developer wants to tell. Essentially, we need to layer meta storytelling frameworks over the primary storytelling framework. Undertale does this by altering the entire experience based on actions in previous save states. What if we did this by bluntly telling the player, “hey, you get to make part of the game too?”

There’s a game that I’ve been playing recently that does exactly that, despite it being otherwise a super-railroady game. We’ll talk about it next time.


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