Putting the Player in the Driver's Seat


One of the places where I think that mainstream game development is lagging the most is in narrative design.

In indie spaces of course you'll find all kinds of inventive approaches to making a story interactive, but for Trafique, there wasn't much for me to draw on in indie spaces, because the kind of game that Trafique is isn't territory that a lot of indies go for. And it doesn't help that Trafique isn't a throwback to an established-but-dormant genre with conventions to mine from. Trafique doesn't fit into any genre, beyond the hopelessly vague genre of "open-world sandbox", so I would have to find inspiration in unusual places.

I've mentioned before that Quarantine was the primary inspiration for Trafique, and from it I got the idea of picking up passengers leading into missions. I was drawn to the idea of a plot that you stumble into through what appear at first to be unimportant, randomly generated side-missions. Of course, Trafique's story starts you off with a lot more plot direction than that, so while I enjoy the idea that Quarantine drops you in cold and lets you think for a while that there's nothing more to the game than just ferrying passengers, that just wasn't something I'd be able to make work with the story I wanted to have.

The other big influence on the narrative design would be, of all things, Carmen Sandiego.

And this is where we come to putting the player in the driver's seat of the plot.

In entirely too many games, the protagonist and player alike are led by the nose from plot point to plot point, never really figuring out anything on their own, and just following the orders of somebody who's got a direct phone line to you and who can see what you see for some reason.

And on some level this isn't even a design issue, it's a framing issue, but the hows and whys of games being like this are less interesting to me than games that aren't like this. Games that give the protagonist and the player genuine narrative agency.

These aren't always linked, though: Bioshock, Dishonored, and MGSV are games where the protagonist has moral choices and lots of gameplay agency, but zero narrative agency. And Bulletstorm, GTAV, and Assassin's Creed 2 are games with protagonists who have enormous narrative agency, but with zero choice on the player's part. I don't think either is more important, I think they're two independent components of how the gameplay operates and how the story is written. And not every game needs to have a high degree of player and protagonist agency, but I think that they are generally good things.

The specific mechanical idea I lifted from Carmen Sandiego is the idea of finding new missions by following up on rumours that are just vague enough that figuring out where to go next makes you feel like you got one over on the game, like you did genuine detective work. But what I found more fascinating was the Carmen games' philosophy of narrative design.

Carmen Sandiego comes from a tradition of early computer games that arguably don't have player characters; their design sensibility was to act as though the player sitting at their computer was the actual protagonist of the story. For those who haven't played the original Carmen games, they are detective games in which the player must locate a criminal by solving clues which lead you on a globe-trotting expedition that fully allows you to choose the wrong path and make the game unwinnable. Because early computer games.

And the thing is that, functionally, there's not much different between the actual ludonarrative flow of Carmen Sandiego and any given crime show tie-in game; Carmen Sandiego has wrong paths but it still only has 1 right one, it's still totally linear. The difference is the framing. Most crime adventure games don't let you screw up: there's rarely a way to arrest the wrong person or to run out of time. By adding things which, on a superficial level, make the game less fun, it creates a much stronger sense that the player is taking the initiative in how the plot progresses.

And this is one of my very favourite things that a game can do. It hearkens back to tabletop roleplaying games, where the story can go in any direction you can imagine. And so it's vital to me that Trafique captures this. The non-specificity of the main goal, the lack of mission markers, and even the very navigation are all meant to contribute to a feeling that you're doing what you're doing because you decided that it was the best thing to do.

When a game makes you feel like the story was your idea, then you've got something special on your hands.

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