How do you tell a story in an interactive medium? How do you give players agency while giving them a good story and keeping the game size manageable?
How can a game writer tell a strong story while also making it the player’s story for each and every player?
There isn’t any single answer. Action games minimize the story, and instead provide an experience to players. Most role-playing games focus on combat while telling a bit of story between (and sometimes during) fights.
Lori and I set a higher bar in our Quest for Glory games. We told stories in which the player was the hero, but players also had the freedom to explore. And yes, fight some monsters to prepare them for tougher challenges.
A Balancing Act
How are we balancing story and player agency in Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption? It hasn’t been easy, and that’s the main reason this game is taking so much longer to develop than we predicted. We’ve had to balance our ambitious storytelling goals with some practical compromises. Some of the decisions we’ve made along the way were:
- Each game will feature a single character class, and a particular character. This lets us tailor each game’s story for that character.
- There is a traditional, linear story that progresses around the player.
- If the player fails to act, another character may become the hero for that scene.
- Reputation and relationships are important, and mostly controlled by player actions.
- No movies or long cut scenes once the game has started.
- No voice acting, at least in the initial release.
- Combat is mostly or entirely avoidable at each player’s choice.
- The story is developed in dialogue, and players have many choices.
- Exploration is important, and everything in the game responds to players.
We originally pictured Hero-U as a place where players could walk around and explore. The first attempts, as pictured in our 2012 Kickstarter campaign, were chessboard-style maps. The problem is that those aren’t immersive. We quickly switched to an isometric “stage” view, then to using 3D so that scenes could be much bigger than a single screen.
Last year, when Al Eufrasio joined the team, we started adding much more animation that we originally envisioned, following the storytelling rule of “Show, don’t tell.” But we still needed a way to advance the story visually.
Enter the Vignette
The 1990s answer was “cut scenes”, or non-interactive film-like sequences. LucasArts made these work very well in games such as Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. But cut scenes have a lot of problems in a game like Hero-U.
One problem is that the player has to sit and wait for the cut scene to complete before going back to exploring and saving the world (or at least maintaining a passing grade). Another is that many cut scenes destroy immersion because they are not from the player’s viewpoint, nor under her control.
But the main problem with cut scenes is that they’re small movies. They have to compete with Hollywood artistry, and that’s beyond both our expertise and budget.
Our solution is the “vignette”, an image that illustrates a particular event in the game. This gives players a closeup showing how their actions affect the game. When a vignette appears, it also represents time passing.
A simple example is suppertime in the dining hall. When Shawn sits down to eat, we bring up a vignette showing a closeup of the Rogue - er, excuse me, “Disbarred Bard” - table. We have several variations on this image depending on how Shawn and the other characters feel about recent events in the castle.
Game text can appear over a vignette. Images and words together tell a story much more effectively than either alone.
State of The Game
We’re making great progress. Adam immediately started to bring new tools to our development process, such as ways of showing the interaction points for all of the objects in a scene. This is a great way to make sure that every object has a waypoint and that they’re in the right places.
Currently we’re working on mini-games such as trap disarming and puzzles. Joshua is getting back to the combat system after adding many new features to the game and Composer systems.
Our target is Beta at the end of the year, and release once the game is absolutely solid. Due to the complexity of character interactions and the scripts, we expect to have an extended beta of around 3 months.
Please keep your address information up to date at www.backerkit.com so we can ship your addon items. We have additional content and a place for your friends to pre-order and support the game at www.hero-u.com. That’s also where you can join us on the Hero-U discussion forum.
The development history of Quest for Glory 1 and 2 is featured in this long Digital Antiquarian article - http://www.filfre.net/2016/09/so-you-want-to-be-a-hero/.
Check out Woven on Kickstarter - https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1355836783/woven-solve-puzzles-by-reknitting-your-character. The tag line is “Explore a woolen world threatened by metal insects. Customize your character to get past obstacles. A unique narrated adventure game.” It’s a unique look and might be a fun game.