Sid Meier’s Narrative Design: Part One

June 12, 2017


When discussing--or designing--storytelling in video games, we typically leverage the rhetoric of the storytelling mediums we’re already familiar with: notably, novels and films, a media reference point/anchor that Ian Bogost’s argued against in his provocatively titled and thoughtfully reasoned article, “Video Games are Better Without Stories.” It makes sense - in a way, treating video game storytelling as a descendant of these earlier mediums is, to paraphrases Bogost, an unambitious goal. Instead, what if we treated video game storytelling as the descendant of… well… video games?

In 2012, Sid Meier delivered a GDC talk that focused on what he considered “interesting choices” in video games. As the designer of Civilization, it’s no surprise that many of his examples were drawn from--and applied to--that genre of game. Coincidentally, however, 2012 was also the year that the first installment of Telltale’s The Walking Dead came out, a game that paved the way for a game genre that’s, somewhat ambiguously, referred to as “choice-based narratives.” So, while Meier undoubtedly had no idea when he gave his talk about what the future held for video game storytelling, now that the “interactive narrative” genre has had a chance to mature for nearly half a decade, it seems like now is a great time to revisit his talk, and see how it can apply to storytelling.

Meier outlines four core qualities of interesting choices: tradeoffs, situational, personal and persistent. In this special two-part blog series, I’ll take a look at each of them, and discuss how they can apply to prose-based narrative choices.

Tradeoffs force the player to commit to one thing and sacrifice another. We see these choices all the time in games: upgrade your health or your damage? Move units forward to press an opportunity, or fall back to reinforce the base? Tackle a quest with combat, diplomacy, or stealth?

Risk vs. reward is a core tenant of a good tradeoff, augmented by the understanding that the “risk” is not simply that your intended plan doesn’t work out, but that you’ve actively given up something else that might have been better. As humans, we’re wired to artificially inflate the value of things that we possess--think of it as the psychological underpinnings of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”--so forcing players to sacrifice something, be it a spendable currency, the time it takes to complete an action, or even a hypothetical opportunity creates an interesting strategic dilemma for the player.

The key to making a tradeoff work is that the player has to value both sides of the equation; if one option is clearly superior to the others, then the tradeoff ceases to be a dilemma, and instead becomes an evaluation. With quantitative decisions--such as how to spend a finite number of resources--this is fairly straightforward, since gains, losses and comparisons are the natural grammar of integers, and it’s fairly easy to numerically “balance” options. For example, in 80 Days, the player is racing around the world, and every leg of the journey represents a tradeoff between resources they are attempting to conserve: finances, physical health, and their remaining travel time, to name a few. Does the player choose the fast-yet-uncomfortable horseback ride or the expensive and luxurious overnight cruise?

While a few narrative-based games, such as 80 Days and Reigns, have integrated integer-based resource systems as a means of augmenting their prose-based decisions, most story-driven games deliberately obfuscate whatever values are being tracked, instead trying to write choices that can create meaningful dilemmas for the player purely through prose. Without the easily comparable nature of integers, this can be a tall order: how can the player assess their trade-off options without a tangible resource (or two) to weigh between?

In a narrative game, we can use a “choice axis” to substitute for a valued resource; in other words, all of the player’s options should exist along a continuous spectrum: “selfish to selfless,” “bold to timid,” “enthusiastic to reluctant.” This commonality is what allows the player to weigh one option against the other, and assess the tradeoffs of each option. However, there’s two important caveats:


  • The first is that both sides of the axis should be appealing to the player at the moment of decision. In other words, “good vs. bad” isn’t a particularly rich axis, since the player has likely already decided which side of the coin they want to fall on, and evaluating a list of options for the “good” one doesn’t present the player with a tradeoff. By contrast, an interesting axis asks the player to weigh their decisions, even if they’ve already defined what kind of character they’re playing - for example, a choice axis that spans from “should do” to “want to do” gives the player stakes on both sides by ensuring that the choice not taken feels like a sacrifice.

  • The second is to avoid offering choices that are simply information solicitation (a holdover from the era of classic adventure games where recycling through a dialogue tree was an acceptable part of gameplay), or personal expression (which can feel like a non-sequitur if it’s not deployed in pursuit of an explicit goal). This isn’t to say that these kinds of choices have no place in a narrative game; it’s just that by their nature, they avoid asking the player for strategic commitment.

So, the bottom line is, to create a narrative tradeoff, identify what the choice is asking the player to commit to, and what it’s asking them to give up. These kinds of narrative dilemmas are what Telltale has built an entire brand out of, and if you haven’t had a chance to check out their work, I’d heartily recommend it (The Walking Dead probably qualifies as a modern classic, but for the gore-and-moral agony averse, their current Guardians of the Galaxy series is a great alternative for a first-hand experience of the types of tradeoff choices we’re talking about) and be sure to check out the next chapter in this series where I’ll dissect Situational Choices as they apply to narrative game design!


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