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I am currently writing a story for an RPG I will make. For this RPG, it is supposed to be a sandbox and open-world game. It also gives the player multiple choices and pathways as they play, giving it a lot of replayability.

However, there's a problem I face. For the story, I am trying to give it a strong narrative. It does, though, contrast with the multiple choices idea. Parts of the narrative that contradict it include:

  • The option to let the deurtagonist to tag along. She plays a MAJOR role.

  • The character growth of the protagonist from being a miserable drunk to a full on hero (though he is more of an anti-hero)

  • The arcs of multiple characters

  • Certain events that occur with the storyline

  • Side characters who play a major role

As for the main quest, I do not have to worry about it so much since the game is a little more story-oriented than say, Skyrim. As for sidequests, they are optional and just add on for worldbuilding.

In the end, how could I balance both a strong/linear story while offering multiple choices, free decisions, and not creating a lie or illusion like Telltale?

4 Answers 4

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Essentially you have to write multiple versions of the narrative to account for the different choices. This might mean your players can potentially experience quite different stories. If that sounds like a heck of a lot of work, well, that's because it is. You'll end up creating the content for a specific events and versions of the story that few players will see, if at all. If you have a personal cannon version of the story and how it plays out you can keep the choices alive while nudging players towards your preferred options by providing better gameplay outcomes to making the "right" choices.

So if you'd prefer the player to bring the deurtagonist along you make it so that having her makes sections of the game easier to complete, bosses easier to defeat etc.

If you've got certain fixed points in the story - things that absolutely have to happen then the choices can still matter, because they change how the player got there, and in story telling it's as much about the route the story takes to get to the ending as it is about the ending itself.

If you wanted an example to study the original Mass Effect trilogy is a good place to start, and hits upon quite a few of your points - there are characters with significant story arcs can be missed out almost completely. The survival (or not) of characters in early games can completely change the tone and context of "fixed" story events in later ones, how the player interacts with side characters can affect their relationships, are they friends? Lovers? Reluctant allies? Significant events can occur in a different order, they can happen but differently because the player wasn't there - or in some cases simply not at all.

The broad strokes and events of the plot are the same (discounting any game over scenarios), regardless of the player's choices; the battle of the Citadel in ME1, the "suicide mission" in ME2, the invasion in ME3 etc. But path and story the players experience can vary substantially altering context and as a result go on to influence further choices for the player.

In a specific example (which I'll hide in a spoiler tag for safety):

The Geth/Quarian war always happens in ME3, you can only resolve it without one side or the other being annihilated if you made certain choices in ME2 (Tali and Legion both alive, didn't sell Legion to Cerberus, earned and kept both loyalties etc). For a player who did so (or even one who just sided with the Geth and let the Quarians die) picking the "Destroy" option at the end of the game is going to have a very different set of implications, knowing that in doing so you will sacrifice billions of your allies that you've either worked your ass off to save already, or even worse already sacrificed billions of your other allies' lives to preserve in the first place versus the player whose "story" has already had the Geth wiped out. Both players have had the "same" ending but the first player had to sacrifice billions of lives more for it in that moment than the second.

Ultimately the main events of the narrative can and should occur how the main plot dictates - but if you can make the player care about the characters, both main and secondary sufficiently than you can lend weight to their choices by having those decisions affect them. Often when I see criticism of choice-based games where people complain about the choices being an illusion it's because for whatever reason the game hasn't succeeded in making the player care about the impacts the choices have had.

As I said though it's a great deal of work - you need ways to stitch all those story branches back together at key points, make those key events feel different, and have it all still make sense, and hardest of all you need to make sure you don't allow yourself to get so attached to "your version" of the story that you end up railroading the player into doing it, an occasional "nudge" is one thing, a bludgeon is quite another.

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  • How would I hint to the player the canon version?
    – Crafter
    Jan 24, 2023 at 22:56
  • @Crafter The exact way to do that is going to depend very much on the specifics, but as a simple example if you'd prefer the player took the deuteragonist along you can have another quest giver or NPC point the player in their direction as someone who can help, perhaps making getting to them the goal of a sub-quest etc. This will prompt the player that when this character wants to come along the option of saying "yes" will feel more natural vs. just going "nah, I'm good" Jan 25, 2023 at 11:28
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+50

The Cave of Time problem

The issue of story sprawl, or plot-divergence, where the player has 1 common starting point and each decision results in a new branch leading to a different ending, is usually referenced by the Choose Your Own Adventure™ book called The Cave of Time.

https://heterogenoustasks.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/standard-patterns-in-choice-based-games/

Cave of Time is shallow but diverse, lots of story branches are left unseen, but the meta-purpose is replayability because each read-through is short. Some games use a timeloop as a similar mechanic. No set path and keeping each playthrough short, but requiring multiple plays to accumulate the knowledge to win the game in a single play.

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Your rpg could imagine these shallow branches as side quests, experienced in no correct order but the knowledge eventually accumulating, allowing the player to deduce their significance through environmental storytelling and worldbuilding.

But your survival gameloop may suffer because it's in direct conflict with a player uncovering all the necessary parts of the meta story.

Branch-and-Bottleneck

A 'fix' to this ever-geometrically branching structure is called branch-and-bottleneck. Essentially the story is allowed to branch within a section, but bottlenecked by a major plot event that would be the equivalent to an act in theater/film – a plot point that is so important that it fundamentally changes the goal of the protagonist.

enter image description here

Branch-and-bottleneck allows for character freedom within the acts, but resets the story at each bottleneck to stay on course for a common ending. Stats are usually involved that refer back to the previous sections, allowing for tailored resolutions after the shared (inevitable) climax.

Notice in the second diagram, there are two completely siloed paths through Act 3 (presumably dictated by earlier choices). Any section like this has to be fully produced and packaged in the game despite a percentage of players never encountering any of it. Worse, a player would need to restart the game from a saved checkpoint to see the 'full' content.

'Strong Narrative' means character growth

A good story puts the protagonist through the ringer. They start with an unrealistic desire (an unearned 'want'), and over the course of the story, through their own actions, they sacrifice that ideal but generally get something that resembles the original want but it's not the naive (unearned) thing they imagined.... They emerge from the ordeal as changed person who's gone through a growth arc. They didn't 'live happily everafter', they didn't have all their wishes granted. Their naive want gets discredited in favor of an earned reality which (thanks to us following the protagonist's arc) is also deeper and more meaningful to the reader.

A typical fight and shoot game protagonist is (in narrative terms) a Mary Sue who keeps leveling up and is always the center of action. This character doesn't have an 'arc', just a trajectory. After defeating the antagonists, the goalposts are reset for the next level.

It's a genre clash between an 'adult' story about consequence and growth vs an episodic wish-fulfillment power romp. There is no common ground in which these overlap, leading to the much-discussed ludo-narrative dissonance where a game's play loop is the episodic power fantasy, while cutscenes tell a tonally different story on rails.

Notice how this issue is only exacerbated by branch-and-bottleneck. It doesn't matter what the player chooses in (open world) Act 1, it always lead to the same bottleneck that resets the plot for Act 2.

Decide what the player can control

Is the player making choices for the story, or for their character?

The option to let the deurtagonist to tag along. She plays a MAJOR role.

Player can TRY to prevent deurtagonist from coming, but can they prevent a plucky self-determined strong character from following?

The sidekick needs her own reasons for going to Mordor, and her own reasons for sticking near the MC despite him not wanting anything to do with her.

Assuming the player wants to play as a drunk loner, it necessarily changes the motivations of this sidekick. Not so much "Boo hoo, he was mean to the sidekick and now she is sad and can't go...", more like "She is revealed to not be looking for a hero, she is looking for a bull-headed fool who will kick down the door and take all the bullets, something she can't do on her own.

Turning the MC into a selfish p.o.s., turns other characters into selfish p.o.s. to compliment. You can preserve the plot bottleneck – they both end up in Morder together, but the player's behavior influence the way other NPC are characterized. She might help him along the way, but only until he gets the door open for her, then he's expendable or the fallguy.

This can be within the range of the character, for example: she can come on as starry-eyed looking for a hero. If the player refuses that role she follows anyway giving the player opportunity to 'correct' his behavior and allow her in, 'sad puppy' but now with caution. If he continues to rebuff her, you need a dark fall-back reason that motivates her to follow. And presumably these are just on-going character stats so they can have many fails and resets within that relationship arc as events happen.

Character archetypes play with these trope shifts. You can probably imagine any achetypal character along a trope spectrum. It's equally interesting that she starts out with false intentions, but he's nice to her and she feels conflicted..., and later her false motives exposed through a plot twist, or keeping her on the fence throughout.

The character growth of the protagonist from being a miserable drunk to a full on hero (though he is more of an anti-hero)

His friendships have to be earned. The reward is not more character points but unlocking unique story interactions with other characters – story moments that are also clues and hints, or earned tokens that can pay-off later.

Extreme actions get extreme reactions, and deception and coercion, thus the player is building their own character's arc that is working for or against him (positive or negative arc). Stats will keep track and adjust, with alternate dialog covering each stat possibility. A scared village could become an angry mob under the right stats, and the player's ability to influence those stats through their behavior could lead to very different gameplay.

'Nice' players may encounter a nicer world where social transactions lead to rewards. Crash and burn players get a more hostile world.

The arcs of multiple characters

Were getting into game mechanics territory. Does the player control one character, or multiple characters? What exactly are the 'levers' that trigger a stat change? Also what is the game loop?

Is each situation a different puzzle? Are there factions? Are there transactions? Try to think beyond fetching someone's frying pan in exchange for an infodump. NPC are multi-dimensional characters with a range of wants and needs. No interaction should result in a binary yes/no. Each situation should be plotted on a range of possibilities within this storyworld, where both player and NPC have other levers to negotiate with, and secondary motives they're willing to settle for.

Certain events that occur with the storyline

This reminds me of the classic time travel paradox. Does the world 'right' itself when you attempt to alter history? In this case, can some other character do the the thing a player is refusing to do? Can your story 'right' itself?

Or is the player in control? What are the stakes if they don't want to play your story?

Can't really address all situations in a branching narrative. Think of your genre and treat a setup as a foreshadowed event that – despite the MC having a change of heart – happens anyway, and they are unable to stop it. It's just a tonal shift whether the MC causes a disaster or is unable to prevent a disaster they have some responsibility for/connection to.

Also, I think this is closely related to can the player die. If the MC is stubborn, make them an offer they can't refuse. Kill them until they do it right the next time. If they make enemies, let those enemies pay-off.

Side characters who play a major role

In my story game I settled on 'head hopping' 3rd-person. I had an ensemble cast, and you made choices for only one of them at any time – losing narrative control over the others. Agatha Christie where you get to play all the characters.

Choices while playing a character altered personality stats when that character was an NPC. Player had a broader awareness of what a character is capable of, having seen prompts for choices they didn't pick. Essentially the player had the option of ramping up how extra or how moderated the character behaves, how honest or suspicious. I tried to use it as a character device rather than a branching plot device.

Also the story isn't controlled by any one character, and if that character needs to do something for plot reasons, they could do it as NPC.

I think TellTale was just bad

¯\(ツ)

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  • For note: Depending on which characters you bring along into the party, there is a mode to switch characters like GTA V. This allows them to do special sidequests, but you automatically switch back to the protagonist for certain main quests.
    – Crafter
    Feb 2, 2023 at 5:24
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Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the inventors of South Park, have some writing advice that may apply here.

They are on YouTube somewhere talking about this, but their advice is simple:

Between every scene, you must be able to insert the words "But..." or "Therefore...". Never "And then..."

This forces a story structure:

Scene 1: "This happened". Scene 2: "Therefore this happened, they took some action." Scene 3: "But then, this happened." Scene 4: "Therefore, this happened."

I don't write RPG, but it seems to me, you need the same advice:

If a decision is made by the player, that decision must have consequences.

If an action is taken by the player, then that action must cause something else to happen. There are no empty actions.

Every scene should be consequentially linked to the next scene. Your player has a problem, therefore they take some action, but it doesn't work, therefore they take another action, and that works to solve the problem, but then a new problem appears, therefore...

If you are going to give your player 3 choices, what happens after that decision must link to what happened in the scene they are leaving as either a "Therefore" or a "But".

It is obviously more work, you can't come up with just one following scene. But I think it will keep a story narrative going, their choices will have consequences, good or bad, and that is how a story works.

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Different Arcs

I would propose that the best way to do a open world with a strong narrative is to strictly separate out the various character arcs.

All of your characters should be transformed by your hero's journey, not just the hero. So plot out each major character arc, and identify the places where things could go differently. These milestones are both inflection points for the side characters and the main character.

Once you've identified the different "endings" for each side character, you can decide how these outcomes all come together to tie up your main character's story.

Example

As a kind of trivial example: maybe the POV character has a choice to use a powerful artifact to protect a village, or to sacrifice the village and save the artifact for a later (presumably more important) battle.

Various side characters have opinions on what the "right" answer is in this case, and which choice the player makes impacts their character arcs. Some become bitter, thinking the player disregarded their advice, some idolize the player for making the hard choice, some are horrified to discover their values are so different, etc.

Importantly, the POV character can arrive in the same end-state, but based on different paths. So if a feeling of isolation is important to your character's end state, being idolized can be just as isolating as being hated. So key characters can have different reactions based on the choices made, and still leave the POV character cut off from society in the end.

What changes is how the character arrived at the end-state of isolation; how the side characters react to and are changed by player agency comes back to inform the ending, which I think is really the goal of this kind of story-telling.

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