There was a very interesting article on Gamasutra today by Chuck Jordan, one of the writers for adventure game developers TellTale, titled “Closing the Loop – Fostering Communication in Single Player Games“. It’s essentially an overview of how to foster a gaming experience in which there’s a genuine dialogue going on between the player and the game developer – the magic that transforms something like Half-Life from simply playing an action game with puzzle elements into a thought provoking experience that tells an interesting story. The holy grail of storytelling in games shouldn’t necessarily be some kind of completely open-ended sandbox but one in which the writers behind the game are able to craft an experience that draws you in and communicates something specific.

This is obviously a topic that’s close to my heart as I work on Ebenezer, my Old Testament adventure game. Communicating something specific is exactly what I’m aiming at – the whole premise of the game is to help the player explore the themes that a particular Bible passage is teaching and show how it is relevant to 21st century life. So here’s a quick overview of some of the approaches that Chuck lays out in his article:

  1. Choice – letting the player feel like they have some influence over the outcome is an important factor in drawing them in. However, it can backfire to present the illusion of choice if all it does in the end is remind you of the fact that ultimately the story is going to pan out the same way whatever you do.
  2. Agency – as far as possible, it’s always good storytelling to get you as the player to be responsible and involved in all of the big turning points in the narrative. That way you feel like you’re the one who’s driving the story.
  3. Empathy – games like Bioshock really make you stop in your tracks and ponder a while by helping you empathise with characters you’d previously regarded just as enemies to be killed in order to progress. Helping you see something from a fresh perspective is almost the definition of what it means to be thought-provoking.
  4. Relevance – if a game can adapt to the individual player and produce seemingly tailor-made responses then that can be really compelling.
  5. Environmental Details – clever use of environmental details in Half-Life 2 help pull you back into the story and rescue certain moments from degenerating into mere “puzzle-solving”, by giving a reason rooted in the narrative for why things are as they are. Without that, it would be easy for the sense of immersion to be broken as you’re sharply reminded of the fact that you’re just playing a video game.
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