Story-driven games spiced up by random elements is one of my favorite topics in game development. Over the past decade, I have worked on many game projects. My primary focus when developing games is on the story. Story can be divisive in games, with some finding great appreciation in a narrative element, while others outright ignore the story in favor of the gameplay experience.
This isn’t another take on whether story is necessary for a video game, as ultimately the best laid argument for either case is determined by the opinion of the individual. Rather, it’s a commentary on the current state of the story-driven games, in particular, the lack of opportunities being seized to infuse elements of randomness into the existing formula.
But what am I talking about when I refer to “random” elements in a story-driven game? After all, one factor common among most stories is that it’s more or less set rigidly in its sequence; a beginning, followed by a middle and concluding at the end.
The nature of gaming as an interactive medium is a fundamental principle that separates it from passive experiences, such as watching a movie or listening to a song. Developers have toyed with branching dialogue choices and multiple endings/altered sequences, but is there still room to grow?
It can be argued that the interactive element of gaming adds a layer of immersion not available to a film or a book. Imagine if your favorite movie changed every time you watched it. It might be better or worse, the outcome is really inconsequential, the point is it would be different. There’s a certain kind of engagement that surrounds the discovery of new content. You may love a game to death, but there’s only so many times you can play a scenario that you already know inside and out before even the most hardcore must admit the thrill isn’t what it used to be…
Enter randomness. Randomness can be used to simulate outcomes in gaming scenarios such as rolling dice, or another example, killing a civilian in GTA and get a random amount of money from their pockets. And these bits are great. But what if there was a chance you ran over an npc and their pockets exploded with gummy worms? Or live grenades? Or missiles that seek the player location? And what if you didn’t know that was even a possibility?
Modern game design seems to be developing a particular soft spot for an interesting concept called “emergent gameplay”. The idea is fairly simple, you can imagine it as a big system made up of smaller self contained systems, and when/if they interact ( and in what WAY they react ) something happens. The most interesting component of this kind of setup is based on what interactions occur ( and how they do it ). The fun comes in seeing how things go off the rails, forming solutions to overcome challenges as they happen, and at times, appreciating the outcome and its relation to your original goal. Emergent gameplay is driven by randomness.
Mechanically speaking, there’s a lot of ways you could take an idea like randomness...but what about in terms of a game’s narrative? I’ve done some experimenting with the use of random elements in some of my story-driven game projects, and will now detail some of the more interesting results.
The Murder Express: A who dunnit...where you really DON’T know who dunnit!
A good murder mystery keeps the player guessing right up until the reveal. If it’s done with skill, the person solving it should find all the clues that support the answer, and nothing should empirically indicate otherwise. Red herrings and dead ends are to be encouraged, but the finality should feel earned; not so impossible no one could figure it out but not some underhanded pitch either.
When developing a murder mystery set aboard a train full of real life serial killers, keeping tension up was key. Knowing who killed the victim is the objective of the game. On each boot up, a different killer is determined by a simple number generator.
The computer picks a number out of 12, and each suspect is assigned a number. Once the suspect is matched, the weapon they carry is assigned to match that of the murder weapon ( also randomized! ) and the motivation they had imprinted to meet the clues of the crime ( was it money or passion? Another randomized variable ;D ).
There are several other randomization systems that all affect each other in some way. The main takeaway is that the system provides a way for even the game’s developer to not be sure who the suspect is. By following the beats reflected in the gameplay ( finding clues, interviewing npc’s ) the results of what happened when the random systems reacted in their specified configuration are visible as surface level manifestations. Was the crime randomizer result a 3? You’re looking at a gunshot to the head on the victim. Was it a 4? Strangle marks around the neck. Was the motivation Money? The wallet is cleaned out and the briefcase was stolen. It’s all the luck of the draw.
From switching objects to switching storylines
So, randomization holds a lot of potential, but what does this mean in relation to a game’s story? Branching narrative arcs and interactive conversations do a lot to immerse the player in a game’s lore. The illusion of player agency is most noticeably demonstrated when the choices they make affect the world they inhabit.
In my latest release, “Aquacreep”, the player is tasked with figuring out which of the other people in an isolated ocean research center is actually a horrific shapeshifting alien. Inspired by the John Carpenter film “The Thing”, you will eventually have to take blood from everyone and test it under a microscope. The tension is real on every play, as the same trick used in “The Murder Express” is applied here. Each boot up randomizes which of your crew assimilates at which point on the fly.
The first clue available to the player is actually 1 of 5 possible human screams coming from just off screen somewhere. Depending on which character is going to be picked to be the 1st victim, a bloody and shredded wetsuit can be found that reveals the character who is secretly the monster...if you have been paying attention.
See, each of the npc characters wore identical wetsuits that shared a simple pattern. Visually, the only difference between the characters was the color. The color chosen for each character also subtly hinted at their character traits ( like orange patterns on the ginger haired npc, purposefully matching to get you thinking when you see this color orange, think this character! ) but this is getting off track. The point is that this moment does one of two things: It either corrects the player who figured they could breeze through the game without paying attention, or it positively reinforces those who choose to play more mindfully.
Another trick utilizing randomness comes in the dialogue options. Depending on the same random result that decided which npc was secretly the monster, entire blocks of responses will be completely opened up or blocked off, depending on the variables that drive them. For instance you could approach the doctor and complain about being sick. If he’s genuine, you will receive medication, a useless item purely included as a marker of the status of the npc. After all, a real doctor would try to make you feel better. However, should you approach the doctor and he is an alien, AND you choose the dialogue option about being sick, he will not give you the drugs, and also say something more than a bit implicating instead…
The obvious drawback in this method rest purely in the workload department. The amount of effort required to write the dialogue, move it along each stage of the multistep production process, and get it setup in the game is daunting.Then, you have to turn around and set the option to circumnavigate ever seeing it at all. This is the nature of randomness, not all paths will be experienced at once, but this is good! By cutting out what “could be”, the player is defining what “is”. And that is huge for player agency.
Randomness as an element of the story-driven game, and the world that it takes place
I would like to close this article by referencing one more example of randomness in service to the story. When I developed a game called “Spime” and the later reboot “Spime 3D”, I explored what would happen when a young guy tries to leave a roadside diner and instead ends up trapped in a looping paradox. The idea is that while he loops the diner in search of an exit, he uncovers clues to the existence of many other prisoners of the paradox. He follows the trail of one of them that leaves notes around with different snippets filling in the story. Here’s the kicker: the notes found that tell the story are told in random order, and it’s not possible to get all 64 before beating the game.
This development strategy is an absolute breeding ground for inaccessible content...the first time. You see where I’m going with this, right? The golden rule in my opinion when it comes to replay value is never show your full hand up front. Keep a few tricks up your sleeve. The Spime game can only ever be fully realized through multiple playthroughs by design. Players may get to the end and find they didn’t understand or that it was a convoluted experience. Others may reach the end and sit with a sense of wonder, inspired to go back through and see if they missed something that could better flesh out the tale, something they missed, a hidden detail somewhere...that's when it hits them that events are out of sequence.
Thoughts of “this wasn’t here the first time I played” occur, and if done right, the player gets a sense that there are many layers, many possibilities, many secrets left to experience. Other random elements like when the enemies appeared, how many marks were drawn on a wall and where, the content of the portraits in the diner when you looped back around -- they all fed into the concept of jumping across similar but different versions of the same dimension. The randomness actually propelled the concept the story was about. Randomness was actually a cohesive element to the narrative, and that’s an exciting idea that can go in a lot of different directions. For game developers interested in making story-driven games, it pays to consider the role randomness can play in your designs.