Changeful Tales: Design-Driven Approaches Toward More Expressive Storygames
Stories in released games are still based largely on static and predetermined structures, despite decades of academic work to make them more dynamic. Making game narratives more playable is an important step in the evolution of games and playable media as culturally relevant art forms. In the same way interactive systems help students learn about complicated subjects like physics in a more intuitive and immediate way than static texts, more dynamic interactive stories open up new ways of understanding people and situations. Such dreams remain mostly unrealized in released and playable games.
In this dissertation I will describe a number of design and technical solutions to the problem of creating more expressive and dynamic storygames, informed by a practice-based approach to game production. I will first define a framework for the analysis of games, including especially the terms storygame (a playable system with units of narrative where the understanding of the interconnectedness between story and system is crucial) and the notion of narrative logics (the set of processes that define how player input affects the next unit of story presented by the system). I will exercise this framework on an existing and well-known storygame genre, the adventure game, and use it to make a number of claims about the mechanics and dynamics of narratives in this genre that are borne out by an analysis of how contemporary games adopting some of its aesthetics succeed and fail. I will then describe three emerging storygame modes that are still in the process of being defined, developing a critical framework for each informed by close readings and historical analysis, and considering what design and technical innovations are required to fully realize the new mode's potential. These three modes I discuss are sculptural fiction (which shifts the focus from navigating to building a structure of narrative nodes), social simulation (games that explore the possibility space created by a set of simulated characters and rules for social interaction), and collaborative storygames (in which the lexia are generated at least in part by the participants during play). Each theoretical chapter is paired with a case study of one or several fully completed and released games I have created or co-created in that mode, to see how these design ideas were realized and technical advancements implemented in practice. I will conclude each section with applied advice for game makers hoping to work in these new spaces, and new technological developments that will help storygames continue to evolve and prosper.