Monday, September 22, 2008

A Lesson from the Tabletop

Since last week's feature, I've been thinking more about shared narratives. Imagining what a unique cooperative experience would look like if participants were incorporated into the story, I tried to think of templates that would be helpful for designing such a game. Sadly, there are too few examples to draw from. One thing did come to mind however, and that was Dungeons & Dragons.

Despite logistical trouble, tabletop gaming succeeds in bringing fairly large groups of people who are willing to commit to a potentially long-term narrative. If we take some time to look at what I consider to be a very close relative to videogames, we can learn how a story may be built and shared in a digital medium.

I am not ashamed to say I play tabletop RPGs, two of them in fact. I'm just one of many within a subsection of gamers that play pen and paper games on a regular basis. In fact, some of my most memorable gaming moments were dependent on the roll of a D20. This is no fanciful hobby; I have shared some truly "hardcore" gaming moments with my tabletop friends.

DND is often misunderstood as a game of pretend in which players huddle around a family-size bag of cheetos relying solely on their imagination for the adventure. The universe is actually in large part controlled by a huge set of rules and pre-created content. The settings and story arcs found in campaign modules are often as grand and fleshed out as some of the best videogame worlds. The unique characteristics of tabletop gaming allow players to interact with this environment in an interesting way.

DND has what no videogame will ever have: the participation of a flesh and blood storyteller, the DM. The DM is the facilitator of the entire experience and is empowered to alter the game rules and environment as they see fit. No matter how much I would love to have Team Ico with me in the living room, it's just not going to happen. By having this arbiter between players and narrative, regardless of what bold or idiotic decisions players make, the DM can alter the story accordingly.

Every experience that comes out of a DND session is unique because each player will act differently according to their motivations. Though progression will always take place, the malleable nature of tabletop gaming allows players to act independently from the other participants. The narrative outcome is the result of each players' unique choices along the way; thus, they build a shared story.

To design an interesting cooperative experience in a videogame will mean some of these characteristics should be emulated. I'm no game designer. I have no idea how difficult this might be, so keep in mind all of this is a beautiful dream-land in my head.

Let's say we are making a four player coop game in which each participant is crucial to the story and can shape how the game progresses independently of the other players. Already, this is no easy feat. To start with, the cast of characters should be diverse.

Many tabletop RPGs rely on character classes that come with their own background stories, motivations, and abilities.
This encourages the player to shape the story according to their individual view point, which will include their perception of the other players and their actions. There are already enough unshaven marines coming out of the videogame industry as it is. Indigo Prophecy does a good job of incorporating a diverse, albeit stereotypical, cast into the plot.

Secondly, each player should be free to leave and join the party at will. In fact, it would be ideal if players can choose to work with or against the others, even if they are oblivious of the fact. I'm a big fan of making someone evil on a whim. Fable II is purportedly incorporating this free roaming type of play style, and I'm interested to see how it plays out.

Lastly, our imagined game should have a diverse set of choice options. The more choices available to a player, the more ways they can see their own involvement change the game world. Likewise, other participants should feel the repercussions of your decisions, be they selfless or selfish.
I think we can look to Bioware for a history of success in this regard. Their games are well known for dialogue options can drastically change the situation you find yourself in. I could see a great multi-player coop experience coming out of their studio.

Don't get me wrong. I love the single player narratives and multi-player modes that are out on the market already. As we continue to see titles that emphasize user created content, I become increasingly interested in the potential for a storyline that the players can mold in a similar way. Even if this does come to fruition, I'll likely be rolling twenties, or ones, for a long time to come.

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