What do I mean by “story game”? After all, most games now have stories. What differentiates a story game from all the others? By “story game” I mean a game whose story drives the game. In most games, the gameplay is the central element, and the story is there to add flavor. But in story games, the story is the central element, and the gameplay is built around the story. As a result, the story is so tightly integrated with the gameplay that you cannot remove the story and still have a game left.
A brief history of story games
The story in games came from the Adventure genre. The earliest adventure games were text games, what we now call Interactive Fiction. The prototypical adventure was ADVENT, written on a PDP-10 by Will Crowther in the 70’s. Actually the game was called “Adventure,” but the operating system only allowed filenames to have 6 characters, so “ADVENT.” ADVENT is basically a puzzle game in which you must explore a great underground cave in order to find treasure.
This was also the idea behind Zork, the Great Underground Empire, the first adventure game published by Infocom, the pioneer adventure game publisher, now owned by Activision. The object of Zork was to explore the Great Underground Empire, solve the puzzles, and discover the hidden treasures. But Infocom also published many story-rich text adventures as well as did other publishers of that era. These were the progenitors of today’s Interactive Fiction.
Sierra On-Line, cofounded by Roberta Williams, now owned by Vivendi Universal Interactive Publishing, was the first to add images to adventure games, creating the first graphical adventure games, starting with Mystery House, a black-and-white mystery adventure. In a Victorian mansion, guests start being murdered, one by one, and you must discover who the murderer is before he gets you. Roberta Williams is best known for the King’s Quest series of games, just one of the “Quest” series, which are soon to be re-released. (Stay tuned to bethestory.com.) Jane Jensen joined Sierra in 1991 and became famous for the Gabriel Knight series there.
Meanwhile, at LucasArts, some of the most beloved story games were being created in the Monkey Island series and the games by Tim Schafer. After Grim Fandango, perhaps the best loved adventure game of all time, Tim and others from the team started their own studio, Double Fine Productions, and developed Psychonauts, a platform-adventure game and another story-gaming hit.
Now, numerous independent developers are trying their hands at story games, usually based on the classic adventure formulae. We’ll have to see what sticks. But I have a feeling that innovation in making the story more immersive is where the most notable progress will show up.
How are story and gameplay integrated?
I’ll cover this in more detail in an upcoming episode. Briefly, an interactive story is conceptually just like any other story. That is, there’s conflict, tension, and resolution, arranged in a story arc. As in any complex story, multiple story threads interweave, branching and joining and interrelating. Story events cause the plot to progress along each story thread, just as in any story.
Here’s where the interactivity comes in. The player can cause story events to occur. Traditionally, external conflicts are presented to the player as puzzles to solve. This is why adventure games are traditionally puzzle-based games with external conflicts in the story. It’s a tried and true formula. In a future podcast, I’ll demonstrate the formula and propose some cool variations on it. But for now, let’s look at a couple of my favorite classic story games.
by Tim Schafer
1994 LucasArts Entertainment Company
Starring the voices of Roy Conrad, Mark Hamill, Kath Soucie
Full Throttle is one of the games Tim Schafer produced at LucasArts. It came between Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. Full Throttle takes place in the future, in the desert, and on motorcycles. Our hero, Ben (Roy Conrad), no-nonsense leader of the Pole Cats, sets out to prevent an ambush of his gang, but instead ends up smeared all over the pavement and framed for murder by the evil Ripberger (Mark Hamill, Star Wars). Along the way, he finds an ally in Maureen (Kath Soucie, Rugrats), a mechanic with an awesome secret.
I like this game even more than I do Grim Fandango, because I identified strongly with Ben, not as much with Manny.
Let’s look briefly at the storyline as it begins. After refusing his gang’s services to escort Malcolm Corley to the Corley Motors shareholder’s meeting, Ben finds himself knocked out cold and stuffed in a dumpster. And he doesn’t have the keys to his bike. The first puzzles involve finding his keys and learning that his gang is in for an ambush. Instead, he finds himself in a huge, uh, accident. Fortunately, a reporter happens along, and takes him to Maureen, or Mo for short, who fixes his bike and him, too.
But she needs a little help getting it finished. The front forks were completely destroyed, so Ben needs to find new ones. Someone stole Mo’s welding torch, so Ben needs to find it. And the bike needs some gasoline before it’ll run. So that’s 3 more goals, and 3 more sets of puzzles. The forks he can get from the junk yard, but first he needs to get in, and he needs to do something about that Pit Bull. The torch is probably the easiest item to find, as it’s pretty obvious who stole it and where it is. The gasoline he might be able to get from the gasoline tower, if he can get by the security system.
The puzzles in Full Throttle are all pretty easy. The game also has some arcade-like sequences, which has ticked off adventure gamers. But the arcade sequences are actually puzzles. For example, on the mine road, you have to fight certain foes. If you approach this as a test of mouse-manipuation acuity, you’ll be frustrated. If you treat it as a puzzle, figuring out which weapon will work against each foe, you’ll find it easy.
The biggest complaint adventure gamers have about Full Throttle is that it’s shorter than most games. You can play through the whole thing in only a few hours. But the story has so engrossed me, I include it among my most favorite story games.
The Pandora Directive
by Chris Jones and Aaron Connor
1996 Access Software Incorporated
Starring Barry Corbin, Kevin McCarthy, Tanya Roberts
Directed by Adrian Carr
The Pandora Directive was the fourth in the Tex Murphy series, and the second 3D, FMV game featuring Tex Murphy. The Pandora Directive takes place in San Fransisco in 2043, a generation after World War III left the world a radioactive wasteland. Private Investigator Tex Murphy (Chris Jones) is hired by one Gordon Fitzpatrick (Kevin McCarthy) to find his lost colleague and friend Thomas Malloy (John Agar). But the search puts him onto the trail of a dangerous secret involving space aliens and government cover-ups. He must fend off the formidable government agent Jackson Cross (Barry Corbin, One Tree Hill) as well as Malloy’s sexy niece Regan Madsen (Tanya Roberts, That 70’s Show), both of whom are after this same secret.
One of the innovative gameplay features of The Pandora Directive is that the story turns out differently depending on how you play the game. This was intended to make the game more replayable, because you can play it through differently every time. But I sought out a suitable walkthrough, so I could always play the variation in which the hero wins and gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after. In other words, I’d rather play the same good story over and over again than to play several different less-good ones.
The Pandora Directive, as some of the other Tex Murphy games, also has an Entertainment Mode (for story lovers) and an alternate Gamer Mode (with more puzzles). And it has an integrated in-game hint system, which can help you the puzzles. The Tex Murphy games do have a some contrived puzzles, put in there just to provide gameplay challenges. But the compelling storyline makes up for this defect.