Interactive storytelling & dialogue

One of the hardest things to create in games is the interactive stories. It’s probably because that’s something that is very new for us. Before computers, the only stories you could call interactive or branching were the role-playing game-books such as Lone Wolf (which I remember foundly from my childhood). And even those stories are not much older than half a century. Even so, I wish interactive storytelling had evolved as so many other areas related to computers and computer games like graphics technology and AI has.

There are some interesting things going on the subject, though. From the time back when Infocom introduced Zork to the world people have continued the fine tradition of interactive fiction. Every year people try to outperform each other in the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition by creating a short text-adventures where telling a compelling story in an interactive format is key. It’s well worth to check out.

The game-industry in it-self hasn’t produced that much new the last couple of years. One of the more interesting was of course Indigo Prophecy which as one of the best attempts of a true adventure-game in a long time. Still, there wasn’t that much innovation in terms of story-telling and the same must go for the game I myself worked on, The Darkness, where the steps on interactive story-telling we did take are evolutionary and where the story should be immersive rather than have true choices.

One of the bigger problems in my opinion is the lack of techniques that can be used to talk to non-player characters. Having dialogues as catalysts for story-telling is crucial for most movies and books, but they are so very hard to do believable in an interactive media. Very few games today offer anything more interesting other than multiple dialogue-choices, substituting any real interactivity for a set of predefined questions. To me, that’s a step backward from back even from 1966 when ELIZA was created. An exception is of course Façade, an experimental game where you converse with an arguing couple. It combines an advanced AI with a text-input system and it’s an noteworthy accomplishment, but still failes to convince in my opinion.

For some time I’ve been experimenting with a new way to have conversations with non-player characters. The idea is to allow the player to pick up and carry conversation-topics between characters in the game. If a non-player character mentions something new, the player can pickup that topic and carry it to another character to ask him about it. By limiting the number of topics the player can carry, you force the player to decide which topics are worth keeping, instead of just asking about everything as you do in many games. This creates some interesting possibilities where information almost becomes an item that can be used for puzzles and trade.

While it’s not as ambitions a system as to one used in Façade it’s instead very simple and user-friendly (once you get the hang of it). It doesn’t hide that it’s a restricted system but I believe that that isn’t necessary to make dialogues an interesting catalysts for interactive storytelling. I’ve released the prototype I made using this system for PC and today I also finished the PSP version of the game. Check it out here.

41 thoughts on “Interactive storytelling & dialogue

  1. I can’t believe no one has made any comments yet!

    Well, Rorschach is definitely the most fun adventure game I’ve played in a while, congrats!

    I like the idea of carrying conversation points from one person to another with only 4 spaces. Can I ask you when/if you’ll continue to make more Rorschach games, and how long it took you to make the first?

    (Also, how did you get a job writing for games? I’d kill to be able to do something like that.)

  2. Thanks!

    I’m not sure I will do any more game based on this. I just started doing it to test out the game-mechanics, and got a bit carried away. I’ll probably try something new next time.

    It took quite some time to create Rorschach, since I also wrote the game-engine from scratch. I’m using that engine for other projects though, so it was worth the effort.

    About your question about writing for games, I must point out that I’m not really a writer. I usually work with programming and design and Rorschach was just an exception. If you are asking about getting into the games-industry as a writer, it can be very hard since the competition is so fierce. Your best bet is probably to build up an interesting portfolio. Prove that you understand the concept of story-telling and writing in games and then keeping your eyes open for open positions.

  3. I am loving this game–I wish the game industry would take a hint!–but one thing bothers me: at this stage, is there a way to exit the game and/or save? Thanks so much!

  4. You and Ida have done a fantastic job! I’d like to create something like this myself some day. :-)

    There’s a real sense that you’re solving a mystery. I hate clicking any old button until something triggers progress, and in linear stories I hate the main character making all the connections themselves then only explaining them to you in the end. Rorschach escapes all of that. :-)

    Will we ever find out how the story ends?

  5. Amanda,

    Thanks for the compliments! Yes, the PC version lacks a good way to quit, but Alt+F4 works at least. I’ll update that for the next version. I don’t think saving is that neccessary since it’s not a very long game.

  6. Tom,

    Thanks. You are pushing all the right buttons. :)
    I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to finish the story, but comments like yours definitely makes the chance greater.

  7. Hello i just finished you game,it finished with a cliffhanger!, you are such a tease :P,i really enjoyed rorschach , it made think about the value of information and which topics to lose and which ones to keep, but next time i would prefer only 3 slots to make that point even more clear but since there is no save function in the game i think 4 slots is ok,the beginning was very confusing to me i wish there was a way to skip the intro so that people can just begin to play immediately,anyway good work and i hope you can finish the story, come on you can`t leave us hanging!

  8. I play PC Games since 1990. But I see that there is a repetition in PC Game industry. Very few game becomes both classic and creative. I can give examples as Starcraft, Sanitarium, Half-Life, Undying, Monkey Island and Planescape Torment. As I stated, there is a repetition in PC Games, and this bores many players.
    I met with Rorschach randomly. At first it looked like a crap. But after one-two minutes I started to warm the game and loved it.
    This type of small games, gives some refreshment and brings creatitive gameplay into PC Games. Therefore, I want to say that I admired your work.
    Also, adventure genre is a dead genre among PC Games. So, this type of good adventure games are a real treasures for us old gamers. I also want to thank you.
    For the conclusion, I have a complain about the game. It is too short and ended without a real end.
    Will you continue that part? It is a bit addictive, and I want to play some more.
    Will you make another adventure games in the future?
    Good job, and have a nice day.
    – Murat Öğüt

  9. Thanks for all the compliments and feedback. I’m also a huge fan of the old-school adventure games with Day of the Tentacle being my favourite one.

    Yes, with the positive reception this game has gotten, I hope to finish it. No promises though.

  10. I had a lot of fun playing this game. I would love to write some music for the game if you don’t already have a score. Please let me know if you are interested. The game is really a very unique title as far as the game world you have built. I only wish it was a full title.

  11. I talked to everyone about everything and used the computer. I’m pretty sure I know what happened but I don’t know what to do? Is there any way to figure out if I’m right?

  12. Jonathan,

    There is a “correct way” implemented, even though the game isn’t really finished (it ends with a “to be continued” screen). This way involves Hedvig, Candice and the computer.

  13. If there isn’t a part 2, I’ll go completely bonkers! It’s been a long time since I’ve ever felt so much sympathy for characters. By all means, I’m desperate to see how the story ends and which of my various hare-brained theories (if any) turn out to be true!

  14. A very good attempt to bring storytelling in games to evolve. I really like it. Moreover ambiance is great and characters are interesting, you did really well.

    Regarding the 4 slots available for storing topics, I agree that it gives more interest to the game, but also a bit of frustration.

    First how would you justify it from a logical point of view? Shall we see it as some kind of memory, which by nature is limited?
    For me the main issue is that if you drop a topic, you have to go and talk to the adequate characters again to get it back. Not really a big deal as the game is well designed, and to be honest I always kept the right topics so I never really had to face that case. But still, that may be something to think about.

    In my opinion you should at least set a key for the player to be able to speed up the dialogs (it’s a bit annoying, waiting for a character to repeat always the same sentence). Or maybe once a sentence has been said you could make it appear instantaneously the time after.

    Well, I hope I make myself clear. Anyway it doesn’t change anything to the fact that this system is an excellent idea.

    Wonderful job!

    PS: And yes, a proper way to exit the game would be very appreciated ;-)

  15. In case no one has mentioned yet
    Your game with web address gets a nice write up on page 53 of the magazine “Games for Windows” February edition 2008

  16. This was a terrific game. Incredible how well portrayed(and distinct) the characters were without being direct and clumsy about it.

  17. I just gave this a quick playthrough, and I couldn’t stop until the end. I love it. When I saw how choppy it was, I was worried that the game would fail to impress, but I was certainly wrong- the graphics end up working for the game instead of against it very quickly. I was totally drawn in by the characters and the ideas presented. Please, please continue this… I need to know what happens.

  18. I found your wonderful game after reading the article on in in Games for Windows (Feb 2008). I loved the hand-made feel that the black and white paintings lent to the atmosphere of the game. The writing was excellent; I don’t see character development this elegant in most novels I read. The game design was simple and effective.

    The only complaint I have is that it needs a sequel!

  19. It’s such an amazing game, i was hooked since the beggining.
    I love the characters, they are really interesting with their stories and such, something i rarely see nowadays.
    I really hope you finish it someday, the story rocks

  20. Sadly, other projects have my focus right now so I’m not working on the game anymore. On the other hand I’ve been talking to a couple of game-design students that volunteered to continue development on it. Hopefully that’ll turn something out!

    Thanks for all the compliments!

  21. I’ve run into a problem: I can’t get the computer to tell me about Inar. Shouldn’t there be information about him?

  22. Actually, that’s not a bug. That was a plot-thread that I’ve never got to follow up. If I ever continue working on the game, there will be a reason for him not being in the computer. :)

  23. I know it is Dr Monroe that is the murderer. I know… Now I just need you to please finish the game so I can confirm this.

  24. Oh, PLEASE make the full game! I was completely dazzled by the prototype, so it was hugely dissapointing when the whole thing stopped and started over… :(
    So make the whole version! Especially ’cause I saw you went to Umeå, så da e ni kanskje svenska, eller hur? XD
    Jag e norska, men tykker det e jättekul att skandinavar lager så jättevackra spel… <3 Go scandinavian people! :D

    Oh, and one thing; I couldn’t find any real exit button, I mean finish-get-out-of-the-game-back-to-your-computer-exit button. Am I just retarded, or is that a minor mistake?:P
    Anyways, now you know.
    Good luck! Jag heier på er!
    <3

  25. I watched my cousin get to the end of this game this morning and all I have to say is, wow. This game makes me want to make my own games so badly.. I want that kind of collaborative storytelling in video games. I think its the real future of gaming.

    When I saw there wasn’t an ending to the game, right at a climatic point in the story I was pretty disappointed. I, too, would like to see an ending for this game made.. so please, please consider finishing it.

  26. I waited for a year and a half, so i can wait more.

    Take your time and make it as awesome as you can, i have faith in you!

  27. I really love the art and the gameplay concept, plus the story looks very promising. Hope to see it finished! Three minor things though: 1) nevermind the lack of a proper exit function, the full game will need save/restore capabilities 2) while I understand you want the player to select important topics and not spam them, 4 slots is still too little, making it rather inconvenient to walk back and forth and bring up the topics again 3) there should be a way to skip the scrolling of text so the entire block appears at once, since the same dialogue may be repeated many times and no one wants to wait for them to load again and again when trying to save a topic at the end of the block
    Thank you though, for making such a wonderful demo =]

  28. The controls should be very simple. Arrow-keys and space should be enough. If you have a controller plugged in, you could use that one. Let me know if that doesn’t work.

  29. I keep checking in on this game from time to time. I really hope you do continue to develop it. The gameplay dynamics are really different than in any other game I’ve played, but they are also intuitive. It makes me wonder why no one has tried this before. Plus the graphics are wonderful, and your characters are endearing. I hope to see more from you guys!

  30. I remember playing this like three years ago, I still play it sometimes. The Topics aproach is a good way of solving the interacion problem with other characters, over the years I learned to apreciate it.
    I Really hope you continue with this once you finished your other projects.

  31. Good God, the memories…

    I remember playing this when it first came out! And now after around 5 years I play it again… It is a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia… The saddest part was the end, because even after 5 years, I never got to see what happened… I still hope that this gets finished some day, with all of my heart!

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