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.