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Posted by RagingLion
If I’m not careful this could actually become a semi-regular blog series or something.   In a departure from my first such blog for a dream game (that I continue to pine for – read about it here) this will not so much outline a full and specific dream game that I wish to see produced, but a particular idea that I’d love to see implemented in one or more games.

The practice of having multiple endings in games is now well established and indeed many games move beyond that to diverge to far greater degrees, with Heavy Rain being just such a recent exponent by even allowing the characters you control to get killed off before the end of the game based on your choices and actions, thus enabling different players to experience a quite radically different story (though I confess I haven’t played Heavy Rain since I don’t own a PS3).   Only somewhat related to this, an idea occurred to me that it would be really interesting, and I think cool, to have randomised plot points within games, even regarding the larger plot points a game may feature.   Allow me to explain what I mean by that phrase.

What if the events within a story were randomised so that they occur differently even if 2 different players were to make exactly the same decisions within their parallel games?   The random elements could just be decided by the game’s programming right at the start of each unique playthrough no matter who you are, and this should be very possible technically.   I’m talking about more than just random battle encounters within a JRPG or discovering the same space station stocked with different goods at different prices in Elite, but more significant narrative elements such as what the personality or allegiance of a character is or indeed how the big climactic moment at the end of a game unfolds.   For example, if the killer in Heavy Rain could end up being different people depending on the random decision the game makes before you start playing.

  Here be dragons ... or not

Maybe this sounds like a really bad or just plain unnecessary idea to you at present.   I’d probably agree if this was just implemented in games arbitrarily.   However, random elements are already commonly implemented into other areas of game design, for which one of the reasons is to depict events that are unpredictable by their nature and cannot be perfectly understood in advance, causing the randomness to actually add a greater life-likeness/believability to the game in this aspect.   In a similar way, randomising critical plot points within a game could allow a better simulation where the plot point being affected relates to something around which there is some doubt and uncertainty or to reflect the ease with which an aspect of the game could just as easily inhabit one state as another.

I came across a perfect example of this recently in the midst of thinking about this subject when reading an interview with the creator of Minecraft, Notch.   He referenced an old game which he had played and loved called Darklands, about which he explained:   “It was a take on Germany in the Middle Ages. When you start the game it’s random whether or not dragons exist.   So you don’t know throughout the game – people keep referencing dragons, but they might or might not exist.  It was how people in that time thought about the world.”   How awesome is that!   By randomising this plot point – this aspect of the game – it was creating a more powerful game simulation in which the doubt that was present in these fictional citizens of the game was also able to be mirrored in your own thoughts to a greater extent because there is this genuine possibility that the dragons didn’t exist at all.   There are myriad ways in which this randomness could be utilised to reflect the fiction, though – here’s a few examples off the top of my head:

  1. Having a buddy NPC (e.g. mercenary/pirate) that you work alongside in the game for a considerable time who could potentially betray you at some point, thus heightening and representing the uncertainty behind the alliance (remember that these probabilities don’t have to be 50/50 choices and so the possibility here might be very slim, but still be enough to keep you on your toes).
  2. In an adventure-RPG game having one or more NPCs that you meet on your travels randomised in terms of how they treat you, and if they favour you or not, to emphasise the uncertainty present in how each new stranger encountered on a journey might respond to you.
  3. Having a game taking place within a setting where there are two warring factions, but for different people’s playthroughs having a few minor details changed that will just tip the balance slightly in suggesting either the first faction is more at fault or the second one is.   This could then represent the intractability of deciphering who is ultimately to blame in certain conflicts and how the information can easily be different depending on the perspectives of those providing it.
  4. A big catastrophe is randomly determined to either occur and affect the world or not.   There could be different missions associated with either of these possibilities and possibly something like the supply of some resource drying up or enemies being introduced or wiped out depending on the game type.

These kinds of possibilities genuinely excite me as I feel like they could aid in producing more immersive worlds in which you don’t turn off your brain as much while playing them because you suddenly have to account for a wider range of possibilities occurring (even if they don’t happen) and it would generally increase in games the handling of probability and risk in the way that is common to all of us living our real lives. 

Player driven choices like for Megaton have a different feel compared to random catastrophic events initiated by a game

I can see some players having issues with this approach.   Take example 4 above:   reading it back to myself it rather reminded me of the decision players can make near the beginning of Fallout 3 of either saving or nuking Megaton since it is a catastrophic event that then has knock-on consequences of different groups of quests etc. becoming open to the player or not based on their decision.   The key difference here is that it was the player’s decision and not the game’s to do this and surely this is the cooler and more compelling route to take, of the player getting to make these dramatic choices?   I’m interested in getting to make those choices on occasion too, but it all falls into the power fantasy mentality behind games which I feel can actually be detrimental to the respect that gets given to the world I’m interacting with.   Though this is another big topic in its own right I actually appreciate not always having ridiculous control of the world I’m inhabiting in order to emphasise that the world isn’t revolving around me.   It lends the world more weight and I respect it more and in turn feel more immersed by it.

I wonder too if such randomised plot points might get players to feel the loss of what might have been in the case of the game having clearly telegraphed to them that one possibility was chosen at the expense of another one.   Typically when playing a game we just accept the way things are and the settings around us but I wonder if gameworlds would feel different if we knew they could so easily have been different – if it would make them feel more dynamic and alive.   I’m taking a guess here, but I think it’s very possible.

Writing this, I’ve realised in a way that none of this might really be necessary; that randomising key plot elements shouldn’t gain a game anything in theory for a person while they play it, because how would you know the game was doing this unless it specifically tells you in advance?   Couldn’t the same effect of uncertainty in a player be recreated simply by a clever narrative which tricks a player into believing there are multiple possible states that a part of a plot could have inhabited, whereas there was actually only the one all along?   Of course players might feel cheated later on if they find out the truth from another source, but that wasn’t the case while they were playing.   I’m not sure I immediately believe games can get away with such narrative tricks effectively enough though and if a game broadcasts before I play it that it’s programmed such that these large elements of plot could be radically different by the use of randomisation, my suspicion remains that my experience playing it will feel that much richer.

I think these ideas have a lot of merit but are there any arguments that completely undermine my points?   I confess I may not have succeeded in explaining them as clearly as I might have, though I have tried to.  And given that I don’t have a cosmic overview of gaming are there more games than I realise that may have attempted such a system but I’m just unaware of them?

Further reading

The interview where I got the quote from Notch about the game with/without dragons. ( http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/03/07/a-day-in-the-life-of-minecraft-creator-mojang/)

Randomness - blight or bane:  A lengthy and deep article on the effect of including randomness in games, that shaped some of these thoughts.   ( http://playthisthing.com/randomness-blight-or-bane)

From the Design Reboot blog, a game idea riffing off of the start of Unreal.   The random elements and open-ended structure of the proposed game have stayed with me and grown on me since I first read it – definitely another of my dream games.   Part 1   Part 2
[Edited because some links had disappeared]

Posted by Akrid

Sounds like an awesome idea, but there are so many flaws. I wouldn't mind a game or two like this, but taking the control out of the players hands is incredibly frustrating to them. 
You would either need an incredibly willing player that is totally okay with the game screwing them over, or make compromises and dance on the razor thin edge between unfair and fair consequences. In other words, you couldn't really prosecute your player in the exact way you wanted for fear of them getting annoyed by these literally random events. This is the biggest stumbling block.
Without knowing or having access to variables you may end up playing another 3 hours before realizing you managed to roll a near identical world to your first playthrough.  
Using variables to determine some sort of background information in the game could quickly lead to an inconsistent or half-assed fiction.
That type of game is just begging to be picked apart, and when it does the illusion will be gone for everyone except those who manage to not hear any "spoilers" of what they can and can't effect. 
I feel like Bioware and Bethesda do a great job as is with this new genre of branching gameplay. What would really be gained by taking the control over events out of the hands of the players? I mean, I think it would be cool,  but it's important to pinpoint what exactly is gained from a truly random game, and if that experience is actually worth the diminished control.
I think a lot of people on this site who truly appreciate games would like to play something like this, but it would never have mass appeal. 
(pretty well all your links are not links by the way.)

Posted by Gamer_152

This was a very well-written post and I agree with your point that some randomisation within the narrative of a game could really lend something to the experience, but when you start making it an integral part of the average game you create a variety of problems. You did liken the randomisation of story elements to randomisation with gameplay mechanics and mentioned that randomisation within the game is done to make the game feel more realistic, this is in fact rarely true. Randomisation within gameplay is almost always done to create a variation within the gameplay which means that the game doesn't become boring and repetitive, not to make it feel more realistic. You also mentioned randomisation as a way to break away from the "power fantasy" story that many games provide. The problem is however much you're trying to detract from the stereotypical power fantasy you can't remove the importance of the player within the game world and that's what this kind of system would do. When the world is seemingly governed by randomness and not cause and effect, you convey to the player that their efforts and decisions don't really matter and so their choices and progression within the game lose a significant amount of their importance.
As you mentioned at the end of your piece the player may not even notice the random nature of the game if they didn't know about it beforehand, and if they did know about it, it would probably annoy them to find that they had little control over the course of the game, or that they'd been locked out of content entirely due to the random nature of it. Additionally, they'd be very reluctant to play through the game again to see the content they missed as they could get easily locked out of it again, and there's no clear away around this issue.
Under certain circumstances it is okay to screw over the protagonist through the in-game narrative, but I think the kind of randomisation you're talking about would make the player feel cheated and insignificant. I think there's room in the future for games that explore procedurally generated plotlines or smaller indie projects that explore the idea of a randomised story, but as far as most story-focused games go, the player will always need to feel that their actions actually mean something within the in-game world.

Posted by ApolloJ85

Your idea does sound awesome, but problem is not in the technology, it's in the expectation of how the medium delivers an entertaining experience. The medium of games almost always requires that the player is in direct control of the central protagonist, and the world that the protagonist exists in cannot alter his/her experience in a way that is detrimental to the player's sense of control.  
Movies and books can have a plot unfold before their audience in anyway they please because the requirement (expectation?) of control is not present. Good or bad, the experience viewers gain from a movie will never leave them feeling like they were cheated out of aspects of the plot. That is a great strength, and a great limitation of those forms of entertainment. The experience a player gains from a game is not held to those rules, and there is great potential and great risk in that freedom.
Because of the expectation of control placed in a players hands, I think that a game will create a feeling of being cheated if the game unfolds in a random manner. It might not matter so much if someone plays the game once only, but for someone like me who likes to play through games multiple times, if I know multiple choices are possible to me, having chance dictate the way the game unfolds would be infuriating. It wouldn't matter so much to me if the random elements were unrelated to the core plot, but having something happen that directly affected my experience in a major fashion would make me very frustrated. I guess that's like real life, but have an expectation of control of a game. I don't have that same expectation in real life.
I think ultimately it does all come down to control. The game would require a player to accept that events will happen outside of his control, and these events will directly impact his experience. Somehow I think that the expectation of how much control we have over our game experience will be a hard thing to break. But if a game pulls that off, I suspect it would be a bloody brilliant game.

Posted by RagingLion
@Akrid:  Thank you for the heads up on the broken links - something strange was going on.
"'Inconsistent or half-assed fiction":  that's definitely something to be wary of.  It may be that the use of the idea that I'm suggesting would only be appropriate in a few spots in each game, but I'm kinda just guessing when saying that.  Whatever, you're right that each one needs to be added in carefully.
"important to pinpoint what exactly is gained from a truly random game":  Agreed.  See below for some explanation, though I think I'm probably suggesting more than one narrative tactic in the article so each type of randomisation should ideally be looked at separately I guess.
I appreciate  the comments and I notice that you're raising a number of the same issues.  What people's current expectations of games are could very well be an issue if a game come out and used these ideas tomorrow.  I still think there's probably a way to introduced these ideas in a natural enough way to explain things decently, but given the amount of complaints that arise from gamers for even understandable game innovations I'm sure such ideas wouldn't be immune to controversy given what people are used to.
Then there's the question of whether gamers would feel cheated by the lack of control and the world operating partly according to randomness present within its programming.  I certainly don't intend for these randomised elements to take away from the world adhering to rules of "cause and effect" - if anything, I think the randomness can better reflect that.  Take example 1 of traveling along with an individual with a mercenary nature where you've been thrust together for whatever reason out of necessity, but this other character has a constant mental battle going on about whether to stay loyal to you or to backstab you and reap the reward in keeping with the lifestyle and habits that they've grown used to.  Assuming the narrative around this situation emphasises that this individual is having these thoughts, I don't think the game would be cheating the player for the situation to then go one of two ways - both would be supported.  I also think that the player should have an influence through how they act previously (actions they take affecting this individual, dialogue choices chosen) as to whether this mercenary ends up turning on you but I'd like to reflect that even given the player's choices the situation is complicated enough that the mercenary still has a chance of deciding either way.  Yes, this all needs to be supported by great dialogue, but I'm assuming that.  Personally, I basically only play games once and certainly in thinking about designing games I would never be motivated by making the game replayable as a real focus.  Nevertheless, if you were to replay such a situation I think it would be an advantage to have this randomness added into the equation.  If the player is able to relax because they know how things are definitely going to play out then you've lost a big part of what made the game compelling the first time round and this can prevent that.  I would want to avoid a player being able to disengage their brain since they feel they definitely know how somethings going to play out because they've spotted the typical game conventions at work whereas the narrative wants to suggest that things are more in flux than that.
I completely agree in needing to make the game respond to the player's choices - that should be game design 101.  Many of these examples regarding the opportunities for randomisation would just change the setting in which the player is operating, but after the characters and environments have been 'rolled for' and set, the player should still have the same tools to have influence them.  Where there's situations like example 1 with the merc I'm suggesting that the player can have influence but there's always random choice involved as well because people aren't machines and saying certain things shouldn't be able to control them exactly.
Hope that's helpful.  Your points are very valid things to be wary of if this was attempted.  Truly, I haven't worked this stuff all out and it's still a bit of an amorphous blob in my head, but my gut feeling is that there's something in this if it's executed well.
Posted by JammyJesus

One of the greatest issues facing a game like that would be to create a cohesive narrative and keep the player interested in what was going on. For example, if you created a quest where any aspect of the said quest could go in a thousand different directions it would be fairly unrealistic, and also incredibly frustrating for the player.  A simple fetch quest could have you going off in a totally different direction and missing the entire point of the reason why you are there in a first place. Rules and restrictions need to be put in place to maintain coherency and logic.  As @RagingLion explained (and as complicatedly as he described that certain situation) Simply being  an avatar in the world would create so many complex issues. Having an item on you that someone would like brings thousands of variables into question. Morality, personality, clothing, slight of hand, speech skills, running speed, silver-toungedness. These are just a few variables that I could think of here and now.  
It's a very interesting concept though, and it would be interesting to see this stuff placed in a game like Minecraft. But I would sincerely doubt if it would work in a video game where the slightest hint of a plot existed.