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June 09, 2008



I'm having a hard time imagining a game that could generate infinite content AND be interesting.

I guess it's possible but it seems like at that point you'd have invented true artifical intelligence because in order to be infinitely interesting you'd basically need some virtual author that can continue to come up with unique interesting ideas.

Otherwise, for some small subset you're just going to run out of interesting stuff. It will just be random combinations out of preset choices.


Ad Exhibit B: And what about a adventure games? For example Indiana Jones series, well made movies and games too. (I just wish that new Indiana Jones movie has been made with story from Indiana Jones 4:And the fate of Atlantis and Lucas shouldn't be bothered..)
Old adventures are nothing more than story and I am sure great books/movies could be made from them.


Clint Hocking's Far Cry 2 is looking promising. Based on some GDC presentations I gathered that a target, location, objective, and probably a few more things are selected out of the buckets based on how you've been playing to generate your next mission. Plus, the character you play never talks. With a 50 square kilometer map and even if it had a handful of targets, the possibilities sound as infinite as one would realistically replay the game. I think it also does the Grand Theft Auto gang factions thing which I can't understand why Rockstar hasn't revisited. So much potential there.


Saw a wonderful article recently that this brings to mind. If every facet of Oblivion had just small degrees of variance by design, it'd be near perfect. And if those degrees of variance, thousands of them in an entire game world, were shaped by the player? Then it would be perfect.

Pat O'Hara

Let's turn this question around and ask why do we like stories? We like them because they have unexpected elements, but also because they have expected plots. A story that just jumps around randomly but surprises at every turn is not much fun. A story that works in an obvious way from start to finish is also not much fun. How does that apply to gaming?
The reason defender is ultimately boring is because there is only so much to learn. Once you have discovered every thing (or nearly every thing), then you move on. The reason we play games rather than read books is because we are the type of people who decide that the main character should have turn left rather than right.
So the ultimate game is one that exists in a world that is rich. So rich it cannot be understood by one person. It is also consistent within itself. Then we can bump around in that world for a really long time discovering new things and making our own decision. Finally things must be challenging enough to be entertaining, but not so challenging to be work. That is a hard line to draw.

Pat O


Wow, a very interesting, and well thought out essay, but I think it's somewhat flawed. I'll have to apologize in advance for my somewhat rambling response - I just don't have time to edit this and make it as concise and well thought out as your essay, but I'd like to make a few brief points:

1) The fact that you enjoy Descent, a combat simulator, doesn't mean that story is unimportant. You may also enjoy Chess, but that doesn't mean you can't also enjoy going to see a movie.

2) The fact that you don't want to watch all of the cut scenes together like a movie doesn't mean that story is unimportant. Games are meant to be immersive, otherwise, we'd call them movies. And you do still enjoy movies, right?

3) The fact that play-acting in a bad scottish accent isn't always enjoyable doesn't mean you don't like story, it just means you don't like acting. I think that many people don't enjoy acting. Many people don't enjoy reading either, which can explain the "button mashing" you talk about where people avoid reading what to do.

4) Since games (like movies) succeed for different reasons, it's hard to make comparisons. In the movie world, Pixar's films succeed for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they have excellent storylines. Indiana Jones 4, on the other hand, succeeded not because of the storyline, but because it was the next installment of a beloved franchise. Pixar succeeds because they make great creative decisions, Indiana Jones 4 succeeded because they made a good business decision.

5) To make a very enjoyable game, you have to succeed in one (or more of the following characteristics):

a) have a good puzzle/mechanics engine. Civilization, Descent, etc. have enjoyable puzzles which are challenging, and difficult to solve. In a combat game like Halo, or Call of Duty, it's still a puzzle, just a more fluid one.

b) have a good multiplayer game. This gives the game a longevity and value outside of a story game. A game like Bioshock is finished when the story is finished. A game like Halo is not. Which is why Halo has an extended value to it.

c) have a great storyline. Story doesn't mean watching cut scenes, or acting out moments with other characters. Story means something is happening in the game that makes you want to keep going, and get to the end so you can find out what. I can't tell you the number of games that I've finished, not because they were good, but despite the gameplay mechanics because I wanted to know how it ended.

d) Munchkinism. We all like to collect things. World of Warcraft is a bit story lite, but it's big on collecting this and that, and having this or that great item. We do the same when we improve our characters, giving them abilities and stats. Magic the Gathering, and other card games relied upon this.

I'm sure there's more, but these are what come to mind. The problem with trying to create a game that can make infinite stories is that you left out the value qualifier.

You see, creating a good story is very difficult - hence the number of terrible movies out there. And a game that could create infinite GOOD stories, well, I think you'd find it would be very lucrative.

Now, a game that could create infinite GOOD stories, AND do all the things above? That would knock World of Warcraft into the stone age.

Paul Evans

Hopefully you'll have more fun with Fable 2 :-)


I would like to suggest X-Com, Diablo and RogueLike games (DoomRL is a favorite of mine) as games that have some randomly generated content for the levels that you play in. By doing so, the game stays fresh a lot longer as the player does not know what to expect on each new level.

Also, with the regards to searching for "a game that could procedurally generate infinite interesting content", we already have a system in place for that. Its called developers; new games are created by other people, a procedure that generates near infinite content.
(Yes, I know this isn't what you are looking for but it is a solution to your desires)

Mark Nau

Yep. I am totally underwhelmed by GTA IV. "Great story," I keep hearing. But all I can think is how much better it could have been if it had gone the "Godfather" route.

I don't care about YOUR story. I want to play MY story.

Nathan McKenzie

I've wondered, in the past, too, if adding stories might not dampen some of the other pleasures that games can dole out.

Case in point: when I was 10 and playing Super Mario Brothers, there were levels I had to play hundreds of times to master. Because the reward for mastering those levels was GETTING TO AN EVEN HARDER LEVEL (+new art, music, and critters of course), it never occurred to me to be irritated at being stuck. The whole point of the game was to be even more challenged later.

If it had had a very intricate story, on the other hand, I might very well have gotten irritated and surly about the narrative arc being slowed down by all that tedious game play. And, in fact, that is generally how I feel when playing either adventure games like Monkey Island with great writing, or melodramatic Japanese role playing games like Final Fantasy 6.

I think the rewards of story (which need consistent pacing) align really terribly with any game that uses challenge and replay as a motivator.


In Super Mario, there is a story, King Koopa kidnapped the princess and you have to rescue her. It's a very simple story, and even though there are no cut scenes, it's the story for the game. But that I guess is really neither here nor there.

I am only a casual gamer, but I prefer games with a story and a definite ending. Makes me feel like I've accomplished something. Any game that can concieveably go on forever would just frustrate me and I'd drop at some point never to play again. But that's just me. I'm a Prince of Persia, Shadow of the Collosus, and sports game kind of a guy. Simple, only a few or quick cut scenes. Replay value comes in not due to unpredictability, but challenging enough that I can play it one or two more times before I feel like I've mastered it. Just like the old Supermario Bros. Which is what makes that such a lasting game in the first place.

ANd though I wouldn't just want to watch the cut scenes, I think the Prince of Persia trilogy do make for compelling storytelling which I would read or watch in another format (novel, more likely graphic novel, or even if it looks good, movie when it comes out). But outside of Prince of Persia, I can't think of a single video game that I would be interested in any other format.

John H.

This is basically where I ended up in my feelings about story games about ten hours into Final Fantasy VII. That game changed my attitude towards CRPGs. I had always enjoyed roguelikes before, but FF7, and all the games that followed that wanted to be just like it, chased me towards them.

You might be interested to do a Google search for the terms "OD&D" and "grognard". Some of the things it'd turn up might be interesting.


Really enjoyed this post Jamie and the comments too are insightful. It really goes to show how difficult it is to mesh gameplay and story to create an overall entertaining experience. I think the last game for me that captured my imagination and made we want to continue on due to story was Heavenly Sword. I thought Ninja Theory did a great job of creating new characters and story lines that kept me wanting to push on. Same goes for the God of War games. You can tell a lot of effort went into making sure those stories were deep and complimented the game.

As far as my own practices go, one of the things I push for these days is that story and game design get developed together really early on. I think often times one gets ahead of another and both ultimately suffer. When you have both in sync is when things really get interesting and immersive. It's certainly a balancing act that I think many of the better games that I enjoy playing achieve.


I'm not sure why people feel that chess has not story. Every chess game is a different telling of a single small story -- the capture of the King. Every game of go is a story. The narrative unfolds based on a few simple goals and then the complications ensue. Strategy, deception, surprise, struggles against the inevitable... THIS IS FUNDAMENTAL STORYTELLING.

An immediate human element is brought by the presence of players. Playing chess against my dad is a very different story compared to chess against my niece (note that these games are not, typically, spectator sports, unless the spectators too have additional "backstory" -- that is, existing relations to the players).

The same could be said on the gridiron -- the drama is not in whether the Vikings or the Cowboys (who are dressed rather alike) will win or not -- it's known that one of them will win, the framework is very specific -- but WHICH will win, and HOW. The TV banter of the commentators highlight the human elements of the teams and the players and the simplistic sorts of tribal association fans may feel about the teams representing their region/school/city/league.

(BTW, I wonder what would happen if football had video-game-like conventions, say where the rules changed over the progress of the game by the addition (or subtraction) of "level 2" players, etc? More drama? less?)

The most primitive form of story known to most anthropology types is "the journey" -- a character moving through experiences toward a new changed state or location. In games, the experience of narrative is still ever-present, it's just that the story develops as a result of the direct agency of the players.

Our brains seemed wired to inevitably experience events spaced over time as stories. A game designer can work with that fact, ignore it, or work against it -- at their peril. Such game designers should probably be sent off to watch a lot more TV.


While I admire the clarity of your viewpoints, they seem slightly pretentious and out of touch.

Games from the Final Fantasy and Soul Reaver series are used as examples. I don't know much about Soul Reaver, but I do know that the main selling point in the final fantasy series is the hackneyed stories.

(I call them hackneyed, but that's just my own resentment showing through, the same resentment most people here have.) The fact is, they tell the same story over and over to cover up a dull game that nobody would play without the story. And it sells, and millions love it. Who are we to tell the millions that they're wrong, and that our tastes are superior?

It's pompous. Even Space Rangers, which you personally found boring, ended up getting critical acclaim.

You pose to your readers the question of whether or not we'd read or watch video game stories in other formats, in book or movie formats, and then you answer for us. "no."

There's something of a flawed syllogism in the comparison. The Matrix might have been an entertaining movie, but action wouldn't translate into text. I certainly wouldn't read the book. Each medium is different.

I will say this though:

Translating a story from one medium to another ultimately boosts popularity of the story itself. All people in entertainment marketing know this. That's why there are so many shitty games and movies based off books, shitty books based off movies, etcetera.

They're mostly low quality because it's an exercise in sheer marketing with strict deadlines/coinciding release dates, rather than artistic care.

The story from a game based off a movie might be completely in tact, but the game or cinematography or narrative part itself isn't polished, because that's the part the developers/directors/writers had to focus on and they weren't given enough time. People overlook the story in these instances, even though the story was, in its original incarnation, text or what have you, quite good.

But occasionally you'll get something that works. Using movies as an example, lets look at The Godfather. Great example of a movie based off a book. Or, if you're into the whole fantasy thing, Lord of the Rings. I'm sure you can think of your own examples.

And I've come to realize it's not because the story holds up especially well in the movies--the story was already THERE. It was already written, and the godfather could have just as easily become pulp crime trash as so many other movies based off of books. What made it work so well was the fact that the movie was allowed to be a movie, with polished cinematography; it was allowed to tell the story in a way that only a film could.

Same thing applies to games. If you were going to turn a game into a movie, you'd have to let it be a movie, a different experience from the game itself. If you were going to turn a movie into a game, same thing applies. What makes stories in games intriguing is that the games tell stories as games. Of course you wouldn't want to watch the game cinematics out in sequence as a movie. The story progresses along with the game element.

Regarding the costik.com link, Greg makes the argument that games aren't a storytelling medium, but that story can strengthen or hinder games, but that it's not what makes games and is not as important as it's made out to be. I agree with that.

He also makes the statement that games cannot be linear, and that seems to be a staple for much of what he says in the latter half.

That seems quite a bit more shaky, as all games, going back to card games, board games, and sports games all have linearity enforced by uniform rules and regulations. In fact non linearity in games seems to be relatively unique to very select video games.

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Jamie's Bragging Rights

  • Spider-Man 2
    The best superhero games of all time Game Informer
    Top five games of all time Yahtzee Croshaw
    Top five superhero games of all time MSNBC
    Top 100 PS2 games of all time Official Playstation 2 Magazine
    1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die Nomination for Excellence in Gameplay Engineering Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences
  • Schizoid
    Penny Arcade PAX 10 Award
    Nominated for XBLA Best Original Game
    Nominated for XBLA Best Co-Op Game