My first design for the story of my current game was a colossal failure. I made a huge mistake that I did not quite see at first.
For every decision the player made, the story went in a different direction. Each choice starting towards a different ending. Part of this giant tree of story was cut off by choices that ended in the player dying, but it quickly got out of control.
I realized that I needed to pick a few endings and have the story converge to them. This proved to be better but the story tree was still large.
Then I read the next chapter of The Art of Game Design. It had a name for what I was doing and did the math for me. If the story is only 10 choices long and each choice leads further towards a unique ending, I would need to write over 80,000 endings! The book refers to this as the “Combinatorial Explosion” problem.
Game Story Patterns
There are a couple patterns described that are used in most games to avoid a lot of the issues that arise from trying to be too free with interactive storytelling.
The String of Pearls
In this scenario, the story is fairly linear but has a series of points in which the player must achieve a goal. There is basically one ending but on the journey the player has some freedom along the way for how to achieve the goal. Once they accomplish the goal for the area they are in, they are advanced to the next area.
The Story Machine
This type of design is based around giving the player an experience that they want to tell someone else about. Free build type games like Minecraft and Rollercoaster Tycoon, competitive games like football and CS:GO allow the player to create an interesting series of events that they want to tell someone else about. The goal is a system that creates interesting stories when your player interacts with it.
A couple years ago I had come across an interesting little text adventure game on Android called Wizard’s Choice which was largely the inspiration for the design of my current game. So I went and found it and played it again and guess what I found. It followed the “String of Pearls” design pattern.
The story has 1 ending. It has basically 3 areas from beginning to end where you have some freedom to make choices that affect how you get through the area alive.
I am going to borrow this design pattern and redesign my current pile of spaghetti of a story.