One of the things I got to thinking about as I’ve been running a few games and working on my creative writing degree is how a storyteller using a game as a medium can handle telling a story so that they can give players flexibility and choice while also telling a story that they want to tell.
The goal of this isn’t to dictate how to tell stories, but to increase a storyteller’s conscious repertoire. Most stories benefit from balance; using a variety of methods in practice gives a little something to everyone and allows the storyteller to carefully tune the flow of a plot while still meeting the demands of a story that unfolds as part of a game.
Further, these methods can be applied to all stories, since they still apply to the definition of a character (e.g. proactive actions show a character's goals and motives, while reactive ones build tension).
I’m testing a newer,
shorter (mission failed) format, so comment below with feedback if there’s an issue you see with this. I’m also still planning to go back and finish the emotional beats and role archetypes series, but then I’m aiming to transfer this blog more faithfully to just game design.
There’s an idea of having proactive, active, and reactive opportunities in a story. This gives an opportunity to balance the spread of power between a storyteller and players, and you can use it to great effect.
While writing, it struck me that the difference between these boils down to choice and stimulus. Proactive events are a choice in the absence of external stimulus, active events are a choice in response to stimulus, and reactions are merely stimulus with a particular response.
Proactive events are those that players actively seek out. A proactive event puts the furtherance of the story on the characters that are controlled by the players.
Proactive events are not points of no return except as opportunity costs dictate (e.g. players can only do one thing at a time and might not wind up having the same setup later). This is because the storyteller rarely dicates them at all.
The two defining qualities of a proactive event is that they are not a product of direct stimulus and they have player-directed outcomes or objectives. Systems can lead into these events; something like an interesting (but not directly highlighted) landmark, the need to acquire resources in a defined environment, or interactions between characters and spaces within a system.
In games, these are open-ended opportunities reflected by things like freeform building (Minecraft, Rimworld, Dwarf Fortress) and exploration (Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, The Elder Scrolls, other open-world games). These are really easy to handle in tabletop roleplaying (since a human arbiter is involved), but more difficult to introduce in video games.
One edge case here is the question of a side-quest in a game like Mass Effect or The Witcher. Generally I would argue that these are not truly proactive events, but they are quasi-proactive; because the player has the opportunity to take them or leave them. In this sense they satisfy the option of choice, but they have a stimulus in the form of specific direction outside of abstract systems engagement.
- Give players opportunities for input, boosting agency in storytelling
- Opportunity to provide specialized content to players based on interest
- Have a potential to develop into further plot points.
- Depends on player investment in narrative and goal formation
- Difficult to convey desired emotional valence if players engage differently than expected
- Leads to emergent outcomes (draws away from existing narrative, requires systems)
- Emergent systems
- Branching paths
- Optional elements
- Open world sandboxes
- Prompts for player action in tabletop roleplaying games
- The Sims/SimCity
- Grand strategy games (Europa Universalis, Stellaris)
- Emergent system-driven games (Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, Cataclysm)
- Open world games outside story segments (The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Shakedown: Hawaii)
Active events are those which a player has a say in, but flow from structured stimulus-response methodology.
For instance, the player has a goal to accomplish something, and has the full ruleset of the game with which to achieve this.
The best example of this method leveraged for a high degree of immersion in storytelling would be something like Deus Ex: it’s not an open-world experience where the player truly gets to choose what they want to do. However, you don’t necessarily need to give players choices for active events; a game like Doom flows through active events most of the time, though the players’ options are reduced to a variety of methods of inflicting grievous harm on demons.
I think of the modern Wolfenstein games (even Youngblood, which tried to pretend it had proactive events) as a prime example of this methodology; you can choose between stealth or action, but the fundamental goal is hurting a bunch of Nazis and getting to the next level.
Theoretically, if a player is inactive these events do not occur. In practice, this often leads to nothing happening until the player acts.
As with proactive events, there can be a degree of player choice; the defining factor is the presence of a stimulus.
Barring some particularly specialized forms of games, active events tend to be the de facto standard in game storytelling.
- Easy to predict outcomes because of the stimulus
- Can still permit player freedom and agency in how problems are solved
- Most obvious format for narrative storytelling
- Relatively simple to write well
- Less freedom than proactive events
- Dependent on player action; less ability to set scenes
- Expensive to deal with freedom in most cases (scripted instead of emergent consequences).
- “Scripted” events and environments
- Score- and competition-driven systems
- Clearly defined objectives
- Lighting, camera focus, UI elements
- Shooters and “action” genre games (e.g. Doom, Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed)
- Sports and racing games
- “Traditional” strategy games (e.g. chess, Command and Conquer, Total Annihilation)
- 90% of games that tell stories
- Encounters in a tabletop roleplaying game
Reactive events are those which are presented to the player as stimuli with defined responses that preclude narratively significant options (more on this later).
Players often find reactive events to be stifling and irritating, or even boring and upsetting.
It’s hard to find good examples of stories carried by reactive events, but there are a lot of great games and moments that rely on them. Think of a horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill or an action thriller like the Tomb Raider reboots; they depend on a threat coming up that forces the player into action.
The best reactive events are those that tie into dramatic moments: a pirate ship that appears on the horizon and fires a shot toward the hero that they have to dodge, a zombie that rises from a pile of corpses to assail the protagonist, a nuclear missile that has been launched by a mad dictator.
It’s easy for the repetition of reactive events to cause them to lose their appeal. One of the most reviled reactive events is the quick-time event in video games, where a prompt appears on screen and the player has to input a command. Even a relatively well-executed quick-time event still gives players little freedom and opportunity to contribute to the story.
Unlike active and proactive events, reactive events rarely give the player choice in outcome. This isn’t to say that they have to be strictly one-sided, but rather that they are almost always points of no return; the player’s decisions have fateful consequences but they don’t get to choose not to decide. A conflict between two NPC companions that results in one leaving the party is a reactive event; the player can choose who leaves, not whether or not they leave.
- Gives very precise control over how stories will unfold
- Heightens tension and can function outside regular game rules
- Can make characters feel threatened
- Easy to get a precise theme, event, or outcome
- Often force players into particular situations and outcomes
- Can feel like “try-hard” storytelling
- Can make characters feel weak
- Quick-time events
- Aggressive stimuli
- “Saves” and reactions in tabletop roleplaying games
- “Railroading”, cutscenes, non-interactive sections
- Dead Space
- Tomb Raider and Uncharted, other set-piece action-adventure games
- Many classic adventure games
Using careful balances between proactive, active, and reactive events in a story allows careful controlling of pace and tension, but it also allows opportunities to give players a chance to make decisions or develop the personality of their characters.
As a game designer, it is necessary to figure out the systems that go into providing these opportunities to the player, and writers for games can use them to their fullest extent to give immersive and engaging experiences.