Storybricks: the future of interactive narrative?

A look at the engine that promises to redefine videogame stories

One of the big points of debate in the games industry at present is the nature of interactive storytelling. Currently, few games offer significant player choice within a narrative context, and those that do – the likes of Mass Effect or Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, for example - often struggle to hide their machinations. Storybricks, a large-scale multiplayer procedural storytelling engine, is hoping to change all that.

Right now, many big-budget games adopt one from a handful of different approaches to telling stories. There’s the cutscene approach, where most of the dramatic heavy lifting is done in non-interactive sequences, resulting in a linear, authored story. Others use data logs and environmental storytelling devices to flesh out their narratives. Telltale Games has earned plaudits for The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us – episodic adventures where player choices can directly affect a character’s journey if not their ultimate destination. But game designers are always looking to go a step further.

Take, for example, Ken Levine’s GDC keynote on “narrative LEGOs” [sic], in which he wondered about taking narrative and breaking it down to its core components. “What are the smallest parts of narrative that you can then remix and build something out of?” he asked. Levine went on to compare traditional video game stories to bespoke Star Wars playsets he had as a youngster. "It's really well done, really well polished, but it's one thing. LEGOs [sic] are…these little primitives, but they were smart enough to design them where you can recombine them into millions of different things.”

Past choices will establish a narrative. From then on, your options will be automatically chosen by an AI director to be relevant and dramatically interesting.

Stéphane Bura, lead designer of Storybricks, gave a talk at the Vienna Game AI conference, during which he outlined a similar plan, already well into development. Player choices should matter, he said. Player choices should change a game’s story. In a slideshow, he demonstrated a Directed Acyclic Graph (a complex flowchart that visualizes a network of cause and effect) for the first season of The Walking Dead, to point out the pros and cons of such an approach. While a DAG isn’t reliant on artificial intelligence, the downside is that it offers little replayability while making genuine choices – in other words, those that directly affect the plot – costly to produce, with developers having to process multiple assets to cope with the divergent choices.

Anyone who has played Telltale’s games will by now be aware of the smoke and mirrors it has to employ at times, and how certain choices are pre-defined – if they decide a character is to die, there’s no way either of your choices will result in your survival, no matter how hard they try to convince you otherwise. The need to stick to a bi-monthly schedule doesn’t afford it the time to account for as many variables as it would like to. This doesn’t necessarily make the story less entertaining, but it diminishes the player’s involvement within it.

Storybricks’ goal is to be game system agnostic, which isn’t to say that it can be used on any format, but that it can be applied to any game type. It’s designed to be easy to use, modular and reusable. Bura’s examples suggest that this tiny London studio is well on the right track.

“Past choices will establish a narrative. From then on, your options will be automatically chosen by an AI director to be relevant and dramatically interesting.”

The idea is that a player’s past choices will help establish a narrative, and from then on, your options will be automatically selected by the engine’s AI director to be relevant and dramatically interesting. Indeed, it’s quite telling that Bura should use the phrase AI Director, as it’s reminiscent of Valve’s use of the same in Left4Dead, which in its own way controls the narrative, albeit by adjusting the pacing of the action and the behaviour and make-up of the zombie hordes. Storybricks is a little like that, but more advanced, with each choice dynamically and recursively generating new potential sub-trees of choices.

The way it usually works is that players and ‘game actors’ (or NPCs) change a game world using gameplay. There are various conditions that lead to the next step in the story - triggering missions, for example - which again result in a change within the world. Storybricks essentially does the opposite of that: rather than starting with player actions, it’s about designers looking at the stories they want to tell, trying to trigger the conditions that fit the stories, and for this they’re able to look into the world, gauge which changes would be appropriate and try to effect them.

A Storybrick, then, is a universal building block, and it’s universal because it’s used for everything within the system. It’s made up of four components. The first is Drives, or

what moves the story along, what the characters want. Bura’s example is an adventurer and a dragon. The adventurer wants to become famous, while the dragon wants to eat famous people. The second component is Changes – increasing fame, for instance. The adventurer might kill 10 rats for a small fame increase, or free a princess for a larger one. This change in state transitions the story to the next brick: once the adventurer’s fame gauge is filled, the dragon is now keen to hunt him down and kill him. The third component is Parts, and Bura illustrates this by considering Acts 3 to 5 of Romeo and Juliet. The Parts help describe when Shakespeare’s chosen plot is applicable, how to make it a likely scenario. So: one, the Montagues hate the Capulets and vice versa; two, Romeo belongs to the Montagues and Juliet to the Capulets; three, both love one another and four; there is an authority figure who wants peace in Verona, and is looking for a condition where making peace is possible. Thus, the Montagues and Capulets’ shared grief allows the Prince of Verona to unite the two families.

Bura has more experience with game narratives than most, having written board games, card games and table-top role-playing games for over two decades.

The fourth and final element is Exits, which offer a way out of a particular narrative path. Here, Bura uses the formulaic plot for just about every season of 24 as his example. The Drives that advance the narrative to another Storybrick are a medium terrorist threat and a maximum terrorist threat. The terrorists set up diversions to increase the threat, reach a certain threat threshold to activate their moles and when the plan has moved far enough, then they can attempt to assassinate the president.

Meanwhile, Jack Bauer is hoping to lower the terrorist threat, and if he succeeds in foiling their plot, he can take the narrative to another brick. He does this, Bura says, by acquiring intelligence, but that alone might not be enough. By granted Bauer with the trait of ruthlessness, however, Bura opens another narrative avenue: torture. Suddenly, Bauer has enough intelligence to foil the threat and the president’s life is saved.

It’s a simple example of what Bura calls a temporary dramatic resource, which offers designers positive and negative Storybrick filters. Positive filters offer new options and choices which in turn can trigger new plots. Whereas negative filters will take bricks out – for example, a revenge plot may result in a brooding temperament, restricting the number of positive activities that character can take part in. Those resources can even extend to moods of NPCs, companions or pets.

“Storybricks’ adaptability and accessibility is remarkable – changing two lines of script is enough to switch the player’s role in the story.”

Storybricks’ adaptability and accessibility is remarkable, Bura changing two lines of script to demonstrate how easy it is to switch the player’s role in the story. Instead of gathering intelligence as Jack Bauer, you now get the opportunity to increase the threat as a terrorist. Bauer will continue to gather intelligence, but this time as an NPC. Though these examples are produced in text form, Storybricks is already working with Sony Online Entertainment to apply some of these techniques for EverQuest Next. Here, NPC groups will have their own individual needs and goals that will drive their behaviours, and they’ll be capable of both instigating changes within the world and reacting to them.

More excitingly, it will allow your relationships with other characters to evolve in an organic fashion – it’s easy to see the potential of StoryBricks for more mature narratives that empower the player to not just shape the world around them, but to change the way they’re treated by others. The term ‘living, breathing world’ has become a hollow boast in recent years, but with StoryBricks, it feels like a thrilling promise of what we can expect from the video game narratives of the future.