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A recent question asked for pointers for writing for games, and the gist of the answers was that it's not very unlike writing books. The underlined differences were only superficial. There's a plotline to follow and obstacles to conquer. You write the plot and develop essentials and let the programmers handle dynamics and interactivity.

That might be fine if you work at Valve, writing games that are great fun to go through the first time, a little fun the other time when you discover hidden tastes, and then interesting the third time when you enable the developer commentary. Then there are challenges and multiplayer that make it great arcade fun, but the storytelling part is entirely exhausted.

Now what if I want to write something like Tsukihime? 1

I will not spoil the details of the plotline of Tsukihime, but let me just say it is meant to be played exactly five times, and only on fifth walkthrough you will be able to fully appreciate the depth and hidden meanings of everything recurring throughout your prior walkthroughs. More interestingly, while the first two walkthroughs pretty much follow the same storyline, staying just to two sides of the barricade, starting with the third you open up a wildly straying tangent that completely abandons the first premises.

And this is still fairly linear. What about games like Morrowind, where outside of three entirely different ways of getting the main quest done, you get a wild tangle of intersecting, conflicting, synergizing, complementing or opposing quests for various factions? Three vampire clans at war, join any. Imperial Temple vs Tribunal Temple, distrusting and hostile, join any again. Become a werewolf or fight werewolves.

A book has a progression from beginning to end, a storyLINE. Events follow in logical progression of cause-effect.

How can you write something where you have a storySPAGHETTI to create?

In particular, you have a number of smaller plotlines. Call them quests, questlines or story arcs if you like. How to

  • manage their interconnections - hold a tight grip over how they influence (or break!) each other? 2
  • handle their prerequisites to avoid both circular dependencies and stupid limitations. 3
  • do this all from most mundanely technical viewpoint - How to write down multiple (lengthy) entries that have no apparent order and a wild web of connections, especially keep these connections visible and easily editable, and easy to follow? Keeping tab of limitations and prerequisites for these to be possible? Not getting lost and holding it whole in my head, while the player just holds the current walkthrough?

1 Example chosen as striking the middle ground between linear and convoluted beyond hope, balancing great story with considerable nonlinearity; for the latter example try Kagetsu Tohya, nearly impossible to get through without a guide, and no, I don't think it's a good idea.

2 I will never forgive Oblivion with its four(!) guild questlines, after Mages Guild questline making me the Archmage, to have the Thieves Guild questline have me steal a magic staff from myself to convince myself that I, the Archmage should recall my battlemages to better protect my guild from myself, the thief.

3 I've got a scroll of Raise Dead, I don't get what's so bad about the assassin getting caught after killing the victim!

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+1 for a really fascinating technical question. –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 23 '12 at 3:37
    
Is this about games which have an ending (defeat the final boss; perhaps typical for the "storyline" style games with or without in-game sub-arcs, but can also be done with "storyspaghetti" games), ones that do not (more of social interaction between players, where the game is more of an enabler than the true objective), or both? Don't get me wrong, I think it's an interesting question in any case, but the answer is probably going to be different based on which style you are talking about. –  Michael Kjörling Dec 24 '12 at 22:37
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@MichaelKjörling: Think your typical good single-player RPG. like the Baldur's Gate family. Maybe a few different endings (kill boss, ally with boss, bypass the boss) or a set of non-exclusive endings (like Fallout). Not endless MMORPG style games with respawning quests, and not cheap "loosely coupled" linear questlines like Oblivion with six independent long storylines not affecting each other beyond minimal cameos, plus a bunch of unrelated single quests. –  SF. Dec 25 '12 at 0:33
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2 Answers

Are you certain you don't still have a standard storyline in mind?

Many "linear" stories interleave multiple perspectives and have events that occur off-screen; whatever cause-and-effect drives the story marches on whether anyone is there to see it or not.

It sounds to me like what you want is a single linear story with a braid of possible narratives through that story--essentially the same as a book, except that instead of selecting what scenes to show a reader, you let a player select which scenes to experience. For this to be meaningful, the story should involve (if only tangentially) many people in many locations, but dealing with such a story is not unique to games, and is beyond the scope of this answer.

In contrast, the "loosely coupled" storylines you complain about sound like exactly what you'd get from letting a narrative thread jump between unrelated stories--each may be a worthwhile story on its own, but they're not advancing an overall plot.

A branching storyline leading to several very different endings makes things more difficult but not fundamentally different; each path to an ending must stand on its own as a linear story, after all. As a matter of opinion, I would also say that how a player ends up choosing an ending should be approached first as a question of gameplay, not story. It really shouldn't require a stack of walkthroughs to reliably get each possible ending, to my mind.

Given all that, if you have the rough outline of a linear story, what remains is to chart the potentially nonlinear routes through it that will be available to the player:

  • Make sure you know what plot points are both necessary to the storyline and require the player's presence. These are immutable landmarks everything else must navigate between. Too many and the player will feel shackled by the plot and you might as well just present it as a fully linear story; too few and the plot will feel irrelevant and you'll give yourself a headache to boot.

  • Identify any significant plot points that depend on the player's involvement; these are one way the player can steer the story, and making major choices here gives you a "choose your own adventure" style of branching story. Plot points like this are never truly optional--opting out, if allowed, is a choice as much as any other.

  • Identify any necessary plot points that allow the player's presence, either as an observer, as a non-critical participant (e.g. one soldier among many in a key battle), or in a role where an NPC can fill in if the player is not involved. These are probably the best way to create the effect you want, despite (or because of!) not actually branching the story. To elaborate:

    • The player can change the outcome in ways that are irrelevant to the overall story, but feel significant. A non-critical character dying because of the player's actions (or inaction) is an easy example.

    • Have a checklist of details that are dependent on such choices, and let those be reflected in later scenes. Plot-critical scenes can acknowledge these changes so long as it doesn't change the plot-critical events. The main limitation on details like this is the amount of extra work required to write out variant scenes, but if done well you can create the impression of a storyline being far more flexible than it actually is.

    • With a bit of extra effort, a group of such scenes can have their own recurring sub-plots. The difference between this and the "loosely coupled" storylines is that you're building side-plots on a foundation of scenes and characters that, by construction, are relevant to the main plot. Anything involving the social lives of plot-critical characters probably fits in here.

  • Come up with optional plot points that require the player. This is the flip side of the previous point--events that let the player advance the main storyline, but in a way that isn't necessary for the final outcome. These can alter the same checklist of details as before, but can also tie into gameplay-based goals. Collecting enough plot coupons to weaken the final boss somehow would fit in here, particularly if it's possible to win without collecting any. Just be careful that anything like this is still clearly motivated somehow--players don't appreciate "pick two out of three tedious fetch quests" being presented as a "non-linear story".

  • Identify scenes that are a step removed from the main plot, i.e., where the events can revolve around the player but the context involves the main plot. In a typical RPG you can get lots of side-quest mileage out of this--finding a lost dog for some random NPC is a stupid pointless sidequest; finding a lost dog for someone essential to the plot is a character-development goldmine.

  • Collect chunks of non-essential information about the main plot and build a bit of scaffolding around them to create something the player can "do". An interesting feature of interactive storytelling is that you can have as much exposition dumping and worldbuilding minutia as you want if you present it in context and make it optional. Nobody likes trudging through that crap in a novel, but given the chance a surprising number of people will sit there and read an in-game equivalent of Wikipedia to learn more about the setting, backstory, &c. (If only this answer could be given such treatment...)

Various mixtures and combinations of each are also possible, of course.

But really, the key point in all of this is that, much like how convincing fiction must make more sense than real life does, and written dialogue must be far more eloquent than real people speak, a non-linear narrative requires more linear story structure than a linear narrative does. You don't want an aimless tangle of story threads--that will just seem disjointed and incoherent. The underlying story gives everything else a direction that makes the non-linearity more convincing.

The player starts at the beginning, and upon reaching an end, stops. Everything they do in the middle needs to be motivated somehow by getting closer to an ending. If you do it right, the player will reach the end of that linear storyline feeling like it's the natural outcome of many non-linear choices they made.

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Yes, I'm certain. Sure it's a valid approach (+1) but still doesn't reach the level of freedom I'd like to achieve. A good game with a large level of freedom has several threads that unveil simultaneously and influence each other. Each of them can be stalled, broken, or altered by player actions, and the way they influence others change, following that. I don't want to give the players a thin illusion of being able to influence the events (they can always see through that), I want to give them actual freedom to shape the world. –  SF. Dec 26 '12 at 19:15
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I can describe the system used in aforementioned Tsukihime. This isn't a solution how to do that at writing phase, or how to physically write to have the right grip of things but may serve as a general guideline how to keep things at manageable level while affording great flair and a lot of freedom with significant decisions drastically changing the outcomes.

You can hold all the threads easily and manage their interconnections if the number of threads is small - up to three tightly coupled threads, that strongly influence each other. Tsukihime holds much more than that, I'd estimate the number of threads at roughly 20.

The trick is to keep the initial pool of threads early on loosely coupled. In each of them you keep tally of points towards given outcomes, or observe essential events. They follow through time whether the player is present or not. Then you arrive at key point or achieve critical score in one of the threads, and a key event occurs, changing the scene drastically.

New threads are spawned. Most of old threads either are killed off or reduced to skeletal forms that don't have any importance. Very few most essential threads are picked out and continue in their full flair, reset to known state by the event and maintaining only very minor amount of prior player decisions. New tallies are counted, new events observed, and converge towards another critical point.

This way the actual decision tree is trimmed to manageable size, the number of threads running at given time is strongly reduced, the number of interconnections perfectly manageable, and the initial trunk with most threads is loosely-coupled and so easy to manage.

Example: in the initial stage you can interact with any of the five heroines of the story, and build romantic interest with any of them. Your choices which one to woo will increase the romantic interest towards that one. At certain points the rest of the girls fade into background and you lose most (all significant) options to interact with them... except for specific case when one becomes an antagonist, and a thread of intense war between the two begins, with you on one side or another. If you leave both off, the whole war between them goes only through mild cameos if even that much, while entirely different set of events occupies your focus.

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