Game Development Reference
have the same impact. Neither could you do it as a ballet. So what? Games are
further from movies than early movies were from plays, and there is no chance of
understanding interactive storytelling without understanding we're exploring a new
art form that is still in its infancy. Many of the old rules of storytelling do not apply.
Let's start understanding then, with a quick definition and the smallest bit of history.
A Controversial Definition
The term RPG has been tossed around and twisted for all sorts of perverse uses in the
years since Dungeons & Dragons appeared in the United States. These days, it is often
slapped onto any game that is either fantasy or—more commonly—has stats and a
level-based progression system. For this chapter, we're going to be a bit stricter and
define an RPG in the classic sense: a story-based game wherein the player creates and
takes on a role that he has chosen, making decisions and actions that affect the game's
outcome. So Fallout , Baldur's Gate ,and Oblivion qua l i f y. In t e r e s t i ng l y, s o do Deus
Ex and several non-traditional RPGs. Not qualifying would be World of Warcraft (no
game-mandated role-playing, actions don't affect game story) or the Final Fantasy
series (pre-made protagonist who's going to act the fool no matter what the player
The Protagonist as Early Explorer
In the 1970s, the introduction of both Dungeons & Dragons and the immensely pop-
ular Choose Your Own Adventure books took the idea of audience-driven storytelling
and made it something understandable to people of all ages. What was once a tradi-
tion of bedtime stories made up on the spot (“But I want to be a princess!” “Okay,
then, you're a princess.”) and playing make-believe with friends (“I blew you up!”
“Nope, I had laser-proof shorts on!”) all of a sudden had rules and structure, and the
seeds of what would one day be computer RPGs (CRPGs) were planted.
The Virtual Dungeon Master Analogy
It comes as little surprise that many of the great writers and designers of CRPGs
were either enthusiasts or previously employed in the pen-and-paper RPG world.
Many of the principles of what makes good pacing, storytelling, and wish-fulfillment
fantasy are best learned with a group of real people and a set of dice. A successful
dungeon master, or DM, quickly learns not to run roughshod over the players or
attempt to force a plot twist that requires the players' characters to act against their
core concepts. The DM cannot decide that the paladin who leads the party will fall
in love, will sacrifice his life for a noble cause, or will be fooled by the villain who is
masquerading as a friend.
The DM, like the successful CRPG writer, learns that player agency is the essen-
tial appeal of the art form and that there is no story twist brilliant enough to convince
players to sacrifice more than the smallest part of that agency. Thus the CRPG writer
must become a master of giving as much agency as possible to players, allowing them