Sports games take a lot of flack for not being inventive, and year-on-year iterations may not be as glamorous as the latest AAA-blockbuster, but Sports games are amongst the largest franchises in gaming, the most widely played – and arguably have a lot to offer other genres. This week we’ll take a look at how elements of sport games could be applied to story-driven games to create a richer experience.

Modeling the Simulation Space

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say that story-driven games are those that have a narrative thread at their core, and more or less play out in a linear fashion. There might be a few bulges along the way, but in the end, your character arrives at basically the same place regardless of what you did in the middle of the game. The overall shape of the experience is largely identical and the total narrative possibility is actually quite limited. If I told my friend about my experience playing a traditional story-driven game, my description of that narrative will be nearly identical to that of my friend’s experience – save for a few small details.

However, if I’m playing a sports game, I might not immediately think about narrative possibilities. But upon inspection, I can see that actually these titles have fleshed out the narrative possibilities of sports so thoroughly that, rather than having to construct a rigid narrative structure, they simulate with a high degree of accuracy the dynamics of a sporting match and the entire set of social interactions that are possible within a sporting “world”.

Players can experience nearly all of the ‘drama’ of a sporting career, without needing a set of predefined arcs. There are two levels to the stories being generated here: the dynamics of the sport itself and the social structures that surround the sport.

The dynamics include all of the drama within a single game: overtime, game winning goals, season ending injuries – and any number of nail-biting moments. The social structures surrounding sport are all of the meta-elements: building a dynasty, trading players, managing contracts, and winning championships.

In this world, the narrative of my team’s drama is going to be fundamentally different from that of my friend’s, but it was built out of the exact same set of underlying systems. Rather than proceeding down a predetermined, narrow path that has been laid out for us, what sports games do is define a simulation space and allow players to generate their own narratives and experiences within that space. You don’t immediately think of yourself as playing out a story when you’re playing your favourite sports title – but you are playing out narratives – and from an emotional standpoint, that hard-won victory after a long season delivers in a way that a cut-scene after traversing some dialog trees simply cannot.

Rules and States

I can hear the cries now: “But sports games have a rigid rule-set and structure that is way easier to model than an entire fictional world!”  True enough. So let’s take a look at one domain within sports that is very broad and not as easy to model as the rules of the game: commentary.

One of the long-standing devices in story-driven games is the dialog tree that you can traverse via a series of dialog options. Many of these games have deep and truly astonishing amounts of dialog, with spectacular acting and performances, but still are ultimately a static sequence of dialog in which you can simply choose the threads you want to hear first.

Almost all sports titles feature play-by-play commentary. However, unlike a story-driven game where you only get dialog as action punctuation, and the situations in which it can be triggered are highly controlled, sports commentary is always on, always present, and must always be correct. The simulation space for commentary is much less well-defined than the rules of the game, but provides another example where the procedural result is actually quite compelling. No two games are the same, but yet the commentators still manage to describe the action in an accurate and dramatic fashion (well, hopefully) – all without custom speech for every conceivable sequence of events.

There are a number of techniques that are used to achieve a result where sports speech sounds natural, doesn’t get repetitive, and is always correct. Rather than relying on a trigger/response system, modern sports games use a rule-based system that models the state of the game and then responds appropriately. This allows for better evaluation of the state of the game at any point, and for emergent situations to present themselves to the player – those moments of magic where the commentators call the play in a way so transparent that they seem human.

Such a system could be used to model characters’ behaviour in a fictional world. So instead of modelling the domain of sports commentary, you model each character’s areas of interest, interaction and motivation. The commentators’ “vocabulary” is built up from generic to specific, and characters could do the same. They need to be able to speak intelligently in a broad fashion about the major game situations before they can delve into the subtleties of the story.

If you are to create a flexible story world that allows the characters to react to any possible development in a coherent way, they need to have the basics covered. Once they have that covered, they can flesh out their particular arc with more crafted content specific to their particular role. The goal here is to avoid single use lines that spoil the illusion when you hear them repeated the second time. A broad vocabulary of multi-use lines that allow characters the ability to speak intelligently about the state of the fictional world at any point is the goal.

Defining a Narrative Landscape

There is a strong drive to deliver a “crafted” experience to players through a well-constructed story, but one of the strengths of games as a medium is their ability to simulate situations, and to give agency to the player. Creating a narrative landscape in which players are granted a higher degree of agency to construct their own stories within a given framework seems like an exciting and interesting way to approach stories in games. Imagine a world in which characters had less detailed lines, but a broader vocabulary that allowed them to talk about a wider variety of game situations in a non-repetitive way.

Rather than navigating dialog trees with three options and hearing the same response, characters could be given a vocabulary that they could use to respond intelligently to the state of the game at any point.

Instead of conceiving of a game’s “story”, we would think about the possibility space for the kinds of stories and themes we want to be able to communicate in our world and start to model that possibility space in the same way that sports titles model the rules of the sport, the social constructs of the sport (leagues, contracts, etc.) – and finally, how a different approach to modelling a fuzzy domain (sports commentary) can be applied to realtime dialog in narrative games.

In this model, what we’re doing is conceiving of ‘stories’ as a set of possibilities, themes, and situations – rather than a discrete set of events. We can then not only give our characters the ability to carry out the actions to drive the engine of our story, but we can build them a vocabulary to be able to speak about those actions and interactions. We’re giving up “crafted” for “dynamic” here – and there’s nothing to say that is necessarily better.

Changing the way that stories are conceived of in games would result in a less predictable and less crafted experience, but it might be more magical when were are given the ability to shape our own destiny as players.