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A Predictive Story Engine for Gaming

An approach to applying narrative theory to interactive fiction and gaming.

By far, the most interesting conversation surrounding Dramatica today is the discussion of its application to interactive fiction. As a huge fan of Infocom's text-based adventures of yesteryear I find talk of an intelligent story engine running the show for gamers a very exciting development.[1]

Melanie Anne Phillips, the other co-creator of Dramatica, recently took time out to address the use of the theory in gaming and even offers some insight into how this would be done:

Consider, then, the first-person player perspective in a game is not necessarily to provide experiences in a sequence that will bring the MC to the point of potential change, but rather to explore all corners of the Story World until the nature of how all the elements and dynamics at work in that particular storyform are identified and understood.

My first thought as to how to use Dramatica to craft a game was, in fact, to provide a storyform for the player to inhabit. The player would be the Main Character of the story and some other character would be the Influence Character. And somehow they would develop a relationship that would fit perfectly into the Relationship Throughline. Turns out that might not be the right approach:

The player, by choosing in what order to explore the world is much better put in the position of narrator, the interlocutor who determines for himself or herself the order in which the components of the story world are to be explored – much as one might make multiple trips to a buffet table or select items in dim sum and choose the order in which to consume them.

Player as narrator, instead of player as Main Character. Instead of forcing the player to experience the story in the order it has to happen for the Main Character, the story gears the unfolding of the experience around the player's choices. In other words, as an element outside the system the player as narrator can't break the storyform. The engine merely compensates for the change in direction and offers the player the next piece of the puzzle--whatever piece he or she moved towards.

An IF in which the player is actually the narrator, then the MC appears from time to time in the story world, having experienced things in the proper order for him to make a choice, but likely in a different order than the player. For example, the MC in the story world shows up and the player says – “Let’s work together and head up to the badlands.” The MC replies, “Already been there, just before the big explosion. Change me in ways I’d rather not talk about, but it made me realize there may be another way of looking at the morality of this whole conflict.” And then he disappears back into the battle.

Makes perfect sense. And accounts for the unpredictability of the player.

Application in Table Top Role-Playing Games

It probably comes as no surprise that I always loved being the Dungeon Master growing up. Sure, it was fun sometimes to take my thieving hobbit off into a Cave of Chaos or into the Abyss every now and then, but the real fun for me was always creating the environment for my brother or friends to play in.

I wonder now if Dungeons & Dragons might be a good place to test out Melanie's player as narrator theory.

Over the summer, I had started to craft a storyform for my kids to inhabit but stopped when I was faced with the aspect of who the Main Character would be. Compound that with a group of kids who relish doing the opposite of what dad wants, and you've got the recipe for an afternoon disaster.

But now the approach is clear. Create a story for the kids to play in, but set the Main Character and the Influence Character as non-player characters. That way I can insure that they'll follow along in the proper Signpost order. The kids (or players) can choose to interact or step away as they wish, and in the end they'll have interacted with a satisfying and emotionally fulfilling story.

I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. I solved and completed Deadline all on my own...and without the internet! ↩︎