Exploring 3 Different Prototypes of a Single-Player Storytelling Game

I mentioned in my last post that I started working on a new game. Here’s the summary in case you missed it:

…a single-player storytelling game that’s light on rules, but heavy on possibilities. The player creates characters with personalities and aspirations. These characters develop, fall in love, and must eventually pass away – leaving their estates to their children and grandchildren. The goal is to complete your characters’ goals before they pass, so they die in peace. But characters’ goals conflict with each other, and every character is neither purely good nor bad, so you may have to deal with tough moral issues to accomplish their goals.

The game is inspired by a feeling rather than a specific world mechanism, so there’s nothing solid to hang my hat on yet. I’m pretty sure I want aging, relationships and the feeling of loss to be parts of the game, but those are all pretty general topics; I don’t have a core mechanic like, “Players stack tiles to gain points.” So, this game could go anywhere.

To get myself started, I prototyped three different games. Each one failed to be the basis of the eventual end product, but each provided me with valuable information for the future of the project.

Prototype 1: Starting a Town in the Wilderness

Summary: In this prototype, the player starts with two characters. Each player turn represents 2 years of the characters’ lives. Characters age and develop new traits over time, as well as different goals they’d like to accomplish in their lifetimes. The player’s role is to make sure each character accomplishes his/her goals before dying. Some goals require exploring the wilderness to find new locations, establishing the town, and having children. Thus, the game continues even after the original characters pass away.

What the Player Does: Players use characters’ actions determined by their traits to accomplish their goals. Each trait generates either Positive or Negative energy, and each trait provides the character with three different abilities (outlets for the energy). For example, “Charm” requires 2 Positive energy to put another character in a good mood, while “Defend Self” requires 4 Positive energy to defend the character against another character’s action. Conversely, “Worry” requires 1 Negative energy, while “Murder” requires 5 Negative energy. It’s your choice what you do with each character each turn, but you must try to accomplish each character’s goals.

Results: This prototype worked really well for generating stories and establishing interesting relationships between the characters. The big problem is that the player must act as every character. This led to a game that was too cerebral, and it made me feel like I was playtesting the game as several players at once rather than playing a single-player game. And rather than a whole town, I only had a few characters in the game — the two starting characters and their child, as well as a location I discovered and a house I built (giving me access to more actions).

Prototype 2: The Orphan / Family Trees

Summary: Since the previous prototype showed me that controlling multiple deep characters is overwhelming, I aimed this prototype at having the player control just one character. The main change here was adding an artificial intelligence (AI) piece to the gameplay. The player generates a family of AI characters at the beginning of the game to interact with. I removed locations and buildings from the game to focus it even more on just the player character (PC).

What the Player Does: Like the previous prototype, the PC has traits that define his abilities and a goal to accomplish. In this one, goals are simpler — e.g. Become Head of the Family, Extinguish the Family, or Create Your Own Family with 3 Generations. At a lower level, the player uses different actions to interact with the family of AI. The interactions are like things you’d see in Game of Thrones: Charm, Flirt, Gossip, Defend, Murder, Steal, etc. They are the same actions as in the first prototype, but the mechanics make them much more “gamey” here.

Results: This prototype felt more fun than the first, because it felt more like a game — less serious storytelling, more scheming and conniving. Adding reactive AI instead of having the player control every character helped lessen the feeling that the game takes a lot of energy to play. However, it was still a drag to play out “the family’s turn.” This version was fun and I may explore it as a multiplayer game, but it ventured too far from the “serious” feel of the first prototype.

Prototype 3: One Single Life (the Time Token prototype)

Summary: This prototype focused on living the life of one character in the modern day world. I reduced the amount of AI in the game, and made the player have just one goal: be happy for the majority of your life.

What the Player Does: Every turn, the player distributes an allotment of time tokens that represent 2 years in total. The main interaction is spending these time tokens on different things in life – spending time with family and friends, attending school, looking for romance and jobs, and so on. Characters still develop traits, but none of them, not even the PC’s, are “activated” — they are all passive traits that play out on their own. The player uses time tokens to craft his life in a way that makes him the happiest.

Results: This prototype came closer in feeling to the original goal I set out to accomplish, but it just wasn’t enjoyable. I realized that, as a player, I wasn’t looking forward to anything in the game. Did I care if I found the love of my life? Nope. That is a major milestone for my character that I should care about, but I just didn’t. In addition, it was still a drag to simulate all of the different character’s traits, even though none of them were activated (the player’s only action was distributing time tokens). If I skew more in the “gamey” direction, I may have better results when it comes to players caring about the characters. In other words, draw them in with fun, then activate their other emotions.

So those are the prototypes I’ve created so far. I’m applying all of the findings above to create the next prototype. I want the player to care about all of the characters, but I don’t want game maintenance to hinder gameplay. I want the player to make meaningful decisions, but I don’t want the player to have to make so many of them that it becomes taxing. Finally, I want the experience to offer a variety of emotions, but I don’t want it to be a life simulation alone — it’s just not enjoyable. The game should be simple enough that the player can enjoy it without thinking about it too much, while at the same time be able to walk away from it thinking it was valuable and subtly deep. We’ll see what I can cook up for the next one.

I wanted to end this post by bringing up recent Twitter activity. When I was working on prototype #1, I tweeted the following:

New game prototype. A mother just protected her son from her abusive husband!

While most responses to this tweet were people looking forward to trying out the game, I received a particular response that was on the contrary. The responder said he/she would never play this game because it was “in poor taste;” he/she had an abusive past and, presumably, would not want to re-experience these feelings and/or make light of them. I’m glad this person shared that feeling with me because it gave me an early glimpse into how this game may be perceived in the end.

It’ll be important to craft this game in a way that does not offend players, but still gives them a safe place to explore the wide spectrum of emotions and issues in life.