Since the single-player episodes were announced, I started thinking about the problem that the combination of the genre with the episodic format. Episodic content that keeps bringing the players back has certain requirements that have to be addressed. Simulators haven’t been structured in the past in a way that can fulfill them.
The usual flow simulators have had in the past is simple enough: Cinematic -> Briefing -> Hangar -> Game -> Debriefing. The tasks the player carries out in each of those stages is specific focused on the Game task. The challenge here is to insert the story content in such a way that this flow is preserved.
The Episodic Format
Stories told in an episodic format rely heavily on their characters; the emotional bond that the audience develops with the cast is one of the essential motivators that compel them to return to the tale for the next installment. In order to form those bonds, in order to involve the players in the tale the game is trying to tell, the player has to be immersed in the world as well as amongst the characters.
However, games of the simulation genre have to focus narrowly on the experience they’re trying to depict. While franchises like Wing Commander and Heavy Gear may tell stories, their narrative isn’t part of the main experience. If you were to break those games into an episodic format, the story would have no cogent structure. And while the discrete structure of the missions would fit neatly into the format, the unmoored storyline would result in a less compelling experience.
However, given the necessarily narrow focus that the game needs to have on the experience they’re trying to depict, simply shoe-horning the story and its structure into the game can be disruptive. The end result of a story interrupting or breaking the simulation will lead to, again, a weaker game.
How can the story to reinforce the appeal of a game in episodic format co-exist with the strict simulation that should be the true focus of the game?
Off-the-field interaction, such as what the bar was for in Wing Commander could be an answer. However, placing the story in its own container makes it a sidecar to the game, and is also detrimental to the emotional bond the episodic format needs. The story has to be an integral part of the game, engaging the players in a narrative that will bring them back when the next episode is released. The relationship that the player builds with the characters has to be front and center, rather than constrained to its own area and to non-interactive FMVs.
However, there are ways where this type of emphasis on the storyline and its characters can be made into an asset to the game’s flow rather than an interruption the mech simulation. Now that the mission briefings, gear bay and other areas that used to be menus can be part of the simulated environment, we can bring the story into the simulation in ways that were not possible before.
Manipulating the environment has been done before, but the impact with today’s tools can be much greater. Rather than simple background changes, the game’s Briefing/Hangar/Debriefing stages can exist with the simulated world. As such, they can contextualize the action by placing the player in the simulation from the moment they load the game.
This allows the player to exist in the simulated world to a greater degree than a menu-driven interface.
Pushing this idea to the extreme, it would be possible to interrupt the player while they’re in one of the other stages of the game’s flow. For example, a player could be in the hangar modifying their machine when something crashes through the far wall, making the simulation intrude into the other task and forcing the player to respond to it.
Meanwhile, the story has a much more flexible stage on which to occur, making the cast a much more tangible entity in the story.
While working on planning missions or modifying vehicles, the other characters can wander about the player, talk about relevant subjects to the task at hand. The characters could share their stories with the player indirectly by talking to one another, or directly, if the player chooses to approach them. The work this particular type of content requires grows exponentially, according to the degree of interaction we would give the player. If, for instance, the player would be able to talk back to the characters, choosing what to say or ask, the work required to make it work grows. However, if done well, this type of content can return a huge payoff in player involvement. Well-written dialogue can prompt a player to play a genre they normally wouldn’t in order to get more dialogue and advance the story.
Dialogue is the most direct way to support an episodic format, but it’s highly dependent on design, and it can be constraining. Do you allow the game to kill the characters you’re developing? Do you save them in order to use them in scripted events throughout the campaign, either by breaking the rules of the simulation to protect them, by making their death a failure state, or by merely stating that they “ejected” or “returned to base” if their vehicle is disabled?
This isn’t a unique problem to HGA, or even computer games. The most notable example of a similar problem can be seen in the T.V. series Band of Brothers, where the emphasis to depict the horrors of war was in harmony with, and reinforced by, the story and the characters. Some of the characters out there were meant to die in the same episode in which they were introduced. This includes minor one-episode characters and hundreds of extras that may not have had a single line. With that example in mind, along with the unique advantage that the simulation focuses on the vehicles rather than on the people, there is a solution.
The main characters of the story wouldn’t have to be depicted directly; rather, they exist as part of a pool of ‘possible’ pilots for every machine that also includes all the minor characters and extras. The game can decide who was piloting a vehicle that is destroyed according to the needs of a particular episode. If the story calls for a specific character to die during the course of a mission, they will be amongst the first casualties. Otherwise, the pool of extras is tapped for fodder. This doesn’t mean that scripted events have to be discarded. Rather, they can be used sparingly so they have the most impact when they are used. The more tools the designers and writers have available to them, the better.
Determining the limits of what the player can do as far as interacting with the NPCs of the world would be a top priority as well.
Another fundamental and oft-used tool would be general pieces of text. Text can be journal entries, battle reports, letters, or news stories. All these can be accessible to the player from the main work area. If the player is interested, they can pick one of those pieces of paper and read them. The ideal approach would be to have voice-overs reading the text the player glances at; reducing the level of effort needed for the players to engage increases the likelihood they will do so, as well as the impact of the material. It’s also the easiest and least time-consuming method to develop the world and plot of the game. However, it isn’t the most compelling, or the most accessible. And, since a majority of the players ignore such material, critical aspects of the story can’t be hidden in it.
The presence of these random pieces of text does serve to hook the players who do look for that sort of material into the world. From them, the game and the franchise can gain new followers. Given the relatively low investment it takes to place these in the world, especially without voiceovers, they can be an asset used to “flesh out” the experience.