I’ve stopped talking about quality-based narrative, I’ve started talking about resource narrative
[This is basically a copied/pasted Slack post from a discussion I had with the team on a client project. I’ve tidied it up for the blog, but I haven’t rewritten it.]
‘QBN’ [quality-based narrative] – I coined this term, but I now wish I hadn’t. It’s not a term more than like two hundred people will ever use, so ultimately I’m not much bothered. But here’s why I’m bothered, and here’s a term I’ve started using instead.
(1) trivially, QBN is misleading because it sounds like it should mean ‘narrative that depends on being high quality for its effect’.
(2) More importantly, the fundamental characteristic of ‘qualities’ in the Failbetter sense is that they are all created equal – PC characteristics are the same as currency amounts are the same as story tracking variables. This was a deliberate design decision I made back in 2009, but now I think it erases too many potentially useful distinctions. And, in fact, the subsequent development of Fallen London, Sunless Sea and other StoryNexus-based games saw many, many attempts to add, or hack in, different ways to describe the value of, and changes to, qualities.
It occurred to me last week that what really turns me on are ‘resource narratives’. By that I mean that there is an explicit narrative with a game-like focus on strategically manipulating a set of limited resources, whether that’s health or social connections [or relationships] or story advancement or something else.
I reckon a key characteristic of a resource narrative is one where the nature and the interrelationship of the resources aligns with the grain of the story, and where events often/preferably emerge in a natural-seeming way from the combination of resource states. So there are still similarities to salience-based narratives, but there is limited or no interest in an AI director or drama management system as an abstract meta-entity – rather on selection and design of resource interactions as a context from which drama should tend to emerge.
That ‘selection and design of resource interactions’ is one of the things I’ve been groping to describe in recent talks (at AdventureX, Brunel, Develop Reboot) as ‘poetic design’.
Here is a quick random eclectic list of things I’d call resource narratives:
- Sunless Sea and Fallen London, natch
- 80 Days
- Darkest Dungeon
- Dwarf Fortress
- Hand of Fate
- King of Dragon Pass
- Open world Ubigames: Far Cries and whatnot
- XCOM, any flavour
- …Cultist Simulator
Here are some things (all of which I like) that I think it is not very useful to analyse/design in resource narrative terms, although they have both narrative and (often) resources:
- Branching narratives, with or without state: Choice of Games pieces, Sorcery!, most Twine work…
- CRPGs: Dragon Ages, Elder Scrolls, Fallouts, Mass Effects, Torment, Witchers…
- Scripted narrative-first games: Firewatch, Gone Home, Her Story, Oxenfree…
- Immersive sims: Dishonored, HITMAN, System Shock…
- Most parser IF.
When I look through that list of noes, another criterion occurs to me: resource narratives are most effective when resources are scarce, reproducible and fungible.