In a GDC 2013 panel today, Dishonored's co-creative directors Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith described how allowing players to improvise within a video game world creates a richer experience by attracting them to the goal.
They worked to accomplish this in Dishonored by producing non-linear mission environments that allow players to make their own decisions within a branching storyline.
"It's all about guiding and attracting, as opposed to dictating the player's path," Colantonio said.
Although they admit that improvisation and story-rich environments are sometimes at odds, their aspiration was to widen the player's available decision path, while simultaneously attracting players toward the endpoints.
"Most of the time we let the player play as fast or slow as possible - it's really up to him," Colantonio said.
Practically speaking, they accomplished this by allowing a multiplicity of options, including play styles (stealth and run-and-gun), expressions of morality (kill or let live) as well as optional goals and side missions.
"We reward you for getting there, not how you got there," Colantonio said.
Their approach applies as much to story as it does to gameplay, they said. In Dishonored, they used a "pull-based narrative" that pushes the story forward through overheard conversations and notes players find within the environment. In their estimation, this tactic provides a less invasive way of storytelling.
Attract, don't dictate.
To foster player creativity, they created a "general purpose" system that uses "entities" in the game like enemies, traps and other objects that can interact by "listening" to each other. Instead of trying determine how each entity interacts directly with another, they set up the systems of interactivity that allow players to improvise.
The general purpose systems are a "game design value," not just a technical detail, they said, and the idea influenced how they built the game. For example, the process of summoning rats to attack enemies began with the idea of targeting an enemy and creating rats from thin air. In keeping with the focus on "listening" interactivity, they instead built a system that required rats in the environments for the move to be viable. Players can't create rats. They must summon preexisting rats, which are themselves governed by predictable rules with a variety of options.
This interactivity comes with a price, however. In a world built to foster experimentation, designs have to be consistent. Some players will get lost if it's too open-ended. There's a lot of work to be done and the game breaks in ways they don't expect. But they say that the end result — "a form of drama that comes from you interacting with systems and then reacting," Smith said — creates a richer experience.
"If you're making games that involve just doing the one thing that is the only thing that you can do to move forward, and then doing the next thing that is doing the only thing you can do to move forward, it really doesn't feel as creative or as rich or as interesting to us," Smith said. "So giving the player the ability to look around and make choices in many different ways on many different axes at any given time is a big deal.
"The benefit of this is that this is not the designer saying, 'Hey, turn the page and read my little story and follow my path. This is us abdicating that and giving it to the player, saying, 'Player, you tell us where you went, you tell own more of the experience, basically.'"