Narratives in games: the recipes of Alex Kennedy creator of Echo Bazaar

Attending the Playful conference in London last in september 2010 I had the chance to meet with Alexis Kennedy, founder of Failbetter Games, the editor of Echo Bazaar, a text game that has received much critical acclaim. He had very enlighting thoughts about how to articulate games and narratives.

To start with here is a comparison he made: “Some people call for better games by putting more narrative into the mix. But it is like saying that in order to make a better meal you just have to put more of this and more of that. The result is not only about the quantity of each ingredient. It’s actually more about the process and the techniques used to cook the meal.” I’ll try to explain how Alexis is attempting to figure out new ways to cook…

Emergent vs scripted games

Games can be divided into two groups that lies at both end of a spectrum. The more scripted a game is the less freedom of choice (FoC) it gives to the player. A perfectly scripted game would look like a movie. At the other end of the spectrum are emergent games where a set of rules govern interactions, but are open ended like open worlds. The area inbetween scripted and emergent games is a very little explored country that Failbetter Games is aiming at.

State transitions

What makes a scripted narrative powerful is that the state the character is in (physical/emotional/relational/… state) is always relevant to the way he handles event. Scripted games rely on states, and FoC introduces branching (see figure 1) : each new choice creates a new branch in the states graph. The issue is the growing complexity called combinatory explosion. This process of introducing more game into the narrative is intractable, it does not scale.

Some ways have been devised such as the introduction of mandatory states that form the backbone of the story with multiple branches inbetween (see figure 2). This way the complexity is only growing linearly with branching. However such techniques limit the depth of the game since it is always, to some extent, the same game that is played.

The sense of story

At the other side of spectrum, open worlds do not keep track of the state of a character. Characters wander subjected to random encounters/events (figure 5). However random events do not provide a sense of story at any level. A way to reintroduce some structured narrative is to inject scripted chains of events in the world (figure 4). These chains are followed by the character upon acceptation of a mission (in WoW or GTA).

However, a powerful story should develop at multiple levels. Consider quality TV dramas: a first narrative arc spans over one episode, a deeper intrigue bridges over a couple episodes, and third order narratives traverse a whole season or the whole show. Instilling disconnected chains of scripted events in open worlds does not get you further than first order narratives.

Loosely coupled narrative structures

Scripted games have strong narratives but do not scale with FoC, whereas emergent games have strong FoC but provide a weak dramaturgic consistency. Alexis devised techniques used in Echo Bazaar to combine FoC and narrative. The first is to get rid of states. Like stateless open worlds ? Not exactly : states are replaced with qualities, which are numeric values seen as representations/proxys that reflect the events the player went through, the choices he made and its evolution as a character. Depending on their nature events and choices increase or decrease some qualities values. A few examples of qualities: dangerous, watchful, persuasive, shadowy,… (play Echo Bazaar or check the wiki for more details).

The second technique is to modularize the narrative : qualities values give access and are modified by narrative structures called storylets (see figure 3′, and read the Failbetter blog to know more about them). These storylets are first order narratives.

Storylets are structurally independant one from another: beginning a storylet does not require that you finish any other specific one. Storylets availability is conditional on qualities values, which are altered by the storylets. Storylets are hence loosely coupled through qualities.

In Echo Bazaar some parts of the narrative world are unlocked when certain qualities reach a given threshold, classic. More unusual: some areas (i.e. some storylets) become inaccessible. You don’t get to go back and take a different path. Time is a one-way street and choices have consequences : they determine trajectories in the narrative world. For example, in the game, committing a murder makes you more likely to do it again, which might enable you to enter the mob and a whole new narrative territory unveils that would have gone unnoticed otherwise. Such bifurcation and reinforcement mechanisms enable higher order narratives.


Using techniques borrowed from the coding field (modularization, loosely coupled modules) Alexis has managed to create a game world that both scales and provides a sense of story, which can be achieved neither with scripted nor with emergent games (no judgement here of one being superior to another, they just are intrinsically different).

Josselin Perrus

Aka Nils Oj sur le web. Tombé dans le domaine du jeu en 2009 lors de l’opération The Fun Theory. Je m’intéresse aux mécaniques de jeu indépendamment du support : jeux de plateaux, jeux vidéos, social games ou jeux urbains…

Twitter : @nonils

You can also read the original article here in French.

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    Posted January 13, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Really great post, being able to scale the design of the game is very important especially in many of these open world games.

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