Using Low Level Stories
by Jonathon Schilpp


There are many reasons why a game's story is a very important consideration in the game's design. But what I would like to focus on in this article is the idea of using a game's story to create a more enjoyable experience for the player, while increasing the replay value of the game as well.

Some games provide excellent replay value, while others include compelling stories. But games which offer both of these qualities are rare. Games which have good replay value generally rely on excellent game mechanics, and provide the player with a great amount of freedom. The player has many choices at his disposal, and can accomplish his goals in many different ways.

But designers often find that in order to create the most compelling stories, player choice must be restricted to some degree. In order for the player to experience the story the designer has in mind, the player must perform certain actions and witness certain events. This has a negative impact on the game's replay value, since the player will experience the same events each time the game is played.

In order to circumvent this problem, designers have tried a number of solutions. One approach has been to implement forced replay value. The designer encourages the player to play the game a second time by offering some reward. Some common examples are hidden game modes, character costumes, and anything else which the player is encouraged to "earn."

But replay value is not something which can be forced. Either a game has good replay value or it doesn't. And these methods are unsuccessful in part because they ask the player to play a game over when he does not want to. If the game does not have good replay value, the player will probably not want to play it through a second time anyway. And the lure of hidden features which the player does not bother to "earn" simply taunts the player. He knows that the features are there, yet he cannot access them. And expecting the player to replay a game he does not like is a sign that the designer has not done a good job. He has failed in his responsibility to provide the player a good value for the price of the game.

Another, better method of increasing the replay value of a game which contains a good story is the branching storyline. A branching storyline guarantees that the player will have a somewhat different experience when the game is replayed. But there are several difficulties with this method. First, in order to be successful, the branches must provide an experience which is sufficiently different each time the game is played. If the branches only make the player's subsequent experiences slightly different, the replay value will not be there. Only if the replayed game is very different from the first game will the player find the story interesting the second time through.

Another problem with branching storylines is that they require more time, effort and financial resources to create. This is because each branch must be developed independently, and each needs its own script, artwork, etc. It can also be difficult to justify this extra work and expense to the game's financial supporter. How can the designer explain that so much time and money must be spent to create parts of the game which the player may never even see?

And perhaps the biggest problem of all with regard to branching storylines is this inevitable truth: no matter how much effort and money is expended, the number of branches is limited. There are only so many branches that the designer will be able to provide. And once the player has exhausted them, or enough of them, the game will no longer have the replay value the designer sought to provide.

But there is another way to create good replay value in a game which features a good story. That's what I would like to describe in this article. This method makes use of what I call a game's "low level" story.

Two Kinds of Story

There are two very different kinds of story found in a game. First, there is the story the game's designer wishes to tell. I will refer to this as the game's "high level" story. This is the story which designers are most concerned with. It includes the major events of the game, character development, and those plot devices which are designed to create a powerful experience.

The other type of story is the player's own. I will refer to this as the game's "low level" story. While the high level story is created by the game's designer, the low level story is created entirely by the player. While not every game has a high level story, each and every game does have a low level story. What is more, the low level story is different each time the game is played. Consider the story in Tetris. Does this sound strange? Does Tetris really have a story? It most certainly does. Here's a story one player might experience:

"I had made a couple of mistakes, and the blocks were almost to the top. I knew the game was hopeless, but I didn't give up. I kept putting everything to the right, waiting for the piece I needed. Just at the last moment, I got the straight piece. I whipped it all the way to the left just in time, and that gave me a tetris, and some more room. The game was still hopeless, but I managed to hold on long enough to earn another 3000 points."

Certainly this is not a story which Alexy Pajitnov coded into his game. Yet this story, and thousands more, are experienced by players around the world every day. Tetris is often cited as a game with endless replay value. This is generally said to be because the game mechanics in Tetris provide the player with great freedom. But I believe that there is another, parallel explanation. I would say that Tetris has such infinite replay value precisely because the story in Tetris is different every time, leading to an infinite number of experiences.

Advantages of Low Level Stories

There are a number of advantages which are inherent in the use of low level stories. One is that they can be used in conjunction with high level stories. This offers the best of both worlds. Richard Rouse III draws attention to this in his book, Game Design: Theory and Practice: "The ideal for interactive storytelling is to merge the designer's story and the player's story into one, so that the player can have a real impact on a story while the story retains its dramatic qualities." This allows the designer to provide a high quality, compelling and unique storyline, while also adding to the game's replay value by making use of the low level story.

Since the designer does not need to use the high level story to provide replay value, the story can be developed with less work and fewer resources. The game can be completed in less time, and at a lower cost. And unlike using branching storylines, in which case the development team's efforts must be divided among the branches, the designer can concentrate all his efforts on creating one great story. Of course, branching storylines, or any other method of increasing replay value may be used while making use of the low level story. That is the beauty of using this technique.

Also, unlike the high level story, which the designer must make sufficiently different in order to provide good replay value, the low level story is bound to be different each and every time without any effort at all on the part of the designer. In fact, it is not even necessary for the low level story to be different each time. All that is required to make a game replayable is that the player be allowed to make the decisions he would like to make. Since the player will naturally avoid doing something which he finds stale and boring, he will always make the low level story as enjoyable as he can.

Nor does this require any great effort on the part of the player. Unlike being expected to "earn" something from the game, the player does not mind creating a good low level story. This is because he creates it simply by playing the game, and making whatever choices he enjoys at any given moment.

And unlike branching high level stories, which are limited in number, the low level story is limited only by the player's choices, and whatever opions the game mechanics provide. Providing more gameplay options naturally leads to more low level story options, and greater replay value. The result is that the designer does not need to limit player freedom as much as he does when relying solely on a high level story.

Making Use of the Low Level Story

So far this probably sounds fine. But how can a designer make use of a game's low level story? I believe the answer lies in the idea of the player's impact on the game world. What makes computer games different from any other form of commercial entertainment is the player's interaction with the game - his ability to influence the game world. This is the greatest strength of computer games. And designers need to exploit this advantage.

In my opinion, the key to increasing a game's replay value using the low level story is to show the player that his decisions affect the game world. I don't believe that the only way to make the player feel his influence on the game is to give him only chances to radically alter the major events of the game. A player will enjoy influencing smaller details of the game world at least as much. Consider this example:

The player's character decides to commit an act of burglary against a rival. This is not something which is important to the main storyline. The designer does not tell the player to do this. But because the designer is making use of the low level story to provide greater replay value, he is able to give the player a good deal of freedom. The player has decided to make use of this freedom to take an action he finds enjoyable.

The player naturally appreciates the expanded game mechanics which allow him the freedom to do something so unusual in a game. And he is happy to plunder his rival's household for no reason other than entertainment. The player's character may not find anything of value, but the player doesn't mind at all. On a whim, he steals something at random: his rival's lucky socks. The player has had a fine experience thanks to the greater freedom the game's design allows. But that is just the beginning.

The real enjoyment comes later in the game. The player's character awakens the next morning, and goes to a local restaurant for breakfast. While conversing with the NPCs in the restaurant, the player hears interesting bits of conversation. "Someone broke into Gildor's house last night, and all they took was a pair of socks," a lady might say. "I wonder what they wanted with those?"

This makes it clear to the player that his actions are important. And unlike saving the world from destruction, a plot device which has become a cliché that it is expected of virtually every RPG, this player created miniplot is interesting to the player. If the player finds enjoyment in carrying out the theft, he will find the results of this action interesting as well. In fact, the player will likely take full advantage of this newfound freedom to experiment with all sorts of actions. He will be fascinated with exploring the possibilities at his disposal. And he will have a wonderful time testing the most powerful feature of the computer game - its interactivity.

Here's another example of how keeping track of the player's actions (and therefore the low level story of the game) can have a small but charming effect on the player's experience:

The player's character, along with a few companions, finds himself transported forward in time. Returning to their homeland 150 years after their mysterious disappearance, the characters find that they have become the subject of local legends. Old villagers repeat tales they were told as children, about the daring deeds and disappearance of the brave company of heroes. The facts have grown in the telling of course, and it is hilarious to compare the stories with the truth.

"Pogrom the Fearless?" the player might exclaim. "What about that time he nearly died of fright when an owl hooted in a tree above him?" And of course, the game remembers the player character's actions. The player will hear again, in a somewhat overly glorified manner, about the cave the heroes explored. Sure, there wasn't anything particularly dangerous about the cave, but it is nice to be praised for valor just the same.

This really requires very little effort on the part of the game's designer. All he has to do is provide some method of keeping track of a few details of the player's actions. The game does not need to rattle off a list of all the things the player has done, as a child might list everything he learned in school one day. Only a few details are needed. In this case, less really is more.

The player should not be able to predict when something he does will be reflected in the game. Each instance should be fairly unexpected. The idea here is that it should always be a pleasant surprise for the player to see what sort of impact he has had on the game world. Only a few details are necessary to make use of this effect, and very little effort is required of the game's designer.


Making use of a game's player created, low level story has a number of advantages. A designer may use the low level story to increase the game's replay value, while simultaneously using the high level story to create a deep, compelling experience. The low level story is created by the player, and therefore requires very little effort on the part of the game's developers. Since so few resources are needed, a game which makes use of the low level story requires less time, effort and cost to produce. Since low level stories are naturally different, or at least enjoyable, each time the game is played, the designer does not need to expend extra effort to make the game different each time it is played (although he will probably still want to.) Unlike branching storylines, the possibilities for low level stories are limited only by game mechanics and the player's own imagination. Making use of low level stories plays to the greatest strength of computer games - interactivity. And unlike cliché plot devices such as great victories and saving an entire planet, low level stories have a smaller, more intimate charm. Ultimately, this may cause the player to find the small, unique quirks of low level stories more enjoyable than those major events in the game's high level story.

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathon Schilpp. All rights reserved.

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Date this article was posted to 10/15/2001
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Story Development

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