Of mice and Witchers: structuring quests

This is the first in a series of columns about how games get written. Where I’ll explain the inner workings of how interactive narratives are structured, how compelling non-linear game stories are crafted, and what the hell ‘narrative design’ means.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is held up as a shining example of game writing, with the richness of its side quests widely singled out for particular praise. As the player roams the open world, these diversions build a landscape gripped by tragedy. The player wanders into a story, affects its course for better or worse, but they can never save everyone. A Witcher is there to mitigate tragedy, not prevent it.

These isolated short stories, then, are the perfect opportunity for us to figure out what goes into a good quest. We can begin by mapping out the story’s ‘possibility space’: a two-dimensional map containing every aspect of the quest, from relevant interactions to the branching flows of conversations, to enemies we encounter, to locations we visit.

We then arrange these according to their relationships to each other. This is easy for a conversation where a binary choice will directly lead to one of two possible outcomes, but is more challenging when trying to isolate exactly which interactions will trigger or enable other, new interactions in other gameplay systems.

One I made earlier

I chose what many consider to be the game’s best side quest, A Towerful of Mice. In it, the player must break the curse gripping an island tower. As you can see in Figure 1, the mapping exercise leaves us with an extensive map of the quest’s information flow – too extensive, even, to print in full here. To make things clearer, I produced Figure 2, which is a simplified version of this quest’s possibility space focusing on the key information, while summarising everything else.

The details around pacing are particularly important here.

The first thing that stands out is the simplicity of the quest’s structure: the quest has an ‘A plot’ wherein the player breaks the curse, a ‘B plot’ which tells the story of the curse’s origin, and two outcomes, one which occurs more or less by default, and one which can occur if you engage with the optional content. And that’s it.

Everything to do with the A plot and some hooks in the B plot are on the yellow critical path (a term which means the shortest possible route from a mission’s start to finish), and the B plot is mostly in the white, optional paths.

Figure 2: It’s worth noting here that at the critical choice point, you can walk away, investigate, then return to make the better choice.

Of the two endings, both are tragic, but the most emotionally satisfying and harder to achieve one is simply designed. It’s the one where the player does the best job, by thoroughly investigating the tower and noticing inconsistencies in the cursed spectre’s testimony. Being a Witcher – a professional monster hunter – is a job.

If I were to map the whole the game out in the detail I have here, I’d find the same thing over and over: do the job properly, get better outcomes. This is an excellent example of good narrative design; the game is using better story outcomes to influence player behaviour.

Keep it simple

A useful takeaway here is how simple the process of unlocking that better ending is. The designers could have asked the player to interact with optional bits of content throughout the mission. Instead, the player only has to examine one optional object, which is highlighted and placed a few metres from the mission’s unavoidable critical path.

To unlock the possibility of a better ending, you just have to investigate thoroughly. The other optional content then reinforces the player’s suspicion of the spectre, and therefore their likelihood of correctly distrusting her at the crucial decision point.

Another bit of mastery: the player never knows when they’ve reached the crucial decision point. The dialogues are complex enough that any choice could be a deciding factor in which ending they get. In this example, the crucial decision point is whether you shrug and say “fine” to the ghost’s request, or whether you delay by saying, “Not sure I totally trust you…”. That’s it. From that tiny decision, the whole quest bifurcates, but the player would never know.

This is great game writing for two reasons. First, it means that the outcome feels like the result of all the player’s actions rather than one pivotal decision. It consequently makes the game seem extra-impressive, by tricking the player into believing there must be more outcomes than there really were. Secondly, it focuses the player. With no clear signal of whether a decision has large ramifications or not, they have to treat every decision as if it does.

Part of the genius of this quest is its isolation, allowing the writer more creative freedom with the fates of its characters.

I’ll end with a few thoughts about designing endings for interactive fiction generally, and particularly for short stories with few ‘true’ branching points. You’ll notice in Figure 2 that I’ve labelled the endings ‘best’ and ‘worst’ rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

This is because both endings here are sorrowful. If a player feels that they’ve definitely got the bad outcome, they’re going to feel annoyed at the game, possibly even reload an earlier checkpoint and try again, thus breaking the fiction’s illusion by allowing them to do some mental ‘mapping’ of their own. If the player gets an unambiguously happy ending, unless they’ve really earned it, they’re often going to feel pandered to, and are unlikely to increase their effort when playing future quests.

Bittersweet endings, meanwhile, are usually the most powerful. They leave us satisfied, but yearning for what could have been. And so it should be with quest endings, or interactive fiction endings generally. Your endings should only be subtly different from one another – slightly happier, slightly sadder, but not outright happy or sad.

There are a million aspects of quest design we could have explored here, but in the end, hopefully you’ve gotten something from the few I’ve had space for. Did I choose the best things to focus on? Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. But there’s enough good here that I’m going to live with my unique outcome, rather than start over. That’s bittersweet.

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