The game design nerd in me has always been excited about the theory-based reasons for making Eidolon, so I thought it’d be fun to share the “Rationale” section from our very first spec doc (edited a bit—Eidolon’s name in early development was actually ‘Nomad’). Prepare for some nerdy narrative design theory manifesto action!

Rationale For Eidolon:

There is a major schism right now in the way games tell stories. Old games, like Chess and Go, tell stories that arise purely from their rules, with minimal thematic dressing: players are told what they are allowed to do and what their goal is, and they construct captivating stories of struggle and competition through play. New, story heavy games on the other hand, like Mass Effect and Uncharted, try often to use more filmic methods of storytelling: players must complete a series of specific goals, usually in specific ways, and are rewarded with cinematic plot-progression.

These methods compete, and do not happily co-exist. Rule-based narrative design disallows direct authorial control over plot specifics, since it must be from the rules alone that players act. When an author steps in and tells a player what they can and cannot do, or precisely what they say, as often is the case in Mass Effect, the illusion that the player has control over their own character (within rule-prescribed limits) is shattered. And vis versa, in a game based on cinematic narrative progression, giving the player control over the actions of important characters can destroy the author’s characterizations; imagine, for instance, the Master Chief that tea-bags grunts on the battlefield, or shoots allied soldiers with impunity. Because of this competition between storytelling methods, many contemporary games’ narratives feel strained.

However, there is a third vein of storytelling, and this is where the gap between authorial and player control can be bridged (or, perhaps, severed). Authors are not restricted to writing the characters which appear in the game. They also write history, worlds, and themes. This is visible in games like Bioshock, where there are main characters who are dead by the beginning of the game, and whose stories are only told through diaries and other artefacts. It is also quite obvious in games like Magic: The Gathering, where the player’s actions are not so clearly linked to the rich lore of the world in which they supposedly take place. This kind of authorial control does not suffer from free play, and feels no need to restrain it. The players have control over their actions, and the authors over the stories that give those actions context.

The apparent failing of this severance is that it seems to make the author’s stories separate from and therefore irrelevant to gameplay, but this is not necessarily the case. For one thing, environment and world dressing serve to build thematic backgrounds that greatly inform the meaning of play. But perhaps more importantly, the history of a place needn’t be mere trivia, although in contemporary games it often is. In Bioshock, for instance, the aforementioned diaries exist as potential points of interest, but are not envisioned as essential to the overarching goal of the game. The overarching goal of the game is understood to be the completion of the cinematic story-arch, and this is the case in almost all modern, story-focused games. The backstories of these places are understood as relatively unimportant; thematic dressing only.

The point of Eidolon is to turn that convention on its head. Unlike most modern games, Eidolon’s overarching goal will be the collection, digestion, and understanding of a rich, authored history. The reason for continued play will not be the unveiling of a forward-pointing narrative, but a backward-pointing one. Because of this, the central, authored (hi)stories will be able to be more serious, believable, intense, and honest than otherwise. Additionally, the player’s own forward-pointing story will be able to be fully, satisfyingly rule-based, not arbitrarily limited by authorial intention.

September 9, 2013