Story Driven Design

I want to focus on a single concept, using Skyrim as a foundation. I’m not saying this is the way it should have been done, but a way that it could be done. It's an approach that I would like to use in my own games at some point.

Let’s imagine Skyrim as a collection of stories. There’s the story of the Thieves Guild, the College of Winterhold, the Imperial Legion, the Stormcloaks, the Dark Brotherhood, the Blades, and more. In Skyrim you play as the Dragonborn. You have the option to join any or all of these organizations.

I have a few issues with this approach. First, the time. There’s a sense of urgency throughout the game. Dragons are back and terrorizing the land. Alduin has returned with them to devour the world. And the Empire is fighting with the Stormcloaks over control of Skyrim.

But all that can wait. You can go off on side quests and complete missions for other people instead. And to make things worse, the war and the dragons don’t seem to be affecting anyone else in a major way.

You rarely, if ever, hear about dragons or the war when doing things for the thieves, or the college, or the assassins. Its like none of it is real. But when you consider the nature of the game, this isn’t surprising at all. When you can ignore everything else and go be an assassin, why should they mention dragons? They haven’t become a problem yet. Or you could have defeated Alduin and resolve the civil war first. It would be strange for anyone to mention those things if they’re not currently an issue.

This approach worked in Morrowind. But the game took a very different approach to its storytelling. You’re an ordinary person. There isn’t any impending calamity. Even the primary quest giver doesn’t force you into anything right away. He tells you to take your time. Go earn some money, and come back when you feel ready. And even then, the first quest is to retrieve a small box. If you ignore the main quest you can spend a hundred hours exploring Vvardenfell. There's no sense that the fate of the world is waiting on you. You’re an ordinary person becoming a hero.

But that doesn’t work in Skyrim. The game starts you off in mortal peril, forcing you into the role of the hero. You’re no longer in control of the story. The story is controlling you.

But I don’t think this is a bad thing. It actually presents a real opportunity for some brilliant storytelling. Skyrim isn’t a player-driven game, it’s a  story-driven. So let's embrace the idea. Let’s see what a story-driven Skyrim could look like.

The walls of Markarth Castle. Concept art by Adam Adamowicz.
The walls of Markarth Castle. Concept art by Adam Adamowicz.

A story-driven experience

There are two central storylines in Skyrim: the civil war and the return of the dragons. I say central because these affect everyone in the game’s world. So, as a story-driven game, everything has to revolve around these two things. The war started first, and the final fight with Alduin is a pretty good way to end the story, so we’ll organize it like that. The war must be resolved before the dragons are.

There’s also the stories for the different organizations. If we want to resolve the issue of urgency, the dragonborn needs to go off and be the hero. So no mages’ college, no Thieves Guild. The hero joins the blades and fights the dragons and has some roll to play in the civil war.

But that creates a new problem. That’s not an open world game at all. It's a normal roleplaying game with a linear story. Not what we want. What if the player wants to be a mage, or assassin? We could add those as side stories to the main quest. Let the player choose their class, and play through only those storylines that have to do with that class. We keep things moving while providing something to do outside of the main quest. But it seems absurd to force players to replay the whole game over and over to experience every story.

So we don’t do that. The hero’s purpose in the story is to fight in the war and slay dragons. Then what do we do about everything else?

It’s actually easy. If we don’t want the dragonborn to be a part of those stories, we make other characters who can. There’s no law saying we have to have only  one playable character, or that all of the characters have to stay together. You can play as a mage, and a thief, and assassin, and everything else. They’re all different characters in the same world.

This resolves another major issue. If we’re playing as different characters, then we can tie the stories together. Every story starts at the same point in time, and they all go toward the end of the war and the destruction of Alduin. How does the war affect each character? We can have the assassins take out key people on both sides of the war. We can have the thieves profiting from the confusion and destruction. We can employ the mages as healers in the camps. And as the dragons start showing up, we can tie them to the stories of each character as well. And as players, we get to experience all of this. We see the war and its effect from all sides. The war becomes the central theme, shared between stories.

And we can bring the characters together. Imagine a scenario where the thief has to steal a magical artifact guarded by the mage. This is a fantastic opportunity to utilize player choice. If the player chooses the thieves story first, they steal the artifact. Then as the mage, they see the consequences of that loss.

Alternatively, if the player chooses the mage, they protect the artifact. Later they experience how the thief suffers as a consequence of failure.

When we focus on these individual story lines, we can spend a lot more time developing each character. And the choices we make can be more meaningful. Through the eyes of others, we can see the consequences of our actions. Every item taken, every life saved, every battle won or lost.

Imagine another moment as the thief, where you break into a house and steal a bag of gold. But later, you get the option to play as an Imperial soldier. And the first thing that happens is a thief breaks into your house and steals your family’s money. To help your parents and siblings, you signs up for the legion, and you send your money back to your family.

We can have every character unlocked from the beginning. Or we can have some locked until certain events happen. Maybe we have some hidden characters that can only be accessed once certain tasks are complete. Short side stories that only take a few hours to complete. Or even just one hour. The tale of a bard wandering the world. Or the story of a woman who loses her home to dragon fire. All of these things help flesh out the world, and make it real for the player.

Nordic Ruins. Concept art by Adam Adamowicz.
Nordic Ruins. Concept art by Adam Adamowicz.

A brave new open world

It’s still an open world game. You still go everywhere, and you get to do everything. But you’re doing it as different people. It lets go of the pretense that one person can be and do everything.

It also allows the world to be connected. Before, there wasn’t any interaction between the different organizations in the game. The war, despite being a central plot for the game, wasn’t more than a side note. But with this structure, it actually opens up the game to be far more meaningful. The war matters. People matter. Your choices matter. Actions you make across every character affect the ultimate outcome of the war. It’s no longer a case of “We have the dragonborn, so we win.” The player might not even get to “choose” who wins. They, like everyone else, have to do the best they can.

It may appear to be more confined, but that’s only because the lines are clearly drawn. In Skyrim, those lines already exist. By acknowledging these lines, we aren’t limiting the game. We’re actually expanding it. Once you know the rules, you can start to break them. And once you know where the lines are, you can start to cross them.