Co-op Storylines


It might not be that apparent, but storytelling used to be a very interactive phenomenon. Dig a bit into its roots, and you’ll find plenty of examples/evidence.


From the Neverwinter Nights website, one of the tutorials on how to use the DM/GM tool.

Interactive storytelling in videogames, though, is a bit different. Aside from Neverwinter Nights attempting to simulate a Game Master‘s campaign, the typical arrangement is to have the player(s) progress through a predefined arc. If no arc exists, then the game is usually devoid of any real plot. Many simulation games take this approach with few pre-determined goals and no real characters, drama, or concrete story-structure. The player has little to empathize with, and the game is excused as being tool for the story itself, i.e., the player creates whatever story he desires in his own head. This might work very well for gameplay, but it tends to force the player into becoming the sole storyteller and audience, which isn’t as universally appealing.

Of course I’m also a bit biased as I prefer finely crafted, authoritative stories. These afford little room for changing major plot points, but the minor details can still be left up to the player. For example, in the grand scheme of things, it makes little difference if the player takes a bus or a taxi to the villain’s lair as long as the villain’s identity is not variable. Change too many significant plot points such as that one, though, and the story begins to lose its cohesiveness. The player becomes aware that there is no “true” plotline, and he starts transitioning from the role of the audience to that of a storyteller who’s not really in control.


When I was a kid, the noncanonical "What...if?" series were something of a guilty pleasure for me.

It’s a very gray area, and some people still enjoy an enormous amount of narrative freedom, but I find that it dilutes things as a whole. Instead, I prefer story-driven games to give me a large amount of gameplay freedom without presenting me with grand, “what-if” scenarios.

This has been a pretty popular approach in games, with some pulling it off better than others, but I haven’t really seen in done in any cooperative titles. Granted the popularity of co-op is fairly recent, and it’s a concept that’s still very rough around the edges, e.g., duplicate collectibles, constant teleporting to fit cutscenes, respawning glitches associated with trigger spots, etc. Despite these gameplay issues — and, in a way, as a possible solution to some of them — I’ve been mulling over a game that would combine a preset plotline with multiple human players. The idea behind it is to abandon the “single decider” role and make every character a part of the story, giving each one power to affect it.

A good destination for grafting this concept might be a Brothers In Arms type game.

Now imagine you and your friends as a group of Allied soldiers sent into enemy territory on a vital mission. Obviously you want to keep each other alive and fight as a well-oiled machine, but you also need to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Here’s where each of the players begins to have an individual impact as the squad itself is punished and rewarded as a whole.

Let’s also assume that each player takes on a role of a specific character. The Staff Sergeant roughly plots the route of advancement, the logistics officer decides on the mode of transportation, while the translator is tasked with negotiating with the locals to acquire the necessary vehicle.

In addition to purely gameplay oriented aspects, though, this can extend to the plotline itself.


Although it was quite good in parts, Brothers in Arms failed to be the videogame version of Band of Brothers. Maybe the characters just didn't get enough screen-time?

Upon reaching their destination, the squad kidnaps a renowned scientist that’s notorious for conducting experiments on war prisoners. One of the characters despises him based on his past experience with liberating concentration camps, and wants to kill him right there and then. Another one of the troops, though, had his family snatched away by enemy forces, and the scientist promises to divulge information about his loved ones if he’s allowed to escape.

What would make this even more interesting is if these choices were (at least sometimes) presented each player in secret, ensuring that his companions were unaware of such pivotal moments. This could create a very intimate bond between each player and the game’s story, and make each one feel like a big part of it.

Now these kinds of choices would be difficult to balance for everyone involved, but they would make for a drastically more immersive experience. What’s more, they could also enhance the single-player mode with more human characters that don’t just act as obedient automatons. Instead, they could base their decisions on the player’s actions, with some randomization thrown in for good measure.

Group participation has been tinkered with a bit in MMOs, but those games tend to be stories of each player’s character, and group events usually boil down to fighting a big and powerful monster. There’s a lot more possibilities beyond just that, though, and I’m curious if any of these AAA games that laud their co-op campaigns will risk exploring them.

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  1. #1 by Dan on June 30, 2009 - 9:58 pm

    You have some interesting points. Considering how gong-ho companies are about pushing co-op as their game’s selling points, it’d be nice if they evolved its implementation a little bit.

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