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What Makes A Good Game – Story

By on November 28th, 2011 10:08 am

Before I begin on my next work, I want to thank everyone who has been reading my articles and making comments on them. It is great that my articles are being well received and spurring discussion on the site. I am a huge fan of Space Sector and anything I can do to improve the site is a win in my book!

Since my progression post, I have received two requests for articles: story line’s in 4X games and UI. I have decided to go with the story line for 4X’s request first. I have been thinking and discussing with my testers the story line for my 4X game. Now, we all have preferences, ideas and opinions on what makes a good story so keep that in mind when you read the following. Not all games require a story line.

Stories in Games

A story in a game is an important tool for the developer. It gives the developer the means to create emotion (through events, characters, settings, history, etc), a way to share the lore of their game universe and a way to present a point(ie: moral). Emotion can be used to draw and keep the player engaged with the game. Humans are emotional creatures and by “exploiting” (pun intended) this, the developer can really capture their audience. Interest in the lore will keep player’s involved in game – even when they aren’t playing.

I feel that a well fleshed out game universe and lore really help with the story line. The lore of the game gives the story line a solid back bone. It makes the story more believable: a world exists outside of the story. If the world seems believable to the player, they will be able to become drawn more into the story. And this is good because they keep playing!

Bioware and Blizzard are well known for their ability to make games with good stories. How many times have we hit the internet to try and find more information for that particular game/story line? How much additional background of the world did we try to find? I’ve spent hours pouring over the internet for various games trying, yearning, and looking for more information because I felt the story and universe in a game was so engaging – I couldn’t help myself. Or while reading a good book, it just wasn’t possible to stop until that last page was read?

It isn’t Easy Being Green…

Unfortunately, most game developer’s aren’t world renowned authors. As mentioned in my first post: What makes a good game – Immersion, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in making a game that is strictly technical work. The challenges of technically designing and implementing a game are great. The challenges of integrating a polished story line complete with well written dialog (which is not trivial to write well), character graphics and animations, maybe some voice overs for those special moments, and…well I hope you get the point. It isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap.

Stories in 4X Games

So I’m not surprised that 4X games usually don’t have the story line the focal point. Examining 4X games in more detail presents another problem. The general nature of 4X games is a complex sandbox (or openness) atmosphere.

Most of the 4X game is built on giving the player freedom to do whatever they want and move in whatever direction they please. This causes major issues with the traditional (RPG: linear, tightly controlled) story telling mechanism because the player just has simply too much freedom. It is harder to design a system that allows a player to do as they please while still keeping the story moving.

The main issue is accurately keeping track of the state of the player. Is what should happen the right thing for the current state the player is in? RPGs use a combination of a leveling system and world access control (can only access certain parts of the world at a certain time). These ensure the player is in the right spot for the story.

But for 4X games, as a developer, how do you truly know what state the player is in? How many star systems do they have? How many ships? What technologies? And so on and so forth. The more complex systems that are present, the more questions that must be answered. Thus, the difficulty increases.

4X games are usually much more complex than RPGs in terms of their systems and as one can imagine, that complicates the matter even further. Yes, a system can be written to determine the state of the player and then act accordingly, but that is certainty no trivial task to complete. In addition, the story itself has to make sense with this scaling system, which also isn’t easy as indicated above. As you can see, I don’t really have the answers but I will try to find them. I’ll let you know how I end up :)

Is Story Essential in 4X Games?

Is a story essential? I would have to say no, as the previous 4X games have generally done quite well with some solid background lore (Master of Orion 2 for example) and some general and basic story lines. On top of that, many of the reasons why some of us play these games is not particularly for the story. However, I feel that the next 4X game that does a very nice job in incorporating a solid story, but keeps the sand box atmosphere, will have a pretty darned successful game on their hands. I know I’ll be playing it.

Yet Another Example…

I’d like to provide another example how I achieved the above, once more, with my MUD: A Tempest Season. The setting was high fantasy and I developed, with my partner, extensive lore, which was available to the players. One of the players was a magic user. He became so involved in the lore and story of the game, he was able to use it to publish essays on magic. I was astounded when I read them as they were so accurate and made sense with the lore. In addition, he was able to solve many staff ran quests that were based on a magical nature. This is a great example of drawing in a player and having them become emotionally attached and engaged in the lore and story of the game.

The End

Thanks for reading my article. I look forward to reading the comments and seeing what thoughts you all have on story lines. For my next article, I am planning to talk about the UI and this will be a more technical pieces than my previous ones.

dayrinni has been a Space Sector contributor since October 2011. This is his first foray into writing articles for any review site. He is an avid gamer in the genres of 4X, Strategy, MMO’s and RPGs. Finally, he has been the implementor of several MUDs and is currently working on a 4X space game that offers large scope and complexity. See all dayrinni’s posts here.

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  1. Ermdog says:

    Good topic, because Story is really one of the weak points in many, if not all, 4x games. This is a riddle that has not really been solved, and when it does, it will definitely be a game to play by many.

    As you stated above, the problem with 4x games is that we have too much freedom. We are in control of our race, our entire empire. We don’t have a system where it carries you from one thing to the next, telling you the story as you go. That would obviously put a limit to what you can do.

    It is really hard to think of a system that can implement good lore while still being a 4x game. The way that 4x games are played, its extremely difficult to add a good story a player can follow, while keeping the basics of the game unchanged. I believe in order to pursue a good story, major changes have to be made to the way the game is designed and played.

    I think most people want to play a 4x game because of the way it’s played, sandbox style. That’s why they are popular in the first place, it’s the way they are played and the freedoms you have. If a story is going to interrupt the way the sandbox style is, then I think a lot of people won’t bother. GalCiv2 had a campaign/story mode, but it was more tedious then anything. It felt unnatural playing a campaign, where things were already set in stone and you were limited to what you can do, then to have the randomness and full experience of the game.

    I keep trying to find a way how Lore can co-exist with the way 4x games are played and not interrupt the way its played, but can not come up with a solution. The great thing about sandbox mode is you get all the freedoms to do what you want. I don’t think a ‘good’ story and the freedoms we enjoy can co-exist without major changes.

    All in all, I just don’t see it happening without interrupting the way Sandbox mode is played. If you want a good story I believe you would lose a lot of freedoms that we enjoy now. A totally different way of playing would have to be implemented if involving a deep story I believe.

    This is all I can think of as of now, it was extremely hard to figure out a solution, but something may come up in the future

    • dayrinni says:

      Your point on sandbox styles is important. A great example are MMORPGs: There are Theme Park(rigid guidelines/less free/”on rails”/etc) and then Sandbox. Most of the more successful (WoW, EQ, etc) are theme park games. Sandbox games such as SWG and Shadowbane weren’t very successful (EVE is though). So, generally, the majority of players of MMORPGs mostly prefer Theme Park games. I agree on your point – I think the opposite is true for 4X games. Which is probably why no one has really spent a lot of time injecting story into this genre. Perhaps(with great certainty I say this), the creators themselves, didn’t care that much for story and focused mostly on the sandbox nature of the game.

      Again, I agree, for the most part, that injecting a good story will most likely interrupt the Sandbox nature of the game.

      Thanks for your reply, it was fantastic!

  2. Adam Solo says:

    I agree with both of you, dayrinni and Ermdog. So true. Storyline, campaigns and 4X games (to keep on the topic, since story is indeed possible in pure RTS games) really don’t seem to mix together. At least not to a good degree.

    The only 4X game I can come up that really has a story is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. The native life of Chiron (SMAC’s planet where the story unfolds) consists primarily of simple wormlike aliens and a type of red fungus. The natives seem to have a plan to deal with “us”. We have our plan also. The complete plot can be found here:'s_Alpha_Centauri

    So, it’s possible, but as we can see only when there are tighter boundaries. In SMAC there are no other star systems or planets to colonize, there’s only 1 planet where all the action takes place.

    So, in large scale 4X space strategy games it seems rather difficult to succeed in mixing both story and game openness. The concepts seem to be contradictory. Not that it couldn’t be done, but as dayrinni said it would take huge amounts of hard work to come up with a dynamic and balanced system that could accommodate some kind of dynamic storyline that would fit with the player’s actions.

    I would say that story in 4X games is possible but perhaps only at the level of background story, and lore. There could (should) be elements of lore as much as possible, such as myths, legends, habits, different cultures, fairy tales, beliefs and traditions. This can (and is normally achieved) with the different playable (and non-playable) races background.

    There can (should) also be galaxy events (random if possible) and perhaps minor plots like the coming of a super race, or the need to combine all the galaxy efforts to stop some kind of menace. The problem of this is that these story elements become repetitive in next games, and 4X gamers do love to replay so the devs would need to come up with a substantial amount of variations and perhaps some degree of randomness to allow these events and plots to always feel fresh. Sounds like a lot of work, but the payoff would be great I think.

    Master of Orion 2 and Distant Worlds do manage to include nice background story and lore (the MoO2’s Antarans and DW’s Shakturi), among many other titles like Sword of the Stars and Sins of a Solar Empire that feature very cool races and rather complex background stories.

    And I agree. Who wants to play campaigns in 4X games? In GalCiv2 I acted like they were not even there. I can’t stand scenarios with precise goals and a pre-existing setting. The reason we play 4X games (at least me) is to have freedom to develop our personal galactic empire and take pleasure from it. Why da hell do we need others to tell us how we should play our game and how we should manage our galactic empires?

    RTS games like Homeworld and Starcraft do have powerful stories indeed. Again because progression is more linear. The problem seems to be really with 4X games (if there is a problem at all that is).

    If thinking and brainstorming in this topic (story in space strategy games) is worth it? I personally believe it is by the reasons dayrinni presented alone.

    Is it possible to design 4X game campaigns that don’t feel like playing others game? Hard to answer without further thinking.

    Great post dayrinni, as always. They always bring new ideas and pertinent topics to the discussion table. Keep them coming.

  3. Zeraan says:

    Imperium Galactica 1 anyone? It has a story that you follow, and as you progress, it unlocks more technologies and more area for you to manage. Eventually it unlocked the whole galaxy.

    However, the problem is that the “story” is isolated from events in the galaxy, and if you don’t finish the story part quickly, you’ll discover that the Garthogs has taken over all the planets outside your “story” bubble.

    In order to have a “story”, you’ll need scripted events that help move the story along, as well as some imbalanced races (imbalanced in that they start off on a better footing than you, such as multiple systems or massive fleets). A normal 4X game don’t have those.

    Perhaps if we do something similar to how the Elder Scrolls do it. You have a story that you could progress (maybe a per-race story?), or you can just ignore it and do whatever you want.

    For example, if we have a story about Humans looking for the legendary Atlantis, we will have to research certain technologies, take over certain planets, etc. Or we can just conquer the whole galaxy.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, taking the Elder Scrolls example of main quests and side quests (the later that you do if you want) sounds like a good mindset to explore. So, basically the 4X game can still be open but there would be side quests (attack a legendary monster somewhere, conquer a certain civilization, explore a difficult part of the galaxy, etc) that you embark for special techs (not usually unlockable through normal ways), money, experience or whatever. The problem is the main quest. I think that is the real problem we are all debating. How can a 4X sand-box game still feature a main quest with a meaningful story?

      You talk about scripted events and “inbalanced races”, like precursors, the galaxy big boys, it could be a way to go I guess. But you didn’t explore your idea much so I don’t know where that would lead exactly.

      Let’s do a little (and quick I hope) exercise. A reverse exercise. Star Wars has extensive lore, background story and also a main storyline. What would take to make a Star Wars 4X game in the clone wars era? (Let’s exclude SW Rebellion just for now). You could choose between the Empire, the Rebellion and possibly between other couple major factions. The Huts come to mind. You start with a single or few systems. I guess that if you join the Empire you start big but eventually you’ll have a hard time with increasing and increasing Rebellion raids and assaults, as for difficult management of the empire due to corruption and huge size. If you choose the Rebellion you’ll start small but you’ll have cunning warriors, a cause, motivation and other bonuses. Eventually you start attracting more systems to your cause, and colonizing new ones. If you play with the Huts you’re in for a more sneaking, pirate type, merchant, trade kind of game. Your objective is to grow in size and influence to a point where you end-up running the show. Could this be turned into a 4X space game? Would Star Wars: Empire At War be close to this?

      I don’t see why not. I don’t see written anywhere (certainly not in my neck of the woods) that 4X games have to be soulless and open. It’s the way they generally are (and people do enjoy them like that for sure making stuff up as they go) but that’s certainly not a requirement. And as there are no games with complex background stories and storyline plots we don’t know if it wouldn’t work. I guess it has not been tried that’s the problem. Coming up with a solid and good 4X game is one thing, coming up with one with a great story is 2 things = more money and more time.

      Remember that most (if not all) 4X games are not really sandbox. Sandbox games stand for games without clear goals, which is certainly not the case in 4X games where you usually do have objectives (time, dominance, influence or specific goals p/race in cases like DW Legends or Armada 2526).

      I guess that what’s missing is just storyline and a good plot to work (like in the Stars Wars example above) you necessarily need to have distinct races that play very differently from each other. Each will have different goals which makes the events storyline very different. If you play with the Empire the story starts the same as for the other factions but ends with subjugation and fear, if you play with the Rebellion another end unfolds, possibly a Death Star is destroyed :) and with the Huts even a different one, maybe Jabba the Hut or an associate have dominance over the galaxy. All happens in the same background story, in the same world with the same lore but the story, the plot turns out to be different depending with each race you play.

      Maybe this is what’s missing in a next generation of 4X games, different races with really different play styles, not just skins with the same mechanics. This takes a lot of work. And making all this non-linear, i.e. in a way that events unfold differently every time you play is even harder. But if you can make a 4X game with sufficiently detailed and distinct races each one with a different play styles, quests, technologies, ships, etc you may have the ticket for a great new 4X game. But this takes time and possibly lots of more money to come to life. And the good franchises are IP owned by the big sharks like Lucas Arts. I guess we just need more story tellers to fall in love with 4X games :)

  4. Zeraan says:

    For that kind of story to be successful, we’ll have to change the mindset of playing a 4x game. Rather than the standard “conquer the galaxy”, you can keep on playing in an interactive galaxy, similar to Elder Scrolls (even if you beat the game, you can reload your save then do other stuff), and the focus is on empire management, not war.

    Perhaps instead of the classic start conditions (everyone have 1 homeworld), you can load a scenario, similar to SimCity 2000’s scenarios, and just manage things from there. Or have it randomly generate a living galaxy where basically most planets are already colonized, and most empires are at peace with each other. They don’t really need to grab territories, but they do want to have their empire flourish and thrive, as well as try to accomplish their “main quest”. If they do succeed in accomplishing their main quest, it don’t really impact you, unless it involves your empire (taking over a planet or something).

    You manage an empire by focusing on trading, fending off pirates, acquiring new technologies that helps the economy (less emphasis on fighting, and more on macroeconomics), and other stuff.

    Perhaps if we adopt a style similar to Castles 2: Siege and Conquest, where you set tasks, and allocate your resources to those tasks (for example, attacking an land requires you to set a task for it, then allocate military resources to it, then it will prompt you when it’s ready to attack). Then you can do various tasks such as establishing a trade for a particular resource, spying, invasion (invading don’t require you to move your fleets around, it just requires you to have a fleet, and a “preparation” stage when done, it actually invades), diplomacy, etc.

    Planets could be managed similar to SimCity, where you lay out zones, but in order to have them actually develop, you’d need to allocate your economy resources to developing that planet’s zones, similar to Castles 2 where you lay out the foundations of the castle, then order people to build it.

    Then in that style, stories can flourish, sidequests that you can tackle, and the main “victory” that you pursue. Maybe I can try and create a game similar to that… A sequel to Beyond Beyaan perhaps? :) First I gotta finish Beyond Beyaan :P

  5. Ermdog says:

    Good points. My definition of Sandbox was a single player game with personal objectives or victory objectives, but that’s neither here or there.

    Yes, I do believe that stories can exist in 4x games, but as Adam said, maybe only as far as a Background story. As much as I would want a deep, rich storyline to follow, like Starcraft or Warcraft, it would change the way 4x games are played.

    One game that I have recently played, that is somewhat similar to what we are trying to achieve, is Eve Online. It’s an Action Space MMO with a little 4x sprinkled on it. It has a very well detailed background with different races to pick from and a storyline that takes you through the game. You are one person that belongs to your empire and you pilot ships across a huge, and i mean huge galaxy. You go from different systems collecting quests, and after so many quests are done, there will be a storyline quest that you can do. So you can do whatever you want, and still be involved with a storyline. You can build mining stations, ships, weapons, ammo, and even build your own starbase. Now the only bad thing is, it’s not a true 4x game.

    My biggest issue is keeping the way a 4x game is played, without changing much to involve a story. The scripted events are nice, but as stated above, there would need to be a ton of them in order for it not to get repetitive. In DW Legends, I see many of the same events pop up and it gets old fast.

    It all comes down to how much detail and depth we want the story to be. Background stories will work fine with any 4x game, but if we want to really get involved in a story we would have to make changes to the game.

    Starcraft and Warcraft III worked great, and they are both a RTS game, but its on a smaller scale as 4x games. Maybe that is the key to involving story, is to make is simplistic and on a smaller scale (at least to start off with). Almost like Sins of a Solar Empire because its an RTS and is more simplistic than other 4x games. I think if you take SOSE, and make it like Starcraft, where you have missions you have to complete, then once you complete the mission you have your cut scenes with all the lore. It would have to be a campaign mode on it’s own, but I think it could work with a game like Sins.

    • dayrinni says:

      On your comments about having scripted events – I agree. There would simply need to be a large amount of them, that lead to various endings/situations OR a series of events that lead to the same place. Either way, these have their faults:
      1. Many events leading to different endings: A LOT of work.
      2. “Many” (less than 1) leading to the same ending: Less work, but the player already knows the end destination.

      Another important point is that generally, in a RPG story, there is an ending and the player is meant to get there (and easily does). This isn’t always the case in 4X – my empires get crushed quite often!! So there is the large risk of the player simply losing the game before the story is finished. Some people may think this is alright, while others not sure. This problem is GREATLY magnified if the story is scripted and/or is repetitious and the player tries again. The story quickly loses it’s luster.

      Not easy for sure.

  6. Adam Solo says:

    Blizzard may be on the extreme but they sure know how lore is important to captivate players.

  7. Fernando Rey says:

    I am extremely glad this is being debated, to me story is the weakest point of the genre and frankly I don’t know quite how to tackle it yet. That’s why I suggested this topic for an article in the previous one. I’ve read all the posts and there is really little to say on the subject after so many great ideas, but I would like to focus on one last thing; game play driven story generation. What I mean by that is that in my opinion, story in 4x games should not be scripted/guided/tailored/etc at all, it should be generated by the player through his or her actions/inactions.

    One of the most fun aspects of playing an 4x title is to have an After Action Report(AAR) written. either during or after the current game; if we could somehow make each playthrough different enough and generate story content(what, where, who and when), an actual AAR could be automatically generated. Hell you could even generate an Encyclopedia of a given galaxy/sector at the end of the game, when nothing else will change any further, and that would be quite fun to read as well; while providing a living history of the game you just played.

    I am working on a 4X tittle, basically for love of the genre only, and one of the things I aim to implement is precisely that; an automatic AAR system, which has enough “flavor”, to actually tell a story as you play the game basically. But as it has been pointed out here, such a system is extremely complex to design and implement; as the amount of variables present, giving the genre basics and the freedom the player experiences, is gigantic. It is quite a daunting task, nevertheless I am determined to at least try to tackle it.

    Part of me would love a little game 4X game with some deep story elements, but it’s not really what I think it’s actually best; regardless if I think the actual story is great or not. I am surprised no one mentioned Reunion though, I think that’s the most story driven 4X game ever developed; even more dependent on story than IG. I would love to get a remake of that game actually, although it may not make much sense, since I am using my opportunity to develop a 4x game; on something actually much more “traditional” than Reunion.

    • Adam Solo says:

      So, as I understand the AAR would contain the storyline of events in a more read-friendly way than reading the actual game’s event history log. Instead of having a list of events such as “Colonized planet A”; “Signed peace treaty with race X”; “Built a mining station in asteroid C”, “Sabotaged a starbase construction in alien race Y’s homeworld” you would have more a narration with more stuff in it like star dates, lore, etc. Sounds like a lot of fun to read that.

      But again the player is not experiencing the story as he’s playing but only play now, read later.

      I think many has been said, I would just add that what’s probably needed is excellent background story and lore. The main story we create ourselves. But let’s keep our minds open on this topic since it’s important to keep innovating and pushing the genre further and further.

      • Fernando Rey says:

        Yes, that’s basically what I meant. My hope is that all that, combined with random events and some big quest-like events, will make the player fell he/she is actually shaping the galaxy/sector and thus creating his/her own story. The AAR is the ultimate product of that experience. Down the line, I am talking about after I get this done(if I ever do :S ), it would be cool to start a new game that takes place thousands of “years”; after the events of an AAR. Imagine having the lore of a previous game, give shape to a new game; it would be like if the equivalent of B5s’ Shadowns and Vorlons were actually the species you previously played with. That in my opinion would be very cool, but as often happens with all things cool, much too difficult to implement.

  8. Ermdog says:

    Very interesting Fernando, that is something that could work out well

    All in all though, as stated above, I think story is something that can be put on the back burner for 4x games since it’s not really demanded. That’s not to say it won’t be great with good lore.

  9. ZigZag says:

    @Adam There’s an article on RTS Guru that uses the example that you mentioned earlier in the thread.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Yes, I’ve read it. I generally agree with the article op and I also commented there. Coincidently dayrinni also wrote this post now, more or less at the same time as that one which puts story discussion in grand strategy space games at the top of the agenda.

      To my knowledge the two posts being written now more or less at the same time is mere coincidence since dayrinni has this topic planed for quite some time I think, which is funny :) It seems that it’s not only us here that feel this need.

      • zigzag says:

        @Adam To be honest, I only skimmed the article. :)
        As an old-school Star Wars fan, I couldn’t take the author seriously after “How great would it be to be able to re-enact the epic Mandalorian war that preluded the Knights of the Old Republic series…”
        Anyhow, I think that a 4x game set in a pre-established fiction would have a tremendous storytelling advantage over any 4x game that created its own backstory. It would be able to get away with much more abstraction since players would already have an appreciation for — and could therefore readily imagine — what was being abstracted away.

      • dayrinni says:

        Haha – funny how the world works with timing. I did skim the article and I’m going to re-read it again.

  10. Larry says:

    I think Fernando has a good idea. Let the game tell the story.

    It seems like we often think of stories as these orchestrations by an author who has control over every detail, but I think maybe the best stories are the ones life tells.

    We all know of memorable stories that are inspired by real events. For me, the two that come readily to mind are two of my favorite movies: Goodfellas and Casino.

    I think even good original stories benefit from verisimilitude (truthlikeness). I think a good story avoids disbelief. We all know of stories where we have thought that a character would never act or an event would never occur the way the storyteller told us.

    I think a good story appeals to us somehow. I think when we believe a story, I think we experience it. It’s fun when the good guy wins. Antagonists hurt us as much as the protagonists.

    I think we could benefit by capturing verisimilitude. Let the game tell the story. We have agents, a setting, and conflict. If we let the game tell the story then our job would no longer be creating a story, but creating the polish, the entertainment.

    The creators of stories inspired by true events often take liberties to make stories more appealing. We could read a history book if we were just interested in the facts. We need polish so that the stories entertain us.

    A turn event summary isn’t a story, and I think dramatizations of events constructed after the game don’t contribute to the gameplay experience. I think we need to polish the presentation of what happens in the game. What should we shape the experience into, and how do we accomplish that?

    I am having trouble answering those questions, but I think a good place to start searching for the answers is to figure out why stories entertain us and how to present events in a storylike manner.

    It’s something I look forward to tackling. I’m a fan of the genre and I would like to make my own game.

    • Fernando Rey says:

      One of the ways I think can tell a story in 4X game, is by providing some basic back story for space combat for example. Maybe a little cinematic cut scene before the battle, like radio chatter and early warning systems going off; with the alarms going on as the enemy ships show up in the system. This could get repetitive after the Nth battle, but if it’s optional and has some variations; it should be ok. The entry on the log should also have flavor, like using prose to briefly describe the battle; as it actually happened. Something about fleet sizes, admirals and who won could be enough.

      Another thing would be to for example have events tied to preconditions set by your actions. For example you could get an event of a rising opposition leader on a conquered planet, he/she/it is the son of the last ruler; which you let live after taking over the planet. The options would be to leave it be, assassinate him or give into his demands for example. Ideally(what I am for at least) every decision you take would have it’s consequences later on and all would go into the encyclopedia, to effectively create a lore background for your game as you play. However the decision trees can get enormous quite fast there, so coding all that would certainly take a while.

      Regarding the actual presentation of the story, I think the best way is to use both text and audio. It’s much better to have the story read to you than to read it yourself, if Star Wars: The Old Republic(SWTOR) has taught me anything during the best, is that stories are transmitted much better verbally. The problem with this is that you need for all text to be dynamically generated, so even when there are libraries/frameworks that can verbalize whatever text you generate, I have yet found one that works with the technology I use(for all platforms). So sadly this is something I pretty much know, won’t be able to include.

    • Larry says:

      This reminds me of when I was playing Master of Orion 3.

      Master of Orion 3 is a flawed game, but for me the backstory was very compelling. It is one of the few games where I have actually read the game encyclopedia.

      In particular I remember the Ethereans. They were species that lived on gas giant planets. One of the prominent portions of their backstory is that they were pretty friendly with other species until the other species started developing gas giant terraforming technology. The Ethereans had to learn to compete with other species to survive.

      They developed sabotage skills. As soon as they got wind (pun intended) that another species was developing gas giant terraforming technology, they would send out saboteurs to destroy that knowledge and technology.

      The problem was that the character of these species didn’t make it into the game. I never payed attention to whether or not I was encroaching on the Etherian species when I colonized gas giants, and I never paid attention to my diplomatic relations with the Etherians. I never noticed Etherian sabatoge efforts while I was researching terraforming or colonizing gas giants.

      I would have liked nothing more than to have a mutually beneficial relationship with the Etherian species and to have fostered and protected their habitation of gas giants. It’s just that the game never let me do that.

      Yes Master of Orion 3 had diplomacy, but one of the major flaws that has been mentioned in criticisms is that relationship reports never detail the specific causes for changes, or even which turn the causes occurred on.

      I think the problem is further compounded because it seems to me like there is a general attitude that because multiplayer is the bread and butter of 4x games, the a.i. can’t provide an equally compelling experience and therefore deserves less attention.

      I’d like to see that change. I’d like a.i. empires to be characters rather than filler. I think a few games have good ideas in this direction, but I don’t think they have gotten it just right. I’m fond of multi-species empires, and I think reverse engineering alien technology could be spiced up by having to interact with the alien empire to accomplish reverse engineering. I’d also like to see empires have values and goals and express and pursue their interests via diplomatic interaction.

      P.S. Sword of the Stars and Distant Worlds are two other games that seem to have a larger volume of lore than most games of the same kind.

      • Adam Solo says:

        Completely agree with the need for species to have more character. After all that has been said I think that’s probably the way to go to increase story elements in 4X games and not the pursuit for plot/storyline. SMAC had this kind of lore on the different factions if I recall correctly (or at least backstory). Well, in fact SMAC even had a plot. The factions did looked and behaved differently, and the native organisms on SMAC’s planet had “a plan” for us.

        I agree with Distant Worlds and Sword of the Stars having a minimal amount of lore. Species have an intricate past where some of them even share a common past and present (in the case of SotS2 that seems to be the case with the interesting fusion of factions).

      • Fernando Rey says:

        Regarding species character, I would like to see a game implement a mechanism in which all species are custom; there are no pre-set species but the customization options are so deep that can generate a species lore on the fly. For example you could start with some basic stats, like breathable atmosphere and “animal class”, branching out into more complicated things such as religious bodies; with all that defined(with a set domain of values), one could actually generate random species with a defined lore.

        I have implemented something like this, but it still very basic; although I am sure all I’ve mentioned is totally doable with time. The only thing that worries me really, is generating the description in natural language; specially if you want the test to be localized. Nevertheless the end result would be kinda great, you would have a deep lore for each species and they would never be alike; each game you would have new species, with different governments, origins, etc. I only say this because, although GCII custom species system was quite complete, they really didn’t feel like the stock species and one could actually get bored quite quickly with just the stock species in game. Plus it’s kinda silly to have the same species in what are supposedly different sectors of the galaxy.

        • Adam Solo says:

          “I would like to see a game implement a mechanism in which all species are custom; there are no pre-set species but the customization options are so deep that can generate a species lore on the fly.”
          Sooo needed. I think the best in that aspect is still MoO2, if I recall correctly.

  11. Gavin says:

    Hi everybody – as a fan of 4X games and good stories, I would like to point to a problem, many of you seems to be unaware of:

    Good stories are about people – about believable persons (wether they have humanoid body or tentacles) and about your emotional relations to them. Basicaly, the story is as good, as it can make you ‘care for’ or ‘hate’ its protagonists.

    Past and present nature of 4X games is devoid of believable interaction with individuals – it’s focus is empire management, not social life of Emperor. You cannot consort with your beloved family, with shady ambasadors, loyal (or trecherous) admirals, corrupt lords and mayors, trusted bodyguards, brave heroes… and so on. You cannot talk with them, elevate them, throw them to disgrace (or let them be thrown through airlock), you cannot be personaly harmed by treason of former friend and assasination of your daughter, that were just to wed a fine noble, whom your domestic oposition strongly disapproved of.

    Only things like these can, in my opinion, make a strong, good story. Interesting and detailed background lore can help, but it does not make good present story all alone. It can just retell past – set in the stone – stories.

    Player with enough imagination can occasionally ‘invent’ part of such a story himself – I for example treasure memmory of brave man and women of cruiser Indominable, who, while exploring far reaches of galaxy, were ambushed by score of 21 destroyers of previously unknown hostile race. With not enough speed to disengage, they valiantly fought – and against all odds, they emerged victorious, but at a huge price, suffering 85% cassualities. They kept the battered wreck of the ship barely operational for next several months and returned with the news to frontier port of my empire.

    (True story, Space Empires V)

    Was it possible, i would have promoted the survivors, made them heroes of Empire, shepher their careers and so on. Probably, in the process, gained few quality loyal followers. Since I was just playing 4X game, I’ve only repaired the ship, amassed army and utterly crushed the guilty empire. (Well, I’ve at least made Indominable flagship of the invasion fleet)

    My final point is – unless and until there is found brave game desinger soul, that can somehow invent and implement believable ‘social layer’ of fleshed-out persons directly interacting with Emperor to the 4X games – making it probably 5X game in the process (with 5th X standing probably for express), the effort invested in ‘scripted story’ will always set strict limits on both scope and believability of 4X games.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Great read, thanks Gavin!

      You have a point indeed. People. But more importantly, Characters. You can have 1 billion people in a space colony but you don’t know them, you didn’t share their hurdles, so you can identify with them and there’s no story. I think you’re probably right.

      Yes, there are people that “invent” stories in their worlds, but I have a feeling that these are not the majority of the 4X consumers.

      But perhaps it’s not only about stories about people of the “royal court” but perhaps we can evolve the 4X social aspects in other areas. For example, advisors, leaders and alien embassadors.

      Advisors. Usually they are not more than a static image that dumps you some uninteresting text, that many times you don’t give a damn. Perhaps we could make them more “present”. “Flesh and blood” characters that you could consult, that would give you a bit more valuable info and that you could even interact with. Perhaps even socially. Going to the bar or something. Am I going too far? :) Perhaps … It was just a thought.

      Leaders. This one is more obvious. Leaders have been tried in the past with much success (but the system has a lot of room for improvement). In Master of Orion 2 and Distant Worlds Legends (at least). And on late Civ games to some extent with the military leaders (but that counts little for this topic). If we would put some more flesh to the leaders, make them more interesting, perhaps even with emotions and a bit of independence (insurgence, rebellion, treason, plot, etc) we could gain an extra layer of social interaction as you put it.

      Alien embassadors. I think this could be very cool. Usually the ambassadors we see in the diplomacy screen are first, always the same (I guess that’s not a big issue), but they could change to give a bit more realism to the thing. I think there should be more options in diplomacy. We should be able to interact more deeply with ambassadors (when communications allow of course). More talk. Like in adventure games when you are interacting with NPCs. Perhaps get to know them a little more, bribe them a bit, flatter them, gain special favors, even marry the embassador for god sake. That would be cool in my opinion and would bring a another social layer on top of the big picture.

      So, these were some thoughts on how to increase the social aspect of 4X games. The eXpress dimension as you put it. I don’t think this distorts the genre too much and I think it would bring a lot of flavor.

      Thank you for bringing this social points to the table Gavin. I think you’re on the spot. I got really excited with the possibility to “have more life” in 4X games! ;)

    • dayrinni says:


      Characters are always a pivotal role in a story, so I completely agree with that. I also think that many games do not really focus as much as they could on the characters and their actions. But it is difficult (in my opinion) in making characters that are believable and having the player relate to them. This is because one has to first make a system (ie: code) to support some sort of sophisticated character system and then they have to make the content for it (what the characters do, maybe some events, etc). So I would have to say, it is a pretty big development item.

      I would very much like to see games that start to include more characters and having them interact, like you said it would be very cool and really add another dimension to the game. My ultimate goal is to spend an expansion on something like that, actually. I want to have loyalties, agendas, associations, betrayals, events – the works. I think it would really make a “living” empire. It would really make ruling an empire something more than “Ok, I need to build 10 battleships and 5 destroyers and attack!” but more like “Ok, I built my fleet and now who do I want to command it? Ok I don’t like this fleet commander that much so I’ll make him lead the charge and *hope* something bad happens.” The possibilities are endless. Maybe you want to have your best fleet commander lead the charge. Or maybe someone else. This sort of thinking can be applied to every system in the game that requires people.

      There’ll be more ways to interact with the characters, promotions where mentioned, awards, ceremonies, imprisonment, executions – the works.

      So in a way, the characters start to help drive the game and the direction it goes in. It’ll help create memories for the player and they can really get involved, on an emotional level. Then the game can track this information so you can have a history of what happened. Having the ability to look back on the past is always something people like to do.

      I have a lot of cool ideas for this and I will devote an entire expansion to this. I think it would pay off.

      So in conclusion Gavin, I completely agree with you. It just takes a lot of work to implement.

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