Write To Replay: Jon Ingold on the issue of replayability in narrative games

Richie Shoemaker hears from Jon Ingold as the Inkle co-founder considers the issue of replayability in narrative games ahead of delivering his thoughts at this year’s Develop Conference.

As the narrative force behind 80 Days, Heaven’s Vault and the upcoming A Highland Song, Inkle’s Jon Ingold is no stranger to speaking his mind at Brighton. However, this year he is feeling a pang of dread at unexpectedly being selected to deliver a keynote speech at this year’s Develop Conference, partly because, he reminds himself, it will be his first.

He insists he’s looking forward to it though, as the replayability of narrative games (or lack thereof) is a subject that Inkle has been wrestling with for some time – and with some degree of success, it should be noted. Why, Ingold has been asking, might we reread a book or rewatch a movie a number of times, while we seem less able to restart a narrative game we cleave to just as dearly? It’s a question he’s yet to find an answer to, but he hopes to be able to deliver some semblance of one by the time July comes around.

What’s the problem with replayability in narrative focused games? Surely it’s just a fact of life that they’re just not as replayable?

Quite often when I’m thinking about narrative in games, I start by thinking about books. I think, ‘What is it about a good book that means that you can reread it and the fact that you know how the story works just doesn’t matter.’ Whereas, in a game, it’s extremely rare to have a narrative where you want to actively go through the same storyline again.

I remember enjoying Monkey Island when I was a kid, but I picked it up again when I was a little bit older and almost all of the magic was gone even though the writing was the same. There’s something in the design of classic adventure games that I think is probably present in linear games like Uncharted as well, where so much is about the discovery and the learning process, or the mechanics about finding out what’s around the next corner, that the next time you play the game there isn’t anything else there to maintain your interest.

… It’s not 100 percent true because nothing ever is. I played through the older Tomb Raider games a couple of times and enjoyed them the second time through and there are mechanical reasons to play a game to get ‘New Game Plus’, but I feel like in the narrative space we’re slightly struggling with how we make a narrative which actually rewards you the second and third and fourth time around.

It’s not just a theoretical idea to me, it’s actually something that inkle’s been working on for a long time now. When we first made 80 Days, we explicitly designed it to be a narrative game that people would want to replay and I remember having design conversations where we would say, ‘Is it possible to make an adventure game that people actively want to play two or three times?’ We didn’t know. What we found was that people played it eight, nine, ten times and they’d go back to it because they can slip back into a world they know and find something new.

In Heaven’s Vault, we had quite a different approach to replayability. A lot of people played that game once and kind of went ‘Oh yeah, that’s fine. Nice story. I can’t imagine playing it again. It’s an adventure game. It’ll be the same each time.’ But it really isn’t the same thing each time. Every time you go through it the contextualization of what you learn about the world change based on what you know. That was quite a deliberate attempt to make something that gets deeper every time you dig.

People were prepared for it in 80 Days, so is it a case of explicitly informing the audience that the option is there, otherwise they will just assume that it isn’t?

Keeping the audience up to speed with the right expectations to have is always really important, but I think that if we hadn’t sold 80 Days as replayable upfront, people would have still replayed it because it promises so much and because of the way the design is shaped. Equally, I think a lot of people didn’t replay Heaven’s Vault because I don’t think we communicated how the new game worked as well as we could’ve done, which is all part of the learning journey.

A Highland Song is replayable in a different way again, and we’ll need to keep communicating that to people; that every journey will be different and will be deeper and will be richer, but it’s still finding a balance with the mechanical business of telling players ‘These are the rules. This is how the game works. This is how it functions.’

… Like, there are elements of legacy board games in the design of both Heaven’s Vault and Highland Song, where there are mechanical things that stay from one round to the next. But also in the narrative itself, where we ask what kind of stories support being told more than once? What sort of stories give us more when we read them again? Why do we get more out of rereading The Lord of the Rings than we do out of rereading… I don’t want to pick on anyone, but say The Expanse novels?

We probably don’t read those more than once. We read each one and then go ‘That’s great. I’ll read the next one.’ What’s the difference between the construction of the narrative that makes one of those get deeper the more you look at it? I think that’s really interesting and I think that aspect of writing is something that we don’t think about very much in games, mostly because we’re so busy trying to make the damn things work.

But there are expectations inherent to certain genres, such as the near-endless replayability of a roguelike?

It’s got to do with the content as well though, because even like a definition of a roguelike, you’re talking about the mechanical systems. But how does that apply to something like Hades or to The Outer Wilds? They’re both kind of roguelike in structure, but they’re linear in narrative. Hades starts on your first loop and ends on your hundredth, but it’s a single story told across those loops.

It’s not the same story retold in a different way. Even Outer Wilds isn’t about a time loop, it is actually a linear story that happens to reuse the same period of time over and over again as the character’s knowledge deepens and learns. Not every replayable narrative needs to be a time loop. 80 Days is not a time loop. Heaven’s Vault isn’t… well, it sort-of is but isn’t. A Highland Song definitely isn’t.

I’m increasingly interested in what the gameplay structures are that help players to accept this idea of repeat replayability, but also the narrative structures that reward people. There’s a lot of space for discussion there, but I do think it’s strange that no one in games talks about this particularly as a feature. We talk a lot about New Game Plus for mechanics, but very little about New Game Plus for narrative.

But what about a game where someone is satisfied with its conclusion and doesn’t want to have that changed as an experience or in their memory?

I think that goes to what you were saying about expectations. People have this model of ‘There’s a game, I make my choices, I get my result and then I’m done.’ Like it was some kind of storytelling machine. Like it was some kind of personality quiz. You never do them again to see what other answers you can get. Well, okay, but how does that stack up against the films that we watch again and again, because we love being in that world, or we understand a little bit more about the characters when we rewatch it?

I grew up watching a TV series called Babylon 5 and one of its core things was that if you watched it again, you’d see things; little moments between characters, which made sense in the context of what you knew from the end of the story, because you knew how these characters were going to develop and the writers knew that in advance when they set everything up beautifully.

It’s full of hints and signs and reflections and things that tie the world together in interesting ways when you rewatch it. Were they designing this thing to be rewatched? That doesn’t make sense in the network TV era, particularly because it was very rare to have things on video at home to watch them again. But they were; they were constructing a narrative that made sense within and of itself in interesting ways.

So less about choice and consequence and having more callbacks, perhaps?

We’re not limited to one strategy or another. The question really is, as writers and narrative designers, what tools have we got in our toolbox? Well, we’ve got choice and branching, definitely. Something like 80 Days, says ‘let’s just write so much content that you can’t possibly see it, and then you’ll want to come back and see some more.’

In Heaven’s Vault we had a limited number of 3D locations you can explore, but the order in which you explore them substantially changes your understanding of each one. So the context is the thing that changes even if the assets don’t, and you can have very different experiences as a result of that. Okay, why don’t we do both of those things then, if you make something with a mystery in it as well, those mysteries can be narratively threaded in that way that we were just talking about?

There’s all these strategies we can employ, which get beyond the idea of stories being some kind of delivery mechanism of instructions for telling your plot – which we sometimes think of in that way. That’s kind of what ‘lore’ is, but that’s got nothing to do with storytelling and the way that human beings tell stories to each other. We’re supposed to tantalise and surprise and delight and make things that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.

I think it’s exciting to find ways to do that in an interactive medium where you also have the ability to change and use choices and use branching. That’s really exciting to me. Most people’s experience of playing The Walking Dead was that they played it once and thought it was amazing. They played it a second time and they saw how the wires worked, and it kind of took away from the first playthrough experience. People maybe even got burned by that because it was such a famous example.

That is interesting to me as well. Like, how do you make a version of that Telltale game where the second playthrough doesn’t make the game worse; it makes it better? Are we just throwing our hands in the air and saying that that’s impossible? I don’t think it is. So how do we go about solving that problem? How do we turn that from a bug into a feature? How do we make branching games where the desire to see the alternative option doesn’t take away from the first playthrough, but embellishes it?

Again, I don’t think this is theoretical. I think this is something we did in 80 Days and we did in Heaven’s Vault and we’re doing in Highland Song. I want to talk about the ways that we’re doing that, but they’re quite specific, and also… I haven’t written the talk yet!

It wasn’t just subsequent playthroughs that hurt Telltale’s games, it was arguably that they weren’t seen to evolve significantly from one episodic title to the next.

I think some of that came from the fact that the structure was fairly clear. Like when you played the game, you could kind of see how it was working almost all the time. I don’t think there was much about it that was mysterious and hidden.

If you take a look at storytelling from a completely other extreme; when you have people who get obsessed about the lore of Elden Ring, like they are embedded in this mystery the whole time and that have a sense that they’re never going to know everything and they’re always grasping at threads. It’s like the complete opposite of a Telltale game, because it’s not taking you through the narrative in a very steady way, but it’s interesting. That’s a kind of narrative through entirely player-driven exploration of the narrative space. Right, so can we do something in between? Can we do something that uses both in a clever way? Yes, I think we can.

So how could a studio approach this problem, assuming they saw it as a problem? Is it about creating more content, or better design?

I think it’s everything. They’re all just strategies. But content is a weird word, though. Because, how do you box content? For a game like 80 Days, we made lots and lots of individual bits of story and they were all new. When you see a new one, you’ve opened a new packet. You go through a new set of cards, you go through a new book. But in something like Heaven’s Vault we don’t really do that. But there are new lines of dialogue. There are new ideas and new conversations and new little beats or new reflections or responses by the character. That’s content, but it’s very much smaller. It’s much more subtle. In quite a lot of games, you don’t see everything that’s in there anyway. Very few people see all the content that’s in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Does it help having all this extra content? I’m sure they thought about it. There are lots of different ways to think about what content generation is, or how much it cost to make, or how significant it is beyond ‘we made another level’ and I think that again leans into the strategy one can use to make things deeper.

I just wonder whether you’re in a privileged position, in that you have an audience and you have the time and the independence to think about all these different narrative ideas and bring them to fruition. It’s almost certainly the case that other studios don’t have that same luxury you do.

As an indie studio, one is in a privileged position to try things and do new things and to break away from existing proven models. If you’re being funded by someone, they want to know that it’s going to work in advance and the best way to do that is to say, ‘Well, we’ve copied what this game did.’ That’s fine. That’s a completely reasonable way for a publisher and a studio to behave. Because we’re self-funded, we get to not do that. That doesn’t mean that we’re exploring a dead end though.

No, but for some studios it’s hard enough to get a game noticed or even played through once, let alone twice.

What I’m really talking about is making more out of what you’ve already got. If you look at the narrative design of a really big triple-A game, what they tend to do is throw more and more and more content into it in the hope that people will think it’s amazing. Well, okay, what if we throw in a little bit less, but we designed it more efficiently?

We do this with art assets. If somebody builds a lamp post, they don’t use it once they use it a thousand times and in a thousand different ways. Can we do that with narrative? Can we make our narrative work in different times in different places in different ways and give us different contexts so that when we see it again, because it’s a replay, it means something else to us? Can we do that, if we put in that little bit of extra effort or thought into the way that we think about it? Maybe that’s something that we can get away with because we work in a low-fi way, and maybe that’s something that our audience expects, but to be fair, if they do, that’s because we’ve built up that expectation by doing this over the years. It’s not because we found that audience waiting for us and it’s not because we sold ourselves that way.

But also, that’s slightly not my problem. I’m interested in what narrative in games can be and if the large studios find it difficult to copy that, okay, well they can have fewer sales and we can have more, that’s fine by me, I don’t mind. But I do think sometimes people have a tendency to say, ‘We’ve been doing this for a while. This is how games work. We can’t change things.’ I don’t accept that. I think we can do things that are more complex and more interesting.

I love how when I started in the industry, writers for games were quite unusual. They tended to be brought in at the very end, they were mostly ignored. That has changed completely. Writers are integral to studios now. I think we’re only really beginning to see what writing and narrative design can really do for games. It’s exciting.

Develop:Brighton 2023 will take place between July 11, 2023 and July 13, 2023 this year at the Hilton Brighton Metropole. If you’d like to book passes to go, a range of options are available at www.developconference.com

As an MCV/DEVELOP reader, you’re entitled to an additional 10% discount on tickets with our promo code, ZLECKS.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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