Multiplayer narrative games: do they exist?

Okay, so, I played Alexisgrad and now I’m making one for Spring Thing and it turns out it’s real hard, and I also realized that I couldn’t think of any other examples of multiplayer narrative games. I don’t mean multiplayer IF games, of which I am aware of literally just Alexisgrad, I mean multiplayer narrative games, be they text-based, 2d, 3d, whatever. There’s lots of multiplayer games, and lots of narrative games, but almost no multiplayer narrative games!

In this case, I’m talking about narrative games in the sense that the game has a specific story-based, bounded narrative, whose bounds are determined by an author and not the players, and there are player-controlled characters in the narrative that can change how the narrative turns out.

So! Tell me, do you know of any? It’s a bit late now to be doing research into prior art, since I’ve mostly written my thing, but I’m interested in know what kinds of stuff other people did.

Here’s some stuff I know of.

There was Moirai, (Moirai was one of the PC's most disturbing games, and now it's gone forever | PC Gamer) which I played back in the day and blew my mind, but it’s more of a chat-roulette style and, while amazing, kind of a gimmick.

There’s Seltani, (https://seltani.net/) which I’ve visited once and never played anything in, because it’s multiplayer and I don’t have anybody to play with, but apparently Emily Short once wrote a game for it (Writing for Seltani: an Aspel Post-mortem – Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling) which, again, I’ve never played. From what I gather it was less a narrative branching experience than, like, a group puzzle, but somebody who’s played it might be able to explain more.

There’s A Way Out (A Way Out (video game) - Wikipedia) which looks like the exact opposite of a narrative game, being an action game with story beats told through linear cutscenes, but the way the gameplay integrates into the story narrative lends it some pretty powerful story beats. Huuuge spoilers: Each of the players plays a convict, escaping from a prison, for the entire game. At the very end of the game it turns out one of the players is actually with the police, and the two players have an in-game shootout to determine which of them survives and goes back to their respective loved ones. It’s an amazing way of integrating the mechanics of the game into the narrative, and I could go on for hours in a tedious manner about all the ways I think it works; I’ll spare you.

Telltale Games had Crowd Play, which is essentially a voting mechanism strapped on top of an entire normal, 1-player narrative game. This is, technically, a multiplayer narrative game, but not in the sense that there are two participating player characters. Also, it apparently got turned off (https://www.reddit.com/r/telltale/comments/ch5lo4/does_crowd_play_still_work/).

Games like The Yawhg (The Yawhg on Steam) are sort of narrative games, but they’re more player-based narratives integrated over specific game actions. You’re doing [thing] on [turn] which implies something about your character, and the characters of the other players, but you can’t, like, have your character specifically argue with another character. So it’s not really what I’m talking about.

Fallen London (https://www.fallenlondon.com/) is, technically, multiplayer, and also narrative, but the experience is pretty game-focused over narrative-focused (though I think some exceptional stories are less of that) and the multiplayer elements are mostly just ways to get various stat bonuses. Or they’re non-character-specific interactions like elections.

Anyways, it turns out I can kind of think of a lot! But, none of them are narrative in the same sense that, say, Photopia, or a Choice of Games game, or Disco Elysium is narrative. So, what are y’alls thoughts on multiplayer narrative games? Do they exist? What would a good one look like? Is there a really, really good reason they don’t exist that in my hubris I ignored?

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I guess a lot of the people who are both interested in narrative storytelling and want to play with others end up doing TTRPG. After all, why have a parser if someone else can do it for you? The same goes for forum games (I’ve seen parser forum games where one person pretends to type commands and the other reacts as the parser; someone entered an IFComp based off such a forum thread a year or two ago). I think Homestuck even started that way.

Edit: I think murder mystery parties also count, since everyone’s playing against each other in that way, too. I wonder if you could make a mystery IF game based on a murder mystery party boxed set? Where different players assume different roles and collect clues before finding the murderer. Kind of like Clue with more text?

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I dunno. Maybe you’re breaking new ground? If you are, I would imagine everyone who has ever broken new ground has had the same misgivings. I wouldn’t put too much stock into them. Trust your gut.

I like the murder mystery suggestion. That seems like an interesting idea.

Okay, so, I played Alexisgrad and now I’m making one for Spring Thing and it turns out it’s real hard, and I also realized that I couldn’t think of any other examples of multiplayer narrative games. I don’t mean multiplayer IF games, of which I am aware of literally just Alexisgrad, I mean multiplayer narrative games, be they text-based, 2d, 3d, whatever. There’s lots of multiplayer games, and lots of narrative games, but almost no multiplayer narrative games!

A few comments on this section here…

I know that you said you weren’t interested in other “multiplayer IF games” but I just thought I’d point out that there are others, and that “multiplayer text adventures” have been being made since at least as early as 1981. :: CASA :: Games - Multiple-players (8 results)

(You’ll notice a game called Escape from Solaris there… I wonder what ever happened to the guy who made that? :slight_smile: )

Obviously, MUDs are a whole genre of multiplayer interactive fiction themselves. There are/have been some very heavily narrative orientated MUDs. I think they might be possibly the closest thing out there in terms of including very heavy and obvious story elements.

In this case, I’m talking about narrative games in the sense that the game has a specific story-based, bounded narrative, whose bounds are determined by an author and not the players, and there are player-controlled characters in the narrative that can change how the narrative turns out.

Surely any multiplayer game (MMOs for example) has such emergent narrative within the story/world bounds that the author has set? Whether the quest succeeds is down to the individual input and action of the players? IIRC there are MMORPGs out there where “votes” from the collaborating players dictate the path that the narrative of a quest takes at certain point.

The emergent narrative and community interaction that comes from groups of players all living in the same game world and reacting to story prompts is one of the most compelling aspects of MMOs. Your story through the game is shaped and dictated by the people that you meet along the way. They form part of your personal narrative and memories of the experience.

One of the issues with creating large commercial multiplayer games is the need to frame everyone as being the protagonist of the story. That does limit the roles for players and story possibilities to either collaborative tales or stories where the players take on opposing sides.

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The main reason why it’s hard is that there is no existing mechanism for exchanging information between players (aka “networking”) in all of the standard IF authoring tools/platforms.

In other words, telling Player A what Player B chooses in a given round is difficult. Workarounds include:

  • Both players share the same computer and play cooperatively.
  • Both players have the same instance of the game on their computer and use the phone/internet to pass messages back and forth about their choices (aka “I picked option A”).
  • Player A’s choice gets “hashed” into an undecipherable code, which then has to get passed via the phone/internet for Player B to input into their computer.

All three have some serious setbacks.

Sadly, there are plenty of great chat apps (Telegram, FB Messenger, Whatsapp, etc) with built-in networking, but these platforms are desert wastelands when it comes to IF, due to the lack of authoring tools.

In other words, you’ve got IF authoring tools on one hand with little to no ability to exchange messages between players, and on the other hand, you’ve got message exchange apps with no support for authoring IF.

My dream has always been to create fun and exciting multiplayer games on a chat app, but alas, but programming skills are far too inadequate :cry:

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->WRITE MOVE ON CARD
->PUT CARD IN ENVELOPE
->LICK ENVELOPE THEN CLOSE IT
->OPEN DRAWER. GET PEN
->WRITE ADDRESS ON ENVELOPE
“You don’t have that information.”
->DM CO-PLAYER. ASK CO-PLAYER ABOUT ADDRESS
->WRITE ADDRESS ON ENVELOPE
->GET STAMP FROM DRAWER
->LICK STAMP. GLUE STAMP
->OUT
->PUT ENVELOPE IN MAIL-BOX
->Z
->Z
->Z
->…

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PBM games, especially hand moderated ones, were great. :slight_smile: Some went on to survive as ePBM.

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I have some experience with Chess-by-mail. The ever-waiting-slowly-changing positions on the board thrilled me.

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I just realized there’s a second major obstacle to overcome in two-player or multiplayer IF, which is the question of synchronicity.

If the game is synchronous, i.e. Player B cannot make a move until Player A has made their move, you’re going to run into trouble unless the game is very, very simple.

Precisely because IF is about reading text, one of the players is always going to be the slowest reader, which means that the other player(s) will spend a lot of time waiting around for their turn in a synchronous (real-time) game.

If the game is asynchronous, on the other hand, such as in the “chess by mail” example others on this thread have mentioned, the author is going to face some additional design challenges.

Even if Player A gets 10 moves per turn in an asynchronous game, giving Player A lots of fun experiences in choosing their moves, there’s going to be a point where Player A has to wait around for quite a while for Player B to take their turn. Certainly that can be fun, as many old games from the BBS era operated this way (due to the limitations on how many users could connect to the BBS at any one time) but it’ll slow down the speed of gameplay quite a lot.

My guess, though, is that an asynchronous two-player IF game would be easier to design than a synchronous one (even setting aside any technical limitations).

However, I’m not sure if would deliver the same sort of satisfying experience that most people are used to with (one-player) IF games.

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Some MUD (multi user dungeon) platforms I have run across. These are synchronous akin to chat platforms and are not (to my knowledge) turn-based.

WrittenRealms games are created in browser and hosted on the site.

CoffeeMUD is an engine to create multiplayer text games. In my limited experience these are like more extensive versions of older BBS adventures, or the IF-MUD where Club Floyd resides.

Guncho is a system to make Inform7 games multiplayer for hosting online.

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I think the TADS 3 WebUI system provides a means of letting several people play in the same game session, but I’m not sure it’s ever been used in any game.

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I started this thread a while back, and there are some interesting things in there, although it was focused on parser and you’re doing choice!

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Pigeon mail somehow feels more on brand for this sort of thing. :grin:

pigeon

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Uhm…
Wait, how would that work?

->LICK STAMP THEN LICK PIGEON
->GLUE STAMP TO PIGEON’S FOREHEAD
->SHOVE PIGEON IN OUTBOX

Something like that?

But you’re right. Courier pigeons do have more of an adventury feel to them.

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Now that’s interesting!

Any examples?

Yeah; some games do that, like, SWTOR I think had a dialogue system where it would pass the character response baton around to different players in the quest. However, the choice was contained to that instance. So, for example, you could go in a group to take over a spaceship, and this time you murder the captain, but then after you get out you could just redo it, and this time you don’t. It had zero persistent effect.

I think you could more reasonably argue that sandbox MMOs have an emergent narrative (like EVE! definitely EVE I’m thinking of here) but I don’t necessarily count the player experience outside the game’s narrative as being in the narrative. For example, the WoW narrative designer is considering, like, I dunno. Look I don’t actually know much about WoW, but what they’re considering is the game’s internal plot, which is entirely unreactive to player choice (out of necessity; you couldn’t possibly make enough branching content to keep up with player consumption).

It’s true that networking is hard and nobody supports it (I had to roll my own), but to be honest, that’s the least part of the problem for me! The problem I’m having is that if you’re doing a choice-based narrative, the branching factor is crazy even at small numbers.

MUDs are cool! I used to play one many years ago, mostly for the novelty factor. I don’t really recall the one I was playing being heavy on narrative, the focus was mostly on world traversal and, like, dungeons. Much like a MMO, really.

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After all, why have a parser if someone else can do it for you?

As someone into play by post tabletop RPGs, finding a good GM and good players can be difficult. I’d totally be down for some automation of GMing or roleplaying in general by Discord bots if it meant more people could find games. Most Discord bots for tabletop RPGs (e.g. D&D) are only focused on automating combat (e.g. Avrae) or augmenting human players’ and GMs’ roleplaying (e.g. Tupperbox). But automated bot NPCs that attempt to roleplay sensibly, or even a GM bot that runs the game for a group of players that can’t find a human DM? I’m completely unaware of anything like that, and would love to see them.

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Interesting! From a design viewpoint, a head-to-head game seems like it wouldn’t have too many branches. For example, a simple game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Obviously, RPS is far simpler than a modern game, but the concept, I think, is solid; if two players are playing as opponents, then choices that affect stats (i.e. hit points, number of soldiers in one’s army, etc) shouldn’t require too much branching on the author’s part.

In other words, I think a 1-vs-1 IF experience would probably have to be set up almost entirely as a game (where one player wins and the other loses) as opposed to a shared/collaborative story. Because yeah, if there’s one branching story for Player A and one branching story for Player B, then the author would be forced to write TWICE as much as an ordinary IF game!

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I’ve been thinking on this and I believe you could probably account for this with some judicious planning, branch trimming, and location fencing. i.e. Specific decisions made by either player logically override the decision made by the other. This override/failure message would be delivered with the appropriate dialogue and action failure text.

For example, both players are on an abandoned greyhound bus and both have four viable paths:

  1. Search the bus interior
  2. See if the bus will start
  3. Search the under-the-bus storage
  4. Leave the bus and area altogether

With 4 distinct choices and a sample size of 2, that gives 10 different possibilities (which specific player does what only matters for flavor text variants based on the pov). If each decision point allows 10 different possibilities, things get out of hand very quickly. This ignores the pragmatic difficulties of one player driving off without the other. The possibility combinations are (1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4, 1/2, 2/3, 2/4, 1/4, 3/4, 1/3).

Here's how I might tackle this:
  • 1/1) Both search the bus interior together, no conflict.

  • 2/2) Both try to start the bus together, no conflict.

  • 3/3) Both search the under-the-bus storage together, no conflict.

  • 4/4) Both leave the bus together, no conflict.

  • 1/2) The bus lurching into motion disrupts the interior search attempt, prompting dialogue and consolidation of both up front. (As bus starts: “Are you out of your mind!? What are you doing!?!” Repeated search attempt: “You can barely hold on right now, you aren’t searching anything just yet”)

  • 2/3) The exit door slides shut in the face of the player exiting to check the under-the-bus storage just prior to the bus lurching into motion. (As bus starts moving: “Sorry, Sis. We’re going for a ride!” Repeated under-the-bus search attempt: You should definitely keep seated until the ride comes to a complete stop!)

  • 2/4) The exit door slides shut in the face of the player exiting the bus area just prior to the bus lurching into motion. (As bus starts moving: “Sorry, Sis. We’re going for a ride!” Repeated leave attempt: You should definitely keep all limbs inside the vehicle until it comes to a complete stop!)

  • 1/4) The player searching the bus interior stops the leaving player, prompting dialogue and an action failure. (Failure Message: “Hold on Sis! I’m not done yet!” It seems you’ll be waiting for Regina. Again. Repeated leave attempt: “Are you done yet? We’re sitting ducks out here!”)

  • 3/4) The under-the-bus storage searching player stops the leaving player, prompting dialogue and an action failure. (Failure Message: “Hold on, Sis! We might find something good in this luggage.” It seems you’ll be waiting for Sara. Again. Repeated leave attempt: “Are you done yet? It’s going to get dark soon…”)

  • 1/3) Both search each section; you can hear each other through the open bus windows. (In-bus Search Message: As you sift through abandoned purses and coats, you can hear Sara digging through the under-the-bus storage below. “Remember to look for food!” you yell out.)

While the dialogue and message text will vary with each combination and perspective to add color, the actual actions are boiled down from 10 state altering possibilities to 5, which is only 1 more than a single player would have encountered. This effectively trims half of the branches while still making the player feel like they can interact with the world and their partner.

The five state change options:

  1. One or both search the bus interior.
  2. The bus starts and both are in for the ride, regardless of whether they wanted to or not.
  3. One or both search the under-the-bus storage.
  4. They both leave the area altogether.
  5. One searches the interior while the other searches the under-the-bus storage.

This is obviously off the top of my head, so mentally improve the dialogue and message text beyond my feeble first attempts. There were other options as well that could be tailored for each location and the player characters’ personalities. In this example, I could have made the leave choice override the other player on either search option (“Regina, we don’t have time for that. Come on.”). I could have also made the bus startable only if both worked together, meaning either search function isn’t interrupted by one player starting the bus (“You search high and low, but the keys are nowhere to be seen. You suspect Sara might not need them.”).

Intentionally designing the game from the outset with an abundance of non-conflicting possible actions in each location would reduce these conflicts further.

What does everyone think?

Also curious if you had to employ similar strategies or consider similar things when planning your game, @MoyTW ?

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