Event systems for player-driven narrative

Summary: A random event system can be used to generate player-driven narrative and impact gameplay, adding a level of engagement without the need of art assets or much scripting. It could supplement an existing story or be used as an alternative to storytelling in a game with a high degree of replayability.


Over the past few years, I’ve grown to appreciate player-driven narrative and the design decision to use concise text dialog through random event systems. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light, The Banner Saga, and Massive Chalice do this really well, where the player encounters random events that are described in a short paragraph or two, and the player’s involvement with those events is often in the form of responding with one of multiple choices.

FTL: Faster Than Light’s event dialog UI. Blue text is a special option the player can choose because they’ve met a special condition in this event (they own a Repair Drone).

If the purpose of this system is to deliver engaging, unpredictable narrative, then you don’t want players to feel like their choices don’t matter, where they no longer bother reading the text and just blindly press whatever key skips the text and gets them to the next stage of combat. Choices must be meaningful, they must not be made blindly, and shouldn’t be more than 4 or 5 in number (binary choices are easy to make).


Meaningful Decisions

The most important factor in an event system like this is to make the player’s choices carry real consequential weight. When presented, the events should force the player to pause for a moment to consider their options and imagine the implications of choosing each one. The choice they make should affect gameplay, ie: saving/sacrificing characters, choosing items to give or receive, choosing to help or ignore those in need, choosing travel destinations, choosing X location to attack with Y weapon, etc. The choices, when observed, could be used to define the player’s character like selfless, heroic, considerate, fearless or coward, selfish, avoids confrontation, etc.


Use Appropriate Language

The event itself must be worded in a way that it captures the player’s imagination, allowing them to picture the scene in their heads in great detail. As such, you want to keep the language as simple and concise as possible. In addition, the wording used in the choices must include all relevant information needed to make an informed decision.

The language you use to describe events and choices should not only be understandable, but it should also be flavored to support the theme and aesthetic of your game. Use every opportunity to remind the player of the world they are in.


Choices Have Risks of Failure

The choices should be influenced by psuedo-random circumstances. For example, in the above screencap from FTL, the first option is for the player to try and shield their ship with yours, escorting their ship through a dangerous asteroid field. The keyword in that option is try – it is not guaranteed you will succeed, so the language used is indicative of the possibility of failure. If the player chooses this option, there should still be a random chance they fail, but this failure should be explained in the following resulting paragraph. This instills a sense of risk that is very important for an event system like this, which ultimately impacts the logical reasoning behind many of the player’s future choices. The possibility of success and failure are psuedo-random.


Binary Choices are Powerful

FTL handles consequence well, in that a core design element of the game is perma-death. The Banner Saga’s system is a little more lenient, and after several playthroughs, the random events seem to be more linear and intentional for progressing the story, but the way the dialog is delivered is related. Massive Chalice offers a system more like FTL, in that some of your decisions directly impact the story and gameplay.

Other Possibilities

Time Limit – Could be a timer similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead. This timer should only be used in events that would be considered emergencies, where a binary choice is required immediately. The timer would have to activate only after the player has finished reading the event, otherwise it would be punishing slow readers.


Here’s a recap of the key elements:

  • Meaningful Decisions – Choices should be different, and each should impact the story and gameplay
  • Pseudo-random Circumstances – Incorporate the chance of failure in each choice to present risk
  • No Blind Choices – Language should be concise and give everything the player needs to make informed decisions
  • Full of Flavor – Text should captivate player imagination to the fullest
  • Binary Choices are Good – Fewer choices are easier to make