Even though videogames are an entirely new medium, blessed - or cursed depending on your point of view - with both unique challenges and opportunities when a creator attempts to tell a story, many game developers choose to ape the more established conventions of cinema or literature. But a small team at Kerberos Productions working on the Sword of the Stars series are championing the concept that story can emerge through gameplay instead of just beaming pre-packaged plot and characters into the player's brain. Some open-ended RPGs like Morrowind or strategy games like Civilization allow for this kind of emergent story-telling, but, like its predecessor, Sword of the Stars 2 is built on the premise that a videogame's story is most effectively communicated by empowering the player to forge his or her own tale without giving up the kinds of details which ignite players' imaginations. Games like Sword of the Stars 2 shed the dead weight of movies and novels to further establish the medium as something unique.
"My job is not to create one story, but to create the elements that can come together and create a different story every time you fire up the game,"
No one groks the concept of emergent story more than Arinn Dembo, lead writer of the Sword of the Stars series of games. Dembo has been embroiled in 4X space games since Homeworld and its expansions, while also writing background for Ground Control and Arcanum. (In case you're a strategy noob, 4X stands for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.) She has been guiding the Sword of the Stars (SotS) franchise since it began, writing the racial profiles of the various extraterrestrials met in space and even penning a novel set in the universe, The Deacon's Tale. For Dembo, writing a campaign for the turn-based play of SotS would have been a bad move.
"A campaign is only one medium for story-telling," Dembo took a break from crunch time on SotS2 to explain to me. "It has many strengths, but it also has weaknesses, and the major weakness is that it tends to be a one-shot deal. You play through it once, and it's over. You can repeat the experience and enjoy it, but [it's] like watching a favorite movie or re-reading a favorite book."
To combat that "one-and-done" effect of playing through a campaign, Dembo has worked hard to provide a set of storytelling tools rather than stringing the player along from Point A to Point B. "My job is not to create one story, but to create the elements that can come together and create a different story every time you fire up the game," she said. "It's the difference between designing a single ride at a theme park, versus building a park in which there are more rides than anyone could ever ride in a lifetime."
In SotS, you can play as one of several races with the advanced technology necessary to travel between planets in space. For humans, a scientific research accident led to the discovery of sub-space travel which brought about a new era of exploration. In the vastness of space, a human player can discover other races like the bug-like Hivers, the heavily stratified culture of the Tarkas, the bloodthirsty Zuul, the aquatic Liir, or the feathered Morrigi travelers better known as Crows. Alternately, you can play as one of these races and send uniquely-designed ships to explore worlds in a randomly-generated playfield of planets. Each system you discover might be overflowing with resources ripe for colonization, may already be occupied by one of the competing races in the game you've set up, or it may spawn a random menace.
"The random menaces you encounter, the opponents you face, the stars and planets you explore, the technology you have available: these things change from game to game," said Dembo. "Even if you wanted to play the same game of SotS twice, it's nearly impossible to do so."