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The Role of Story in Darknet

Story has always been a challenge for me, as evidenced by my many other posts on the subject. I’m more of a formalist, gameplay-oriented designer, and Darknet reflects that. However, it was clear from the very beginning that one of Darknet’s strengths was its narrative premise (i.e. the cyberpunk hacking fantasy), in part due to the novelty of playing in virtual reality. I had kept story to a minimum in my initial designs, but over time, the lack of story started to feel conspicuous, like a gap waiting to be filled.

Eventually I did add a stronger narrative component, but I took great care to maintain Darknet’s integrity as a skill-oriented game with wide freedom of choice for the player. I didn’t want the story to limit the player’s actions or to steal focus from the core appeal of the hacking gameplay. Raph Koster once described narrative as feedback, rather than a mechanic in itself, and that’s an accurate description of how the story functions in Darknet. It’s about adding “juice” to the experience, rather than being a truly core part of the game itself.

The narrative system that I ultimately put in the game operates by delivering snippets of story text via “news clippings”, which show up in the main menu whenever the player finishes hacking a network. (Alex Kain, one of the few outside contractors who helped build Darknet, is responsible for most of this text.) So, for example, after completing a job to hack a corporate research firm, you might get the headline “SUBLIM UP 300% LAST YEAR”, with a story underneath:

"In a private study commissioned by the Wexler Initiative, a year-long evaluation revealed that, despite widespread public condemnation, several major corporations remain engaged in the questionably-legal practice of subliminal advertising (sublim), most of which is delivered through corporate network protocols.

"The study was not planned for public release, but it was recently leaked by the ICE-9 "hacktivist" group to news organizations around the world. The study includes frank corporate discussion about the "war of mindshare", and the data indicates that the average adult will be manipulated no fewer than two thousand times by corporate sublim every day. In anticipation of a regulatory response, shares in all companies mentioned in the report have fallen between three and eight percent on the stock market today, despite immediate denials of the report's contents."

This is a very minimal, flexible, nonlinear, decentralized story system. The big advantage is that the game can add a lot of flavor and feedback, maintain an appropriate tone, and hint at a rich fictional world outside of the player’s view, all without imposing a heavy-handed plot. Some players will prefer to ignore the story entirely, and they’re free to do so. Other players might be more intrigued and want to dig into the narrative. There are a wide range of news stories that describe how your hacking impacted specific megacorporations, governments, or other hackers, as well as some hidden systems to discover. My hope is that the game’s narrative will be rewarding for those that choose to engage with it more deeply.

There are also some big disadvantages to this system, of course. For one, it could be too easy to ignore; some players who might enjoy the game’s story elements could miss the snippets of text that quietly appear in the menu. Another disadvantage is that the tone of the writing may be too dry and monotonous. Alex and I tried to include a few stories that deviated in tone (like stories from the tabloids of the future), but the majority of the stories have a just-the-facts news-y voice, and I worry that it might get old after a while. There’s also no clear good guys / bad guys division in the narrative. You’re primarily cast as a mercenary in the employ of anonymous clients in a morally complex world (although the corporations tend to be portrayed in a negative light). That might feel dissatisfying to a player who really wants to role-play as a hero or a villain.

Still, despite these disadvantages, I think that these news clippings can effectively fill the game’s narrative gap. I’ve heard some designers analyze their games through the lens of Self-Determination Theory, which posits that humans have a few basic psychological needs: Mastery, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Skill-based game are well-suited to satisfy our need for Mastery, and any game that offers a lot of player freedom (including Darknet) can offer Autonomy, but Relatedness is more complicated, and that’s the part that really felt missing from the older versions of Darknet. I think story is often used as a way to try to connect the player’s actions to some wider context, even if it’s a purely fictional one. In Darknet, you might feel skilled at the game, but when the narrative was weak, it was easy to lose your connection to the “badass hacker” fantasy. I’m hoping that adding the news clippings will make that connection a lot stronger and more explicit, and that the entire play experience will improve as a result.

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