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2009-06-30

Save Timelines

Many games try to have as much plot as feasibly possible. Many of those games wish to include a branching storyline. Even if the developer has a large budget, practicality issues arise when developers try to do branching storylines because a lot of additional effort must be made to design and implement these story branches and the player typically cannot be expected to play through the entire game again just to experience the other branches.

Games with branching storylines rely on the player to find these alternative paths on their own. For example, some players intentionally make numerous saves as backups that they can go back to at any time. When branching storylines are involved however, keeping track of what saves are important and why is time-consuming and often impractical, as the player often has no way of knowing if their current decisions have any impact on the plot.

I assert that if it were easy for the player to go back in time to the key plot points in a game and make different choices, more players would be willing to play through this additional content.

How I propose developers do this is by implementing what I call a "Save Timeline". A save timeline is an in-game save file managing system which displays all save files (whether they're made automatically or by the player) as connected to the saves that occurred in their past.

Here is a mockup of a possible Save Timeline (click picture for full image):

This example includes both kinds of deviations a player might make in a timeline: "choices", and "spin-offs". Every storyline-relevant decision (a.k.a. "choice") splits the timeline (an auto-save of the choice is saved before the player's decision is made). The number of options at each choice is entirely up to the writer. Spin-offs jut out from the connection between the opened save file and its original future. It should be noted that spin-offs are always displayed vertically below the previous session or spin-off. I must also stress that developers implementing a save timeline should clearly label all choices (ex. via tooltip) so the player can easily see the progression of in-game events. I would also recommend players be able to manually label their own saves.

Even though this save timeline only contains roughly a dozen save files, it still looks rather complicated. Once you scale up the size of this system to include all saves a player might make (or change or remake) over the course of even half the length of a branching RPG, the timeline becomes enormous and overlapping. Locating your latest save would become as futile as trying to find a needle in a haystack.

You could solve this problem by clearly labeling the player's most recent save (or centering on it when you open the load screen), but that's essentially the same as putting a tiny "you are here" arrow on a stationary map of an amusement park. It works, but it takes a bit to find and it doesn't help much.

The solution is to compress the timeline to only include what's relevant to your current path. This is much more helpful, as it's extremely obvious where the most recent save is on the timeline.

The question then becomes how much to compress the timeline. You could compress it to just the relevant save files, but because of the large number of saves a player might make, this compressed timeline can still look rather long and complicated. An even better solution would be to compress the timeline and reshape it into a simple straight line. You could also shrink the graphic size of relevant sessions (which might contain 100 save files) down to a smaller icon.

Examples of these different timeline compressions can be seen in the image below:

In the compressed timelines, irrelevant saves are represented by a black dot. Clicking the black dot expands the timeline to include save files which are immediately relevant (up to the next split in the timeline). In the super-compressed example, it's as if the most recent save file was tugged on until all the connecting lines straightened out. Note that the most recent save is instantly accessible, even though it's part of a larger session.

It is important to note that timelines never converge. Two timelines may include a plot event with the same name, but that doesn't mean that the circumstances surrounding that plot event are the same in each timeline. Every choice and every spinoff you make changes the game world. No two timelines are alike, so they never converge.

AFTERTHOUGHTS:
  • This also conveniently acts as a recap system that allows a player who hasn't played for a while to come back to the game and recap the story so far.
  • Treat this as either a loading screen, a speedable/skippable cutscene, or both: Perhaps when you load a save, the camera moves from an overview to a first-person perspective "travelling" along the path of memories (saves) of the choices made on the path to your destination. Stars stream by as you travel along the twisting and turning "line" of the timeline you picked. As you approach each choice-save on the timeline a vision appears inside the save's circle as if it were reflected in a a soap-bubble. Each vision shows the dilemma and the choice you made there as you pass the memory by. Each time you pass a choice-save by the timeline (and the camera) veers off in a somewhat-different direction. After you pass by the last choice-save, the streaming stars speed up and brighten as a "warp-like" sound effect fades in, crescendoing until the screen has basically become pure white. Then the game starts.
  • Imagine what could be done in storytelling if certain gameplay elements (such as a character) exist "outside of time". For example, when "the apocalypse" in-game happens, one of the characters suddenly approaches you and tells you "You can prevent this. Go back." right before everyone dies a horrible death. Then perhaps you go back in the timeline and notice that that character seems to be doing things behind the scenes that you didn't notice before. Perhaps new dialogue options open up because now you (both in and out of character) know that they live outside of time.

4 comments:

  1. This is a great idea.. hope to see it in a game someday.

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  2. Very intriguing design element. It'd be a bitch to pull off.

    I guess for RPGs with a non-linear plot with many available choices, this kind of system would come in darn handy. It would underline 'replay-value' very well. :)

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  3. Very interesting suggestion! I think if games implemented a system like this, I'd definitely be less irritated by the need to play through twice (though I can never bring myself to play as an evil character anyway).

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  4. the game might be hard to do such as some games have huge save files already they would have to really optimize the files

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