the power of wildermyth’s modular storytelling in game design
Every once in a while, a game comes along that changes the way we think about interactive storytelling. Undoubtedly, Wildermyth has this star quality. The tactical RPG uses procedural generation to author stories in a unique way, chaining up series of events that the player feels like their characters truly have a stake in.
In this post, I’ll discuss the story design of Wildermyth, and how its clever structure enables the generation of more stories yet untold.
Breaking Down the Story Structure of Wildermyth
Wildermyth contains a number of campaigns, each of which is its own separate story. In a campaign, you recruit a group of heroes who traverse a map towards a final objective, which is typically a final combat encounter with a boss.
Each time you move to a new area, you can enter into a story segment, which is depicted in the style of a comic. These comics show your characters in various situations, which may or may not be related to the main objective. Players can make choices in these comics that will affect the story.
Then, each story segment is chained up to a procedurally-generated combat encounter that follows immediately after. Wildermyth features turn-based combat on grid maps, between which characters can level up and upgrade equipment and armour.
So, the structure is something like: map —> comic story —> combat encounter, and then repeat.
Wildermyth Uses a String of Pearls Narrative as a Basis, but Turns It on Its Head
To understand Wildermyth’s story structure, we must talk about the intreractive story method known as “string of pearls” or “rivers and lakes”. In another post, I’ve written more in detail about string of pearls and other story methods.
Here’s a quick summary for the purposes of this discussion. String of pearls includes alternating periods of non-interactive story parts (the string) and free gameplay (the pearl). Game designers also say that a story is “on rails” during the parts where players are forced down a particular story path, symbolised by the string in this analogy. Normally, string of pearls method results in a predefined overarching story.
While games usually use freeform combat (e.g. levels) as the pearl and rigid story (e.g. cutscenes) as the string, Wildermyth does the opposite. Its places the story in the pearl, with the procedurally-generated combat encounter as the string, as follows.
This is a huge advantage for Wildermyth because it makes the game inherently modular. Each module, as depicted, consists of two sections. One, where the player has choice, is the story segment in the form of an interactive comic. And two, where the player has to pass through the encounter, is the RPG combat.
Of course, players are able to make choices in combat, which also have consequences of passing or failing. Characters can level up, or die. But overall, combat is the string in the string of pearls analogy because it simply passes the player on to the next choice, or ends the campaign if the whole party dies.
In between each module, players can decide where to go on the map, with the endgame map choice leading to the final combat encounter.
The Advantage of Modular Storytelling in Wildermyth
By structuring each campaign in segments along the string of pearls, Wildermyth creates a modular narrative structure. This means that modules can be swapped out. Designers can lock in several core required modules for each campaign, including the beginning and end, to keep the campaign’s overarching story on rails. Then, they can specify the number of possible other modules between those important story beats.
As a result, the map can be populated with that number of locations. When a player moves to a location, a random story segment can start, followed by a procedurally-generated combat level.
This creates great flexibility and modularity for the narrative, which holds great potential for updates and user-generated content. Creating one of these comics is far cheaper and far more doable for players than designing levels or combat mechanics. These written comics can be easily slotted into any Wildermyth campaign.
The Illusion of Choice and Impact in Wildermyth’s Video Game Narrative
When looking at this structure, a valid concern would be the impact of the choices you make in the story. Because modules in Wildermyth can be swapped in and out, how can the choices made within them realistically and meaningfully have an impact on the story?
Wildermyth cleverly addresses this with two main restrictions of the individual modules. These segments are self-contained, except when the players’ choices can impact the subsequent combat, or the characters.
1. Story choices impact the next combat phase
- Choices to hide, sneak attack, or announce your presence to enemies can result in buffs or debuts in the following encounter. This allows players to feel like their choices, informed by the story segment, have an impact on how combat occurs.
2. Story choices impact the characters
- Choices can affect relationships between characters, character stats or character appearances. Because characters are the through line of the campaign, the persistence of choices in these story segments can be easily seen. For example, certain characters could fall in love and have a child who joins your party, or a character could lose an eye and wear an eyepatch going forward.
Hence, the player’s choices within the comic story feel impactful, but don’t actually affect the progression along the main storyline. Those core modules containing the critical story beats can additionally have story-altering choices placed within them.
Because choices can be universally applied to any combat encounter or story, the story segments can be designed independently and function within any campaign.
Wildermyth Creates a Story Engine
Wildermyth has no doubt been inspired by tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. For players who shy away from D&D because of the overwhelming notion of “you can do anything”, Wildermyth provides a pared down version with roughly three options when choices need to be made.
The modular story structure also reflects weekly, self-contained sessions in a longer D&D campaign. Wildermyth’s application of D&D’s format to a video game is successful due to its modular narrative structure.
The designers of Wildermyth have created a story engine that can be used to create a multitude of different stories. As time goes by, the engine can be updated, tweaked and made more sophisticated to support different ways designers might want to use the growing pool of available modules.
Most importantly, this modular narrative form opens the door to new stories, not only from developers but also from Wildermyth’s legion of players who are discovering its unique method of interactive storytelling.