Heroes Dev Log #12: Why Constraints Make Better Stories

Heroes Dev Log #12: Why Constraints Make Better Stories

February 1, 2024

To Better Stories

One of the most important aspects of AI Dungeon is the quality of it’s stories. That’s why better AI makes such a huge difference. Better AI means more emotional moments, more compelling plot and character arcs, and more ability to get lost and immersed in another world.

That’s why we’re constantly updating the AI for both free and premium players, so we can give better and better experiences with richer and more meaningful stories.

We’ve talked about several ways that we’re going to greatly improve the power of the stories that are told with Heroes, including a dramatically more powerful memory system, local multiplayer, character backstories and a quest and story planning system.

But I haven’t talked really about one of the most powerful (and also perhaps the most unintuitive) systems that improves the story—challenge and constraints. But how do constraints make the story better? Don’t they take away options?

In reality constraints make better story in several ways:

  • They give meaning
  • They give motivation
  • They enable progression
  • And they drive tension and conflict

The Battle of Mourning Forest

Recently I’ve found myself playing Heroes in my own free time more and more (a great sign that it’s getting really fun). In my latest game I was an elven ranger, seeking out a powerful goblin warlord that was trying to summon dark forces with an artifact called the Heart of Kronos.

I had tracked him his ritual site in the forests of mourning, with Captain Thorgren and a small troop of the local militia.

As we rushed to get to the ritual site before Skarlix could finish his dark summoning, I failed skill check because my tactics skill was too low. The underbrush was too dense for me to lead all these troops through the forest and reach Skarlix in time.

I made the tough decision to leave all but a few behind and hurry ahead so we could stop the ritual.

Reaching the site, we interrupted the ritual and entered battle with his dark orc and shaman forces. The battle was fierce, but we were holding our own until several massive trolls emerged from the forest, joining the orc’s side. We took hit after hit, losing health as we struggled to hold out. We might have held our own, but the Shamans used a dark frenzy spell on the trolls and the tide of battle turned against us.

As I reached 4 HP, I knew we had to retreat. I called out to Captain Thorgren for a healing potion (having used mine already). He tossed me a vial while we engaged in a fighting retreat.

Unsure whether we’d make it out alive, we fought tooth and nail back towards the rest of the militia, hoping we’d be able to reunite in time. Chased by dark shamans and massive trolls at long last we finally saw the remainder of our forces marching over the ridge to our rescue.

With fresh reinforcements we finally managed to take down the trolls and capture the head shaman, overcoming the forces that had almost killed me.

The Power of Constraints

While theoretically one could write a story like this in AI Dungeon, it’s really all the systems of Heroes that made this a truly powerful story.

  • The constraints of my tactics skill being low led to the hard choice of continuing with fewer troops or arriving after the ritual finished.
  • My limited health gave real danger and meaning to the battle, making every move feel like a life and death decision, eventually forcing me to choose to retreat to stay alive.
  • That danger also made the arrival of our reinforcements much more emotionally powerful, saving us from near certain death.
  • And all of this challenge gives meaning to the progression I make with my skills, abilities and inventories. It means I’ll be more capable next time fight a goblin army or a pack of trolls.
  • The constraints and challenge drove a narrative tension and meaning that gripped me much more than almost any AI Dungeon story I’ve played.

Constraints in Real Life

Constraints and challenge are powerful because true constraints are what drive the stories that matter in the real world too. The epic stories of WW2 are made all the more meaningful because of the challenge and danger of Nazi Germany. Underdog stories like Rocky resonate with us because the constraints force them to be clever, or work hard in ways others don’t have to.

All of this leading to stories that grip us, that resonate with the lives we live and move us in ways that we remember long after the story is told.

– Nick

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