Storyteller preview: In the eye of the beholder

Storyteller at GDC

"Wait, save that. No one's done it that way before. You made it more complicated."

Daniel Benmergui reached out to grab the mouse and save a screenshot of my panels in his comic-book narrative game, Storyteller, where I had just concocted a tale of love and loss based on the page's prompt, using a trio of static characters. One click and Benmergui let me regain control – he resumed his place over my shoulder in a quiet room off of the main GDC concourse, paper and pen in hand, taking notes on my visible thought processes as they played out on-screen.

It didn't feel as if he were judging me for any missteps or silly lapses in narrative logic – In Storyteller, there are no right or wrong answers, as long as the setting is satisfied. It's up to the player to concoct her own story, based on prompts such as "Adam is heartbroken but recovers," "Tim betrays Adam for money but kills himself out of regret" and "A mother murders her own daughter out of jealousy."

Every panel set-up comes with the prompt and a series of characters, objects and/or dialogue boxes. The characters each have specific, ingrained characteristics, such as Adam, the faithful lover, Maria, the fickle philanderer, Teresa, who comes back to life, or Tim, the villain. Hovering over each character reveals their traits, and each one can be placed in every panel once, if necessary, in order to tell the suggested story.

Depending on the personalities and proximity of one character to another, they fall in love, have their hearts broken or are completely neutral toward each other. Adding objects changes their stories – if Adam is next to a treasure chest, he's rich, and Tim may want to murder him to steal his gold. If Adam is next to a gravestone, when in the previous panel he was in love with Maria, he's mourning the death of his love.

With the dialogue boxes, players must satisfy the prompt while insuring the written words in each panel match the actions in that square, adding a layer of complexity to the task.

Storyteller preview In the eye of the beholder

Storyteller's premise sounds simple, but it's deceptively deep – there are a myriad of ways to tell the same story, and that's what Benmergui was watching out for as I played. For a game based on every individual player's unique sense of progression and poetry, this had to be Benmergui's beta test.

He's attempting to make Storyteller accept all of the possible, logical outcomes for each panel, and there is a system ingrained in the gameplay that rewards fresh perspectives. Players receive stars for depicting the prompt in fewer panels than given, for altering the order of events or telling a different story with the same outcome. After a panel is solved, the possible stars pop up and players can rearrange the characters without losing that first solution, in order to hit all of the goals.

Another mode has players attempt to make Constantin – a tiny, bearded face in the corner of each panel – happy, by solving the story in the fewest number of moves, in the most concise way. It's another way of asking players to think differently, broaden their approaches to different stories.

Storyteller has evolved from its roots in a sandbox prototype of the same name that Benmergui started work on in 2008. In 2011, he announced the new Storyteller as a comic-narrative puzzle game, and his most ambitious project to date; he guessed it would be out within a year. In 2012, Storyteller secured the IGF Nuovo Award for innovation, but it still wasn't on track for an official release. Now Benmergui says it should launch in the beginning of 2014, coming to PC and Mac via Steam, and to iOS and Android tablets.

Benmergui pulled up a sneak peek at the game's new art style, which features fuller, more animated characters with brighter colors, more details and deeper expressions. It could be the spark that brings Storyteller to life, but really, that's up to the players.