Another Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Choice

8 Aug

If there’s one thing that comes up in all discussions of game narrative, it’s the desirability of player choice.

Sometimes, if a game is built on a branching story structure, choices may be offered independent of game systems or mechanics. (See Telltale, Quantic Dream and others.)

Sometimes, in a game with a more open structure, choices may be expressed through a player’s interaction with simulation elements, systems and mechanics. (See Bethesda, Bioware and — finally… thankfully… – many more).

Happily, finally, everyone involved in games – especially narrative games – gets all that.

However, even with nearly everyone agreeing on the importance of choice as a defining characteristic of gameplay, there’s a trap waiting to ensnare the unwitting:

Simply put, games aren’t, and shouldn’t be, about choice.

To expand on that a bit, it’s important, I think, to get past two widely held beliefs:

First is the idea that choices are of paramount importance, in and of themselves, and by virtue of the nature of the medium.

Second is the idea that choice implies, even requires us to think in terms of, reward and punishment… better and worse… right and wrong… light and dark… good and evil.

I simply don’t get this kind of thinking. I don’t get the exclusive focus on choice. I don’t get the seeming obsession, in choice-driven games, with binary opposition.

Choice. Doesn’t. Matter.

Binary oppositions are boring.

Choices without consequences are meaningless. If they don’t lead to different outcomes – preferably radically different outcomes – what’s the point?

And games that encourage players to think in terms of right and wrong ultimately encourage players to, as I put it, “play the meter” – “Ooh, I’m evil and now I have horns and a bunch of demon tattoos!” or “Ooh, I’m good – see? I have angel wings and a halo.” It’s just ridiculous.

“But wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Aren’t you one of the guys who’s been screaming about player choice for a couple of decades?”

No. I’m not. If you look closely at what I’ve been saying, choice isn’t the be all, end all. Not at all. And it isn’t the key to what some of us have been calling “shared authorship” all these years.

So what the hell have I been screaming about?

Here it is: The interesting aspect of player choice isn’t the choice itself. The interesting thing – the only interesting thing, really – is the revelation of consequences. Choice without consequence is a waste of time, effort and money.

But wait, you say. Doesn’t the word “consequence” imply punishment, which sends us right back to better/worse, good/evil, right/wrong? Doesn’t consequence require designers to impose a value judgment and maybe even provide a good/evil meter so players know where they stand?

Not at all.

One of the hard and fast rules I lay out for my teams is “Never judge the player.” Never. Players should never know what you think about a question or its answer. (See, this is where last week’s blog post about about questions comes in.) You’re not there to answer the questions your game asks players to consider. You’re most assuredly not there, I tell my designers, to say to players “this is right and that is wrong.” Designers exist to provide opportunities for players to test behaviors and then see the consequences of those behaviors. Given the chance, players will judge for themselves whether the benefits gained by making a particular choice were worth the cost of making it.

It may just be me, but in my experience, there are few, if any, questions or situations that lend themselves to clearly defined, universally agreed upon right or wrong answers or solutions. In most real world cases, there are only shades of gray. Even if you disagree (as extremists and believers of all stripes might) I’m comfortable saying that the most interesting situations are the ones where right and wrong are not readily apparent. I don’t understand why more game developers don’t acknowledge that and revel in our medium’s unique ability to reflect the wondrous, complex lack of clarity of the world in which we live.


Okay, so let me try to bring the two parts of this trip down narrative lane full circle. Let me close by saying this about questions, choices and the nature of game narrative:

A successful game narrative isn’t one that tells a great story (though that’s obviously desirable!).

A successful game narrative is one that asks questions.

A successful game narrative gives players the tools to answer those questions both locally (in the moment) and globally (in how the entire story plays out).

A successful game narrative is one that shows shows players the consequences of their local and global decisions, without judging players for making those decisions.

There are only shades of gray and, that being the case, all decisions have costs as well as benefits. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong. (And, yes, I’m a moral relativist at heart…) Even if you disagree, games that reflect that will get players thinking in ways no other medium can match.

A successful game narrative is one that engenders conversations not only about how each player solved a game problem, but also why. Most of the dialogue we hear around games is about optimal strategies or about how moving a cutscene was. How limited and dull that is.

What I want – and hope you want – is to hear players debating the rightness or wrongness of their decisions. I want to hear one player say, “How could you have stolen that?” and another player describing her thought process… I want to hear one player ask, “Why did you leave that guy alive after what he did?” and another make a case for Ghandi-like pacifism… I want to hear players who reach an endgame driven by their choices ask one another, “How could you think that solution was appropriate or right or ethical?”

“Appropriate,” “right” and “ethical” are magic words. Other media can make the claim that they deal with those concepts, too – and they do – but in those media, the words belong to authors while in games, those words can and should belong to players.

Wrap your mind around all this, and we’re on our way to realizing the potential of games as a unique narrative form. Clearly, we owe something to earlier narrative models, but we can and must build on their teachings, maybe even leave those teachings behind to create something more collaborative, more moving and more compelling than any other medium can be.

Embracing choice means we’re halfway there. What do you say we go the rest of the way?


5 Responses to “Another Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Choice”

  1. RemnantPsyche August 8, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    As both a gamer and a lover of storytelling (of all kinds), I enjoy thinking about the different narrative structures in various game types and genres. I’ve always disliked the “good/evil meter” mechanic. This entry helped me to more clearly understand why.

    One of the many Deus Ex scenes that has stuck with me is the final confrontation with Gunther. You can bypass the battle entirely with Gunther’s killphrase. But following a quicksave and an exploration of that option, I had to reload and “officially” choose the fight instead. Though it affected nothing else, using the killphrase was mortifying. That’s good interactive storytelling!

    Two small questions.

    1) DX 1 & 2 can be said to form one larger narrative. Did you have in mind what became the themes of Invisible War while creating the original game? In the previous blog entry you listed four questions central to Deus Ex, and the fourth seems to be entirely related to IW.

    2) How far into the development of IW was the decision made to highlight as a major narrative theme the player’s lack of meaningful control over the consequences of his/her actions? (The Peaquod/Queequeg side mission comes to mind.) I’ve always thought that was a bold, effective, and ultimately haunting shift for a series built on player choice.

  2. Patrick Block August 8, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    I’ve played a few online RPGs that really were just game systems or structures that offered the players ways of constructing worlds which included built in morality/social systems that let the players build societies and really play out roles in a way that removed them from their actual selves in very strong ways. Neverwinter Nights by Bioware was a game that allowed this magic to happen. The inclusion of a Gmaemaster component and world building tools allowed up to 64 souls to “live” in a world made and run by groups of other players who provided story/towns/society as well as monsters and stories. The inclusion of traditional D&D alignments including shades of good and evil and law and order, and a heavily enforced in character roleplaying requirement made these worlds quite wonderful to play in, when competent, thinking players ran them.

    I think that the best of these games don’t ask questions of the players- but rather, like the best films, can cause players themselves to ponder what the questions are. There is a subtle difference. Sometimes asking questions is much too obvious. Instead, the player is better off feeling there is some nagging, troublesome something, (about the human condition), that is lurking within whatever it is they have seen or has happened to them. The very best games, books, movies bring up issues in ways the player/viewer has never encountered in quite this way before…to the point that it can take hours/days or even weeks of reflection to pull back the curtain on more trivial aspects and truly understand what they participated in.

    Most of us know this feeling more from a deep, thinking film, rather than from a gaming experience…but I have found that it does exist in gaming world, in ways even more impactful than film, because you are more immersed and surrounded by the game, and you are playing a part in the endeavor.

    Interesting stuff, Warren!

  3. Adam Lacoste August 8, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

    Warren, would you agree that Telltale’s recent games (despite your reservations about calling them such) are pretty good exemplars of this principle? Rarely in the Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us (the two I’ve played) are you making choices that are clearly about right and wrong; rarely does the game make clear what its designers thought the right answer was. Frequently you are presented with an ethical dilemma that asks you to decide something about yourself as a human being — or, if you are more inclined toward abstracted roleplaying, about the character you are playing.

    Another excellent example I would call out would be the Witcher games. They revel in presenting you with choices between two bad options and letting you decide the lesser evil. They also like to withhold all pertinent information until after the decision is made, so that you will usually have cause to re-evaluate your decision. If the games have an artistic statement to make, it is probably that you can only make the best decision you can with the information available, but you are never guaranteed a positive outcome for it.

  4. CdrJameson August 12, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    I think you’re overlooking the power of at least one consequence-less choice: style.
    You can do something with finesse, or you can do it with brute force. Same end result, different choice of methods.

    • Chris August 14, 2015 at 2:14 am #

      That choice usually has a very visceral, stylish, “consequence.” It doesn’t fall into the ethical dilemmas Warren’s talking about, but the reason I care about it is absolutely because, at a micro level, it has a consequence, same as bulldozing a planet to make room for a new interstellar superhighway has a moral consequence.

      While it doesn’t exactly fit in the examples Warren said above, I would propose that your idea is a natural extension of the idea of consequence.

      Deus Ex embodies this nicely, actually – if you sneak around, you don’t just get to avoid murdering people, but you’ll often here snippets of conversation that make you feel smart, by showing how ignorant the guards are of your presence. 😉

      > Designers exist to provide opportunities for players to test behaviors and then see the consequences of those behaviors. Given the chance, players will judge for themselves whether the benefits gained by making a particular choice were worth the cost of making it.

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