Scene: Los Angeles, 2071. The police hover-car flies overhead, sirens blazing, as you stare down the sights of your pistol at a robotic saber-toothed tiger with a large gold monocle on its left eye. Watching your every motion, the tiger suddenly speaks with an entirely inappropriate and somewhat squeaky British accent. You are able to make out the phrase, “Why hello there, old chap!” You flip the safety off and a single bead of sweat trickles down your forehead from underneath your fedora.
If you take the shot, you’ll eliminate this genteel feline menace forever. But you also might hit that family of eight behind your archnemesis.
What do you do?
>Shoot Tiger (+3 Good Guy Cards, unlock Holy Healing)
>Hold Fire (+3 Demon Hearts, unlock Orphan Grenade)
>Barter for Monocle (+$100, unlock Monocle)
The above situation is pretty much how I would NOT like to implement the decision-making and choice system in our game, Armour on the Wastes.
Building off of Mike’s post last week about The Stanley Parable, today we will look at how I am trying to avoid this type of player choice design and also create a meaningful sense of player agency throughout our evolving storyline.
Part I: Building a better choice
Our detective above finds himself in a fairly ridiculous quandary, but it’s not necessarily a very interesting one from a game design perspective, or even that of the player. Once you see past the immediate scene, you’ll notice that the player’s potential choices are not weighted on morality alone. Indeed, there are rewards associated with these decisions, rewards that “gamify” the experience and reduce an interesting moral ambiguity into a mere system of statistics.
Instead of making a decision based off of her own sense of right and wrong, the player is instead choosing the reward she thinks will benefit her the most. Sometimes these choices are “role-playing” oriented – such choices often indicate to the player that her character will become more “good” or more “evil”, thereby altering the game’s ending and offering the player the reward of “agency”. But choices can also be made on the basis of tangible gameplay rewards, such as the acquisition of a demonic orphan-powered hand grenade that renders most of the game’s enemies ineffective, or of a nice shiny monocle that does nothing beyond making the character look pretentious and slightly cooler. Whatever the nature of the reward, the choice-making experience is diluted by making the rewards for each choice visible to the player.
Consider an alternate proposal. What if, as Becky Chambers recently suggested, we eliminated the visual element of video game morality entirely from the situation? What if the choice was no longer a system of rewards, and instead the options simply became: Shoot Tiger, Hold Fire and Barter for Monocle?
Well, that gets a lot more interesting doesn’t it? Now it’s no longer clear what the consequences of the player’s decisions will be. Maybe if the player shoots the tiger, she will miss and take out the family – heroism transformed into uncertainty by the mere removal of a morality marker. Maybe if that same player holds fire, it is not necessarily a decision of apathy, of profitability or of misguided video game “evil”, but simply a desire to avoid casualties. And maybe if she barters for the monocle, she and the tiger become best friends and the game will change from a suspense/thriller episode into a bad buddy cop movie.
The point is that removing the visible rewards and the morality markers (+500 good! -500 evil!) suddenly make a very clear cut decision a much more thoughtful and, I would argue, meaningful experience. The choice is no longer about “gaming the game” and trying to attain some optimal situation for your character. Instead, the choice is about what you would do in that situation, and what you think the right decision to make is.
In my own work as writer and lead designer for Armour on the Wastes, I have been coming up with strategies to try and include choices that matter in this way. Our narrative has many branching plot points; but how to get to those plot points, and what impact a player’s decisions have on the world, will not always be evident. I refuse to put in a clear morality system a la Bioware simply because I do not want our players to be saints or sinners. I want them to be human. I would like them to focus on their actions, and on the story, and on the implications of what they are doing – not on filling up a tiny little colored bar that tells them what a good (or bad) person they are.
Part II: Narrative Economy and the Utility of a Branching Storyline
You’re in for a twofer today, folks. I stumbled across this article by Brendan Vance within the last week after reading his review of the excellent Glitchhikers and I found his points on “narrative economy” to be fascinating.
Especially since I am basically doing everything wrong that I can do wrong, according to that article.
If you can’t be bothered to read it, Brendan argues that modern gaming’s focus on multiple story “branches” and on a constant flow of new characters is not a very effective or “economical” way to tell a video game story. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that this style of design has the opposite effect, making it difficult for the player to connect to the plotline or the characters and requiring the game developer to include artificial rewards (such as we discussed earlier) to motivate the player to play farther. Brendan suggests that a more effective way to create choices in video games is to relate them to well-established characters that the player interacts with often and to set up the meaning of those choices well in advance.
Now, if you’re following me so far, I have admittedly avoided one pitfall of Brendan’s, the “proverbial baby save/puppy kick” dilemma of modern game choices– by making the morality system invisible and the reward system unclear to the player. However, as far as the actual structure of the plot goes, I appear to be right in his line of fire. Armour on the Wastes, with its multiple and mutually exclusive story branches, and its huge and diverse cast of characters, appears to be throwing “narrative economy” directly into the trash can. And then maybe throwing the trash can into an incinerator. And then nuking the incinerator. From orbit.
Narrative economy, however, is not something that I think is always strictly necessary. For instance, if you are building more of a Stand on Zanzibar or a Deus-Ex type world, where the central theme of the story is not explicit but rather spilled out over many pages or missions through intense world-building and the introduction of many one-off characters, then the concept of narrative economy goes out the window a bit.
I’m not arguing for the introduction and use of disposable characters to illustrate ideological points or key choices as Brendan mentions briefly in his article; but I do feel that having minor, ancillary characters outside of the main plot helps build the feeling of a real and breathing world. The real key to keeping things “economical” when taking this approach to game storytelling is to make sure that the most story-relevant characters are also the most game-relevant characters. On this point, Brendan and I do agree.
If the whole story centers on a cyber-tiger eating detectives in downtown LA, for instance, then you want to have the tiger as a reoccurring presence in the story, and also have the detectives in question introduced very early in the same manner. That way, the dramatic choice to kill the tiger or call an ambulance for Sergeant Morales actually matters – because you actually know both individuals and have a stake in their fates, as opposed to introducing Morales about two minutes before his death. And if there is no apparent morality system, the choice stands as a far more powerful encounter because the implications of your decision are not clear.
As for story branching – I agree with Brendan that this can be a way to trick the player into caring about decisions. However, I think that in the case of Armour on the Wastes, the hidden nature of our choice system will focus attention onto the player’s relationships with characters and factions, where it belongs – rather than on the implications of the branching plotline decisions.
Story branching may even enhance our experience. Two players can come together and talk about our game only to find that the story had taken completely different paths for both of them, restructuring itself around each player’s choice of ideology and allegiance. In that regard, I think we’ll have an interesting meta level of storytelling going on – what will your choices have said about you, and how do they compare to others? Perhaps this is what Telltale was thinking when they implemented the morality comparison checklist at the end of their Walking Dead episodes, the itemized list of decisions that lets you know how many people made the same decisions you made across the story.
In any case, there are obviously a lot of conscious decisions that must be made when you are talking about adding player choice into a video game. I am pretty confident that I am making the right ones, but also interested to see how it plays out in the end.
For the record, I’d barter for the monocle.