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ISGD: Issues with Real Choices and lots of NPC White Lies
by Alfe Clemencio on 01/08/10 08:32:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Normally video gamers can ignore most of the story and player through a game and win. No matter what betrayal would happen, they just need to be skilled at completing objectives. They understand this and aren't really concerned about the betrayal except for maybe the equipment they might lose. They passively listen to the story as listening to the story doesn't provide any gameplay benefit.

So what happens when you give that same player real choices and NPCs that tell "white" lies that could be fatal? This presents a lot of unique game design problems as you have to solve at least a few of them to make the game enjoyable.

Issue #1: Players not figuring out that lies even exist or that they can do something about them

Players are so used to blindly following the objectives given to them that some of them will just believe anything that the NPCs tell them. Even if you get another NPC to say something like "Don't trust them." It doesn't exactly tell the player that they can do something about it. At most they'll strip that untrustworthy character of all their gear. Then they'll wait for the betrayal.

In Fading Hearts after every ending, there are some commentators that give the player feedback on how they did, what they can improve on, and some hints of what to do next. Having an unexpected ending (Ryou may die) that will occur if a player chooses to blindly follow what the game tells them helps when combined with the post-playthrough commentary.

Issue #2: Difficulty of Designing Lies (or fatally inaccurate truths)

How do you design a lie that is critical for players to figure out? This actually is a bit more of a probablity problem in the general case. Combined with where you put the hints (or lies), how believable the lie is, and how strong the hint is makes for a complex issue filled with a lot of creative potential. The risk is where the player might get stuck or not experiece the greater parts of the story.

Here is an example of an inaccurate truth that helps illustrates this issue.

Issue #2: Playthrough #1 example

There is a legend about a legendary healer and legendary knight. The healer has the warmest heart and the strongest healing and support magic. The knight has a fighting spirit, a will to protect and the greatest swordsmanship skills. They will join forces to defeat the evil lord in a grand battle. The kingdom has found them and sends them on their journey to defeat the evil lord.

The knight is always kind to children and always wants to help. His skills are unmatched in the battlefield however. The healer wanted to become the legendary healer and she was fiercely competitive in her magical school. The player expects a twist soon involving their roles.

Eventually the Legendary Heroes defeat the Evil Lord and all is well. The boss seemed a little hard even for a final boss.

It seems a bit off or cliche. There's also a plot thread that seems to go nowhere. For an interactive storyline, it's required.

Issue #2: Playthrough #2 example

Same beginning only now the heroes hear about the Legendary weapons that only the legendary heroes can wield. They seek them out and find the sword for the legendary knight first. The knight tries to pull the sword out of the stone but cannot! The knight loses his will to fight for awhile but then resolves to guide the legendary healer to her legendary weapon.

They get to healer's legendary weapon. She cannot pull the magical staff out of the stone either! They get really discouraged at not being the chosen heroes.

The player can still continue on to the rest of Playthrough #1 story. If the player has been paying attention to the story, they might try to get the knight to pull the staff out or the healer to pull out the sword. Then they will find that it works! Then the heroes will unlock their true powers.

You can see the issue if the player doesn't figure out that there was something they can do. 

Issue #3:  Why should the player try to foil the lie?

When a player figures out a very well-crafted lie (or inaccurate truth) , they should get rewarded outside of the story as well. In the above case, it's a lot of powerful abilities that they would not get otherwise. There should also be a boss that would be very difficult without the weapons and an alternate ending.


Just making the story interactive isn't enough at times. You can create a compelling story but there are a lot of design issues just to allow the player to do something about them.

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Steve Mallory
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Interesting article, if a bit flawed.

If the developers lie to the player, then much like any relationship, when the next big test comes up, the player begins to question if the developer is telling the truth about how to solve the problem at hand and may not perform as expected when told what to correctly do, fearing a trick or lie.

Alfe Clemencio
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The "Game-as-Story" becomes figuring out what is true and what false.

To figure out what players will try to do and gently point them in the direction to go requires a bit of testing. If a lot of players aren't finding out the lie then you place more hints. You can even have a progressive hint-system. Make it like a reputation system where the more tasks you do, the stronger hints you are given on the secrets. You can make it go all the way up to the point where you give away the answer in a story inducing plot-twist. Players who figure it out immediately will get a character that is more powerful at an earlier stage of the game. Players who don't get it will eventually find out after getting through 20-30% of the game.

With the above example in the article, you can get those weapons at level 20 but the quest that tells you how requires a level of 60.

Steve Mallory
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Then is it a lie?

No, it's a progressively uncovered quest where the correct answer is merely temporarily obscured. The choice, then, is still binary, but early in the process, why the answer is wrong is not immediately revealed to the player, creating a layer of tension that is not easily explained to the player without completely revealing both the nature of the lie and the solution.

Alfe Clemencio
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Hmm... I suppose I don't quite like it a binary choice. If I were really going to going to make a game like this then I would make several other things dependent on the timing of obtaining the weapons. It could make a "Losing battle" winnable and alter the storyline.

I suppose I'll write next about how to let a player "take a third option" without explicitly telling them what the third option is. Are there games that do that already though that is not interactive fiction?

Steve Mallory
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There are plenty of games that provide multiple choices, but the choices are explicitly presented, even if the results of the decisions are not explicitly described. Remember, if you are making a game, gameplay always trumps story. A good story makes a good game great. But a good game is not explicitly hindered by bad story.

I guess I'm having a hard time following what you are saying without some sort of flowchart for the story or story progression. It sounds like you have some preconceived assumptions you haven't outlined or clarified enough for me to follow.

Alfe Clemencio
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Which part are you having a hard time following? I do want to clarify whatever assumptions I forget to mention.

Steve Mallory
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Well, like you just listed above:

"Hmm... I suppose I don't quite like it a binary choice. If I were really going to going to make a game like this then I would make several other things dependent on the timing of obtaining the weapons. It could make a "Losing battle" winnable and alter the storyline. "

It sounds like the choices you are describing needs illustrating. You clearly have an idea of this, which is good, but I'm not sure it is illustrated all that clear for others to follow :)

Alfe Clemencio
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In RPGs, there might be some "unwinable battles" where you are supposed to lose. Sometimes even if you somehow win, the story makes you lose anyways.

If you complete that quest of finding the weapons early then you can defeat the bad guy early and drastically change the story. If you do it later on then it becomes a simple end-game side quest like any other RPG.

To make choices a little bit more complicated and a lot more than binary, you can make "when" a part of that choice.