Part Three: Revealing a Protagonist's Inner Life
A good rule of thumb when writing interactive narratives: If a game does not acknowledge a decision in the story, that decision, for story purposes, never existed.
The acknowledgment can be small, but somehow, a player's decisions must appear in-game to be validated. If a player chooses to publicly fistfight his superior officer in a military game, this should come up again... and probably more than once, with quite a few characters. If a player chooses to create an African-American character in "American Civil War: The RPG", then the story should play out differently in places than if the player created a white character.
Now consider another type of example. If I'm playing a fantasy RPG and dress my character in robes instead of plate mail, do other characters react as if my character were a mage instead of a knight? Even if I really am playing a knight?
In most games, no -- clothes don't matter. Clothes are a game mechanic, but they have no story component. They are not validated as a choice in the narrative. They are compartmentalized in a separate part of the player's mind.
Which brings us to inner conflict. Even if we build a story and a set of decision points in accordance with the principles outlined in part two, if a player character's inner conflict is not called out explicitly (and repeatedly -- games are long, and players may take breaks of days or weeks between sessions), it does not exist in the game's story. It exists as a possibility in the mind of the player, if at all, but not as part of an integrated whole.
Deux Ex: Human Revolution does an excellent job of exploring the player character's inner life early on. It puts the player through a major trauma related to the themes of the game (cybernetic implantation), then has different characters voice their concern over how it may or may not psychologically affect the player character.
The player is essentially told, "The trauma you've experienced will change you; if it doesn't, it's because you made the decision to fight against it." The inner conflict is explicitly identified.
The player character is also repeatedly asked about his feelings regarding his cybernetic implants, allowing him to voice his reactions. Even if the player chooses a "I don't want to talk about this" option, it forces the player to consider how his or her character would respond.
Dialogue options that give the player the ability to express a variety of different feelings suggesting genuine inner conflict are an incredibly powerful tool. Another character -- a superior, a psychiatrist, a close friend, a mocking enemy -- asking "How do you feel about X?" and giving the player a chance to answer will validate the interior life of some players (who may have already been role-playing reactions in their heads) and force others to consider the player character's psychological state.
If the player character is consistently denied opportunities to speak about his or her interior life, potential internal conflicts will fade from the player's mind. Potential character progression will go unacknowledged by the game itself.
Part Four: Things to Consider and Conclusions
Summing up, a few easy questions to consider when developing a branching narrative:
If I choose the default player response from start to finish, does the player character appear to grow and change as a person? Does the story react to and acknowledge the player character's growth?
Does the story push the player into new circumstances that force him or her to re-evaluate his or her values and methods of decision-making?
Is the player character's inner conflict validated by dialogue options? Are situations and non-player characters established that draw forth responses from the player reflecting his or her inner conflict?
Much of this article may seem obvious to game writers. Nonetheless, I believe it's helpful to have a common language and a common frame of reference for discussions of theme and long-form character development -- and I also believe that we should have such discussions more often than we do. We often feel our way through these story issues without explicitly passing on the lessons we learn to newcomers, and without examining our assumptions as a community.
So, too, do we often focus on individual elements of interactive narrative -- how to write an engaging conversation, how to ensure the player understands the plot, how to create player choices that don't become too costly to implement -- at the expense of less modular elements like the player character's own narrative arc.
"Meaningful player character arc" isn't a feature that can be easily advertised on a box or shown in a company presentation. A player character that evolves along with the player can't be demoed in fifteen minutes at E3 or gamescom. But everything we've discussed intimately and profoundly affects a player's engagement with the game. That makes it worth considering.