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In narrative games, self-expression doesn't mean 'empowerment'
In narrative games, self-expression doesn't mean 'empowerment' Exclusive
November 18, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

November 18, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

At NYU Game Center's Practice conference over the weekend, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin of Telltale's The Walking Dead (and recently of their own outfit, Campo Santo), believe a well-designed choice focuses on giving the player opportunity for self-expression, and having the game provide a response.

"Empowerment" is a funny term in games, Vanaman suggests. "As an industry, we have a perverse obsession in game design with making sure the player 'feels powerful.' We don't really buy into that, a ton."

"It's potentially possible to conflate the notion of player agency with the potential for player power," adds Rodkin. "It's putting the player in control of the game, it's about making sure they can express what's going on and how they feel about a game."

Self-expression needs to happen within the scope of production: When you make a content-driven game, you're often developing content before other things come online, so designers need to be smart so as not to waste artist resources on arcs that get scrapped later. And the content has to enlighten entertain teach or surprise the player.

"Narrative choices which aren't fun in a moment is like making a shooter where the guns suck," says Rodkin.

"Fun isn't the right word," adds Vanaman, "but choices that feel fulfilling to make."

What characters don't say often tells us about who they are, says Vanaman, pointing to some of the intentional limitations placed on Lee's dialogue choices.

The team tried to make choices that encouraged the player to think about the things they'd done in the game. That fulfills the team's goal of highlighting choice as meaningful self-expression. Give players the room to determine how they feel, and a way to tell it to the game, the pair suggest.

"The Walking Dead is effectively a corridor that you go down, of bespoke spaces with different encounters in them, and you as a player determine on how you are going to play through those encounters, and the game doesn't make a value judgment on you at all," Rodkin says.

Even though the mechanics of a game like Dishonored are completely different, "to me that maps directly to how I play through Dishonored, when I'm deciding whether I'm going to kill someone or not."

A choice between four outcomes of a situation can create four very different stories, even if the circumstances leading up to the outcomes are similar -- the narrative arc can end up meaning very different things to different people.

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Ty Underwood
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It would be interesting to see what happens when developers evolve beyond simply using dialogue choices. Adding a timer on those choices is definitely innovation, but it's only a small step away from an old mechanic.

Tanya X Short
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Timers on dialogue choices have been around at least since Indigo Prophecy/Farenheit (2005). In my opinion, Walking Dead excelled in execution and polish, and any 'innovations' were less about technology and more about storytelling, which is what they're discussing here... expanding the idea of agency beyond power fantasies.

Brian Moriarty briefly spoke at MIGS last week about an essay he wrote 20 years ago, predicting that PURE interaction (as opposed to a mix of interaction and passivity) would always be more hardcore. He claims he predicted the popularity of what one of his students dubbed "walkies" (Gone Home, Dear Esther, and to some extent Walking Dead and Heavy Rain).

It certainly seems to me that I've had the strongest emotional connection with NPCs and right-brain immersion in games that were unchallenging in any classic game design sense... not counting social connections with other humans, in co-operative games or virtual worlds. Then, challenge is the glue that holds us together!

Robert Crouch
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I wonder what the next evolution could be?

Anything that uses real language processing will be awkward both from a development side and from a technical/narrative side.

If you're trying to interact in dialog, either you have responses pre-written, or the player authors those responses. In the 80s and 90s there were games where the player wrote in response to conversation. Kings Quest and Ultima come to mind.

I think we could do a better job of interpreting player input now, but I don't think typing on a keyboard is going to be popular soon. Speech recognition might be a way to interact, but I would expect resistance to having to speak to your game.

Players can direct narrative through non-dialog ways, but when it comes to interacting through direct spoken responses, I'm curious where we can go apart from pre-written answers or pre-written actions with conditions or tests.

A timer on a dialog choice is an immediate test. There's other things like Fallout I,II, where you have intelligence checks on dialog choices which is a tradeoff made earlier in the game.

Maria Jayne
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Just for the record, I despised that dialogue timer. It began as soon as all the options were presented but it often meant I was pressured into making a decision BEFORE I had time to read and consider all the options available.

A better mechanic would have been to present each option with a 2 second delay allow the player time to read each response in order and then, when all of the response have been shown, then begin the timer to pressure the decision. Perhaps add a way to bring up the next dialogue option quicker if you're a speed reader or the option is succinct.

Pressure the decision, not the ability to read fast enough.

George Ramirez
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I actually like dialog choices; when games have an inter-character element (persona 4, neverwinter nights 2) they can be extremely engaging. It is not what goes on in the machine, so much, but what goes on the player's head. Sure, we might see some expansion into other forms of character dialog, but dialog choices will never be out of style.