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.
And 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 my last 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?