Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Should Games Have Meaningful Choices?

Jon Ingold, co-founder of Inkle Studios, talked for almost 50 minutes before addressing the main question posed by the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain: How do you make choices matter in video games? When he finally considered it, his answer was brief.

“You don’t,” Ingold quipped. “Choices are a tool for getting the player to do two things: Firstly, to buy into the game and be hooked by it, and secondly, to take some responsibility for it.”

Honestly, it was how good professional education events play out — the real value came from hearing Ingold exploring the ideas behind the question and discussing the challenges of telling interesting stories. 

When Ingold writes complicated story plots for interactive fiction, they branch less frequently than it appears. “I tend to work in scenes,” he said, and his scenes have a single entry point and a single exit point. The space between those points is where players explore how characters to relate to each other. 

Ingold explained that the emotional interplay happening between entry and exit distracts the audience from more conventional work that steers them towards the next part of the story. “It’s all there to make you feel like you’ve been moved through an experience, and that’s the game,” he said. 

When this approach works well, it produces a game like Heaven’s Vault — game designers have praised it for tracing a single broad arc while providing completely different experiences each time it is played. Andrew Plotkin described Heaven’s Vault as “a game with multiple middles.” 

From a design perspective, Ingold opposes the idea of players having complete control over a story. “If a player can just walk into a room and do whatever they want, then what’s the point of playing this game?” He added, “You might as well play with Lego, because Lego does what you tell it to.” 

Ingold prefers stories that respond to player decisions in ways that offer surprise and entertainment. He repeated a point made by Meg Jyanth during her 2016 discussion of the design decisions behind 80 Days: “Who ever heard of that story where a protagonist gets exactly what they want?”

Ingold also dislikes updates and notifications that clearly indicate what has been altered by player choices. “I might as well be the game designer, I might as well just control the numbers under the hood.”

This contrasts with game designers who clearly indicate how the player’s choices change variables within the game. Josh Labelle’s game, Tavern Crawler, successfully used such an approach to tie for first place in the 2020 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Like Ingold, Labelle included tradeoffs in his story where players lost access to some plots by choosing to explore others in more detail.)

One attendee seemed to think it was clever to demand a direct answer to the event’s question about making choices matter in video games, which seems like it misses the point. If there was One Right Way to tackle this challenge, then we could just distribute a .PDF and be done with it. 

Well-written games make conscious design choices to support a specific philosophy. Ingold spent an hour describing the philosophy that guided his choices, and the event’s moderator, Samantha Webb, did an excellent job of keeping the conversation moving to explore adjacent ideas about game design and the craft of writing.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain organized the event as part of their Write On series, and watching the presentation was time well spent. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Immorality, or Impatience?

Game designer Peter Molyneux famously stated that Americans were unlikely to play games as evil characters. He claimed that only 10% of them were willing to make the unseemly moral choices entertained by their more “free and liberated” counterparts in Europe and Japan. Other detailed studies have also examined how often players make “evil” choices.

I can’t tell whether these studies have accounted for impatience. 

The Outer Worlds comes to mind: it's a game where players regularly make decisions that have serious consequences for the inhabitants of Halcyon System. I’ve seen what happens when an altruist unites different factions to ensure their collective survival, and I often wonder what would happen if a greedy sociopath set out to claim the system’s resources for himself. 

…and then I remember that I’d have to endure all those loading screens again. 

It’s not moral revulsion that prevents me from exploring these choices, it’s an aversion to tedium. I know that fully implemented storylines offer entirely new narratives, but I was tired of fighting the same four enemies during my first trip through the story. The possibility of a new story is interesting, but it's not interesting enough to make me grind through the same challenges a second time. 

People have used Molyneux’s claim to gripe about the work involved in offering a meaningful choice — why waste effort creating an “evil” story arc if nobody will choose to experience it? Those complaints ignore the fact that sometimes the gameplay is a bigger problem than the narrative. 

Being “liberated” might not have anything to do with it; the success of the Hitman franchise shows that people are willing to play as evil characters. Audiences are interested in exploring evil story paths, but not interested enough to put up with the boring parts more than once.