Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

The Illusion of Choice

It’s no secret among people interested in game design that pretty much impossible to create a fully interactive, complete, and extensive narration tree. Ideally, every decision a player takes in a game would influence the rest of the game and the decisions following it. In reality though, such a tree quickly becomes completely impossible to create by human hands. Even if each decision was binary, stories would have to be very low on decision making in order to be manageable. If you let your players only make eight decisions in your whole game, you’d already need to write 256 different endings (and the way there.) 32 decisions would lead to 4,294,967,296 (read: 4 billion!) endings.

There are various approaches to reduce these insanely huge story trees to more manageable numbers. One of my all-time favorite writers on the topic, Chris Crawford, identified a few in “The Art of Interactive Design”.  Probably the simplest one is to go God of War or Final Fantasy XIII style and use obstructionist storytelling. You just have one straight storyline (more or less at least) but add obstacles to overcome in between. It doesn’t matter to the story how you get from point A to point B, just that you do.

Another method is the “kill’em if they stray” approach. Essentially you give your player all these opportunities to make decisions, but if they make the wrong ones they’ll (eventually) die. Among the approaches Crawford describes, this is clearly the worst one, but also one that demonstrates the first signs of what I’m getting at in this post: The game designer isn’t trying to make an actually interactive story; she just attempts to make it look like one. Players are tricked into thinking that their game offers them all these choices, when really it doesn’t.

Foldback according to Crawford's "On Interactive Storytelling" (p. 126)

Another, more common and less blunt, approach is foldback. Player decisions will lead to a branching of the narrative tree for a while, but eventually all the narrative strands will lead back to the same point in the storyline. Modern Bioware games are a good example of this. It doesn’t, ultimately, matter how you decide in Redcliffe but the decision still feels important. Mass Effect 2 is also full of such elements. There are various sub-stories which branch out in themselves but do not actually influence anything in the broader scheme of things.

One version that Crawford doesn’t mention is that of parallel storylines or independent sub-stories. This approach is very close to foldback, but instead of linearly folding the story back to a singular strand of narration you provide a number of ongoing plots that don’t actually influence each other (much). The player will get to make lots of decisions and will still feel as if they matter way down the line, but those decisions will not actually have any influence on what happens in other arcs of the story. The individual trees can (and will have to) apply some foldback as well, but it won’t be as noticeable as it is in a pure foldback system because you won’t have these “I would have arrived at this exact state anyway” moments as much. Imagine a Lord of the Rings computer game for a moment. The events in Helm’s Deep and Isengard really don’t have any influence at all on what happens to Frodo, Sam, and the Ring and really only have an impact on the number of forces available to the good guys in the final battle. I’d still think that Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan arriving at the first light of the fifth day could be a suitably epic and important moment if told right.

There is something to be said for linear storytelling, but if we want non-linearity (and Crawford concurs with me that we do), it seems impossible to do without cheating the player in some way. We simply can’t provide full interactivity in a hand-crafted story (and our computers aren’t clever enough to generate good stories yet.) Any good story-based game will be lying to you, that is simply how the system works.  The issue is of course when the player realizes that she is being lied to. We humans are odd that way, we might intellectually realize that being lied to is imperative, yet we will dislike the game for doing just that when we get to look behind the curtain. One of my main issues with Mass Effect 2 was that the foldback was too obvious to me. If I hadn’t noticed it, the story would probably have been great.

  • Given current AI, the ideal for me is something I’d call “foldback, but.” The story will loop back on itself, but I made choices along the way which in some way roll along with me, even if the overall narrative is the same. It could be that choice A gave me item X while choice B would have given my item Y. Or A was an evil choice while B was good and that has some impact on how NPCs react to me, or like in kotor, affects my force power usage. This way it’s all the same story, but it’s my story. In diagram I see it as almost like choice A causes a parallel story to choice B, which will intersect, using all the same locations, NPCs, perhaps even missions, but they are told differently enough as to be an individual story.

  • At the moment I’m playing the technically mediocre game Alpha Protocol a 2nd time in a row, because it gets the “Illusion of Choice” quite right.
    It’s a bit of foldback mixed with what Klepsacovic said. In the end you arrive at the same spots, fight the same guys (mostly) and meet the same people. But along the way many many things change – so in effect you have .. I don’t know… two or three possible endings. But depending on your choices, the subtlety of your gameplay, etc.. certain people ally with you or betray you, give you money or weapons or intel.
    You can be a nice guy and Person X will help you in a mission. Or you can be an asshole and anger Person X so much he does sth. stupid and helps you without realising it.
    In my 2nd (asshole) playthrough I even didn’t get a (quite important) mission because I just blew the guy away that gave me the needed intel on my 1st time.

    While it isn’t really a free world and not every decision has a major impactm the game gave me quite a new and good feeling of changing things a lot.
    So it can actually be done.

  • Klepsacovic’s notion of having the *player character* affected by choices within the story is indeed another good way to introduce layers of “consequence” without disrupting the story overmuch.

    You could also go the simulationist route, but that’s not the best way to have a strong narrative. Dev narration always works at cross purposes against player agency. That’s just a spectrum each game has to find its own place in. If you want to tell a great story, you have to restrict players. If you want players to tell their own great stories, you can open things up.

    You can also do the Chrono Trigger thing and have a player trial that shows actions have consequences because the game world points them out (but you still wind up in the same place, of course), and/or have a lot of sidequests that affect minor details in the world and/or endings. Smaller details matter to the plausibility of the world, so players care about them, but if you do it right, they don’t scuttle the larger story arcs you have in mind. It’s an illusion of agency, sure, but the little things add up.
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