Making the Tough Decisions – Choice and Storytelling

In the last couple weeks I have found myself swimming amidst a sea of churning debate regarding the nature of interactive storytelling. Interactive storytelling has interested me for a long time. From the early educational video games of my childhood I took my first baby-steps into the world of RPGs through Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic, leading me with ever more confident strides to games like The Witcher, Baldur’s Gate, the Tales series, FalloutMass Effect, and many others. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed linear games. Bioshock, Metro: Last Light, and Half-Life 2 rank among some of my favorite games of all time, but I always seemed to hold the mechanic of “choice” presented by RPGs over these linear games.

A couple of weeks ago Extra Credits (a YouTube channel focused on game design, game criticism, and the game industry) released a video about the use of choice in The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. I’m a big fan of Extra Credits, it could be said that they were the force that prompted me to begin exploring the strange world of game design, and this episode was particularly interesting to me – primarily because it made me doubt all my previous assumptions regarding the inclusion of choice in video games.

As a big fan of RPGs I’ve always subscribed to the theory that interaction is what separates video games from other mediums, and that the inclusion of narrative choice was the pinnacle of player-game interaction. Narrative choices involve the player in the story, allow the story to take hold as an active part of the player’s psyche. A viewer of a film may be invested in the story, but only passively, in a game the player becomes invested in a story by becoming part of the story. Or so my thinking went.

What Extra Credits made me realize is that the choices offered in games like Mass Effect or Fallout can often work against the narrative and the player experience. And what’s worse is that its the player – me – that is destroying the experience. Looking back, I can identify multiple occasions where I made a choice in a game that I was not happy with, so I reloaded to previous save to get a better outcome. This “rinse-and-repeat” method of playing not only breaks the narrative, but separates me as a player from the experience of the game. The choice no longer becomes meaningful, and my search for escapism consumes itself as I break away from the game – I kill the storyline and attempt to reconstruct it into a frankenstein of perfect outcomes: all my favorite characters alive, my avatar matched with my favorite character, the best ending achieved. In the search for ideal escapism I have abandoned the power of story. The death of a favorite character is a powerful event, it evokes feeling, it presents opportunity for character growth. And if a character dies due to a choice made by the player the player should experience those feelings of loss and growth. The story should become more personal. But it seems that these kind of choices are rare in the world of modern video games.

A week after Extra Credits posted their video, Prof. David Ciccoricco came to Vassar College as a guest speaker. His talk examined the nature of simulation through video games, examining the potential of simulated experiences through such games. Ciccoricco used the game Papa y Yo as a lens through which to view simulated experiences. He pointed out how, in the game, the player’s companion Lula becomes a focal point for simulating the experience of loss. Lula accompanies the player throughout the game and serves a mechanical role as a sort of jetpack – allowing the player to double-jump. In the course of the game’s story, Lula is lost. Ciccoricco said that he really felt loss, not only through the narrative, but mechanically when he realized he could not traverse the world with the freedom and ease as when he had his companion.

So can we implement mechanics to express loss in games with choices? And can we balance these experiences of loss with a desire to continue playing? I’m certainly not qualified to provide an answer to these questions. Perhaps the answers lie in the methods of CD Projekt RED, where consequences for choices are delayed in the game. Or perhaps we should look to games like Heavy Rain and Until Dawn where the game features only one save. Maybe it’s the pointless yet poignant decisions of Kentucky Route Zero that hold the key to choice-driven experiences.

I will say, I think this is an issue that goes beyond the responsibilities of game designers – we the players will need to learn to embrace the tough decisions. To accept the experiences of loss and disappointment afforded by choices. No medium should be defined by what people want, and video games are not an exception. To play a video game is to be a part of a story, and a story ebbs and flows with its own life. Even if we can make choices in a game, we must learn to experience a story for what it is separate from our desires to control the narrative. The story has been written, we are not playwrights, we are actors. We must play the parts given to us, no matter how tragic they must be.

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