False Choice: Bad for Stories, Bad for Games, Inevitable in Story-Games

We at Dinofarm enjoy great things.  A screenplay is great when an empathic link is forged between audience and character through a seamless, delicately woven web of plot threads.  Eventually, a profound value is revealed after a surprising, yet inevitable climax.  Such a screenplay can change someone’s  life, or at the very least, lead to weeks of contemplation.

A great game can lead to the same kind of enrichment, but does so in its own ways.  After several matches of games like Go, Texas Hold ‘Em or Tetris, the mind is tickled in a way that only great games can tickle it.  They too cause contemplation, but not in the same way a narrative does.  Great games leave a person pondering over the deep possibility space they have only just begun to see.  A true lover of any great game will lay in bed and dream up new, lateral, creative ways to overcome the infinite challenges that lie in this ocean of a game space.

In thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that both mediums, while inherently very different, do have a strong corollary, and that corollary is real, meaningful decisions. Again, since both mediums are so inherently different, this is going to mean something different for each, but just the same, it all comes down to choice.  Real choice.

I’m no expert in fiction, but I am an avid hobbyist, and have taken to considerable self-study.  In these pursuits, I have discovered some useful lenses through which I evaluate the stories I take in.  I became interested in learning why it is I like a character and why I care about what happens to him.

 

Character Development

I’ve observed that “character development” is a term thrown around by every moviegoer age 13 and upward, and every discussion I have on the matter seems to yield a different definition of the word.  To many, “Character Development” is simply a combination of backstory, physical descriptions and expository dialogue.  Many friends of mine through the years have complained, upon exiting the theater featuring the latest superhero movie, that the story was “okay, but lacked character development.”  If I were to ask them what they meant, they too would probably turn to backstory, description and more expository dialogue.  I argue that this does just as little, in many cases, to develop a character as the senseless action everyone complains about.

First I should point out what I believe the goal of character development to be.  I believe that it’s all about forging an empathic link with the character, so that when the climax arrives, we feel what they feel.  Whatever life-changing value they take away from that climax, we too must take.  If that is our goal for character development, then character development must lie in the character making ambiguous, tough, irreversible decisions under pressure, the outcome of which is surprising, yet inevitable.

Suprising, Yet Inevitable

This is the holy grail of storytelling.  Anyone could do surprising(“and then our heroes were….TELEPORTED BY A MAGICAL DOLPHINOID ALIEN”) which, on its own, is cheap.  Anyone could do inevitable(“She gets pulled over by a cop as she speeds to her son’s big game.  Her excuses don’t work until she decides to tell the TRUTH and the cop goes ‘i’ll let you off with a WARNING.’*cue 90s orchestra theme*”) which we buy out of because it satisfies our predictions 1 to 1.  It’s my belief that only when you get the audience to say “I can’t BELIEVE THAT JUST HAPPENED….but…it couldn’t have happened any other way…” do you have a great story.  It’s so… hard to do.  I certainly can’t do it!  And it only comes from real, ambiguous choice, or dilemma.

We’re all unconsciously familiar with the power of dilemma in our stories, and we’re also unconsciously offended by its opposite: FALSE CHOICE. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood headhunters hired to find great screenplays and spruce them up for blockbuster appeal must have read at some point that “The hero must have a choice to make at the climax.”  Apparently not understanding why this is so important to the art of story, they often shoehorn in these choices when there really isn’t a choice to make.  It’s the illusion of choice. All the dramatic music and earth-shattering deliveries of an A-lister cannot make the choice real.  And our brains know it deep down.

Spoiler Alert!

THE FOLLOWING WILL INCLUDE EXAMPLES OF BOTH REAL AND FALSE CHOICE IN MANY CLIMACTIC MOMENTS FROM BREAKING BAD,  HARRY POTTER,  CONAN THE BARBARIAN(2011),  STAR WARS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and DEATH NOTE.

his section is long, but you only need to read one of each (or all, if you want).  I wanted to provide several examples of both real and false choice in story to cover what people may have seen/not seen/don’t care about spoiling.

 

REAL CHOICE 1: STAR WARS

*whistlin' hobo voice* "That'sh right, shunnie, jus' EYEBALL it! HEH HEH!"

I’ll start with something light and fun and likely something most people have seen.  You might think that in archetypal, “hero’s journey” type stuff you can’t have a real choice.  It tends to be “kill the bad guys or else die,” which is not a choice(though often it is presented as one.)

Real Choice: However, the climax of Star Wars, while on its face is a pretty straight ahead concept — “shoot the torpedo in the thing or else die” — the curveball is thrown while tension is spiked.  The disembodied voice of Obi-Wan says “use the force Luke,” telling him to turn off his targeting computer and use the mystical powers he was taught.  “The force” is really just a metaphor for life and the human spirit.  You might think it’s just a little fantasy gimmick, but that moment is supported by every mechanical and thematic gesture of the plot.  The major theme at play in Star Wars is “man vs. machine”.  The death star, even referred to in the film as a “technological terror”, threatens to wipe out life as we know it on countless worlds.

This targeting computer of Luke’s is ostensibly the best shot at making his mark, because his other choice is essentially listening to an auditory hallucination.  However, the audience just witnessed the targeting computer failing when Red Leader,  their senior pilot, gives it a shot, misses and dies.  This increases the feasibility of turning it off, making it a more ambiguous choice.  Further, the targeting computer represents this man vs. machine theme, so deactivating it is yet another thematic ripple.  The choice really could go either way, and though you may not be conscious of it, you learned something about who Luke is.  When tested under pressure, he trusts his instincts and has faith in the force, a personality trait you ascribe to him and see manifest in the following films.  If there had been no choice at all, if it had just bee “kill the bad guys or die,”  what would we have learned about who Luke is, and how could we have vicariously participated in his struggle or forged an empathic link with him?

 

FALSE CHOICE 1: HARRY POTTER

Harry Potter is not a character.  There are characters in these stories, but our protagonist certainly isn’t one of them.  Call me crazy, but if your main character makes practically zero ambiguous or meaningful decisions in seven entire novels, that might be a bad sign… here’s what I mean.

"Murder?' I thought your middle name was 'Character who would never murder."

False Choice: In story 5, psycho evil witch Bellatrix LeStrange  kills Harry’s only known living wizard relative.  He’s pissed.  Then he topples the murderer and he is given the following “choice.”

Voldomort is like “KILL HER HARRY! KILLL HEERRRRR”  And at first you’re like “She done killed his uncle.  What’s he gonna do?”….

…but we know what he’s going to do.  Harry Potter is NOT A MURDERER. There hasn’t been one plot thread in FIVE stories that even hinted that Harry is capable of cold blooded murder.  Sure, he can talk a big game and has a strong sense of justice, but we can pretty much rely on him to “do the right thing,” ESPECIALLY when it comes to the major turning points of the plot.  This is an example of pay-off with no set-up, and it’s very much the illusion of choice.  This is subliminally insulting.

Sacrifice yourself...or DIE!

False Choice: in Harry Potter 7, the climax culminates to what is essentially “Sacrifice yourself, or DIE!” and it’s dressed up as a choice.  You see, in order for Voldomort to die, Harry must die!  So Harry must make a sacrifice.  One might argue, “Hey, avoiding the ultimate sacrifice is a strong motivator.  I mean, what happens if he ?”

“Oh he and all his friends will ultimately be hunted down and murdered.”

“Oh.”

In seven stories, we really know nothing about who this person is other than “he’s a good guy,” “he’s a hero,” “he loves his friends,” “he loves his parents,” etc.  He gets broody and mad and stuff, but it’s all inconsequential, because when it comes down to testing his will, he never makes any decision that has an ambiguous answer, the consequences of which were permanent and effected the plot in a significant way.  Most importantly, nothing forced him to change.  The reason we feel something when characters change is because people change.  Major events worth writing a story about would shake your average person to the core, changing them permanently.  So if our protagonist is constantly in life threatening situations and doesn’t make a change, we cannot relate to them on a human level.

Harry Potter is not a character.  He is an empty shell surrounded by people making decisions and antagonizing him.  In seven stories, we got very little chance to really know who this person is because he made no ambiguous choices, save for maybe one.

Real Choice?… In the fifth story, Harry had premonitions in dreams that were coming true.  He then had one about the Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic stealing some MacGuffin.  His friends and teachers warned him that it could be a trap, and that Voldomort was in his head, influencing his dreams.  In that case it could go either way, so we finally have an opportunity to see how much he is really willing to put things at risk to get the bad guy… but WAIT!  He doesn’t put his friends at risk!  He just falls on the sword…again…and wants to go it alone and then his friends are like “I’m going too!”  So really, it comes down to personal risk vs. getting the bad guy, something we’ve seen him do like a million times already for  5 books..so we KNOW he’s gonna do it!  FALSE CHOICE!(almost got me, Rawling!)

Think, just for one second, if Harry’s choice in the last example about the ministry necessitated putting his friends at risk.  Like, maybe the only way he could go is if he and all his friends did a “go all together as friends” spell and that was their only option.  The Harry we all know…he just wouldn’t do it.  There’s no way.  He’d be like “there’s got to be another way!”  And then some other guy would be like “There IS no other way!”  Then Rawling comes in and, before Harry has a chance to make an ambiguous choice under pressure, some antagonistic force like Snape’s magical jerk-portal teleports them there anyway and it becomes “kill or be killed!”

But let’s say he actually has to make the choice, and  goes “If there’s no other way, then we let him take the Macguffin and we’ll deal with the consequences.  I will not put my friends in danger.”  Think of how that lets us into Harry’s heart, and how that decision might yield even worse results for him down the road.  Think of how it ups the stakes and makes us like him. Maybe, like, another good guy can try to do what Harry couldn’t, and tries to transport everyone there.  What’s Harry gonna do? Will he FIGHT this person? What if it’s one of his little sweetheart she-wizard sex dolls and the only way to stop her is to use a prison bubble spell he’s been savin’ for a bad guy, but he knows it’ll give her nightmares for the rest of her life?  What kind of PERSON is he?! I get excited just thinkin’ about it!  Too bad I still don’t know…after like five thousand pages…

 

REAL CHOICE 2: BREAKING BAD

Click only if you’ve seen Breaking Bad!

This is one of the finest examples of fiction I’ve ever seen in any medium.  Breaking Bad is a mature, completely air-tight network of delicate plot threads that set up and pay off beautifully.  It is the current reigning king of surprising, yet inevitable decision making, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s at the end of the 4th season now, and like him or hate him, you certainly know Walter White, and the more you know him, the less you know just what he’ll do next.

Real Choice:  Somewhere near the story’s mid point, the supporting lead, Jesse, Walter’s partner-in-crime and resident screw-up, accrues himself a haunting character of a girlfriend, Jane.  She’s a recovering junkie who claims to have a controlling dad.  We see the dad who is kind to both her and Jesse, which begs the conjecture “I wonder if he’s abusive behind closed doors.”

It turns out Walter owes Jesse drug money, but is trying to withhold it until Jesse gets clean.  Jesse simultaneously falls back into hard drugs with Jane and their self-destructive personalities spiral. When Jesse tells her about the money he’s owed, HER decision under pressure is to threaten to expose and extort Walter, revealing her as a villain.  Her father is actually sweet and giving, and she’s a selfish, entitled addict.  Only through this decision is her true nature revealed.

The sequence culminates when Walter, having given up the money, breaks into their home to steal it back because he fears for Jesse’s life.  He knows this will bring Jane’s wrath upon him, but again, this is what kind of person he is, and is willing to deal with the permanent consequences.  As he’s sneaking out, Jane has an overdose in her sleep and is choking on her own vomit.  Walter has a meaningful, ambiguous dilemma on his hands.  He can save her life and guarantee that she will likely destroy at the very least Jesse’s life and probably his own, or he can simply let her die, which is obviously a moral atrocity but solves ALL his problems.  All these running threads can resolve in an instant. It will also provide long term benefit but short term agony for Jesse.

He chooses to let her die.  He sits by, sobbing as he allows it to happen.  “I can’t believe it…but it couldn’t have happened any other way.”  He’s not a murderer(yet) and this is the largest moral atrocity he’s committed until this point.  The testing of his will  is incremental.  A careful curve.

Surprising, yet inevitable…beautiful.

 

FALSE CHOICE 2: CAPTAIN AMERICA

There were things to like about the recent Captain America.  Good performances, some nice charm, but false choice rears its ugly head here too.  Again, since Screenwriting 101 says “the hero must have a choice at the climax,” a meaningless false choice is shoehorned in.

He defeats Redskull and the plane full’a nukes is gonna crash into New York!  He can jump out and save himself or manually steer the plane into a glacier or something.  Then a woman who he’s had like 3 minutes of screen time developing a relationship with is over the intercom going “You have to come home so we can have that dance!” and he’s like “I’m gonna have to take a rain check…” and she’s like “No!”

So it comes down to “Sacrifice yourself or let New York be nuked, killing millions.”  Well…since this WHOLE film has been about him risking life and limb for strangers, I don’t think there’s much of a choice.  So what — he SUDDENLY becomes this selfish coward?  FALSE CHOICE!

hmm...this is a tough one...

 

REAL CHOICE 3: DEATH NOTE

Death Note is an amazing blend of the “howdhecatchum” open mystery format and a rich character study.  It follows a megalomaniacal high school student named Light who discovers a magical book that, when a name is written in it, the person who bears that name dies.  He takes it upon himself to cleanse the world of criminals and crown himself the new god of the mortal realm(like I said…megalomaniac.)

Real Choice: He eventually provokes the super-detective master of deduction named “L” who zeroes in on Light.  Since Light is committing his murders by magic, all “L” has to go on are suspicions, hunches, and circumstantial evidence.  He gets closer to Light, who knows he’s being pursued.  He poses as a peer in Light’s new college.  They sit together during opening ceremonies.  This is their first meeting.  Light is cool and crafty but unaware of who or where L is.  L has the advantage of anonymity.  He is in an ideal position to observe and slowly build a case on his suspect.  However, in a sudden move, during a casual conversation with Light about the famous murderer’s investigation, he turns to him and says “I want you to know… I am L!” and stares at Light’s face!

 

"psst...what did you get for question #3? Is it "A meaningful and ambiguous decision that permanently effects the plot and defines who I am? Cuz that's what I got."

We, the audience, know and appreciate L’s element of anonymity and surprise.  So when he does this, for a second we’re like “NO!  WHY would you DO that?!  But then it settles in and we realize… it’s probably his best and only opportunity to read the reaction of his suspect.  Maybe if he waits too long Light will get hip to him.  Maybe Light will move away, fall under the radar once he suspects this strange man to be L.  If you think about it, it couldn’t have happened any other way.  L loses his anonymity but gains something he believes to be far more valuable.  You also learn that L will do eccentric and high-risk things to catch his man. He’s not cautious, and he’s not timid.   Only through this decision making can that really be demonstrated.

Real Choice: Light is now faced with his OWN dilemma.  His inner monologue delineates his predicament.  “If I flinch, he’ll suspect me.  But if I act too casual, he may suspect me too.”  What will Light choose?  What kind of person is he?  Will he take the challenge head on and gloat at L’s lack of evidence?  Will he withdraw and act suspiciously, venting out his rage and embarrassment later?  Will he panic?  Who is Light?  NOW, as we sit in his chair with him and share this EXTREME amount of stress he is feeling, not only do we learn who Light is, but we are light.  It’s one of the finest dramatic moments I can point to, I think.

 

FALSE CHOICE 3: CONAN THE BARBARIAN(2011)

Yet another example of “by the book” screenwriting (while not understanding why the principles are even in the book) is Conan the Barbarian.  Conan is a one- dimensional story about revenge.  He hits his problems with a big sword and they go away.  If they don’t go away, he hits them again.  If he’s driven by violence and the climax involves him choosing between “saving the girl” and violence, you must first demonstrate how he values love above violence in the plot! Which…they don’t do.

So there’s this bridge, and the bad guy is about to get mondo god powers because of this magical helmet.  He’s like 98% locked and loaded god power, and Conan is hanging off a bridge and holding the love interest…who he met like two days prior and promptly banged.  She is pleading with our psychotic marauding hero to just let her die.  She’s like “LET ME GO, LET ME GO!”  So, you’re thinking, “what a tough choice!”  But since there was no time dedicated to him having to make moral decisions in the WHOLE plot, what should have been a NON choice was a false choice.  If the movie was about killing and revenge, he should have just dropped this skank-with-a-death-wish and then the bad guy is like “OH SHIT!” and then Conan HITS HIM WITH A SWORD! *roll credits*

“Oh right, the hero needs a CHOICE” — which of course doesn’t matter because he ends up saving her and then hitting the bridge(and not even with a sword), causing it to give way.  The bad guy still does the “oh shit” face, but come on.  If you’re gonna do THAT you might as well have had aliens come down and laser the poor bastard.  In any case, don’t insult the audience with false choice.  You can’t throw “hit things with swords OR save the girl” into two hours of footage dedicated to “hit things with swords or hit things with swords again.”

"Decisions, Decisions..."

 


False Choice in Games

So this Similar to how false choice can be underhanded and unconscious in narrative, it can also be so in games.  Modern digital games are like, off the deep end with this issue right now. I’ll pick a couple from the pile and delineate, with the same lens from above:  examples of real and false choice in games.

 

REAL CHOICE 1: GO

Go is a beautiful game which you can learn the rules for in five minutes and spend ten lifetimes trying to master it.  The depth and complexity emerges endlessly from a simple system of territory control, surrounding and capturing stones.

If you don't like the theming, just picture the stones as 3D HDMI motion jiggle accoutrements $299.99 MSRP.

If you place one stone, the state of the board changes permanently.  Every move ripples into the next, and there are innumerable, creative ways to have battles, solve problems, to win and to lose.  Not only are your choices real, but they matter.  They are tense, they have endogenous meaning(meaning within the context of the gamestate) and they are permanent, like the consequences of a character’s tough decision in a great story.

When you’re attacked in go, you have several significant choices as to how to respond.  You can try to push him into one of the corners, to make him keep his territory there.  You can try to sneak behind him and force him to try to make territory somewhere in the middle (which is inherently more difficult to do than making territory along the edges).  Or, it’s a completely legitimate strategy to simply let him take that area, and focus on establishing strong foundations elsewhere on the grid.  Go is a great example of a game in which there are tough decisions which you can never take back, because pieces stay on the board forever (unless they are captured, but even then the placement of your piece is still meaningful as there is an enemy-controlled hole there now).

 

FALSE CHOICE 1: MASS EFFECT

Any Heavy-duty story game will do, but I chose Mass Effect, because it’s new, popular, and heavy on the dialogue choices.  As the title suggests, false choice is inevitable in story-games. Because interactivity is kind of, well, required in a game, it can’t help but get in the way of the story.  This usually happens by means of a glorified “choose your own adventure novel” renamed “morality system.”  It’s essentially two stories that you can choose to follow.  You can make neutral choices(which nobody does because they don’t give you the stat boosts that either being Mother Theresa or a child molesting Nazi do…which is another form of false choice), and sometimes there are more than two endings, but that’s what they are: “endings.”  As in, it’s all prescribed and hard coded.  If it has three endings, it was a choose your own adventure out of three.  No matter the case, the “choice” you’re really making is “which of these stories do I want to watch?”  Either way, you win.  It’s “consume the game and then throw it out.”  The only way dialogue could possibly be incorporated into a system in which the gamestate-changing choices were relevant would be a SUPER-intelligence that could generate human, believable and compelling dialogue on the fly that reacts to your decisions.  Much like Mass Effect, this is science fiction.  For now, we’ll have to settle for false choice.

If you insist on having stories tied to games, any claim that the things you decide to do actually effect the game beyond the story that has been prescribed to you is a LIE.

Like Keith pointed out in a previous article, this is the inherent conflict between stories and games.  A story’s greatness is determined by the carefully planned, meaningful and ambiguous decisions of the character.  How we come to know the characters we love is specifically by NOT being able to control their decisions.  Only then can we suffer with them, or yearn with them, or love with them.  We want them to know the dramatic irony of their situations;  we want to save them, but we can’t.

If there’s a game with a story, and you actually control the decisions of the characters, you’re not experiencing a character, you’re experiencing yourself.  The compromise made in story-games is to give you the illusion of choice by letting you “choose your own adventure”.  When you activate a dialogue option, you’re not “making a decision” as much as you’re pressing the play button of a movie.  If you choose the other option, it’s the play button of another movie.

"Option 3: Save/Load"

 

REAL CHOICE 2: Roguelikes

Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, POWDER, NetHack, Shiren: The Wanderer and our own 100 Rogues are all Roguelike games.  It’s a genre based on the primitive, but long-lasting and beloved turn-based computer game Rogue in which you explore a randomly generated dungeon, fighting monsters.  Once you die, it’s back to the beginning.  Try again to discover new things, improve your skill and maybe get a new high score.

Every attack, every potion you drink or scroll you use is a commitment.  Unmarked potions can either give you a leg up, heal you, or kill you.  Killing the wrong kind of monster can anger one god or please another, sometimes yielding unpredictable effects.  All the while, you have precious little resources you must manage.  Survival is key, but near impossible.  You must be creative and patient.  It’s a very exciting feeling to play a roguelike for these reasons.

Envision yourself surrounded with four hit points.  You know the two orcs on your left are asleep, and the skeleton above you has five hit points.  Your weapon does a max of six, but you don’t know if you can survive another attack.  You could cast a spell, but you risk waking the orcs.  You could drink an unlabeled potion and hope it heals or teleports you, or you could try to run and hope the skeleton misses you.  Maybe something else even more reckless and high-risk might pay off big.

Gamasutra columnist and roguelike expert John Harris writes about a concept in roguelike games called “the critical moment”, a moment which, if you miss it, you will be doomed.  Possibly next turn, possibly several turns from now, things will happen and you will have missed your chance to have done something about them.  For this reason, coupled with the fact that because of “permadeath” (aka: losing is a possibility, not just winning) you have to be extremely careful anyway, good roguelikes constantly force you to make difficult decisions.

Imagine all the emotions of that scenario….then imagine it with an unlimited save/load function…

"Shiren Read 'Save/Load' scroll"

 

FALSE CHOICE 2: SKYRIM

Again, I could have picked any modern game with RPG elements, but since I personally gave Skyrim a healthy go, I picked this one.  There is no actual choice in Skyrim.  It’s all the illusion of choice or false choice.

How would you like to win, sir?”  is the refrain of the “choices” in this game.  It’s false choice on many fronts.  First, the slopped-on gobs of inherent complexity that busy up the skill, item, weapon and armor systems are just a bunch of false choices.  For all the hundreds and hundreds of little nick-knacks and toys you can clutter up your inventory with, none of it matters, endogenously speaking.   It’s not as if choosing to play with a mace of +9 lightning damage provides any kind of profound impact on your game that a +7 longsword of drain mojo or whatever can’t.  You’re gonna win either way.

Health regen, balls-numbing difficulty AND a heal spell at level one, huh? The choices are endless!

Hey the world is so big and open but 99% of it’s a complete snooze and you can instantly teleport to the “smash X to win” sections, so… I guess I’ll “choose” the clearly optimal use of my time.  Oh I can “choose” between the weapon that does 69 damage and the weapon that does 68.  That’s a real brain teaser.  Oh but that’s right.  This monster is weak to fire damage.  How DEEP!  I can “choose” to use the weapon that does fire damage but not if I have another weapon that still nets me more overall damage.

Oh…and if I happen to actually stumble into something that causes me to die, or pick any dialogue option other than the one that most benefits me, oh yeah.. I’M IMMORTAL AND OMNIPOTENT BECAUSE I CAN SAVE AND LOAD WHEREVER AND WHENEVER I WANT AS MANY TIMES AS I WANT ON AS MANY FILES AS I WANT.

Yeah…I think this one goes under false choice.

 

Don’t Waste My Time!

To be constructive among my railing, though it’s my opinion that meaningful choice is essential to both games and stories, I understand that some people don’t want to be tested or apply creative, deep thought to their entertainment.  I crave that kind of leisure sometimes as well.  I’m down with it.  What I’m arguing against is the ILLUSION of choice.  Skyrim would be way better if it didn’t put on such a pretense and insult the player with false choice.  When you find the +29 sword, just make the +28 sword break or disappear, or at the very least default the player to equip the best weapon.  Don’t make the map so big.  Fast travel instantly to the action.  Use cutscenes instead of “choosing” between no brainer inconsequential dialogue options.  If you can save/load, why not take out death altogether?  If the only tension you could possibly derive from the game is when you accidentally forget to save before every fight, what are you really losing by eliminating death?

In short, don’t waste my time and insult me with false choice.  Give me meaningful choices, or no choices at all.

17 Comments

  • 1
    Antsan
    03/02/2012 - 1:42 pm | Permalink

    “The only way dialogue could possibly be incorporated into a system in which the gamestate-changing choices were relevant would be a SUPER-intelligence that could generate human, believable and compelling dialogue on the fly that reacts to your decisions.”
    I think you should read this:
    http://projectperko.blogspot.com/2011/12/dialog-games.html
    Of course what you see there is not a system for actually generating a full fledged conversation (and thereby would be a more abstract way of storytelling), but for my tastes it is close enough.

    “Don’t make the map so big.”
    I think I get your point. But besides “smash X to win” and “meaningful decisions” there is still a lot appeal to “look at impressive stuff”. Your suggestion would take that away. I would suggest instead “call it gallery and not a game”.

  • 2
    03/02/2012 - 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I want to offer another false choice that bothers me to no end:

    Skills / Perks / Talents / customization options in MMORPGs of the Holy Trinity kind (aka WoW-clones). Sure, you have a great deal of fake choice about 5% crit vs 5% attack speed vs a 5% chance to deal double damage, but in the end, you are in all cases only interested in a very simple mathematical fact: “How can I deal maximum damage per second?” and that is, my friends, not choice. Someone will have made a giant spreadsheet, and can tell you with complete certainty that a certain selection of talents will be provably superior to all others. Cookie cutter specs are common because they are better than the rest.

    Sometimes, certain specs are theoretically better, but require perfect execution to work at all, while others offer a bit of leeway (such as bad ping or reaction times) without sacrificing much in their best case. In the end, the variable that you have to figure out yourself is: “How bad of a player am I?” and then choose your spec accordingly (between about three valid versions). So you spend 60 skill points between 150 talents, which gives you approximately a bajillion theoretical results, but in the end, you are forced to choose between just a handful of builds that do the exact same thing.

    So there you have it: If you have a spec that differs from the cookie cutters, your performance will suffer. And in the end-game, there is nothing else besides performance to gear and skill for. So there are good players (those that read up on strategy and math) and bad players, those who think they are special snowflakes, but in reality, they are just getting carried.

  • 3
    03/02/2012 - 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Your article is perfect. And thank you for writing this.
    You’ve simply explained my latest thoughts concerning choice and moral, and you’ve written them exactly.
    I am a game researcher, I analyze games using many approaches and one of my intentions with my project is to show that “moral decisions” and “choices” are not what they seem to be. And that games such as Mass Effect (as you stated) don’t actually add up to anything by allowing the player to choose in the branching dialogues. What I see recently is that some games are being diminished because “they don’t have moral decisions” in the same way that some say that games without narrative are worse, to the point that great RPG such as Xenoblade may get critised because of that.
    One of my arguments to say that this “choice system” does not work is based upon one of Frasca’s article called Ludology meets Narratology in which he states that humans cannot be narrative beings, and thus a “healthy” and “proper” narrative can’t emerge in systems that allow humans to configure, for instance, characters the way they want. If you have time, maybe you should read his article, it is really interesting.

  • 4
    03/03/2012 - 2:08 am | Permalink

    Next you’re going to advocate making games that are great and intelligent. STOP, this is pure madness.

    Besides, if you were to eliminate all of these “fake choices”, some games would have nothing left to them.

  • 5
    Adam D. Schneider
    03/03/2012 - 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I have been following this blog for a while and have been meaning to ask: what do you and Mr. Burgun think of King of Dragon Pass?

  • 6
    Kyle
    03/03/2012 - 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Fallout:New Vegas.

  • 7
    03/03/2012 - 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, some very interesting analysis of stories that I haven’t considered before… And very true for the most part, though I disagree that there should be a surprise at the end. In fact I dislike the way many movies throw in cheap surprises at the end. Sometimes the natural development of a character leads to predictable choices, and that’s not a problem for me if it’s well-written or scripted. The problem with many of the examples you give is that the character doesn’t develop – Harry is never tempted so his choice is obvious; Conan never learns love so his choice is inconsistent. In contrast we see Luke initially doubt the force, but change over the course of the story to rely on it. It’s this gradual and believable change that is real development. A story with good character development is one in which the protagonist has to make a choice in the end, and ultimately chooses differently from how he would have done at the start.

    Lack of real gameplay choice is quite the problem amongst mainstream games. Only multiplayer games seem to have kept any semblance of offering real choice or challenge. Alas that multiplayer inevitably involves dealing with annoying types… A problem I find (and have moaned about before) is that real time games don’t give a proper opportunity to think and make decisions. Turn-based or at least slow-paced games are much better at presenting real tactical choices. I wish there were more of them!

    I don’t mind Skyrim’s veneer of choices though. Having played previous Elder Scrolls games I know not to expect good dialogue, interesting quests or challenging battles. The focus (for me) is clearly on exploration of a well-built world, with everything else being a light dressing. I like the fact that Skyrim has simplified the archaic system of its predecessors so that one can concentrate on this more. Levelling is more straightforward and better equipment is highlighted with a marker (auto-equip wouldn’t quite work with enchantments). It’s not perfect by a long mile but it does many things beautifully. If I want meaningful decisions I go play roguelikes instead. Different games satisfy different urges for me, and I’m glad that the medium is wide enough to support many spectra of satisfaction.

    Finally, I disagree with your conclusion that false choices are inevitable for games, and I really don’t think you went to enough length to explain this assertion (yes, I really am saying your post isn’t long enough!) Mass Effect is obviously a poor example of merging gameplay and story – the choices you make only affect one or the other, and story-wise there’s only really a single choice. A proper merging must affect both, and the choices must remain relevant for the whole game. How it affects the ending isn’t important, it’s the ongoing game-story experience that matters. I don’t think any game really gets it right, but the potential is definitely there.

    The only two titles I’d put forward as good examples of story-games with real choices are the roguelikes Fatherhood and Broken Bottle (the latter being made by myself – vain, I know). The limit to roguelike suggestions perhaps shows just how exclusively I play that genre these days… In Fatherhood the story is centred around you trying to raise your children whilst avoiding disaster and death. The real choices come in how you command and act with them, and potentially sacrificing one to save the other, or both to save yourself. This is an emotional story element with real gameplay impact. These choices are present throughout the game, and the procedural environments and permadeath mean you can’t write the story in advance or rewrite it after the event. Both story and gameplay evolve side by side. Similarly Broken Bottle presents you with hard choices – initially whether or not to have your character drink alcohol, and later whether to have him abuse alcohol so that he can attack thieving children in the game. The game reacts differently in both gameplay (combat mechanics, withdrawal symptoms, drunk effects) and story (NPCs names and descriptions, story exposition, meaningful character actions). This is in effect throughout the game, and challenges arising from procedural content can make you reassess your decisions at any point. In both of these games the character development is in your hands, and it is inseparable from the gameplay. Also in both the ending boils down purely to die or win – the real story is in the journey to get there and what choices you make at various stages along the way.

    Finally finally, I must say this is fast becoming my favourite blog. Whilst I don’t agree with everything it is always thought provoking and it’s great to have this level of introspection about what works and doesn’t in games. Keep the articles coming :)

  • 8
    03/07/2012 - 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Heya i am for the primary time here. I came across this board
    and I to find It really useful & it helped me out a lot.
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  • 9
    Muesli
    03/27/2012 - 7:25 am | Permalink

    The Breaking Bad dilemma is even a bit more complicated.
    (again, spoiler alert!)
    Jane has been shown to be aware that she shouldn’t lie on her back after injecting drugs. When Walter arrives, both are cuddled up in a safe position. Only when Walter tries to wake up Jesse, Jane rolls over. So to some degree Walter is not only guilty of not helping, but causing the situation that leads to Jane’s death, making the dilemma even more intense. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5fMXTdAVHk#t=1m55s

  • 10
    AJ
    05/10/2012 - 10:40 am | Permalink

    I totally agree with every little thing you said about movies, and I stopped reading Harry Potter halfway through the fourth book because of the sheer void that is Harry. However I do have something to say about the game portion of the article…

    Your argument falls apart with Mass Effect and Roguelikes. Go is… fine… It’s so ambiguous that I guess it can represent real choice, but the things you are touting as real choice in Roguelikes are no different than the things he’s saying are false choice in ME… the only difference is that the POINT of the roguelike games is to reengage the player in the experience with the “permadeath” and the POINT of ME is CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT (which you defined badly… character development is a combination of that character’s history along with the change in their perspective as the story progresses, a marked change in their personality as the audience knows them- for instance, at the beginning of Iron Man 1 we know Tony Stark is a self-centered spoiled shit who likes to drink too much and have sex with beautiful women, he looks out for #1 and doesn’t much care about others. However in the Avengers, he grabs that nuke and files it through the portal into space with the last remnants of his suit’s power, sacrificing himself in order to save the city. It just so happens that the writers like RDJr. and want to continue having him in the franchise so things worked out in the end through luck. It is not that decision alone that defines Stark, it is the incremental change you see in him after he is captured by the terrorists, after he builds Mark 1, and after he decides that he should use his newfound power to help people instead of just having a really convenient way to get from social event to social event that develops his character. “Development” is a process, not an event.) Dialogue choices are there in order to define your character incrementally and allowing you to build the character that you want based on a set of predetermined Shepards. If you’re so stats-obsessed that you pick options that aren’t consistent with the character you want to build in order to get a bonus, thats YOUR failing, not the writers’. You assume that the ONLY way to make a character is to give them some massive make-it-or-break-it choice and then see what they do, and anything less than that doesn’t constitute as a real character, and that’s not true. The daily grind tells you as much about a person as those big choices do, they just tell you slower and more subtly. You also seem to miss the point of interactivity. Giving the players that agency to create the experience they want doesn’t negate any choices they make, and you discount the decisions that DO have reverberating impact in ME2 and 3 without thinking that if Breaking Bad were a game… the player may have chosen to SAVE THE GIRL regardless of what his character has done previously because that’s the medium of games. As game designers we need to take that into account and REFLECT the meaning from the PLAYER’S choice ON TO the character, the problem is that most people writing for games are still writing for movies. You misunderstand the medium. That said… I really don’t want to touch the ending of the entire series, I’m talking about the 99% leading up to that… “controversial” conclusion…

    And as for Skyrim… I’m not saying I disagree with the absence of real choice in modern games but I think you’re grasping at straws with the elements you decided to pick on. Yes you can have a certain weapon that does more damage, but Skyrim’s story isn’t about being changed by whether you use maces or swords, it’s about politics, allegiance and dragons- so when you do face that choice in the end (which is regarding Parthurnaax) then it is a meaningful choice as long as you’ve connected with the world. If you haven’t, then that failing MIGHT be on the player, not NECESSARILY the writers- the player may not have put the time or effort into getting to know the world in which he finds himself before making that choice and that’s not something that the designers can really account for, they just have to put the material there and hope it works out for the best. That is why the map is big, that is why they don’t have a teleport to action button. If you want those things- play Modern Warfare. Skyrim is about role playing, the writers have provided you with a blank-slate character to reflect WHATEVER YOU WANT onto and play the role of that person, it is up to YOU to create your experience. I have continued to use a sword that is sub-par because I became attached to it, it had a history to me and I decided my character liked it. I used armor that was sub-par because it was important to my character. Those choices are up to me, I made a warrior who is attached to his blade, repairs it after every fight, cares for it and, when he is home, puts it in a place of honor in his house. He believes his armor is lucky and doesn’t trust anything else when going into battle. The choice isn’t about conversation options, it’s about which conversations you are in, it’s about YOUR choice to create a character that YOU want to play. Like I said before: if you’re too stats-obsessed to step back and role-play a character that is not the game’s failing, but yours.

    In conclusion, before you decide to attack all the hard work of game developers consider a few things:

    First: Games, as they are today, have only been around for about 15-20 years and we’re learning new things about a brand new medium every day. Consider where movies were 20 years into their life and then consider that games have to deal with player agency and are mind-bogglingly more complex in their creation. After that reexamine your argument- I’m not saying that this, in and of itself, invalidates anything you’ve said, but it is something for consideration. You’re comparing something that came out six months ago to something that was created millennia ago.

    Second: Games as a medium are by-definition interactive. If it isn’t interactive, it isn’t a game. But that doesn’t mean anything interactive is a game- there are even some “games” that are better described as toys (The Sims, for instance). Building in systems to deal with the unpredictability of people doesn’t mean that the stories being told and choices made are invalidated. With skill these choices can be crafted in such a way that no matter what they player does, meaning can be found. For instance: if you shoot Wrex in ME1, he is not around to control the Krogan in ME3, meaning that Wreav is the leader of the Krogan and you have a very volatile situation on your hands since Wreav doesn’t trust Shep and is planning on getting revenge for the genophage. With that momentary, seemingly inconsequential decision presented near the end of ME1 there is a ripple effect that can either cause galactic mayhem or catharsis. The meaning doesn’t come from EVERY CONVERSATION OPTION that is presented, it comes from those key moments that the player doesn’t even understand until much later.

    Third: Don’t present misunderstanding as evidence against something. If you were to argue against gay marriage because you believe it means “happy marriage” and you think the divorce rate proves there is no such thing as happy marriage, don’t think anyone is going to take you seriously. If you miss the point, your argument is worthless. The giving the player maces, swords and magic is player agency, not choice.

    Soooo… I just write an essay, hope you don’t mind. Also please understand that I am looking to have an argument :) This is my field and I like to broaden my understanding of it.

    M: I came here for a good argument.
    A: No you didn’t; no, you came here for an argument.
    M: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
    A: It can be.
    M: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
    A: No it isn’t.
    M: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
    A: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
    M: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
    A: Yes it is!
    M: No it isn’t!
    A: Yes it is!
    M: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
    (short pause)
    A: No it isn’t.

  • 11
    Blake
    05/10/2012 - 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Hey AJ, thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment.

    I think where you think I’m failing to understand something, we’re actually arguing two different things.

    First of all, I don’t think my definition of character development is outside of yours. Maybe I could have been clearer, but of course I think a character’s permanent change in perspective and personality is the core of development. I argue that the means by which we get there is through their meaningful, ambiguous decisions under pressure that are absolute and have permanent consequences. Tony Stark’s personality changes. But in my opinion, we witness that personality change not through the external antagonism that catalyzes it, but by his reaction TO the trauma. The decision patterns he takes in response to the antagonism.

    I understand your points about ME and skyrim. This is where I think we’re arguing different things. And I very much disagree that decision making in roguelikes and ME are the same thing. They couldn’t be more opposite.

    You’re describing an intricate web of dialogue options that allow the player to follow a character arc that they, themselves build. I argue that this is bad for the art of story in that a skilled author spends months toiling over single scenes in order to gain the maximum emotional output of the characters, mechanisms of the plot and themes at play. This is a serious and difficult discipline. I think allowing any joe public to “choose his own adventure” is a shallow interactive experience, because no matter how many hours of voice acting you record, it’s still an advent calendar. The core of these ME games are advent calendars. You open the doors and eat the chocolates. when all the chocolates are eaten, you dispose of the product. For reasons just explained, it’s also a shallow story experience. The enriching experience that engaging in a masterfully crafted story provides is something this kind of choose your own adventure could never, ever achieve because the audience is not the author. Just like employing a house rule like “just don’t use quicksave” is a non argument because the audience is not the game designer. It’s not our job to fix their game.

    Which leads me to Skyrim. I understand that the same concept is at play here, with this web of pre-scripted politics, allegiances, etc. But it’s the same thing. It’s a shallow, pre-scripted(and might I say poorly scripted) advent calendar. You might say that during the first playthrough these choices seem absolute and effect the world permanently, but all of this is completely negated by quicksave. “Just don’t use it” is not a valid argument because like I said, YOU are then redesigning the game. Because you had to redesign the game doesn’t make the original game good. Maybe your VARIANT of the game is superior, but your variant of the game is not the one I’m criticizing.

    When you say that you derive meaning from the decisions because you’ve engaged in the story, that’s not the sense in which I’m using “meaning.” If you capture a pawn with a bishop, which sets you up for a checkmate, that bishop could remind you of your uncle, which provides a “personal meaning” like the one you’re mentioning, but what I’m talking about is endogenous meaning. That bishop’s move irreversibly effects the state of the board in a way that has meaning within the system, regardless of the personal meaning you may or may not derive. In a great story, the ambiguous decision of a major character had endogenous meaning in the machine that is the plot. In a very real and direct way, it affects the world around him permanently. Whether or not an audience member observes this to be “meaningful” in some subjective way is irrelevant to the argument at hand.

    In Skyrim, maybe picking your faction permanently ripples out into the world in an endogenously meaningful, irreversible way(like closing off certain shops for commerce permanently or something). However, like I keep saying. Don’t like the outcome? Save/load until you get the outcome you want. This feature destroys any semblance of meaningful choice in this story network of which you speak.

    It’s not just permadeath that makes roguelike’s decisions meaningful. No more than “checkmate” is the only thing that makes chess’s decisions meaningful. They are simply loss conditions.

    In a roguelike, let’s say you have 2 health and you know a monster will one-shot you. you have a heal spell that you really don’t want to use right now because you know you’ll need it later. You could risk throwing something at the monster and hope to kill it before it reaches you. You could try to retreat and heal, but you might run into another randomly spawned monster and make your situation worse. You could take a BIG gamble and hope the monster misses. You might say there is some perfect information available to you that allows you to mini max and crunch numbers a bit, but the random elements in Roguelikes put a cap on your ability to do said crunching. This is a key part of what makes the decision making ambiguous and elevates roguelikes to the status of “game” and not “puzzle.” My hypothetical was one of the infinite, deep, rippling endogenous decision making in roguelikes. Are roguelikes perfect? Hell no. They have SO many no-brainers and superfluous features it’s not even funny. But, whether accidental or intentional, Rogue harnessed what is the nectar of games, the meaningful decision.

    Yes. Digital games are in their infancy. It’s all the more important to be hard on the status quo. I know these developers are hard-working, but many of them are tightly focused on all the wrong things(production value, trying to be like movies, fantasy simulation) and are only being praised for it. These counterpoints attack the IDEAS of some of these developers, not the developers themselves.

    I hope I’ve sufficiently clarified my position, and I h ope we can find common ground.

  • 12
    AJ
    05/12/2012 - 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I am excited to read and respond to your comment but I don’t have time this weekend, so I’ll respond next week during the week. I look forward to continuing the argument!

  • 13
    05/29/2012 - 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one these days.

  • 14
    Blackbird71
    07/19/2012 - 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Overall, an excellent and well-laid out article. Your explanation of the need for real choice in narrative highlights the problem that I’ve had with so many movies, but could never quite put into words.

    Right at the end though, I think you rushed your conclusion, and in doing so, I think you’ve made a few quick assertions that don’t quite hold up. The one in particular that caught my attention was this:

    “Don’t make the map so big. Fast travel instantly to the action.”

    (Disclaimer: I have not played Skyrim, but I have logged many hours into Oblivion and earlier Elder Scrolls titles, and I draw my conclusions based on those experiences)

    For this comment to make sense within the context of your argument, it has to be based on the assumption that choice is th only element that makes a game worth playing; the fallacy here is not taking into account the fact that there are other game elements which provide entertainment, and that they do not have to be sacrificed in order to eliminate the illusion of choice. One aspect of these games is exploration and discovery, there are rich details in the world to see and interesting places to find. Walking across a virtual world to take in these sights may not promote Real Choice, but neither does it contribute to False Choice; it is simply a different part of the entertainment.

    Using the example of the narrative, a Real Choice is an important and critical part of a good story, but it is not the only part; there are many other pieces of plot exposition, background, setting descriptions, etc. that all have to be laid into place leading up to the moment of decision. Would Tolkien’s masterpiece be as widely known and appreciated if the characters had simply “fast travelled” to Mount Doom, direct to the scene of Frodo’s choice? Of course not, because the story is a journey, and the choice is only one type of experience along its way.

    I actually think that these open-ended sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls series provide more opportunity for Real Choice than other formats. There is no question that they are rife with False Choice as well, but occasionally there is something meaningful. One quest in Oblivion comes to mind, it involves a paranoid and half-mad elf who thinks his fellow townsfolk are part of a dark conspiracy out to get him. There are several different ways that you can handle the quest: you can go along with him, encouraging his paranoia; you can try to convince him that nothing is going on; or even refuse to listen to his ravings outright. When he decides that those under his suspicion must meet their end, you can either assist him by agreeing to kill them for him, provoke him into doing the deed himself, or alert the town guard and let them handle the situation.

    What I believe qualifies this particular quest into the realm of Real Choice is the fact that there is no clearly best outcome; you can achieve similar rewards through any of the options, and no one choice presents you with a game advantage over the others. It really comes down to what decision best fits your character; it is that defining moment of character development you describe.

    You may claim that because it’s “my” choice as a player, it doesn’t count, but I would say that if that is your approach, you are missing the “RP” part in RPG. Roleplaying is just that: putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, and making their decisions, not yours. Unless you miss the point of these games entirely and always play as a bland copy of yourself, the character who unfolds in the game should take on a life of its own. When I create a character in these games, I establish a bit of backstory and personality. The events of the game then add to what I’ve created, forming an identity that then guides decisions, and each decision further fleshes out the picture of who this character is, so much that when faced with a quest like the one described above, it’s not a question of what I the player would do, but rather the choice comes down to what the character would do based on their personality and experience. It’s rare, but the outcomes of such events sometimes are both surprising (even to myself) and inevitable. I will grant you that these situations are the exception, not the rule, but they do exist, and when I find them, it shows me that the writer(s) of that particular part of the game have an excellent skill for storytelling, for it is no easy task to weave Real Choice into the story of a game.

  • 15
    01/23/2013 - 11:03 pm | Permalink

    “Dinofarm Games

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