Drama and Choice in Games

An interesting blog discussion is forming between TRC (over at Tales of the Rampant Coyote) and Scorpia (over at her lair) about the apparent conflict between drama and fun in games, and the differences between heroes in movies (who often start off as accomplished heroes) and heroes in games (who typically must work their way up from the embarrassment of “level one”).

Mostly, the two points being made are that (1) conventional stories where the protagonist or hero never suffers setbacks or defeats are dull, and (2) games typically allow players to proceed through the game story without having to suffer these setbacks (mostly via save and reload). The player’s constant desire to win — and the ever-present ability to save and restore — negates any of the story- or drama-building effects of setbacks or defeats.

The result is that game designers must force these defeats upon players through non-interactive cutscenes that are built into the storyline and have to be accepted by players. Or, perhaps, to come up with some kind of system (like TRC’s “drama stars” in Frayed Knights) that forces players to weigh different options when it comes to dealing with setbacks.

Scorpia’s counter-argument, if I’m interpreting correctly, is that “we must [already] endure endless combats and trivial errand-running to reach our goal. That is certainly work enough; why make it any more difficult?”

Rather than diving into that debate, I thought I would take a step back and consider the situation from a more general perspective, rather than the RPG-centric focus that their discussions typically have. After all, many other game genres (including FPS and adventure games, including interactive fiction) try to introduce failure or setbacks into gameplay, and these usually are just treated the same way as in RPG games, with a save/restore or, in the case of IF, a simple “undo” command.

The existence of save/restore/undo, in fact, is one of the strongest arguments for why there is no true choice in games. And this is what this discussion is really about, isn’t it? Choice. As Emily Short once described it:

choice: challenging the player to prefer one outcome of the story over another, and in the process to consider the implications of doing so.

Whether that choice involves accepting a particular outcome of an encounter, or making a particularly important decision of morality, it’s essentially the same: the player choosing one path over another. Part of the problem is that, in many games, this choice comes down to a black and white decision related to winning or losing; in most of those cases, the constant desire to win (it’s a game, after all) will drive players to restore or undo and try again. But, as Victor Gijsbers has pointed out in the past:

…there have been games that no longer challenge the player to reach the ideal ending: sometimes, choosing which ending is the best one is itself the most important act of the game.

A particularly important response to this, as it appeared on rec.arts.int-fiction, was:

Choice is meaningful in real life only if it is excluding and irrevocable…When you apply the concept of choice to interactive fiction, you’ll notice that, from a player’s point of view, choice is never excluding and always revocable. Thanks to RESTART, UNDO, SAVE and RESTORE, choice in IF is meaningless.

As it is, arguably, in just about any game genre. This was also expressed quite well by Stephen Bond, also in reference to the world of interactive fiction, but which could also easily apply to practically any game genre:

Morality involves choice, and in IF there usually isn’t any real choice. In the new moral IF, I just try all the options without any moral commitment, safe in the knowledge that I can undo and try again, which distances me from my character, and distances me from the game.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to argue that by offering so much player choice — at least, in the form of save/restore/undo — the impact of those choices is diminished. And the impact of those choices is where the real treasure is found, in the form of the emotional engagement of the player. The more meaningless that choice is, the less the emotional engagement, and the less impact the experience (story) has on the player.

But importantly, as Scorpia points out:

What we need – as I’ve said before – is less fighting and errand-running, and more interaction with people. A failure of some kind there could open a new story line, rather than just calling for a “reload and try again” situation.

And, in a different but related post:

I think we know that real drama, real tension, comes mainly from the interactions of people with each other. Let’s face it, not getting that lock open is hardly a matter for drama, unless saving the world depends upon it. And you just know you’ll reload if the first try doesn’t work.

Although I agree entirely with these statements, it brings up two very important questions:

1. How do we effectively design interactions with people in games? and
2. How do we design those interactions so that the outcomes are meaningful in the setting of a game that allows save/restore/undo?

After all, I think that NPC interactions are one of the most unsatisfying areas in game design today, and in my opinion, if there is going to be one major advance in game design and gameplay it’s going to have to come from this area.

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