Making Choices Matter

Player choice is one of the most frequently cited aspects of value to the videogame medium.  Since interactivity is the core component to any game, developers and players have been fascinated with making the choices players make interesting and meaningful.  Often this can take the form of a branching storyline or multiple ways of completing game objectives.  But how do successful developers actually create compelling choices for players to make?

For a long time, branching stories generally involved just two separate endings, based on a binary choice or series of binary choices.  For example, Bioshock offered players a Good and Evil ending based on how they chose to deal with “little sisters” in game.  The problem with Bioshock, however, isn’t even that its storytelling is simplistic (either ending feels didactic), but rather that the choices that accumulate to either ending are barely meaningful in terms of the actual gameplay for the player.  Most of Bioshock’s play mechanics deal with exploring and fighting in the game.  That is the primary way the player interacts with the game.  The “little sister” choice mechanic is a secondary feature—in fact it’s actually tertiary, since it simply feeds into a secondary player resource economy—and the difference between the two player options is minimal anyway (besides the endings).

The Stanley Parable is perhaps one of the best examples of a branching story done well.  Perhaps this is in part because it’s a work of experimental meta-fiction.  Players are the eponymous Stanley, whose actions are narrated by a particularly British narrator.  Player interaction with the game consists solely in obeying or disobeying the narrator in a series of binary choices.  There are no other choices or considerations for the player to make, except whether they wish to comply with the narrator.  These binary choices branch the game’s progress repeatedly, crossing and connecting at times so that the narrative can diverge or converge to certain scenes and moments across multiple different play-throughs.  Many endings are unique, and specific to a particular path through the game.

Because of this, player choices have weight and meaning.  Disobeying the narrator can lead to the reward of a new, original and probably funny scene with the narrator, and players are encouraged to try new combinations of choices to try and reach every ending.  Players’ sense of discovery is rewarded by the only content the game has.  There’s no getting distracted by other aspects or rules of gameplay—it’s a game all about players asking, “I wondering if the developers accounted for me doing this?  Did they write a special piece of content just in case a player did this unlikely thing?”

To illustrate just how large of an impact player choice has in affecting The Stanley Parable’s storyline, here is a flowchart illustrating every single possible permutation of playing through the game.

Passport to 1984

At its heart, play is participating in an imagined reality.  The key word is participating—this is what separates play from reading a book or watching a film.  The player participates in the play of a game, while the reader or voyeur passively watches.  However what I’m talking about is distinct in some degree from any narrative a game may try to spin—in truth, this is the reason games can achieve a powerful effect while remaining narratively minimal.

Papers Please by Lucas Pope is a perfect example of this approach.  The game takes place in an imaginary totalitarian state, with the player taking the role of a newly appointed immigration officer.  Beyond that are a few narrative branches and ornaments, but much of the story progression is driven for gameplay design.  Besides the newspaper headlines suggesting the new level’s developments, content resembling a story is a reward for playing the game.

So what does the gameplay consist of?

 

This is the screen where most of the game is spent.

Checking immigration papers and stamping passports, doing the bureaucratic legwork of checking papers and denying entry to anybody who doesn’t check out.  After a series of terrorist attacks, duties expand to scanning immigrants for contraband and detaining suspicious individuals…  All from the desk of your kiosk at the border.

Players are punished by the game for working slowly or imprecisely because they are paid for each person they correctly process in a day.  Their pay is docked for granting immigration to people whose papers don’t check out, and as the head of a household in a poor totalitarian state like fictional Arstotzka?  It means you have to work as fast as you can to make ends meet.

One can easily joke that Papers Please is a bureaucrat simulator or an immigrations officer simulator, and in part they’re right.  However it ignores the harsh conditions the player must experience and endure to win, or at least complete the game.  Nor does it consider the general art style of the game.

Personally, I think playing Papers Please gives players a good idea of what it must have felt like to drive from West Germany to West Berlin before the Iron Curtain fell, for both the people travelling and the border agents.  If you were making the drive, there was a period where the car was in East Germany.  This period was highly monitored—you drove a particular vehicle (provided by the DDR) with proscribed directions.  These included not just the route, but also how fast you drove each portion.  They even timed out the whole trip with a number of checkpoints.  When you arrived at the West Berlin border, they’d make a point of checking the odometer (knowing the correct reading).  If you didn’t check out, you’d get detained.

The game asks your frantic eyes to flit across papers, sometimes filed in triplicate.  Any inconsistencies?  Does their story check out?  Next.  Next.  Next.  And by the end of the day when it’s all tallied up?  You’re either wishing you hadn’t spent so much time double checking, or you’re wishing you had.  So this time there’s not enough money for food.

If we strip the game to its basic mechanics, it’s a round based game of match as many as you can for points to advance to more complex levels.  Each level has a steep point cost to advance, but players can pay below that cost for a short time.  That’s all there is to this game, its play mechanics and punishing difficulty are what generate the play feeling that drive its visual and narrative themes.  A stressful matching game dresses up in symbols that recall Soviet Russia and 1984 to resemble a kind of experience someone might have had—an imagined possibility.

Play as Perspective

“Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” —Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man

 

When we think of play and games we do not think about the outside world, our happening societies and bustling metropolises.  Games are an escape from the reality of the work and personal stress of our lives.  The whole point of games is that they exist in a realm outside of “real life.”  Right?

But games are increasingly simulating regions of “real life.”  This is obvious in the realm of narrative-driven video games—they can be seen as a new medium of fiction.  There we expect an author to have hidden some message for the player if the story is deep enough to warrant it.  Where somebody is actively telling a story, we expect a worldview.

Yet even a game stripped of any narrative element has a worldview hidden in the mechanical medium of gameplay.  Even card games and board games have a worldview.  Stop and consider what Monopoly tells us about business and real estate.  While everyone may start equal, random chance quickly sorts out who gets the lucrative deals and who’s stuck with poor properties.

Although Tarot cards are now famous for their fortune telling tricks, they were originally playing cards.  People played regional variations of the same game, tarot or tarrock or tarocco, all over Renaissance Europe.  So what did the gameplay look like?  Face cards like kings and queens duking it out to collect all the other cards, while trump cards named Death, the Pope, the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune disrupt their plays.  Hmm… that sounds a little like 15th century Italian history… which also happens to be when and where Tarot was invented.

You see, games bear the impression of the time and perspective they were created in.  More often than not, game mechanics represent a perception of actual “real life” processes, even if only as an abstraction of those processes.  Whether these gameplay mechanics accurately represent the processes they depict is only partially interesting.  Let’s also ask, what do they suggest about the perspective of the development team behind the game?  And what about how players interact with these mechanics, like when they try to game the rules?

This blog wants to dig into these questions and explore them using examples from real life.  Can a game with a progressive narrative undermine its message with contradictory gameplay?  How does a game simulate an experience using abstract mechanics?  What makes Crusader Kings 2 players widely commit in-game fratricide, incest, and ethnic cleansing?  And what does the answer to that question tell us about this portrayal of the medieval world?

One part game analysis and one part cultural criticism, this blog is aimed at people who are willing to temporarily abandon the idea that the play of a game happens within a magic circle where nothing is real—people who are interested in games from a cultural standpoint and as an interactive art medium.

 

My approach is similar to Youtubers like Errant Signal or Noah Caldwell-Gervais.  Though Errant Signal does have a blog, I’ve linked to his Youtube page as well, because the blog is out of date by nearly a year.