Play to Choose, or Choose to Play: choice and narrative consequence in video game writing

5 years ago
Tom May

So you’re playing a man whose life has fallen apart, his wife left him and he’s moved to a dodgy neighbourhood. The houses are squashed together, old, haven’t been worked on in years. There’s the sound of dripping water and creaking pipes and the subway shakes the building. There’s a woman you’ve been boozing with at the bar and one night she comes home with you and goes out into your cramped backyard for a smoke. There’s something to grab upstairs (if you choose to) and someone knocked on your door and you can respond (if you choose to), but something else is happening. A gang of men leap into your backyard and you hear a scream. They attack your friend. You run to the backyard. You’re not a superhuman killing machine; you’re not even that tough, you’re just a guy. What do you do? Do you grab a kitchen knife? Grab the old revolver you keep under the tea towels even though you don’t have time to find the bullets? Or do you not go out there at all? Cower in case they have a gun, after all—you don’t want to end up dead do you?

You grab the kitchen knife and swing open the back door. You don’t just brandish the thing, you straight-up go in for the kill. You manage to slash the man with the gun. You catch one with his pants down, he trips. The third one is over the fence and gone. The rapist on the ground is crying mercy, his friend is bleeding something awful and crying out for God and his mother. Do you kill them? Let them leave, bandages and pants on? What do you do? You’ve already got one escaped witness and one severely wounded man in your own backyard and the woman you think you might be falling for has just been brutally assaulted. What do you do?

Dragon fighting in Elder Scrolls

While a film running in a dark room with no one there to watch it can be sure to eventually end, video games need their audience in order to move forward; they are completely dependent on their audience in order to operate. No matter how many times you press play on Jaws, you know Brody will get on that boat even if you’re not there to see it. But with video games, if you’re not there to guide Mario to Bowser’s Castle, he’ll never see his Princess again. Video games are about choice and consequence, like any dramatic form, but what distinguishes video games from other dramatic forms is that the choice and the bearer of those consequences is the audience itself. If those choices are made up for them, what’s the point of the video game existing?

Say, instead of attacking, you cower behind the kitchen counter making sure no one hears you. It’s painful to listen to. Something happens, the woman screams out and then one of the men does. She’s attacked them. There’s a gunshot and her screaming stops. The men are shocked, jumpy. “Fuck, fuck, fuck”, they repeat before disappearing over the fence. You run outside to see how she is. She’s dead. What do you do?

Writing video-games isn’t at all easy, for two reasons: Technology and a lack of precedent. If the technology available can’t render the scenes required then the story can’t be told. Then, video game writers have one glaring excuse for mimicking other mediums: the fact that no video-game writer really knows how to write video-games yet.

BioShock Infinite’s opening: The soundtrack boomed, it was well-staged, final reveal of turn-of-the-century flying city handled expertly. But it didn’t take long to realise that there was no real effect that the player could have. The player’s job is simply to gun their way from point to point, from film scene to film scene, until it ends with twenty minutes of circular metaphysics and sudden cut-to-black. None of what the player saw was influenced by their actions over the past 5 to 8 hours of play. BioShock Infinite sacrificed most interactive storytelling mechanics in order to tell its story the best it felt it could. The player character spoke on his own behalf, there were no major choices, it was a story built for a film’s structure and pacing, not a video-game’s.

The cinematic world of BioShock Infinite

The most sophisticated mechanic designed to handle conversation in video-game writing is the “Dialogue Tree”, where the player responds to NPCs (Non-Player Characters) with one of a number of responses that may range from positive to neutral to negative. Working in these parameters and trying to be universal is difficult. Not only have you got to cater for as many kinds of personalities playing your game as possible, but you have to make it sound good, and you have to know how to make your NPCs react to the player. There is nothing more frustrating than none of these limited responses embodying even slightly your reaction to a situation.

The 2012 game Dishonored was clever in how it made the world “react” to the player. The game is a “FPS/RPG” (First-Person Shooter/Role-Playing Game, a hybrid genre). Plenty of FPS/RPGs had the player make increasingly difficult decisions that would augment or totally shift the ending of the narrative and alter the way core characters interacted with you (these choices often made through dialogue e.g do you command your team-mate to go on a suicide mission if you know it will save innocents, or do you save your friend from certain death but almost definitely doom hundreds of innocents?). What Dishonored did was change the way the player arrived at those choices, building them into the narrative in such a way as to make them almost unconscious aspects of the gameplay. FPS/RPGs are known for their wide array of available play-styles: while some games force you to shoot the hell out of everything that moves, FPS/RPGs often can be played without a single fatality and without a single NPC seeing you. Players choose what kind of game they play, but this choice generally doesn’t affect the story. In Dishonored it did. In Dishonored if you managed to complete a mission without being seen by the villain faction, then you could go into the next mission and they wouldn’t even know you were coming. Conversely if you were seen, raising alarms and engaging in a full-blown gun-toting, knife-wielding massacre, you could expect a bigger, more dangerous welcoming party next mission. Arkane Studios, the developers of Dishonored, named this system “Chaos”. If a player had “High Level Chaos” they could expect more aggressive NPCs, more in-story deaths, and allied characters’ personalities developing to match.

The more character driven world of Dishonoured

Plenty of games offer choices, but it’s rare that they make full use of them. In several games you can play the most morally corrupt person and have all allied characters be pretty forgiving. Your “boss” may spend one line berating you, but that’s the end of it. Say you played as a secret agent sent to deal with a breach in a manufacturing plant and once inside you slaughter every living thing, killing some of the people you were hired to protect. Once you get back to HQ, the staff are divided, some of your colleagues look on you unfavourably, so does your boss – you’re a loose cannon, unpredictable and dangerous; when you run into people in the cafeteria they’re intimidated, they don’t want anything to do with you. Some, on the other hand, grow fonder of you because of your actions. To them you’re dangerous and that’s what you should be, you get the job done. Perhaps the armourer is a fan of your work and gives you a bonus next time you go for outfitting. A lot of these reactions, in current games, will require the player to dig for them, and to dig a player must know they’re there in the first place. Without these details Dishonored feels flat. Instead players could be led towards having interactions with important characters (all with distinct personalities) that could react dynamically to the player’s behaviour. By all means have story that requires digging and reward those who dig, but do not make this digging a requirement for the game to be interesting.

Dishonored was constructed in levels. Levels are, typically, contained sections (or “maps”) with goals/missions, the completion of which allows the character—and the narrative—to progress. This is a primitive way of progressing a story in a video-game, and plays as stiff at best and jammed at worst. The level-leads-to-cut-scene-leads-to-level approach to video-game writing doesn’t at all harness the strengths of the medium.

“Open-World” games try to avoid the forced level progression by replacing strictly demarcated levels with one giant world that the player can explore as they please, finding missions as they do so. These worlds, e.g. those of the Elder Scrolls series, can be some of the most immersive experiences out there, but the virtue of ‘exploration over narrative’ can kill their stories’ progression and suspense. Open-world games regularly have fate-of-the-world stories, yet the moral/narrative consequences of these events are too often ignored by video-game developers or simply placed where they shouldn’t be; only in video-games does Armageddon begin only to have the main character ignore it to master blacksmithing before getting around to saving the world. When a game has a “Main Quest Line” that can be interrupted anytime by the player to do a dozen different “Side Quests” (or just to mess around with jet skis, prostitutes, and runes) the essential “rising action” of more traditional story structures found in cinema and literature is shot dead. The short of it is this: If a story of impending world destruction doesn’t fit the gameplay, don’t write a story about impending world destruction. If at any point the story and the gameplay are at odds, that’s not the story to write.

Comedian Stewart Lee said that the best stand-up is writing that doesn’t feel like it has been written. This is the same for video-games. Video-game writers shouldn’t be seen or noticed. All good entertainment makes the person being entertained forget that it’s all made up. Writing video-games is like writing nothing else. You don’t start with the script like you would with film; you start with what for everything else is generally the last touch: The little details about the world, the dialogue of shopkeepers, their schedules, the advertising campaigns that appear on billboards and the political anxieties of the poor. You give the players characters they can care about if they choose. You don’t make anything a requirement, except the laws of the world itself. Video-game writing is world-building, and a spectacularly crafted world has world has infinite stories to tell.

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