Thursday, March 24, 2011

Necessity of Frustration

I am totally that guy who saves his RPGs regularly so I can go back and explore a different choice. I kept my thumb in the page of choose your own adventures too. I'm a completest, and I hate the idea that maybe I missed some interesting branch or event because of a bad choice early on, so I take steps to protect myself against it. I don't think this is uncommon, though obviously it is a matter of degree.

Computer Games seem to be built on the same assumptions I'm making. Some of this is a function of the medium - if you can save and try something else, why wouldn't you? - but some of it is also habit. We understand completion. Computers and computer interfaces are really good at expressing ideas like percentage complete, but more nuanced ideas can be harder to express within the medium. Most and least are easy, but fuzzy numbers are hard. Plus, for programmers, it's stupid to build content to NOT use. Writing a game which a player will only experience a fraction of might be a great idea, but it's a rough allocation of resources.

This point came to mind while listening to the excellent Walking Eye podcast featuring Ryan Macklin, John Wick and Eddy Webb. Unsurprisingly, it's an great listen, but there's a brief moment of talking about engagement in video games that left me chewing on my own experience and considering that the prices of a compelling narrative in play may be paid out of traditional gameplay rewards, and that price might be too high.

One of the hardest lessons in life is that everything you do is ten thousand things you don't. This is an important thing to learn to understand yourself, and it's also something important to understanding drama. A story that could only have ever gone one way is a poor start as a story, and dead weight as a game. Sure, you can get some mileage out of illusionary choices, or choices that exist solely within tight boundaries, but we've already milked those about as far as we can. If you accept that deeper, more personal drama in video games is a desirable outcome, then I suggest something more drastic is in order.

What is that something? If I had a whole answer to that, I'd be off in Austin making big bucks. But I have bits of it, and the bits I'm really staring down the barrel of is this: Meaningful choices demand that the paths not taken be rich, and doing that well demands a patience for waste and frustration which, I think, is far riskier than most game designers can afford.


  1. The virtue of the light style of that Impressionistic Narrative module design I put up a few days go is that it can allow you to build out a lot of extra possibilities without having to do much work. I saw a tweet where you said you were going to read about that concept later, Rob, but I never saw another tweet about your opinion on it (then again, I haven't checked up on it for a few days now, maybe you did).

    FYI; Not diggin the new blog design, Rob. Just doesn't feel right to me. Doesn't say Rob Donahue to me

  2. Still in queue. I've been sick for weeks now, so my reading backlog is embarassing.

    It is kind of brown, isn't it?

  3. Personally I think content that is not purposefully intended to flesh out the narrative is important in broadening the world of a computer game. Even if the hooks are not immediately apparent, you will realise that when people start accidentally discovering these elements that word will get around (and if people like the game they will start looking for these and others). It's a worthwhile pay-off.

    Adaptive games are similar. Storylines that are not invoked because of character choices serve to broaden the game. The designers hope that, instead of play once, people will go back and try different alternatives. [Although there is a distressing tendency to railroad characters back to the final scene (or other chokepoints) regardless of their choices, mainly because you don't have the resources for infinite variability in play. However I think it's much better if your choices result in different endings. For example it would be interesting to have a game which ends in a final confrontation, but have the player's choice determine the side that they are on.]

    And that's what I think people are really looking in a game, beyond the ability to waste a few hours having fun. The ability to change the world, to make a difference. An example of this is the difference between Dragon Age I and II. In Origins, it felt like most of the choices you make were of crucial importance, so you wanted to go back and explore new choices. In II, which is much more of a character narrative than a story narrative, you get the feeling that your choices aren't as important and there is less incentive to go back and explore other paths. [The glyph system on choices doesn't help in that it allows players to estimate the effects of their choices.] There is a lot less mythic resonance; a lot less perception of the player's choices affecting the world, rather than their character. And that's why a lot of reviewers (who admittedly had heightened expections), are tending to be so very lukewarm in their response to II.

  4. I wish that, after finishing an RPG, companies would offer an 'unlock storyline' feature that would let you jump back to divergent paths and see how the game flowed in different directions. I appreciate people who want to do multiple playthroughs, but I want to skip to the good parts and watch them like deleted scenes on a DVD.


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