One of the main characteristics that differentiates games from other kinds of art is the degree in which the public (in this case, the players) interacts with it. Because of this, they have been tagged as an interactive media that works around the premise of choice.
However, there’s a need to distinguish how choices can be presented. This distinction arises from the fact that there are actually two kind of narratives in games: a story narrative and a gameplay narrative.
Because of the extent of the material, I’ll focus on the first type: narrative choices. For the second type, gameplay choices, please refer to the post Choiceplay.
Narrative Choices are those which the player can make and that affect the story of the game.
These are the most common type because of the relatively low cost it means at a design level; there’s no need to do any kind of balance to keep the game entertaining or challenging.
They can be divided into three subtypes, depending on the degree of impact they have over the story.
Whenever there’s divergence on the narrative that really has no implications in the rest of the game, we are in presence of this kind of choices.
They are an excuse to provide some kind of variety and personalization into the experience with no further participation after they were made.
Examples of these are:
- The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword
- Being the protagonist a silent hero, the player can sometimes choose between 3 possible answers that only differ in how things are said.
- Players can complete 3 mini-dungeons in any order they want, with no real impact on the story or the experience.
- Mass Effect, Deus Ex, The Walking Dead:
- Many dialogues don’t go beyond simple chit-chat.
- In the case of the latter, some times, when picking a choice, a message like “[…] will remember this” appears. While they serve to give more importance to the choices made by the player, ultimately many of them don’t have any saying later.
- Any other game that allows the superficial customization of the avatar.
Branching is a difficult task when writing as there’s the need to track all decisions that were and will be made. Suddenly, the result is a big tree of possibilities that becomes unmanageable.
Because of their nature, these choices are (most of the times) relatively minor to the overall story.
The most popular writing technique based on this principle is called beads-on-a-string.
Each bead is self-contained, stand-alone; i.e. things can change inside a bead but in the end the global state of the story should not be altered (that much). With this method, the repercussions of the decisions either don’t last beyond the current situation or have a specific outcome in the future.
Some TV series usually follow this pattern, with each episode generally independent from the rest.
Some examples of are:
- Deus Ex – Human Revolution
- The player can rescue or not an NPC team member, who may appear later to give some help during a specific mission.
- When attacking an enemy, the player can either kill it (violent approach) or knock it (pacifist approach). The result is a different tone in the ending dialogue, depending on the number of violent acts.
- The player can harvest or save certain NPCs. The change, in terms of story, is in certain dialogues and in the ending of the game.
These are the most difficult to pull off due to their exponential nature and complexity, specially when there’s audio or video resources involved that increment the size of the game. They can be thought also as choices that have global influence in the story and usually are “game-changing”.
- In the Mass Effect trilogy, decisions made by the player have serious consequences in the development of the story in the sequels. For example, a character can die in the first game and depending on the outcome it could be replaced or not by another character in future games.
- In Dishonored, similarly to Deus Ex: HR, players can be violent or pacifists. The main difference is that a violent playthrough impacts not only gameplay but the story as well; chaos expands and both dialogues and certain events reflect that change (including the ending).
- In The Walking Dead, the outcome of several events spawn through different episodes and seasons.
Mass Effect’s take on rippling choices
Part of the Understanding Video Games course, in Coursera, involved short QA’s with the development team of Mass Effect and one of them was about how they managed to work with choices that span across games.
Their solution was using anchors that represent the core of the event and have certain keypoints that could change depending on the state of the game. In other words, each dialogue and event is a potential bead-on-a-string.
By any means are choices in game narratives limited to those I exposed here; however, I do find these categories useful as a first step into understanding the nature of the medium.
It could be argued that there are no real rippling choices but punctual choices with future outcomes.
Furthermore, one could say that real choice is but an illusion and that we are just deciding (either consciously or not) which of the pre-selected paths to choose.
But, what are games if not «free movement within a more rigid structure»?