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Tim Ingham-Dempster

Does choice reduce meaning?

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I'm not sure if this falls under writing or game desing, but I think mainly writing. So, I'm working on a game and I've got the code to the point where I am starting to think about gameplay and plot. I have some ideas but have run into an issue. There are certain moments in traditional storytelling where characters have to make difficult choices. These are generally very compelling moments. They mainly seem to serve two purposes. The first is to reveal an aspect of the character's personality. The second is to change the character's environment and cause their lives to change in some way. I want some of these moments in my game. The easy way to do this would be to script them, but that isn't good enough. I want the NPCs to make these decisions based on what has happened previously in the game. I also want the player to be able to make some of these decisions. Making this happen and having the world react intelligently isn't easy, but it can be done. The problem is replayability. Part of what makes these moments so compelling is that once you have seen, heard or read what happens, it can never be changed. No matter how often you re-read/re-listen/re-watch the story, the character will always make the same decision. In a game this isn't true. Even if we came up with a convoluted save system that doesn't allow the player to go back to before this moment they could replay the game. Even if we make it so hard to change what happens that the player will never do so, the simple possibility that they could seems to take away some of the power of these moments. Is there any way to overcome this or is it a limit of the medium? Could we create equally powerful stories by showing the consequences of all of a player's possible choices even though we have to sacrifice these powerful moments?

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Yes.
People usually try to avoid emotions they don't really like and that also might make the story weaker.
And if we compare the games with linear story and games with non-linear story, the linear stories are always more powerful. That's true because choices in games are nothing more than pointless experiments to players. They don't have powerful consequences, and if they make gameplay worse, the game won't be played anymore. The player has the chance to quit playing at any time so I support making linear stories and therefore making the playing experience more powerful, more unique, better.

So you have a choice here - basically equal choices or a weak story.

P.S. The only good choice I had to make in a game was in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow - the Jerusalem mission - to kill or not to kill the other agent. I think it was one of the best choices ever implemented in a game. It didn't have the power to change my mood, it only changed the dialogues and gameplay at the end of the level.

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Is this an RPG? RPGs are just not replayable, there's no point worrying about replayability unless you want to plan for one specific 2nd playthrough in which new areas and/or abilities will be accessible and the story will diverge in a specific major way from the first playthrough. It would be a pretty good idea to design a first playthrough that is hard-won through sacrifice, then a second playthrough where all the sacrifice is avoided for a perfect happy ending.

But, I think it's quite misleading to start out talking about choice if you're talking about a situation where the player does not actually get to decide anything and can't have any effect on the plot direction. Fake choices tend to piss off players and thus are usually not given to the PC to make. If you really want to focus on hard choices, give the choice to an important NPC to make unless you are going to let the player actually make it.

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Does having more possible defining moments make each of the defining moment weaker?
Re: Tim

I think that was your question. You do not have a problem implementing non-linear game story. You don't have a problem letting the player save the game and replay. You are asking whether simply letting the player know that there are alternate endings would make the defining moments of the story weaker.

I don't think it would dampen it just because you have multiple defining moments in different paths. You should just focus on making each of the defining moment strong, so that each path has momentum to carry the plot forward.

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Thanks for the replies. It isn't an RPG I'm not sure what genre it would fall into, but the main emphasis is dialogue, with a bit of shooting for good measure. I'm planning on keeping it to a couple of hours so that I stand a chance of actually getting it done, so replays are a possibility, but thats not really what I'm trying to get at. The choices the player makes will affect the outcome (I hope). The player can't influence where the plot goes and I'm not trying to make them think that they can. The decisions they make should influence which characters survive to the end and what their relationship with the player is. Wai was fairly close to what I'm trying to deal with.

To take an example from Mass Effect (SPOILERS) the moment when the player has to choose who lives between Ashley and Kaiden should be incredibly powerful. If done well it would have the viewer on the edge of their seat in a film/tv show. When playing the game I knew that if I wanted to I could re-play the game and so I didn't care that much. I'm not likely to play through again just to change who survives, but the fact that I could is enough to ruin the effect for me.

Having thought about that I'm now wondering if unique characters would help. If Kaiden and Ashley were completely different every time you play the game, then chosing which one dies is meaningfull because you will never experience the game with that exact character.

That would present its own problems though. How to create a character generation system that can make characters unique enough to be individual but similar enough to fulfill the plot functions they need? How to explain to the player that once they decide they will never see that exact character again? Would this be frustrating, knowing that that character will never come back?

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How about delaying the point of effect with respect to the point of choice; or obscuring the relation between the two?

For example, you could let the player choose before reaching chapter 4, and the full effect of the accumuated choices is not observed until chapter 5. By the time the player realizes that the choices matter, the player would have complete so much and want not to start over. The player might not know how he needs to play differently to get a different ending, the relation is obscured.

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As you don't know the consequences, choice is only perceived as a harmless experiment which can only frustrate the player later because he can never know the whole story as he is actually not the character he controls. So, if you want a choice in your game, let it be a "weak" choice or... maybe you could try to display the thoughts of the character that the player controls and give a short summary of his opinion about consequences. But that opinion must be clear, not some kind of "invisible text", otherwise it will not work because gamers are usually not good thinkers.

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Associating Emotional Impact to the point of decision or point of effect
Re: Tim, Snake5

If you delay the effect from the decision, you could get emotions such as regret and appreciation. In your game, you could have a history letting the player choose to behave a certain way, but never with any immediate effect. For example, the player may choose to be good but its makes the situations harder. However, near the end, the history that the player had chosen the good behaviors opens the path for a good ending. When the player reaches the point of effect, the player feels appreciation and reward.

In this construct, it is still the consequences that gives the emotional effect. However, the impact is felt not at the point of decision but at the point of effect.

In your construct, you were trying to get an impact at the point of decision. This can be accomplished by pairing the effect point with another decision point.

At this new decision point, the player is presented with choices, A and B. Depending on the history, only one of them would be viable. For example, if the character had been good, he could save everyone by choosing A, while choosing B would be not as good. If the character has been bad, choosing A would completely fail, while choosing B would be the only way to survive.

Emotional impact at a point of decision free from history
Re: Tim

I think you were more interested in decision points where there was less history involved. In that case perhaps you could let the decision point occur early in the story. If the story has 13 chapters, you let the player make such a decision by chapter 2. Since most players do not expect to replay the entire game, you get the impact by letting the player choice and identify the choice with themselves. I think you get the same kind of feeling when a player choices the race and class for an MMORPG that requires a lot of leveling up. There is no history that affect the player. But the player is asked to commit to how he wants to enjoy the game--what class to play, what decision to live with for the rest of the game.

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Regret is not an option - you don't want the player to stop playing the game, right? If I would finish a game with a bad ending, I'd feel like I have wasted my time and I wouldn't want to try to get a better ending because it's almost like the game is saying that I'm not the kind of person that will get it. But a game needs to be willing to co-operate to get and keep the attention of the player. And a good story shouldn't try to create emotions that might stop the player from playing the game. Also, the further the bad effect is from the choice, the more chance it has to ruin the experience for the player - he might want to redo something, to fix his mistakes.
A game is a form of interactive entertainment, not like movies where the player(viewer) is not responsible for anything, and that's why difficult choices in traditional storytelling will never be the same or even near to making choices in games.

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Working Regret into the Plot
Re: Snake5

One way you could have both regret and gratification, is to pair up the point of effect with a point of decision. In this case, you could make the player feel regretful for what he had done in the game world, but at the same time let the player choose a path of redemption or change. A point of effect is not necessarily the end of the story, therefore the story could keep going. You could do both.

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That's a good idea - letting him fix his mistakes instantly. I think I haven't seen that in any game, might be worth a try. At least it should be much better than the default "done something bad - go cry" (in other words, the game doesn't care how it makes the player feel) thing implemented in some games (like GTA4).

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I like the idea of delayed effect. It doesn't solve the problem, as the player still knows that they could replay and make a different choice if they wanted to. It does look like a very useful tool for getting the player to re-consider the events that have led to the point of effect.

I'm not looking to give the player choices which are right or wrong or lead to a happy or sad ending. If it's a sad part of the story then both choices will be sad, for example, which character lives and which dies. Equally if its a happy part of the story then both choices are happy, for example which character the player makes "president of everything". Obviously these are simplified examples and most choices will have both positive and negative consequences.

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Say at the end of Titanic if you'd been given the chance to step in and save Jack, but you could only do it by making him be a coward and leaving Rose to die? If you've made an attachment with Jack, identified with his romantic spirit you're likely to choose the honourable option but still feel sad that there was no other choice. If you DID step in and change the ending the meaning would definitely change too!

Choice increases meaning. Player choices can be managed to keep the meaning (a free and emotionally difficult choice of happy/sad ending) structured and believable.

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Wouldn't you just watch it twice to see each ending? And wouldn't each one be less powerful simply because the other existed.

On another note, those are good examples of what I was talking about having each choice have some upsides and some downsides, to me neither of those options is an out-and-out happy or sad ending.

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Don't expect every player to have the same opinion.

Some players might go back to a certain save to avoid having to replay games with choices, but I for one do not. I've played through most recent BioWare games 3 or 4 times! I'm currently on my first playthrough of Dragon Age, and I fully expect to play through it at least twice more. Some people, like me, are in it for the story as a whole. It would not be enjoyable to me if I kept reloading saves just to see what happens if I would have taken the other path. It doesn't always make sense in such games anyway, because your actions usually add up, producing an outcome that you might never reach by changing only one decision.

And still others, like my wife, hardly ever read dialogue in games, even though she plays the dialogue-heavy Fire Emblem and Mario & Luigi series.

So in my opinion I don't think you have a problem at all. In addition, I'm pretty sure the general opinion these days is that games with non-linear stories are preferable to linear ones, hence the current favoring of CRPGs over JRPGs (in the US at least).

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Yes, if there is a choice of ending then it makes the emotional impact of a death a bit less... impacty. And yes you'd play both endings, just to see (surely that'd be part of the fun?). But that's life. Unless games become once-only self-destroying 'experiences' then there will allus be a reset button.

And what about a player making emotional attachments with a character. Maybe they've felt Jack was flaky from the start, so they fulfill their own prophecy and watch him run like a Frenchie. Or perhaps they're a helpless romantic and they've played with a sense of grand tragedy that must be ruled by destiny.

Getting people to make an emotionally difficult decision is what I'm aiming at I guess, making the choices hard even though in truth you're only choosing which button to press. There's all sorts of choice available in games really, but a lot of it goes unnoticed.

And I tghought of a better example, just as I logged off - if the Titanic game was played as Rose which ending would you choose between staying true to Jack and seeing him die, or agreeing to marry Whatsizchin (and letting him manage your use of prescription medicines) so that Jack could live?

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Quote:
Choice increases meaning.

It never does that in games. In movies you can see the way of thinking of a hero who's about to make a decision but in games - it's just you and your mind. You can try to make it big in your mind but it actually doesn't matter as you have the chance the reload the game. If one tries to force the choice to be powerful by making the gameplay harder, the game will get worse because this kind of thinking contradicts the ideas of good game design.

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Choice as a mean to force the player understand the situation
Re: Sigl

I think your original example was a better example to what you meant, while the second example was closer to what Tim meant. There are many functions to give the player a choice. One of them is to simply make the player pause and think about the situation.

In your original Titanic example, by giving the player the choice for Jack to save himself, you put the player in Jack's shoes. The player is given the environment to think, "If I were in that situation, I would do what Jack did and hope that I would somehow survive." The choice itself could be ficticious: If the player chooses to save Jack, Jack would counter that thought and explain that he would not live with that decision.

If the player chooses to let Jack die, Jack should still explain that that was the only way he would have it. It saves the player from wanting to reload and try the other option. Therefore I think your first example was a good use of choice, although it was not the situation that Tim concerns.

Your second example is the kind that Tim concerns, and I think that it does dilute the emotion as Tim suggested. By giving the player a choice like that, you run the risk of asking the player to experience emotion to asking the player to experience strategy. That choice was sort of ill-designed because if you ask the player to strategize to evade an emotional scene, you are screwing yourself over. If you want to save Jack you need to pair that path with another equally emotionally charged point of effect, so that both paths would lead to emotional scene.

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Actually the first example was the kind of thing I was talking about. The problem with having Jack tell the player that he isn't going to do it is that this isn't a real choice, the player cannot affect the outcome of the situation. That being said, I think you might have hit on a solution. If the player were more removed from the main character, where the character was able to make its own choices, this could work. It would be something like the sims, where the player can make suggestions, but the character still makes the choice.

The second type of choice is a problem, because the player will always choose to "win" and ignore the story option. The solution is to make sure that all outcomes have equal value to the player.

Thanks for all the thought you guys have been putting into this, its produced some really interesting ideas.

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In reply to snake5, I still go with choice increases meaning... if it's managed effectively. When we watch a film we can become emotionally attached to characters, which is part of the pleasure. But we watch the characters do things we might not have done. The meaning (whatever that means lol) in films is finding believable reasons for their choices. The meaning comes from the illusion that they could've done things differently but not having done so.

Macbeth could have chosen not to murder Duncan (Duncan, ah cannae seeeee! Spuggie's nicked mah rorr-leh bleads etc... Byker Grove ftw). But the tension, the meaning comes from his choice and the consequences. If he never had the opportunity (so never had the choice) we'd never have been bothered anyway would we? Ach, now I'm confusing myself.

Um... But in a game quite often we take the place of the actor. So saying 'oh in a Titanic game Jack wouldn't do that' is ok for Jack-from-the-film... but in a game there's much less of 'Jack-from-the-film' and much more of 'First-Person-Player' (you n me) in the character representation (the Jack-like thing that moves at our command). In fact.. hmm.. the Jack-like thing that moves at our command. Before we've even made any 'plot-choice' we're already far more involved with 'Jack-the-avatar' than 'Jack-from-the-film'. We can't help but put ourselves in there? So our moral choices can be more flexible, because the film Jack is way too rigid a character for a game, unless the game is just a linear 'unlock the next level' style.

What I meant with the second example was it's a cleaner sort of moral choice (the save Jack/let Jack die felt a bit too contrived).

And anyway... what the heck does 'meaning' mean? lol

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Hmm, by meaning I'm talking about the significance of the outcome of the decision. The ability to affect the lives of the characters. For example,Jack's decision to sacrifice himself to save Rose would have a lot of meaning in a film. His decision to have cereal for breakfast would not. Watching a character make these dicisions grabs the audiance's attention and can pack a real emotional punch.

Choice in the general sense does increase meaning, but by choice I mean the player having the choice instead of the character. I have always found that this ruins those moments, and I am trying to find a way to fix this.

By asking me to clarify meaning, I think you have helped me get closer to the root of the problem. If the player knows that the consequences of the decision are not permanant (because they could re-play the game and choose differently) then the significance of that decision is vastly reduced. Still can't figure out how to fix this, but at least I can see the issues better.

A possible solution would be to make each play-through totally unique, thereby making the consequences permanant. The problems with this are the ability to implement it and that the quality of the story would probably vary in quality each time.

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Jack-from-the-film vs Jack-the-player-played-thus-far
Re: Sigl Cifr

In my explanation I was talking about letting Jack choose the choice that is coherent to who he was as shaped by the player. It was about implementing inertia in personality.

I have forgotten the plot in Titanic. Where did "agreeing to marry Whatsizchin" occur in the plot? Did it happen before or after the ship hit the ice?

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