Choice in Narratives

Here is an interesting article. It basically describes and compares two different solutions for combining gameplay and narrative. In a nutshell it compares Mass Effect with Fallout 3. I especially like this quote

By closing off the game and opening up the story, BioWare games give me agency where I do not require it, and remove my agency from where I do require it.

There is a lot to discuss when comparing the very different approaches of the two games. I could ramble forever about them and I might some day. But today I would like to focus on one observation. The author of the article points to a really interesting dilemma in creating interactive stores. It’s a dilemma I also observed and which I don’t have a clear answer to yet.

The actor playing Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet does not get to decide whether or not he kills Tybalt…

It’s an interesting problem. If you give players the authority to change how a story turns out, it can render the drama of a story obsolete. The Romeo and Juliet example is an excellent one. Imagine the loss of impact if the tragedy of that story could be avoided. On the other hand, not being able to change the overall outcome of a story can render the interaction with that story meaningless. I see three solutions for this problem right now.

  • Emphasis on Dilemma: If there is a good ending and a bad ending, choice becomes trivial (*cough*Heavy Rain*cough*). But what if there would be more emphasis on genuine dilemmas? What if each choice had a serious downside to it? In the Romeo and Juliet example, you could avoid the canon ending but the alternative ending would be equally devastating. GTA4 attempted something similar, but not quite. I still think it was a good try.
  • Limit Range of Choice: So far choices in games are diametrical. Save the Little Sisters or KILL THEM! What if the choices were rather nuances than opposites. You always save the Little Sisters but you can either ignore them or try to communicate with them. Depending on how you chose, the story unfolds slightly differently.
  • Embrace: Or maybe interactive storytelling is simply very, very different. Maybe a story like Romeo and Juliet simply cannot be told in an interactive way. But maybe that’s OK. There could very well be a whole lot of other narratives and different ideas that cannot be conveyed in a linear, scripted fashion.

I will leave the question open right now but I’m highly interested in you opinion on the subject matter.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

13 responses to “Choice in Narratives”

  1. Claus Daniel Herrmann

    I saw a talk about drama in games at the fmx this year. I’m not sure, who talked there, but he made an interesting statement: If you compare game structures to classic drama structures, you might notice, that in current games you are most of the time stuck in the second or third act. After the heroes life get’s unbalanced in the intro (maybe tutorial these days), he continuesly fights to retain balance through eliminating the obstacles, that brought chaos (this is the game). When he reaches the climax (final boss fight), the outro starts to play and the story is concluded.
    You might think about that, when you think about stories in games. I mean, there is a reason, why we only want to play the second act (challenges take place only there). But it could be worth thinking about, how to incorporate the later acts, too, especially, when it comes to different endings. And then again, why is the end so important? Why do we want to change a stories end anyways?

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Good point! I had a similar thought when playing Monster Hunter Tri. It a game where there is a climax mid-way in the game.

  2. DFA

    I guess in a way it goes back to the Ebert videogame debate. As he wrote regarding Kellee Santiago: ‘She begins by saying video games “already ARE art.” Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”‘ Anyhow, here’s a shameless plug of my humble video-essay on the subject, suggesting that games are at least better than the “tentpole film.”

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Thanks for that video. I saw it earlier, and liked it a lot.

      As for you comment – I wouldn’t reduce the discussion down to Ebert. The reason for re-creating existing narrative structures in games is not only to be able to recognize their artistic value. There is a much more pragmatic reason. We have already so much knowledge on how to construct and de-construct narratives in linear media. We need to find a way to transfer at least part of that knowledge onto non-linear media. Otherwise, we would need to re-invent the wheel. That would be quite a disadvantage for video-games as a cultural medium.

  3. Colton

    I read the article and it does raise a few good questions. However I think it really comes down to a question of authorship. I love bioware games and I don’t understand some of his gripes about the world and game play feeling restricted. In those games you are the author of your own story within a framework established by bioware. Sure, you have to hit the beats established by bioware on your way to slay the dragon but the choices you make matter to your story and create investment. I personally could care less where you take your horse/car/self in an “open world game” if it ultimately has no impact on the story. If I want a linear story I will read a book or watch a movie. If I want to be Romeo I will join a community theater troupe. The linear stories I find in these experiences will, in all likelihood, be a much more interesting than I would find in Fallout 3. I enjoyed the game very much but the story was nothing I can recall being very special. Branching stories can be equally afflicted with “non-choices” like Save Babies vs Kill Babies which are just as bad as an uninteresting linear story. One of the areas I am most interested in seeing explored is meaningful choices that have impact on both game play and story. I think all the options you listed are important to consider. If there is an “evil choice” the at least make it have advantages other than satisfying a few games sadistic ids. There is a lot of unexplored territory in this area so I hope to see more games take this route and less retelling watered down, linear stories from other mediums.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      I agree with you on this. There is just one thing I would point out: we shouldn’t under-estimate the importance of details. All the minute choices, all the seeming random events make up the the experience. They do a lot in establishing an investment in the world the game evokes, even if they do not directly contribute to the story.

  4. Kimari

    But thinking about interactive experiences within the frame of traditional media does not seem appropriate to me.
    Saying that giving the player the power to choose renders the drama of the story obsolete is missing the entire point of interactivity. The story is important and engaging not because it has drama in it, because it’s happening to YOU. I don’t care what my character does in cutscenes since I’m not in control of her actions, so the drama that some game designers might think is introduced by a cutscene is basically null for me and quite a few players, if not most of them.

    Now, if one constructs the game so that there’s plenty of opportunity for player-driven drama, then we can start talking. Though I see that you probably think something similar to this, given the solutions you proposed.

  5. Kimari

    (sorry for the double post)
    “Or maybe interactive storytelling is simply very, very different. Maybe a story like Romeo and Juliet simply cannot be told in an interactive way.”
    As a matter of fact, yes, it can be experienced in the same way. The thing is, not every player is going to experience it that way. There may be only one dude out there that just so happens to experience the story like so.
    Now, is that good? bad? … I’ll say neither: It’s just different.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      I agree that responsibility is an important way to bind the player emotionally to a game narrative. It’s a unique property of game narratives. I wrote a similar thing here.

      However, we shouldn’t discard the thousands of years of knowledge in linear storytelling. Of course linear dramaturgy plays an important role in games as well. Just because something happens to ME doesn’t mean that I will be automatically engaged by it.

      1. Kimari

        Of course! It’s just that some rules now apply in a different way and that changes how drama can work effectively in games … which doesn’t negate EVERYTHING we now know about drama, it just requires a particular thought process or change in perspective that we are not used to …

        A simple example would be the difficulty of pulling off an in medias res without confusing the hell out of the player or bathing him in exposition and tutorials. Is it impossible to do well? I don’t think so, but it’s probably more difficult than in other media.

  6. axcho

    Not to be annoying, but have you played Sleep Is Death yet? Jason Rohrer’s new game. It is very important.

    I just started playing it with a storyteller-ish friend, and my mind is starting to open up in all sorts of interesting ways.

    Check the gallery at SIDTube to see some example stories. I’ve already posted one as a player under my name, “axcho”.

    I’m curious to hear what you think of it.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      I don’t know about this one. Isn’t Sleep is Death a game narrative as a chartroom is literature? I thought the trick was to be able to understand storytelling at a fundamental level and putting that genie in the bottle. Giving up all authorial control to the players doesn’t seem like doing either of those things.

      But it is an intriguing experiment. I’m yet to play it.

      1. axcho

        I didn’t think it was that interesting until I played it either. I’d recommend that you wait to classify or dismiss it until you’ve played it a few times. And also that you bump up the priority of playing it.

        In some sense you will come upon a paradox if you get too fixated on the idea of securing authorial control and encoding it immutably into the mechanics of your game. You get too greedy with control and pretty soon your players have nothing to do; it ceases to be a game.

        Admittedly Sleep Is Death goes pretty far toward the “abdication of authorship” approach of game storytelling, like The Sims, but at the same time once you start playing it you will start to see ways in which this authorship could be regained, while still allowing the player considerable freedom within it. It’s a shift in worldview. From the old place it looks like a dead end, but once you step over you will start to see that this is just the beginning.

        For example, when I play I feel like an Actor. I am Playing a Role. This is fundamentally different than how I feel when I play a typical game, even one with a good story. And it is one of many aspects of Sleep Is Death that offer a new model for understanding authorship and story and freedom and choice in games, with many more possibilities than we had previously thought possible.



The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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