October 20, 2008

Decide Now

I can make my avatar male or female, accept the mission or reject it, negotiate with the bandits or kill them, use the shotgun or the katana, take my reward or demand more, can play it through on the good path, the evil path, use stealth or go in with guns blazing, play it alone or with others, play it on easy or on hard and on my platform of choice. Games like to be all things to everybody, appealing to the broadest possible demographic or perhaps a collective lack of attention.

Think about a game that refuses the player the above agencies/freedoms/liberties/inalienable rights and instead gives them only a knife then locks them in a basement with a monster. That narrow scenario demands our full attention in a way that less-linear games do not. We don't get to think about preferred weapons or the smartest strategies, our attention is dedicated to escaping with the very limited tools at our disposal. If the knife isn't working, we can't then fall back on the rocket launcher; we have to make it work. We have no alternatives, so we don't focus on how we like to play games, but on playing the game.

Survival horror can sustain that intensity because they don't ask you to make as many decisions. Games based around decision-making gameplay -- a tactical shooter or strategy game, or a role-playing morality test -- never evoke that same high-adrenaline sensation; the kind where your heart is pounding and you're completely fixated on your own survival since the consequences of failure are permanent. They're not capable of that but they pretend they are.

It's a cliche of marketing campaigns to promise that this time, in this game your choices really matter, and they affect the people and world around your character. You are given great latitude in how you build your defenses, prepare your troops and how you resolve a domestic dispute, and your decision will have lasting consequence. "Every choice matters," but have they, ever? In those genres where decisions should matter the most, they matter the least.

Drawing attention to multiple choices in single-player games reveals how compromised your decisions actually are. In a single-player game, your choices are never permanent, because you can always go back and try it again. Tough ethical quandaries and desperate battle tactics are easily redacted. Decisions are never final because replayability exists, even if the game doesn't have replay value in the conventional sense. Making a decision when prompted is more like reconnaissance than commitment. You can always take it back, and you know this, so you don't take it so seriously in the first place. You're aware of the alternatives and however subliminally, you register the point of no return as an opportunity to test your plan before loading a save and making your "final" choice. When Bioshock responds to my treatment of the Little Sisters, it's not judging the person I am. If I started killing Little Sisters, regretted it, reloaded, then it's judging the second-draft person I want the game to think I am.

The game tells me that the fate of the universe depends on my actions, but I don't appreciate that gravity, and my moral decisions are made with no conviction. If I don't like it, I'll change it. It's never a real choice if you know you have infinite chances. Choices never lead to last-ditch fights to the death where you will persevere even as the situation takes the slightest turn for the worse. Games construct that artifice but instead of overcoming the odds, you'll reload instantly.

Checkpoint saves are one way to enforce long-term consequence but they pay a price, mostly because the player is accustomed to the convenience of the quicksave. If the player screws up in a boss fight, and has to replay through a lengthy section of game, it'll diminish their interest rather than strengthening their resolve to meet the challenge.

It's very hard for single-player games to compel fight-or-flight responses in the player, and they don't need to, either. The problem is that it's their aspiration. Games are trending towards realism and simulation and every step forward towards a "living, breathing world" invokes the rhetoric about life-changing choices with real-world impact. Any progress made towards some nebulous "realism" goal is uncomfortably ignoring that certain elements of games are fundamentally unreal.

Quicksave abuse is something we assume to be an inherent video game limitation, but the rewind features of Braid and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time co-opt that weakness and institute game impermanence as a feature. They acknowledge that games are intrinsically about infinite variations and constant revisions, and that there's this disparity between austere presentation and safety-net mechanics.

There have to be additional solutions. Bioshock thought it had one with its respawning chambers: it knew that players would reload anyway so it gave them a canonical reason not to fear death, but the internet hardcore yelled that they hated it. It removed the challenge, they said. It's 2008, let's stop pretending that challenge is still there. Finality is not permanent anymore. Difficult choices are meaningless. Instead of living with it, let's work with it, and decide now where games go next.


Anonymous said...

I think I have trouble accepting that the challenge is vanishing from games. Its total disappearance would presumably spell the death of the survival horror game, and that's a genre which has become a staple - BioShock itself even borrows from it.

I loved Sands of Time: the rewinding aspect of it never felt like a gimmick (and the fact that you couldn't die in Braid didn't make the game any less challenging), but the fear of death remains a powerful motivator in many video games (and I thought that part of the reason that SoT was so good was that it limited the player's use of the hourglass, thus retaining the risk of death).

I don't really know what to think about this.

Kylie said...

I don't know that there is any way to force a player to live with the consequences of their choice in a game. Something we've just come to expect as gamers is that freedom to start again and this has created a paradigm in which many of us feel an obligation to restart and see all possible paths. The only way for this to change is for the player to make the choice not to do that.

I recently played through Indigo Prophecy with the intention of not restarting and letting all of my actions stand, regardless of the consequences. I didn't get the best ending, but I made the choices that at the time I thought were best and I lived with them. Unfortunately there were times when I made the "wrong" choice which ended up causing a game over and a restart, but this is something that is supposedly going to be eliminated in Heavy Rain.

I used Jason Rohrer's game Passage this summer in an Existentialism course as an example of a game that let's the player create her own meaning. The students were quite intrigued by it the first and second time they played through it - trying to figure out what was going on, realizing that it was up to them to decide the point, etc. Interestingly they got really sick of the game after 4 or 5 plays. I took this to mean that what gave the game its novelty was in its first or second plays, and extending it further by trying to "beat" it or explore everything only destroyed the experience. Perhaps that's a good lesson for all games.

qrter said...

"It's 2008, let's stop pretending that challenge is still there."

I agree. It ties in with this general thing I have regarding video games - let's stop pretending they're not artificial experiences.

You still hear designers talking about making games more and more naturalistic, graphically but especially mechanically - make the HUD integrated or disappear, no more quicksaves/quickloads that take you out of the gameworld, etc.

I've never understood that idea, I see no point in trying to make something artificial seem less so. I work in the theatre myself and theatre at its best takes its supposed greatest weakness (we're standing in a room and nothing's real) into its greatest strength - on one level we're standing in a room, on another we're asking the audience to pretend to go along with our little game. And then we can even play with those two levels and the interaction between them.

I mean, I get the point that for games it's supposed to be all about immersiveness, but to me, just as in theatre, there's the level of immersion of me deciding to play a game and therefore deciding to wilfully suspend my disbelief and then there's the level of me as a player, interacting with a machine that has buttons and switches. A quicksave-mechanism belongs to the second level and doesn't really impair my enjoyment on the first level.

I fully accept the fact that I'm just playing a game on a machine. It's fine, it really is!

Steve gaynor said...

In some ways it points towards a popularization of games where life-threatening situations aren't at the center of the experience, eh? Making death less punishing is just one step toward taking death out of the scenario entirely.

That doesn't address the issue of the 'make your choice, soldier' moment, though. If we can't think of a way to overcome the trial-and-error precognition of quickload, maybe it should be built into the game intentionally. Showing players exactly what the consequences of their choice will be before they make it removes the pretense of moral gravity. but since quickload does that already, then why not? I see not only the two choice nodes in front of me, but the cascade of implications each will have, before the choice is even made. A game about making grave decisions, where the player character is a psychic? Maybe..

Anonymous said...

There's an indie gamemaker "game" called "execution" that does something very simple to serve almost precisely as a counterexample to this. I think it's pretty much more of an art piece than a game, but it exists anyhow: http://gmc.yoyogames.com/index.php?showtopic=375097&pid=2699010&mode=threaded&start=

n0wak said...

Steel Battalion, that damned giant controller game, is a game that is often forgotten but it is one that did things in an interesting (though brutal) way. It saved the game as you go on and if you fail you can eject and restart the mission (I think there's a financial penalty? There should be. You lost a multi-million dollar mech) and you can continue. To a point.

However, if you fail to eject you die. And when you die, you die: the game erases your entire game. Good-bye time investment.

If Bioshock or any other modern, large scale game did this, heads would roll. That is a lot of time to spend in a game to see it go down the shitter and be forced to restart.

Which, I think, is part of the problem. You can't penalize the player that harshly in a game that takes a dozen hours (if not more) to complete. Nobody wants to go through that twice or thrice (or more); having to redo a boss after a save point is frustrating enough.

The only way to have such consequence, realistically, is to have short, dynamic games. The long epic is not suited for consequence.

Duncan said...

Steve: You're pretty much describing my dream game, something that incorporates all the advance knowledge the player actually has and which games pretend you don't. I'd love to play a character who knows he can jump back in time whenever he wants, so you're going around trying to find all this information that would be valuable to you if you knew it ten minutes ago, then actually rewind ten minutes and put it to use. Like the bit in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray seduces that stranger. He finds out what English class she was in, then the next day pretends to recognise her from that class. Sands of Time is kind of like that, Last Express too, but without a lot of variety in terms of interaction. And Sands of Time has that great ending where the game takes away your rewind powers. Even though it just reverts to being a normal platformer at that point, you're initially so intimidated because you had been conditioned to expect that luxury.

Spencer: Yeah, I don't expect or want all games to suddenly be like this, I only wish they'd start to get a little more sophisticated in their presentation. I don't believe anymore that I'm ever really in danger or that my important, final decisions are in any way final or important. I never feel like it's "do or die", which would be fine if games weren't always telling me that I am.

I should point out that another solution to games offering me meaningless choices is to offer me LESS choices. I feel more involved on Half-Life 2's rails than I do in Mass Effect, even though the latter is the one giving me more input.

qrter: Yeah, I totally agree. I wish more games would play around with mechanics, it's depressing to me how many games are basically limiting themselves to imitating an action movie where you control the conversations and the mechanics. There's so much potential in flaunting convention and it's so rarely realised. We can talk about naturalisation all we want but a game subtly acknowledging that it isn't real is what ACTUALLY gets my attention, not it removing the HUD.

This might seem like the weirdest diversion, but I read The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster in one day when I was 15, and I have never had my mind more blown. Within the first three pages the main character gets a phone call from someone looking for the "Paul Auster Detective Agency" and I think I stared at that page for ten minutes. I had never seen anything like that and I knew I needed to finish it.

Kylie: Passage is interesting because you have to play it at least two different ways to comprehend the entirety of Rohrer's statement, and so it is assuming multiple playthroughs rather than trying to tell you everything the first time. But you're right, once you get what it's saying, there's really no pressing reason to play it anymore.

n0wak: basically, yeah. Steel Batallion's the only way to pull it off but everyone -- not unreasonably -- will hate it and not finish it anyway. And I agree with you about game length. Once you realise the consequences of getting married in Passage, you've understood what the game was trying to tell you and it doesn't matter if you restart.

juv3nal: Thanks for the link, I hadn't heard of that game before. I'll check it out and report back in this comment section.

Anonymous said...


"Something we've just come to expect as gamers is that freedom to start again and this has created a paradigm in which many of us feel an obligation to restart and see all possible paths."

Obligation? For me it's a compulsion. And I find it completely exhausting. The very real and pressing NEED to cover every square inch of an area in Deus Ex: The Conspiracy forced me to put that game on indefinite hold after only two episodes.

@Duncan et al:
I'm clueless as to what kind of new and different techniques games should use for combating the whole meaningless choice thing, but I have a few ideas about how to enforce long-term consequence. What I'd like to see is the active removal of options.

Say I decide to, I don't know, kill someone rather than talking to them. Classic (and sadly telling) example, right? Normally, I'd probably think, Oop, shouldn't have done that, and load at some earlier point in time. Only in this case, no loading allowed. And any checkpoints remember your decisions and present the world accordingly. I'd want to see this taken to extremes, such as when I've come to a fork in the path and chosen the lush jungle side rather than the barren desert one. Presto! You move on, and that's that. No more fork in the path, no point in turning back.

Think of it as a break with realism in favor of momentum. Eventually, the player realizes his/her only rewards come from moving forward. It's sort of an old school convention that's seldom applied to open world design in three dimensions.

Or maybe all that's just crazy talk. I've never been deeply involved with development, but I'm sure such a system would present any number of agonizing headaches, not to mention a playtesting nightmare. Still. Perhaps it could be suited to the type of short form games n0wak suggests. Hell, it might have been done before and met with universal hatred. If so, clue me in...

Also (and on a somewhat unrelated note) -- thanks for a great blog.

Duncan said...

mtvernon: I do think that eliminating options is currently the best way to mask the lack of permanence, but I agree that eliminating convenient saving will piss people off more than anything else. Giving the player mostly insignificant choices makes for a more convincing gameworld, I feel, than pretending their choices are irrevocable and of life-changing import.

Obsidian, actually, is doing something like what you suggest with their next game, Alpha Protocol, I think. In that game apparently you only get one shot at NPC conversations -- no going back through dialogue trees and no repeated information. I know Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit did this too, but dialogue has historically been so important to Obsidian/Black Isle's game design, I'm interested to see how that change will work.

Duncan said...

Also, re: Alpha Protocol, while you can obviously still reload after a "bad" conversation, I wonder how many gamers actually will go to the trouble. Especially considering how little most gamers care for non-skippable dialogue in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I hadn't heard that about Alpha Protocol. Color me intrigued.

Leigh Walton said...

It would be difficult to implement any real dilemma mechanic with real consequences -- where the player must make a difficult choice and live with it, forever -- because gamers expect that everything on the cartridge/disc be accessible (with enough hard work and/or hours of play).

Also, something inside me feels deeply uncomfortable with the idea of tough, consequential decisions in games (which may in fact indicate that it's fertile ground for art). Interesting that we do not rebel against games being mechanically "difficult" (I've seen plenty of reviews complaining about games being too easy) but ethical difficulty seems to be (so far) unacceptable. With enough practice, even Contra is conquerable -- and we feel great satisfaction in our progress as we become more skilled at it -- but these other types of challenge may never get any easier.

Anonymous said...

I think the best case example of games that don't allow you to reload/rewind would be persistent online worlds. Now I have never actually paid for a subscription game myself, but I had a lot of contact with Lineage 2 thru a roommate. That game had serious consequences for many in-game actions not limited to its karma system.
In my own experiences with NwN persistent worlds, the role-playing (strictly enforced most of the places I committed time) drama was intense and serious on many occasions.
Now there certainly is a limited type of decision consequences because of how most MMOs mechanics work: respawning/resurrection etc. I can see this being an interesting area of experimentation once MMOs and their players/devs evolve the concept.
The current economics of gaming are not readily applicable to a persistent gameworld with severe and permanent consequences to actions. As the overall gamer population matures I believe the desire to toss around in the sandbox may lead to a style more aligned to sculpting marble. All the decisions and mistakes will take time, work and set in stone.