Narrative and Consequences in Game Design, a response.

I read a post which I felt obliged to comment on. I typed and typed; it flowed pretty easily. Then I hit submit, and ran into a brick wall of a 4096 character limit. Here's my response, bear in mind that it was supposed to be a comment, not a post to stand on its own.

I couldn't disagree more with your analysis of the import and effect of choice in games. I honestly don't understand how you can say "... narrative that players can influence to the same degree as their own lives", and then talk about limiting the choices that people can make, while giving them a comforting guarantee that choices will never have "long-term negative consequences" -- how is that anything like allowing them to actually influence their fate? I have found that the most immersive games that I have played allow me to have the most effect on the world, where decisions at the beginning of the game (or through the course of the game) affect every aspect of the ending. Consider Fallout 2, in which the players actions radically change the Epilogue on what happens in the game world, or Deus Ex, in which the player can kill major characters early on, with the narrative adapting to their loss (or survival). These are both considered the highest tier of gaming excellence.

Allowing players to access all game content in a single play-through rarely makes sense when one considers good methods of telling a story, or building a world. Take Baldurs Gate 2; in which a characters alignment (good/evil) has a dramatic effect on both the party members available (building character!) and the quests available. Does it make sense for a murderous bandit to be offered jobs by honourable knights? Not at all! In the Dragon Age expansion, the PC is forced to choose between saving a city or his fortress; the decision is effectively between saving or damning the population, or sacrificing the best chance for long-term security (the fortress). There is no drama if the player can do one, and then do the other -- there is no tension when there are no consequences, and thus no real involvement. In the same game, the choices made throughout (where to deploy troops, which nobles to support) determines how well the fortress or city survives on its own. Saving both requires the player to carefully consider decisions made throughout the game. Worrying about the consequences _improves_ the experience, not detracting from it!

I absolutely agree about Narrative Puzzles, but think that available options should be carefully constructed based on the PCs attributes, reputation and past deeds; it's all about building credible characters. Planescape: Torment is a perfect example here.

The final element, associated with forcing players to make decisions with consequences, is the question of time limits. I feel that the best games force people to make tough decisions, and the best way to add tension is to employ limits on what the player can accomplish before being confronted with a challenge. Consider Mass Effect (1 and 2) -- the player has infinite time in which to wander about the galaxy preparing for an "urgent mission". There is no real tension. No one is really worried about the "Suicide Mission" in 2 ; with enemy level-scaling, the game can be completed almost immediately, or after careful completionism. It doesn't matter. Another approach is the time limit, which is usually poorly employed (eg. Fallout 1, where the game fades to black, suddenly ending the game; much better to have the player deal with the consequences of failing). Two perfect examples of time limits employed correctly are Star Control 2 and The Clathran Menace. In SC2, to win, the player must intercede in a massive war between two sides. At the beginning of the game, the player has no idea of this, but quickly becomes aware of the war, and the fact that one side losing will mean that aliens will try to wipe out all life in the galaxy. If the player fails, and survives, he continues to play while the aliens move from star to star wiping out races. Chilling, and effective. The failure is personal, and emotive. The Clathran menace is similar.

Choices with consequences (including unknown consequences) are the essence of good story telling; the best novels don't allow characters cosy decisions, and neither should games (think of the Count of Monte Cristo). Having players able to do everything is similarly untrue to life. People always have to make choices. Decisions that can't be catastrophic don't have any sense of drama; if the status quo is always maintained, there is no tension or drama. Think about your favourite episodes of a TV show -- the best ones are where there is continuity, and dramatic changes.

(the best games are prepared for a second play-through, especially RPGs)

Finally, I disagree with you on the multiple-ending. I agree that it is a gimmick in many games (even Deus Ex messed it up; allowing all options regardless of previous actions). The best games, like Planescape: Torment have all of the players choices and decisions lead up to a logical conclusion. An "intelligence/talking" character can end the game without a fight (the same with a Fallout 1 player who has assembled enough scientific information). A fighting character can battle it out. Decisions in-mission and in choose-your-adventure FMV in Wing Commander IV allow the PC to play a "everything for the cause" character or a more humanistic one -- these decisions affect the outcome, regardless of how the player wins the final mission. Decisions in real life have consequences, the same should be true for games.

(sorry if I've repeated myself)