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Choice, Complicity and Consequence

By Failbetter, September 19, 2012 · Tagged with

Choice, complicity and consequence are  key terms  for Failbetter – we use them internally in design conversations, and externally in talks and seminars, all the time – and I only just realised that we’ve never blogged about what we mean by them! So, belatedly…

Stories with choices provide additional kinds of experience, besides the usual pleasures of storytelling. Choice, complicity and consequence are three common and powerful axes along which those experiences occur. It’s useful, if a little glib, to say that choice is your experience immediately before a decision; complicity the experience of acting on that decision; and consequence the experience of what happens later.

Choice is that sense of fulcrum-shift you get when you consider a decision you care about. We normally think about emotional or moral choices (save her and let him die? dogs or cats?) but it can be strategic or mechanical choices (take the money or open the box? use that favour from the Don now or save it?) or personally expressive choices or anything else suitably charged. It’s closest to the breathless experience you get from traditional drama.

Complicity is the experience of acting within the story. Again, the vogue is to think of this in terms of emotional or moral complicity (I’m letting him die! The look on his face -) – but it can equally be a vicarious thrill or a power fantasy (I paid big for that favour! and now I get to call it in…). Either way, it’s the experience of being in the driving seat, though not necessarily the starring role.

Consequence is the experience of watching events unfold. Sometimes, consequence is no more than the pay-off that stops choice feeling hollow (and now his children will go hungry), sometimes it’s the pleasure of the intricate ramifications of plot (and now the Don looks weak – so Tony’s making his move early – which means I have to get the gold out by tomorrow). It’s closest to the traditional spoilable pleasure of ‘what happens next?’

Of the three, consequence is the most expensive – and it gets more expensive very quickly as you add more complexity. It’s also what people tend to think of as the key part of an interactive story, which is why so many RPGs trumpet the number of variant endings as a feature. But twenty variant endings aren’t ten times as good as two variant endings – not if the complicity you felt, and the choices you made, were poorly implemented. Consequence is as necessary as carbohydrates, but it’s just one tool among many. All three make a better dish.

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