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The Decision Gap

By Failbetter, July 16, 2010 · Tagged with

I used to teach English as a foreign language. Language teaching in the 90s (and now, for all I know) was very big on ‘communication gap exercises’. The idea is: if you’re reciting sentences just to practice the form, you’re not actually using the language for communication, so you don’t engage with it, you don’t learn. So what you do is, you give Student A a train timetable and Student B some travel destinations, then sit them back to back and ask B to find out when and how they’ll travel. So they talk single and return tickets, times of day, prices and they’re actually using the words to communicate, which makes it much better practice.

Of course what actually happens is that you turn your back for twenty seconds and they start talking in their native language. About the Spice Girls. Because it’s the 90s. But you take my point. If you’ve done this when you were learning a language, you probably remember the sensation of your brain actually biting on the language in a way it wouldn’t when you’re just drilling, or learning vocab.

We’re very big on meaningful decisions in games these days. When I say ‘we’, I think if you’re bothering to read this blog, you’re probably nodding too. You and me. And FBG obviously. But what do we actually mean by ‘meaningful decisions?’ Generally, when someone praises Bioware or Interplay or Obsidian or CDProjekt, what they highlight is big in-game consequences of the decision: save the kingdom, destroy the kingdom, rule the kingdom when the credits roll.

But isn’t this just the most visible way to create the effect? Isn’t the important thing the sensation of making a decision – that at the moment you make that decision, long before you see any consequences, you feel your brain bite on the substance of that choice?

So what makes it bite? Round here, we distinguish between three kinds of choice: causal, bling and reflective. Which can be combined, but each in turn:

Causal. This is generally what gets people excited when reviewing RPGs. If you steal a monkey in Act I, the monkey’s uncle comes back to haunt you in Act III. This is the hardest thing to do, because of the combinatorial explosion issue. It also has the big disadvantage that the results may be too divorced from the decision to feel relevant, but there’s dozens of good ways to fix that.

Bling. Do one thing, you can get a thousand jade, do the other thing, you get a pet rat. Or, you can get Melancholy or Austere, since the significant bling in EBZ is often points towards a narrative or a dream or something, rather than actual bling. Of course this ends up being a strategy choice, as much as anything. You see this in the classic altruist vs mercenary RPG choice: save the puppy for free and get extra XP, or demand pay and get extra gold.

Reflective. This is my absolute favourite. It’s important only in the player’s head. This is a double win, because (i) it’s cheap to build if done right (ii) the player’s head is actually the place we want to be. fr’example:

– a moral choice that’s interesting (n.b. not necessarily edgy or difficult, though those are sometimes interesting);

– a choice of approach (‘I am cunning’ vs ‘I am unstoppable’)

– something that leaves the player’s motivation open to question;

– an ambiguity (did I actually see the Devil? does the Devil exist?)

– an opportunity to self-define the character (‘now I’m having affairs with men as well as women’);

– a fashion choice (‘I only wear black’);

Of course a game that’s all solely reflective choices is going to feel hollow. You might as well read a story to someone and pause for thought at the end of every page. So causal and bling choices lend substance and allow strategy, and you want to mix it up. There’s no reason a choice couldn’t combine all three. You need the bling and the causality to make it feel like something more than a parlour game or a studio debate.

But still. When I had my students sitting back to back discussing railway timetables, the actual timetable wasn’t the important part. No-one remembered it. All the numbers were fictional. The point of the exercise, and what stayed with them, was the ways their thoughts stretched when they used a new language to do something it was meant to do. Isn’t it the same with decisions? The actual outcome’s just the end of the story. No story ever ended as well as it began.

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Allandaros Jul 20, 1:13pm

@Fairlight: I think that the "perhaps not" route and discarding the card [i]is[/i] the game equivalent of refusing graciously, of avoiding the entire situation. It's like being able to discard the Frankincense and Brimstone card - you manage to demur and say "I can't help you right now" to the devil, keeping both routes open. Also, I don't think that red-bordered cards are ever ones which feature a choice. You can always opt out of the choice when it comes up. (Re: soul-selling, I kicked the bum out. A paltry bit of brass for my soul? I can put in a few "days" work and make four times that much, while retaining my soul. C'mon Brass Embassy. If you're going to try to buy my soul, give me a price which is worthwhile.)

Fairlight Jul 20, 10:56am

Hmmm. I think a lot of my dissatisfaction with some of the choice cards (especially when I love the game so very very much overall--but then one of the things I like about the game is the ability to play both sides and act as a double agent) has to do with the alternatives generally seeming extreme to me, and IRL, as well as in game, I'm generally not given to extreme responses. A lot of the choice cards between sides seem to demand a flashy show of support for one side and an insult to the other. That's just not something I would ever do if I'd spent a bit of time cultivating ties with people on both sides of a divide. I'm thinking right now of the card that comes up where they want to buy your soul because you're involved in the soul trade (as a shepherd, in my case). I'm not going to post spoilers, because I've never played that one. The reason I've never played it is that the alternatives appear to be Refuse Ungracefully (and probably take a giant hit to a connection or story I've worked pretty hard on), Accept or Haggle. So I click "perhaps not" and move on. I am fine with the cards being like this, but I certainly wouldn't click them if they were red-bordered and I had to pick an option. My preference would be to refuse gracefully. My character is known to have spent quite a bit of time in the company of devils and he's not really surprised that someone has made him such an offer; he would never accept it, but he also wouldn't see the need to make enemies as part and parcel of his refusal. He only has a Persuasive of 90, and he doesn't want to sever his ties, he just wants not to sell his soul. Similarly, if the Choice of Sides cards are meant to imply that your double-dealing ways have been Found Out, surely there ought to be a way to convince one or both sides that you're spying on their behalf. NB: My character actually is ambivalent. He is a shepherd of souls because he hates the idea of slavery, but he was, after all, young and gay in Victorian London before he came down here, and despite the fact that he seduced a curate, he doesn't think of the Church as his natural ally even down here where things are different. Nor is he in any hurry to piss off the Devils by acting against them openly; he might end up in their tender care someday no matter how good he is, if the things he was taught growing up turn out to be true. Of course it's entirely possible that you are morally opposed to playing both sides against each other for great personal gain and/or confusion, in which case you can totally ignore my commentary. I just think of this as one of the limitations of playing against code rather than people; the game only notices which stats I've built up to what levels, it doesn't have a feel for whether I'm doing that with sinister or selfish or sneaky purposes in mind.

Behrooz 'Bezman' Shahriari Jul 19, 7:44pm

Maybe it's just me but when I think of 'game', I think of a method of play with an objective. So any 'choice' - once that objective has been declared and the rules set in stone - is really just an experiment in optimisation. I will never choose to side with constables over criminals simply because one stat can be easily accrued via storylets. I will never take the 'heartless' option in a card for the same reason. But of course, that's because of the objective I declared for myself - to raise my stats as high as possible. So really, when I'm presented with a new choice, it doesn't give me a new way to express myself - just a new set of options to research, then choose between on future encounters based on stat gain.

Alexis Jul 18, 10:54pm

@Jon - There are a couple of counterarguments (both with their weaknesses). One, other media also signal around pivotal moments (character leitmotifs, ominous silences, chapter headings. Tarsem: 'I learnt a lesson here - never put a plot point next to your leading lady in her underwear'). Of course sometimes this is just crass (comic relief? Let's have the clown car music to warn them to listen for jokes!) but I don't think there's anything wrong with it in principle. Even deliberately witholding can just be technique. Two, a path can be fun but not preferred. Say I've worked hard to keep my character dry, but I drink the brandy-laced coffee because I'm not paying attention (especially easy in something like Heavy Rain). I'm locked out of the ending I want. Of course this might be the point of the game, I might go with it and have a more interesting experience - but yswim.

Jon Ingold Jul 18, 6:57pm

"I spent a lot of Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain in a state of mild agitation because I wasn't clear whether I'd spoiled something...." I know what you mean, but I wish we could make games where people don't expect to have stuff spoiled. No other medium would settle for producing content where some people's experience will be limp. Just because a game is non-linear doesn't mean the designer can't control whether or not all the game-paths are fun (just as, for coders, all software is non-linear but all code-paths should be properly checked and tested). I want the audience to develop sufficient trust in the game that they'll not worry that they're not "getting it right", while still having the sense that they have - not control over the story exactly - but at least responsibility for it. And then I want the moon on a stick for afters ;)

Alexis Jul 18, 3:39pm

er, SPOILERS! Ryan. Want me to delete so you can repost with spoiler warning? :-) SPOILERS. It's not an additional kind of choice - it's (I think) information failure on our part. It's a bling choice, basically. The trap you mention is meant to be a background reveal more than anything - but I can see why people feel cheated, and we're reviewing. Fate to replay a choice is an interesting idea. We already do this with the Lethean Tea. We could probably take it further.

Ryan Williams Jul 18, 10:29am

I blaze through the bling, because I grind, which might be an American gaming trait, I don't know. I blaze through it so fast that I sometimes don't even notice the casual. And I very much enjoy the opportunity to build a narrative for myself (I tend to enjoy having nightmares about ships and weather, love bohemian women, and often find myself hand in hand with the church - much like reality) But there is a third kind of decision making, which disguises itself as reflective but is actually simply blind. Upon facing the Spider Council, I am offered the possibility to "Talk your way out" or just kill it. Being that I have 90+ persuasive, this was a chance to blend my stats, like those storylets that require access to routes like The Flit or The Forgotten Quarter. I opened those early. But unfortunately, the option to 'Talk' to the spider council is just a trap, and so it's no surprise that it leaves the player (me) feeling tricked. And nobody likes to be tricked. We've all had that sinking feeling of screwing something up royally, but in every game (even MMOs) we're offered the option to just retreat or reset and try again. But there's an opportunity here. I have as yet found absolutely no significant reason to spend fate. Something that valuable just doesn't seem worth spending on actions or cards when you get so many so quickly. But the chance to go back, to rewrite one's fate, to relive a single, critical moment, or fix a terrible mistake... That, I would pay a healthy amount of fate for. While my 10 dollars isn't getting FBG anywhere, the impulse is important. You've got me (and presumably others) emotionally invested, and while I feel cheated by the illusion of a purely reflective choice, I don't feel cheated enough to stop playing.

Alexis Kennedy Jul 17, 2:11pm

Thanks folks! @John certainly: hence the penultimate paragraph ('Of course a game that's all solely reflective choices is going to feel hollow...') @AL: Causal, not casual. All else equal, branching choices breed and multiply. @Jon: I'm ambivalent on this one. I agree, in fiction as in life the big decisions don't always come with a warning sign, and it can have all the issues you describe. But it *is* a game, and making significant decisions indistinguishable from insignificant ones can be information failure in the Costikyan sense. I spent a lot of Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain in a state of mild agitation because I wasn't clear whether I'd spoiled something.

Jon Ingold Jul 17, 4:38am

Interesting read. One thing I've strived for in my own stuff is to offer choices but not to clearly delimit to the player which kind of choice any given choice is. A lot of RPG/big-event games flag their casual choices with huge exclamation marks and this seems to me like a mistake: it takes you out of the story, it makes you worry what the "right" answer is, it can give a game a dull binary feel and at worst, actively encourage players to grind through outcomes. Much better to have the player on the back foot, never quite sure if this choice is the one that'll matter so they have to take them all seriously. Heavy Rain played with this concept well, I thought.

AL Jul 17, 12:32am

So why is the casual example a combinatorial explosion issue?

John Evans Jul 16, 11:08pm

I'm going to have to disagree with you, in a small way. I don't think choices without consequences are that important. When I play a game, I often think of it as an act of creation. I go through and create my character. Then, at the end, I can look at my character and enjoy what I've created. Or, if I'm playing SimCity or Dwarf Fortress, I can look at the city I've built and take pleasure in it. So, from that perspective, reflective choices are kind of pointless. I'm not saying they're worthless, I mean, I do understand your point about "being in the player's head". However, if I make a whole bunch of choices, then I find out that my game state is [i]exactly the same[/i] as someone who made [i]opposite[/i] choices...I would be very disappointed in that game.

kylee Jul 16, 8:58pm

This was an interesting read! I actually brought up the conclusion to the Comtessa storyline in a discussion about moral dilemmas in RPGs as a dilemma in the true sense, where neither choice is clearly 'right', and I still think about the choice I made, what it meant for the character I'm playing, all that. But I make pretty much every one of the other reflective choices you mentioned, too, down to the fashion choices, and I'm really glad that this game provides the space for that -- it's one of the things I enjoy most about it. (My girlfriend mentioned that she's playing a thieving-character for one of the Ambitions, but that whenever an opp comes up for A Day of Good Deeds or Tea With A Temperance Campaigner, she takes it, because her character needs to feel better about herself. I think that's a pretty awesome approach to gameplay choices.)

Merriwether Fawkes Jul 16, 8:50pm

Now, see, [i]this[/i] is why I love Echo Bazaar. This kind of thinking that you folks do -- it underpins everything about the game and I can't get enough of it. I'm even [i]paying[/i] to get extra play there, something I've never done before and never thought I would do. You [i]think.[/i] By God, you people [i]think.[/i] I love it. And I'm telling all my friends about it! I'd do the "flailing muppet arms" thing here, but I doubt it's in character. I'll just blow you a kiss instead. :)