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.