Deep Dive: Making Bad Choices

Introduction

This deep dive is about the types of choices in narrative driven games, and how we use them appropriately. Here, good choices versus bad choices are not some sort of commentary on morality or good versus evil - consider it more: successful versus unsuccessful choices. Which and what brings player satisfaction and dissatisfaction. It looks into why players don’t appreciate certain types of choices and what to do to create satisfying choices.

What is Narrative

So to start off - what is a choice.

 

 

Oxford Dictionary

 

Technically defined, a choice is “an act of choosing between two or more possibilities” (“Choice”). A decision you make or the experience of making a decision.

 

Before we get into the composition of a bad choice - or any type of choices for that matter - we have to bring in the anatomy of a narrative. If I explained to you all the parts and purposes of a cow’s stomach lining it means very little if you have no idea what a cow is.

 

So, what is a narrative? I could go on into great detail about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or the Kubler-Ross change curve or the extremely well used three act structure or so on and so forth. There is a lot of material on how to technically create a story with good structure and flow.

 

That’s not for us.

What we need to know is at it’s core what defines a narrative? Imagine a cake. What kind of cake? There’s chocolate, vanilla, devil’s food, sponge - the list goes on and on and on. According to wikipedia, there’s over forty types of cake. We start getting into complicated concepts such as variations and preferences - what is the best type of cake? How do you make the best type of cake? Who determines what is the best type of cake?

For now, just imagine a cake. A cake at it’s core is eggs, sugar, milk, flour - it doesn’t have to be a very good or bad cake, it’s just a cake.

What is a narrative at it’s core? Essentially, something has to happen and it must be communicated. That’s it. This isn’t a good narrative or a bad narrative, it’s just narrative. We don’t need frosting for a cake just like we don’t need a villain in our narrative for example.

Why is this important? Why is the cake important, how does understanding why a narrative is important lead to understanding how to make satisfying choices?

Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm proposes humans are storytelling creatures. It makes the argument that humans are more likely to be convinced by a story than facts. We, as humans, communicate through stories, making us, inherently, storytellers. Narration is one of the first forms of communication we learn to do as children and this is a cross cultural phenomenon.

Player Agency

What is player agency? Player agency, is how much control a player feels like they have within their world. This can be within their character’s decisions, if they can affect the overarching plot and narrative, or if they directly affect the world around them. Agency is important because, as mentioned earlier, people like to tell stories so deep down, we desire agency and control to communicate narratives. Choices in narrative games are important to us because it allows us to communicate in this immersive experience how we want to.

“Freedom is good, valuable, worthwhile, and essential to being human AND because if people have freedom them each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare.” Barry Schwartz explains, “The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice… more choice equals more freedom equals more welfare.”

Liam Esler says “the more a player feels their choices matter in a story, the more engaged they feel.” In conclusion, the more a player feels like they can do in a story, the more agency they have - therefore we should give them more choices and more things to do, right?

Wrong.

Too Much Choice

There are three ‘unsatisfying realizations’ that will happen if you give the player too much choice.

Let’s go back to the cake. This is you going into a bakery and finding they have an option where you can make your own fully customized cake. They have given you this option When you inquire about it, they pull up all the different flavors cake and frosting and decorations that you can apply to your cake. And you go through the list only to realize: there’s no chocolate.

‘How can you say I can fully customize my cake but not have chocolate?’, you might ask - and they’ll reply with something like ‘oh, we just don’t do chocolate cake here’ or ‘we didn’t think about it’ - so on and so forth. And even though there’s probably flavors on that list that you like, the fact that you know that there’s no chocolate - you’re thinking ‘how can it be fully customizable if there’s no chocolate’? This seems to be the issue with a lot of open world games where they’ve advertised their space as open and fully accessible and interactable. There will be someone who realizes there’s no chocolate cake and they want chocolate cake but there will also be players out there who has the same thoughts but with smoked salmon cheesecake or being about to harvest buttercups in the fields.

This is the first unsatisfying realization: you have given me choices but you have not given me the correct choice. When you give players so many options including obscure ones, it feels as if you are catering to them or to others - but if you don’t have their perfect answer, how they would react, you break immersion and you make all the other choices ultimately unsatisfying. Humans are very hung up on the ‘what if’ and the comparisons of what’s better.

“Here's a $2,000 Hawaiian vacation package; it's now on sale for 1,600. Assuming you wanted to go to Hawaii, would you buy this package? Most people say they would. Here's a slightly different story: $2,000 Hawaiian vacation package is now on sale for 700 dollars, so you decide to mull it over for a week. By the time you get to the ticket agency, the best fares are gone — the package now costs 1,500. Would you buy it? Most people say, no. Why? Because it used to cost 700, and there's no way I'm paying 1,500 for something that was 700 last week. This tendency to compare to the past is causing people to pass up the better deal. In other words, a good deal that used to be a great deal is not nearly as good as an awful deal that was once a horrible deal.” (Dan Gilbert)

On the other hand, what if you could solve that problem? What if you could have all the perfect answers because you have somehow accommodated for every choice?

Back to the bakery - you’re looking at this menu that has all your options. But it’s not a menu anymore, it’s a book and it has every single possible variation and combination on the planet and there are just pages and pages and pages of cakes.

Most players get overwhelmed. This is the second unsatisfying realization: there’s too much choice and I can’t decide. Schwartz says, “with so many options, people find it difficult to choose at all”. They would rather give their agency, their choice, up for a simpler option. Most people would rather just pick chocolate than chocolate with 30% cocoa and 10% vanilla and 50 grams of coconut.

Barry Schwartz

The third unsatisfying realization is - you will have people entering the bakery and looking at all these options and saying, ‘This is all just cake’. Rather than give them pies, muffins, cookies - you have just offered them cake. Lots of cake - but still just cake - and that is the last unsatisfying realization: you have given me the same choice multiple times. Why would I buy multiple hats if I can only wear one hat at a time?

Sheena Iyengar conducted a study in both Europe and America where she gave participants a selection of seven sodas. Many of the participants from Europe looked at her selection of seven sodas and said this is just one choice - soda. It wasn’t Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew - it was all just soda.

 

Illusion of Agency

What do we do to make satisfying realizations? Cass Phillips says, “Having choices that are actually impactful to your storyline - not really a big deal” -  a statement that I agree with. Decisions that feel impactful are more important than decisions that are impactful. Esler supports this with “player satisfaction is not from the branching (narrative) but the illusion (of branching)”.

Actual agency does not matter - however, most players don’t like being treated like an idiot. Actually, most people don’t like being treated like an idiot. So, how do we create this feeling agency without giving them, well, too much agency. How do we make the player feel like their choice has made an impact?

 

Clear Consequences

By creating clear consequences within your choices, players understand that they are losing something even if they gain something. For classic example, the player must decide between heading out for a party or stay up and finish their deep dive.

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, but by forcing the players to give an answer, you are making them think about it. To quote Ruth Chang, “Hard choices are hard because there is no best option.”

 

False Choices

Say, I gave you a choice right now - we’re going to talk about bad choices but you can choose which one I talk about - there are three types. Misleading and unclear choices, false choices, and clear right or wrong choices.

Thanks for picking - but now that I’ve thought about it - I think I want to talk about false choices first.

Do you see what just happened there? The effect gets a little lost within linear text but - it doesn’t matter what you chose. I was going to talk about false choices no matter what you chose. If it’s too obvious, your players notice and they feel you’re trying to trick them or treat them like they’re stupid - which, is not a good thing. By saying I have given you choice but it makes no difference, you leave your players asking - what’s the point? Why are they doing this?

 

Misleading Choices

Misleading and unclear choices are a matter of semantics. The choice you have given isn’t understood by your player and they believe it to be something else. Upon choosing it, they will find themselves unsatisfied or have their immersion broken because it’s not what they wanted or expected.

Telltale Games

There is a popular example within Telltale Game’s The Wolf Among Us where players are given an option to ‘glass him’ while having a heart to heart talk with another character. Many players assume that you toast the character or offer him another drink but actually, you end up smacking him in the face with the glass.

 

Wrong Choices

Giving players a choice where one outcome is obviously right and the other one is obviously wrong is not only straightforward but also not great for player satisfaction - especially if they are punished for it. Players don’t like being told that they’re wrong and sometimes feel like the writer has tricked them. It is one thing to be bad or evil - it’s another to be wrong. Avoid punishing your player for making a decision - people don’t like being blamed.

To reference the previous - there shouldn’t be any right or wrong choices, just choices.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, as humans, feeling like we make our own decisions is important. We make these narratives our own when we feel like we’ve had some input and impact on them. Too much choice and too many options are overwhelming - it’s actually too much control for most people to handle and can often take the narrative into unsatisfying half hearted areas. We can use clear consequences to establish an illusion of choice and give players a feeling of satisfying impact.

Works Cited

"Choice." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 23 February 2017.

Chang, Ruth. “How to make hard choices.” TEDSalon NY2014, May 2014

Esler, Liam. “Finding the Right Branching Narrative Structure For Your RPG.” Game Developers’ Association of Australia, GDC 2016, March 2016

Gilbert, Dan. “Why we make bad decisions.” TEDGlobal 2005, July 2005

Iyengar, Sheena. “The art of choosing.” TEDGlobal 2010, July 2010

Phillipps, Cassie. “All Choice No Consequence: Efficiently Branching Narrative” Pocket

Gems/ FailCon, GDC 2016, March 2016

Schwartz, Barry. “The paradox of choice.” TEDGlobal 2005, July 2005



 

sixfold: Post Mortem

Long time no post! I actually have a bunch of blog entries these last few months that are in my drafts about Space Hotdog that I haven't posted yet.... because I'm scattered amongst other reasons. Life update: my internship with Exper!ence It is going really well, I can't believe it's almost over. Time flies!

Anyway, so this weekend, me and a few friends completed a game for Death Hunters in a group imposed 'jam' session. I took on the programming role and we created a puzzle game called sixfold. It's a sidescroller clicking game with a pixel aesthetic - we only finished 2 out of the 6 levels before the deadline but we plan on working on it further if time permits!

In this post-mortem overview I'm going to tell you what I learned which is:  

Programming: Yes I Can!

I know, shocking right? I was a little surprised too. It's been a while since I got on that old C# horse and when I did, wow, making games for yourself actually makes the process so much more enjoyable? I'm a capable game maker, I am!!! 

Anyway, this whole process has given me a better understanding of how programmers work and why some of them act the way they do. I found myself giving a lot of short answers - not because I was mad or annoyed but because you can only say 'yes I can do that' in a sociable manner in so many ways. It just got shortened to 'doable'. 

Personally, I like to tackle problems one at a time - so anytime any other issue got brought up, I had to put it on the backburner, I couldn't focus on both or else I'd lose track of what I did.

Fungus 

So, I created a whole dialogue system before I realized how chunky it was and how I had no idea how to link them to some of the design mechanics that were being asked of me (more on that later) so at the very last minute (like LAST minute last minute), I was lucky enough to find Fungus.

Fungus is a neat tool for Unity that has a built in dialogue function and is even nice enough to have common triggers attached (when X is clicked, THIS LINE is played; etc etc). It was a life saver for sure. There are some things I still haven't figured out to do (such as affect specific variables within code) but I can definitely see myself using this for Space Hotdog in the future!

Game Design

Okay, if you were on my team and you're reading this, I suggest you stop reading right now because this isn't going to be fun.

In a group of five people who were all art/narrative driven people, I decided to take a step back and program this game since I have previous experience with Unity. That and I thought it'd be good to challenge myself + I didn't have time to draw with my internship at the same time. 

What I didn't anticipate was becoming so frustrated by the lack of understanding of how game design and just games worked. And don't get me wrong - I completely condone teaching people how games work and that they won't get it right the first time. But it was instances of people not knowing what was difficult for me to accomplish as a programmer and what wasn't.

Some people just assumed that I could easily create X function because it was so common in visual novel games and wrote it into their narrative without asking me first since they thought it was just easy to do. I had no idea and didn't write a script to accommodate around that function. 

It was just a fundamental lack of understanding that you build these things relatively from scratch, I guess? 

In other instances, things that were actually just triggering if statements with multiple plugged in variables - constant questions of 'can you do this, are you sure you can do this, is this hard'? No, it's just making a building block!

And as a 2D game, I don't need each individual visual asset as it's own item. You can just give me one merged image if it's not being destroyed or in the foreground. I waste time trying to piece together your image in this pixel perfect game. As a narrative game, please give me the narrative ASAP not at the very last minute or else I'm waiting on you when I could be spending my time doing other things.

This just turned into a pseudo rant, whoops. 

Anyway! It was still a fun experience, the final build has a few bugs but does work: you can download it here.

Space Hotdog: Introduction Summary!

Alright, since I’m not in school right now, I thought I should start a dev log on my personal projects - this will probably encourage me to keep working. If anything, it’ll be something embarrassing to look back on in a year. I think this log is going to be a little longer (or shorter, who knows) since I’ve been designing for this a little longer than this log. Since I’m going to be undertaking most aspects of this project on my own, I’ll be tagging my posts with whatever I’m working on at the time!

Anyways! A little bit of intro on my current project! So, Space Hotdog (shortened to SH) is a bit of an ambitious dream of mine that I wanted to undertake on my own. It’s an RPG game that uses social mechanics as combat and has a strong focus on narrative and art - things that I love! I’ll just copy and paste the summary I mocked up.

Space Hotdog is an pseudo-isometric rpg game about a hotdog from space. Join Space Hotdog, as it completes its last year in high school for an exchange program on Earth.

It will face the many perils of social constructs and navigate the trenches of conversation with its peers, attempting a mastery upon interaction.

People, after all, are puzzles, are they not?

GAME DESIGN

The game is designed as a dungeon crawler. I want to play around the idea of procedural generation in future levels but for now, I’ll be manually creating the introductory levels. Players walk around in an isometric room and when they exit, they enter a random room on the level. There is no map - and Space Hotdog is horrible with directions (something about Earth’s magnetic fields?) you’ll have to keep walking around, trying to find the room you want or the person you’re looking for!

Interface Concept

Interface Concept

Characters will give you mini missions - sometimes to talk to someone else, sometimes to get something for them, maybe to meet them somewhere and hang out.

COMBAT

Combat in SH manifests in the form of conversations. Space Hotdog is new to Earth so it doesn’t understand what is socially acceptable and what isn’t! Combat is designed to give you a variety of different dialogue options to choose from in a turn based conversation. Certain choices will level up Space Hotdog’s traits and can affect a character’s perception of you.

Traits are the statistics of the game which can unlock more dialogue options or affect your public reputation. Your traits include: Charisma, Tact, Humor, Honesty, Reasoning, Reliability, Observant, Firm.

Sometimes there is no right answer. There’s no perfect way to socialize, people are different, they have different reactions. You could be honest but it could lower your tact trait.

You can choose not to engage people - but you’ll never develop your social skills that way! Which is fine if you would like to be a more introverted hotdog! But while it might make things a little easier for you to avoid current challenges - sometimes it’ll benefit you more to practice while you can for the future.

WRITING

HAHA!!! It’s a SECRET. I’ll talk a little bit more about this in future post.

ART

I was considering doing 3D models for everything, looking at various styles.

Idle Animation

Idle Animation

I’m currently struggling on importing my model/texture into Unity at this very moment. Also, considering using either Flash or 2D sprites. Further research required!

Inspirations/Refs

  • The Deep Dark

  • Chelsea Saunders

  • Cocefi

  • Way to the woods

  • Journey

  • Oxenfree

  • Overland

  • Rain World

  • Fez

  • Animal Crossing

  • Fantasy Life

PROGRAMMING

Fish looks into the distance. Well I’ve got basic character controls down. Will update with struggles later probably.

AUDIO

I am absolutely inept at audio - I’m going to be asking for help on this one for sure. Even though audio is extremely important in establishing mood and feel, I think I can leave it as a separate priority until the game is a little more concrete!

---

Global Game Jam is this Friday so hopefully I can get started on some more work! Get some character designs out at least!


Talk to you on the flipside!