Choice is Changing

[intro]You walk onto the forecourt of a dark and desolate gas station, your dog at your side. The old-timey old-timer sitting by the pumps asks you the dog’s name and you hover over answering, “His name is Homer.” but then think better of it and reply, “Her name is Blue.”[/intro] 

[dropcap]K[/dropcap]entucky Route Zero is a small kickstarter-funded project to be released in several acts, and it remains to be seen how your choices affect the story, but while it may seem like a quirky-if-traditional interactive work of fiction, like The Walking Dead, the scope of the choices reveals something quite different.

When I played KRZ, I came to a choice about whether to take a glowing die with me, or leave it on a table for somebody to find. I agonized over this choice, but quickly realized it wasn’t because I wanted to affect the future; it was an ethical choice without clear ramifications. The dilemma was real, personal and internal. Sure, it was a little non-dramatic, it may not have had the bombast of the dilemma posed in harvesting Little Sisters in Bioshock, or the amusing clarity of the dialogue options in Knights of The Old Republic (“1. Don’t worry, I’ll save you! 2. I’ll go and get help; you’re going to be OK! 3. My word, you’re ugly. Bye.”), but it was a choice with a very different flavor. Why would you think twice about choosing the name and gender of your dog? It’s a mechanically pointless choice, but it offers a surprising screen for emotional projection.

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…this new kind of storytelling could be the beginning of something very powerful…

It would seem apparent that the best way to design a choice system is to post a clear signpost at each crossroads so that the player doesn’t feel cheated. In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal explores the thesis that games provide what life often lacks; clear and constant feedback. The reason people engage in games, what essentially amounts to “optional work”, is that the work takes place in a framework of feedback recognizing the why and when of work that’s both good and bad, something missing from most jobs and life decisions.

This otherwise brilliant insight starts to fall apart when we look at games as works of art intended to reflect life. The decisions we make in Kentucky Route Zero are difficult because they reflect the difficulty of living in a world where we choose what to do and say without a clear idea of what’s going to happen. The character you play in KRZ ends up being more of you than would have seemed possible because he is a cipher. The choices you make while playing him come from the gut or random chance, without strategy. His problems may not be yours, but by deciding who he is, you can explore what you would do if you were him, not just in his shoes.

In a recent interview with Polygon, Drew Holmes, writer of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, went into the problem of giving moral, emotional choices a strategic quality.

[cite]”Looking back at Bioshock 1‘s choice system, it’s something that’s really powerful the first time, not really powerful the second time and by the 10th time you’re not really trying to decide whether to harvest or save the little sisters,” said Holmes. “You’re not thinking about it on a philosophical or moral level at that time because it just becomes ‘I want the more special juice to make me do the thing.’ It numbs people over time.”[/cite]

Referring to a demo of Bioshock Infinite, Emily Gera who authored the piece retells a decision you can make on whether to hurl a baseball at an interracial couple. There’s no clear consequence in the narrative of the game but the personal consequences are clear: be a decent person, or see what it feels like to be an absolute dickhead. You could be the hero, antihero or shades of grey in-between.

As a movement, this new kind of storytelling could be the beginning of something very powerful, a true maturation of a process that started with choose-your-own-adventure books and interactive fiction.  Narrative videogames have struggled with the creative restraints imposed by their predecessors since they began with text adventures, MUDs and point-and-click adventures. The challenge seems to be balancing emotional attachment with a feeling of agency; for emotional attachment you need to provide the player with some kind of personality to latch on to, but giving them total agency makes it very easy for the player to break the spell.

Strategy games like Command & Conquer or Civilization seemed to be the shining light for agency, even Minecraft could be said to be a perfect example of an emergent narrative, but the lack of character means it’s more like Lego or chess than a novel. You can develop an emotional narrative, but it has very little to do with the author of the game. Sure, games like Alpha Centauri come along that give you a rich backstory and clearly defined characters, but that effect is diminished on each playthrough until it’s just wallpaper, like Holmes’ example above from Bioshock. The other end of the spectrum is a character like Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life series, a voiceless cipher in a strong linear story. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel some affinity for him after playing a Half-Life game, he’s a bundle of characteristics and traits you inhabit and grow to love like a great hat, but for all of the emotional attachment you develop for him and his world, the story is static, which is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t do much to further the cause of the interactive narrative.

We don’t know yet what Bioshock Infinite or the rest of Kentucky Route Zero will do for decision-making in games, and whether this trend is going to deepen, but it’s an exciting time to be a gamer looking to play through stories.

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