Over the last several posts on storytelling in gaming I’ve written (1, 2, <a href="3, 4), I’ve discussed some ways that players might find narrative meaning in games. Sometimes this is only possible when we go looking for it; sometimes it’s possible because of the way the game was designed; and sometimes we can see how narrative engagement might be possible, but might work better if the game were designed more for it.
This post explores the last of these scenarios. I believe games can be designed in such a way that they preserve a player’s feeling of agencyâ€”allowing for emotional reactions other than what we could get purely as spectatorsâ€”but also allow preserve engagement with a story by recognizing the distinction (suggested in my last post) between what games encourage players to do for narrative purposes and what games reward players for doing in the form of distinct assets or benefits in gameplay terms. Designers can and should sometimes make players want to do things for story-based reasons, not just for gameplay-based reasons.
Why make this distinction? Quite simply, the tension between these elements can lead to some fascinating and meaningful scenarios when handled well, and can completely break our sense of immersion and engagement when handled poorly. Let me give some examples.
In Bioshock, for instance, the player is rewarded for killing little girls. There is no more pleasant way to phrase this. If you find a “little sister,” a demented little girl who wishes death upon you, then you have the option to “harvest” a slug-like creature from her and gain Adam, the currency used to buy new super-powers in the game. However, the player is also encouraged to “save” little sisters instead of harvesting them. You don’t gain as much Adam, but you do get little girls thanking you and treating you like a good guy. If you’ve been harvesting them, eventually you see other, saved little girls referring to you as a “bad man,” and you are supposed to feel like a jerk.
This works for those of us who are actually interested in playing for the story. I know that some other bloggers out there wrote that they’d just gone ahead and killed all the little girls for the best reward possible, and claimed that the attempt to manipulate the player emotionally failed for them, but I think that has more to do with what we bring to the game than what the game brings to us. For me for and for some other players, the interpersonal interaction with those you save was reward enough, a way of recognizing the value in what we choose to do in-game, even if that value isn’t in the form of an asset.
And, in fact, if you “do the right thing” consistently, the game rewards you for it eventuallyâ€”comparably to or even better than the rewards earned for being a monster. In some ways, this undercuts the idea of doing the right thing simply for the sake of doing the right thing, but there is still an implicit, almost karmic message in this. There was a distinction between what appeared to be “the best reward” and what we might otherwise feel encouraged to do, and the distinction was meaningful and purposeful.
Admittedly, however, the willingness to give up assets for reasons of narrative/character consistency can only go so far. If you’re actually cutting out content that people would want to play, you’re not just withholding rewards, but actively punishing players for “doing the right thing,” and the payoff seems unclear.
For instance, in Mass Effect and Fallout 3, you can build up persuasive speaking skills in a character such that you can get yourself out of combat situations in some cases. This is only very rarely desirable. Not only are you not getting the rewards you would’ve gotten for fighting, but you’re also being denied the fun of actually playing more of the game. You’re not excusing yourself from killing innocent folks, but usually you’re simply putting off battles against murderers, cannibals, and terrorists, whom you’re going to have to fight sooner or later anyway. You don’t feel encouraged to do the “right thing” because you’re actively missing out on narrative content and gameplay rewards, which isn’t as encouraging as getting to feel self-righteous.
What could make dialog-driven alternatives feel worthwhile in such games? The easiest answer, from a gameplay perspective, is to suggest some kind of gameplay reward. In a certain Fallout 3 quest, for instance, if you want to free a person from a certain gang, you can just kill all the gang members and get all their equipment; or you could non-violently resolve the situation and preserve the ability to use the gang later as a resource, selling them goods nobody else wants to pay for, or even getting a special ability from them.
By the same token, the non-violent route can be encouraged through narrative context. In this Fallout 3 example, the player might be encouraged to act non-violently because, unlike plenty of other gangs in the game, this gang is actually being quite welcoming and friendly, and the person you’re trying to “free” from them actually seems to want to be there. It’s easy to walk away from the situation feeling like there is a narrative payoff earned through dialog skills. Similarly, in Mass Effect, there is one fight in particular that can be skipped in a way that is much more satisfying than the fight itself, delivering a short but powerful cut scene. In these cases, encouragement and reward line up; you get rewarded one way for non-violence, and another way for violence (typically in the form of more experience points and whatever equipment your defeated foes were carrying).
It is, of course, much more work for game designers to plan a new path for every choice the player might want to take. Only very few developers have shown an interest in presenting this (or at least presenting a sufficiently convincing illusion of this). As the example of Bioshock shows, however, the differences between encouraging one set of actions over don’t always need to imply hugely divergent content. Sometimes, hearing little girls call you a heroâ€”or a monsterâ€”may be encouragement enough in itself.