transparentDisclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for The Walking Dead, Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption.transparent
Most of our stories are written or rote. They’re either fixed on the page or fixed in their traditions. There are some variations, but the essence of the stories don’t change.

As far as is known, life isn’t like that; it isn’t pre-scripted or programmed to go a certain way, and when choices are made, the world reacts accordingly. It’s different to a story in that life doesn’t need to make sense, but the world responds to what is done, even if grand gestures don’t amount to much. There are also precedents for a reactive story: the impromptu plot-twist posed by a dungeon master, the peril-fraught pages of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and even in a simple bedtime story told to an interjecting child that thinks the hero should be eating spaghetti with the dragons.

One of those makes us feel like we’re the ones taking the actions, one makes us feel like there are different consequences to our choices, and one makes us feel like the storyteller. It’s the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books alone that have the potential for an audience greater than a dozen, and they are the least responsive to the choice of the audience. This could be because they are in print, rather than reliant on the imagination of the author at the time of the story being experienced. Another facet could be that the bright stairwell always leads to certain death, because a falling elephant will crush the protagonist as it trips over rollerskates.

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Being reactive is something that games do well, as they are wholly dependent on interaction. It’s the player that drives the actions of the main character. Nothing happens in the story unless the player is playing, and the narrative is on hold until they do. Not all games allow for the player to change the telling of the story, and it is always in specific, controlled ways. Some do follow the “Gotcha!” method of CYOA, but most will be clear about what a choice will do.

Having a game react to the choices of the player increases the level of immersion and enhances the experience of playing. As players feel that they are having a meaningful impact on the narrative, they feel more invested. It becomes as much their story, as it is the main character’s. This greater level of investment results in the player becoming more attached to the game’s characters and setting, and provokes greater emotional responses. This is true whether the player considers the character to be a representation of their self in the game world, or if it is a character they’re authoring the fate of.

The Walking Dead
The choices in The Walking Dead manifest in the experience, and the progression of the narrative. Only Clementine is guaranteed to survive, and almost everyone here will die. Soon.

In ‘The Walking Dead’ game by Telltale Games, the player controls the character of Lee Everett, who finds himself caring for a young girl named Clementine. Through the course of the game, the player is presented with difficult choices that will affect the fate of the ensemble cast, and as the game reminds us, also create a lasting impression on Clementine. The experience changes as a result of what we choose, and the characters react differently according to what Lee’s actions have been. If Lee supports Larry, we will damage his relationship with Kenny. When we need to choose between Doug and Carley, we don’t know for certain that the other won’t live, but it’s the first of many. Making the choices bonds the player with Lee, and he succeeds or fails by our say-so.

2K Boston/Irrational Games’ Bioshock also presents the player with choices as Jack, though it is confined to one aspect of the narrative. When we encounter the Little Sisters, having done away with their lumbering bodyguards, we can choose to either harvest the genetically-blessed sea slug living inside them for a fistful of ADAM, or free them for a not-so-great amount of the plasmid-enabling stuff. The effect of that on the narrative is there, but against the critique of choice in games, it is almost inconsequential. When Andrew Ryan reveals Jack’s trigger phase, we feel as helpless as the character, and feel every bit as tricked as he did. We never have a choice, and yet the story is better for it.

Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston has a tragic story to tell, and his eventual death is a fixed event. Being able to act differently would have betrayed the character’s nature.

There are many games where choice is never offered, whether it be an illusion or not, and narratives are still there. It isn’t that games require stories in which the player is culpable, but that they allow for the player to be an active participant without purposely breaking the fourth wall. Red Dead Redemption tells a remarkably soulful story about a man with a downright evil past, trying to do what’s required of him now for the sake of his family. He will hunt down the remainder of his old gang for the promise of a pardon that will never be delivered, and he dies a kinder, more honest man than he lived. You’re there beside him as he travels across America and Mexico, and when he is finally able to ride back to Beecher’s Hope, where his family is waiting for him. That’s a beautiful story that ends with sadness, but you are drawn into John’s life because of how great a character he is.

Fixed narratives can be just as effective, but the difference may be between ‘their’ story and ‘my’ story.

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Do you prefer games in which you are an active participant in the direction of a story, or ones that follow a fixed narrative?

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Hong: I am definitely a fixed-narrative kind of person for several good reasons: the main one being that I am just a plain old indecisive person. Yes, I am that person who spends fifteen minutes agonising over the dinner menu, I am the person who visits the shame shop three times in a span of a couple of hours, and yes -I am that person who stares at my game screen making mortified expressions and whimpering to myself because I JUST CAN’T DECIDE ON THINGS. Just as an example, it took me about 30 minutes of pondering and restarts to decide what to name my town in Animal Crossing – so when I come up to a point in a game where I get to CHOOSE what my character does -i.e, a decision that will actually have an impact on what will happen next, you can imagine how stressful it is for me.

On a more objective scale, I always feel that by selecting one answer instead of the others I will be missing out on something, or I won’t be getting the most out of the situation if I chose the wrong option. This often leads me into an inordinate cycle of agonising over which choice I should make – do I go for the one that is likely to lead to the more interesting plot point, or the one which will make for more interesting gameplay, or the one that will maybe open up access to new weapons/etc? Then when I’ve finally made my choice, there’s a nasty little voice at the back of my head prodding me like a child asking me: are you sure that’s what you want? What if that leads to something bad? What if you regret it later on?

It’s hard to tell that little voice in my head to just shut up and let me enjoy the game – especially when, more often than not, the voice is right. Sometimes you do make bad decisions. Most of the time you don’t realise it until its too late, when you can’t go back and undo your work. I can easily see the pluses of this type of storytelling, but I very much enjoy fixed narrative instead.

Fallout 3's story is flexible. The player can become a Tunnel Snake, or wander the Capital Wasteland uncool.
Fallout 3’s story is flexible. The player can become a Tunnel Snake, or
wander the Capital Wasteland uncool.

Tash: Prior to playing The Last of Us, I would have said I preferred games where I am an active participant, as immersion and involvement within a story is one of the key things for me. However, The Last of Us highlighted that players can be completely immersed in a story and feel connected to characters even when they do not have an active role in shaping the character or the world. 

Usually, I favour games which allow me the freedom to choose the direction the story takes – games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, The Witcher and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But The Last of Us managed to completely immerse me into its world without providing the freedom of choice usually required to do so – and in so doing, it showed the value of an excellently constructed, fixed narrative.

Darren: Both have their strengths; there’s no reason why the two can’t co-exist. And both are interesting approaches in their own right. I’ve nothing against a linear narrative like Metal Gear Solid, where I’m moving along to Hideo Kojima’s narrative, but that doesn’t mean I don’t marvel at a game like The Last Express that crafts its narrative around my actions. 

The storyline of The Witcher 2 branches significantly depending on your choices.
The storyline of The Witcher 2 branches significantly depending on your choices.

Jimmy: I always want to know who my character within the universe is. It’s really hard to get multiple endings in a game right. That said, I try to unlock every ending if they exist. I like to feel responsible if I mess up or like I’ve earned the golden ending.

Chani: I prefer a fixed narrative. If it’s a fixed narrative I feel more for the character that I play. It’s their story. If I have more control in a game, yeah it’s cool, but at the same time I’m always stressing that I’m going to screw something up, miss something or make the wrong decision. I spend more time thinking about the consequence of my actions rather than enjoying the ride.

Previous: The Voices

Next: The Player’s Role

 

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