Having it the Player’s Way: (Sub)Way and the Illusion of Narrative Choice


NOTE: (Sub)Way can be found at these links if the above embed is not working/down:

In making (Sub)Way I learned a fairly important lesson about the way I perceive game design and the narrative possibility space of interactive fiction. Namely, that the smoke-and-mirrors effect of choice-based narrative design is not only necessary to making a game narrative function effectively in terms of interpreting player involvement, but that it is an inherent positive trait of interactive narratives.

TTC_H6_Train_at_St_GeorgeGames and narratives have a complicated relationship, particularly when it comes to authorial control over the narrative and the decisions made within it. The issue being there is no “proper” way through a game in the same way there is a prescribed path through, say, a movie or book. Narrative implies a beginning, middle and end, but does not then prescribe a path between those three states, nor that those three states specifically link to each other exclusively. That gap between beginning, middle and end can be defined as an infinite narrative opportunity space. Many game narratives choose to ignore it for the sake of a more streamlined narrative design. However, if one takes the stance that game narratives are a co-authored story, where the designer programs and writes one narrative that can be linked and interpreted infinitely by a player as the second author, that opportunity space can be more effectively mined for interesting, emergent interactions.

Games do not quite defy structuralist thinking, because many are designed around the behaviours of playtesters, but they certainly fit into a mold of structure that is looser. The discourse that crafts this structure is a dualistic one, from creator to player, through the medium of the game. The creator places all the pieces, all the props on to the stage, then leaves the metaphorical room. The player is then left to interact with those props as they see fit, not necessarily in the way the creator intended. As such, we’re forced to consider the creator as a kind of author, deriving meaning and narrative from a collection of set pieces, mechanics, and words that have been placed in front of them with intent they can not be assumed to be able to derive.

Per Ken McAllister in Gamework, games are “comprised of rhetorical events that work to make meanings in players” and that these events are “constructed primarily out of: (a) developer’s’…ideologies, and (b) players’…interactions with the systems put in place by the developers” (McAllister 31-32). Games are thus a system comprised of strings of interaction between player and author, through the game. As a result, the game becomes a sort of interpretation medium that either side influences heavily. Partially because of this, and partially because of my own ineptitude on the technical art of making games, I chose to work in Twine. The degree of flexibility is high for stories told through Twine. The interaction points for the player are very clear and easy to manage.

As a result,  “rhetorical events” are designed to convince the player they are embodying a role, that they are, in fact, taking part in a story. To accomplish this, you need a level of meaningful choice. It is, in a way, the argument of any game that does not set out to be a “serious game”. Moving to Ian Bogost for a moment, he writes in Persuasive Games that interacting with a game can create its argument as part of play (Bogost 44). He calls it “Procedural rhetoric.” In an interview with Aaron McCullough, he states that procedural rhetoric is “a kind of argumentation and expression that represents processes or systems with processes or systems” (McCullough). In that idea, that the narrative of a game is a series of systems interacting to create meaning and immerse the player in their co-authorial role, I believe there lies significant depth when it comes to narrative design.

Moving then, to (Sub)Way, at least for a moment. The game technically only has two paths, as it only ends in two places. However, neither is really a win or loss condition. Despite having a clear end, the fact that there are two, equal, opposite endings opens up quite a bit of the narrative opportunity space. Drawing on Costikyan’s idea that linearity is anti-game, and decision is what makes a game itself, I find it most effective to agree with Mary Flanagan’s interpretation of him as rejecting the win-loss dichotomy in discussing games (Flanagan 7). However, in order for the general thesis of (Sub)Way’s design to make any amount of sense, I must reject Costikyan’s notion of meaningful decisions. He writes that “decisions have to pose real, plausible alternatives, or they aren’t real decisions. It must be entirely reasonable for a player to make a decision one way in one game, and a different way in the next,” but I do not believe they do (Flanagan 7).

Game designer Steve Breslin writes that “it is not precisely the choice that most satisfies the player, but the freedom to choose. The inherent joy is not in the actual act of burning or saving the village, but that the player has the freedom to take either course” (Breslin 2). In fact, studies have shown that in situations where players are given a choice between two options in a game, there is “no significant difference in enjoyment between those who made the good choice…and those who made the evil choice” (Shafer). Simply offering the choice, regardless of the outcome, appears to be enough. The player is often not aware of the meaningfulness of their choice until either replaying the game, or discussing it with a friend who has also played.

With that in mind, (Sub)Way is designed as a game with no meaningful choices, at least not really. The endings are almost arbitrary, selected by the player based on whether they would like to sit or stand at the beginning of the game, thereby changing their perspective on later events. The choice is by no means meaningful in the traditional context, though it would be according to Costikyan. All alternative choices, despite seeming more meaningful, lead to the same split point at which the game determines which path the player is on and funnels them to their prescribed conclusion. I designed the endings to be explicitly mysterious, to give a hint that there may be other paths, hidden in specific choices, but there are none, and I feel there is a certain strength to that. By encouraging the player to go back and dig, to seek more traditionally meaningful interactions with the narrative, they will grow closer to having a co-authorial relationship with the story.

To further explain co-authorial narrative, I draw on Anna Anthropy, who in her book ZZT, outlines how the 1992 MS-DOS game and level design software of the same name helped establish a co-authorial structure of game design that allowed queer players to find themselves in games and be driven to make their own. Specifically, how Anthropy exclusively refers to ZZT’s players as “authors”. The insistent terminology is telling of how much power a player has over a narrative they interact with. Though ZZT games are rather abstract and much of their narratives are meant to be inferred and interpreted, the fact that a player has that sort of control is what establishes the co-authorial relationship between them and the original designer.  

To take a moment to look aside to other games using the co-authorial instinct more effective and intentionally, I’d like to examine We Know the Devil. WKTD is a visual novel, essentially a Twine game with graphics. It is a choice-system based on how close the player chooses to have each of the three protagonists grow to each other, played out across even endings. While the choices are meaningful, the game’s designer, Aevee Bee, has pointed out that all games, no matter how many choices they present, are limiting and arbitrary. “Rather, all games, by nature of being games, by nature of being systems, inherently restrict player agency in the exact same ways,” she writes in response to Raph Koster’s ‘A Letter to Leigh,’ an essay on something he calls “the aesthetic of unplayability”, a game’s ability to defy player agency. “The difference between the games with this “aesthetic of unplayability” (as Koster calls it) and any other game is nil. Other games are merely better at hiding their true nature.” (Bee, Tyranny) Bee is concerned with systems, and in a post-mortem of WKTD, she writes that the writing of her game is “structured around a choices (sic) which you can think of as the game mechanics if you’re into that sort of thing.” (Bee, How to) Choices are arbitrary, and if that is the case, then the co-authorial relationship is one of smoke and mirrors. The player is assuming their choices matter, but they are part of the system and merely interacting the limited ways prescribed to them.

So thus, (Sub)Way is deeply limited. Both by its designers lack of design skill, but also by the nature of being a game. At the end of the day, any game with a branching narrative will still be stuck in positional notation. Whether the endings are binary, trinary, nonary or sexagesimal, they are not infinite. At a certain point, the players’ choice must be illusory and meaningless. Not every choice can be offered in any given situation, rendering the choices given to be relatively moot in terms of meaning; not every choice given necessarily branches into its own, discreet narrative path. Either option creates an infinite game, far too large to handle if it spreads beyond just two or three scenes. (Sub)Way is designed practically, with limited player interaction across arbitrary choices, the ability to enter a name, and the ability to force alternate choices by waiting. But these options are illusory. The real choice is made almost instantly, and everything else is, as Costikyan would put it, not a real decision. Even selecting your characters’ name, intended to heighten immersion by nudging players to select their own names, impacts nothing beyond two lines that simply print the value the player associated with their name. The infinite choice in the game has no impact on anything mechanical.

And yet, simply being presented with a choice is enough to spur players into interaction and interpretation. The presentation of choice, the idea that there could be meaningful choice is what creates the narrative opportunity space, the ability to fully immerse a player in the narrative and convince them to buy into the story. That illusion is a key strength of interactive storytelling, as it pushes a player to suspend disbelief effectively and want to make choices. It pushes immersion on a player who might otherwise be passive. Co-authorship may then be more of a state of mind then it is a true tenet of game design, but putting on the smoke-and-mirrors show is what lets games and interactive narratives be so dynamic, for players looking for agency over their stories.

Works Cited:


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