The Black and White of Storytelling....

Browsing through various gaming sites over the weekend I came across an article over on GameCritics.com that caught my eye. Do you like the storytelling options presented to you in games to be black and white, good and evil? It's a question that I have asked myself several times when working with, reviewing and discussing quest and storytelling in games. The specific question I keep coming back to is whether the audience really does want choices where the consequences of those choices are ambiguous or unpredictable. Are players ready to be offered the chance to make real human mistakes in their gaming and still find it fun.

You see the challenge is that the old fashioned good and evil choices are predictable for the audience. The audience has an inherent understanding of what good and evil is, of what it most likely means for their character to act in a good or bad way. So at a fundamental level it is a choice between two known outcomes. Even if the flavors may change (or be presented with varying degrees of subtlety) the player is still aware of the probable outcome of the choices they make in a game.

In other words, players know the consequences of their actions in advance.

As the article points out some game do it better than other. While that is most definitely true, when a game does present a moral dilemma it is usually along the lines of sacrificing someone or something for some greater purpose or not doing so. So you might get a morally hard choice for a character you have become attached to. You know the drill...the world hangs in the balance as you are asked to choose between saving your love interest / best friend / parent / recently rediscovered sibling or sacrificing them to 'do the right thing'...it can be done badly of course, but it can also be done very well. Despite being a well established, almost cliched, plot device it can still be used in interesting and creative ways....one reason for this is that the player is choosing between two (or more) clearly defined options...but what about a scenario where you as a player genuinely genuinely might not know the possible outcomes?

In other mediums the protagonists are quite often faced with choices where they don't know the probable consequences of their actions, or their best intentioned actions precipitate some calamitous events they couldn't have foreseen. That is something that isn't as common in games, our choices in our games rarely come back to haunt us, and the question is could it be fun if they did?

Would you enjoy a game that might punish you for a choice you had no idea was going to be pivotal? Would you enjoy a game that played on the things you take for granted as a gamer and turned them around to make things more dynamic? In many ways life is interesting because it is unpredictable, it is the things that you don't expect that most challenge us, but do we want that in our games? Games work within rules, settings and structure, even 'sandbox' games still work within a system. Can a game work well and be compelling if some of the random elements of real life are introduced? Could it improve a game to have elements that will truly blindside the player, or do we actually like the predictability of choosing between known consequences? (and are just afraid to admit to it)

That's a lot of questions, but the last one is really the telling one for me. A story for me is all the more interesting when you don't know the outcome. So extending that to games could that premise be extended to the choices presented to players? Is there not drama that we miss out because we always know the consequences of our characters actions? I would love to be presented with a scenario where I didn't have a voice of some kind explaining all my choices to me. All too often the characters we interact with in games have someone, or something, some other character or help system, presenting the consequences of our choices before we make the choice....'If you push that button the room will flood and your friends will die but the dam will survive and the village is saved!'...I might just prefer not knowing, choosing to save my friends but then find out the dam will burst and having to deal with the consequences of that because I didn't check first. Personally I see some great potential drama there that could make for memorable 'I wasn't expecting that' moments for players, and those are the gold-dust moments that designers are constantly in search of.

The problem with that though is whether it is fun...players are now very used to being presented with the consequences before they make their choices. Would it be too jarring to have to make more instinctive choices, or to be faced with choices in a knowledge vacuum, or is it just not fun to have to make choices without knowledge of the consequences or have our choices come back and haunt us?
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