The Black and White of Storytelling....

Browsing through various gaming sites over the weekend I came across an article over on 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' 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 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?


Anonymous said…
If done well I would love a game where you didn't always know the consequences of your actions. I really feel that the unpredictability factor would make the game so much more immersive. It would keep people's interest in the game and also give them something to talk about. Also, I think that would add to the realism and add a little bit of an ARG element to the game. What I mean is that your choice would seem more real and more personal to you if you had to weight the pros and cons and go into it without knowing the outcome just as in real life decision making.

So for me, yes, I would really love this aspect in a game.
Anonymous said…
I like the idea alot, as long as the decisions were really entertaining either way. I think players get caught up in the fact that one decision might not lead to the loot they want or prestige there looking for, but I think of you can work through a wAy to keep those still obtainable, it will be worth it.
Unknown said…
Interesting notion, I hadn't really thought of it like that but now that you have pointed it out it is like that in games. I think the main thing would be what the previous poster mentioned, you still wanna balance it with rewards (in particular if you are talking about the context of an MMO, if you just mean single player games I think it might be easier)

An MMO player definitely wants to know they aren't gonna lose a reward from not knowing, they will look it up online anyways if they are in any doubt - sad but true :p
Elementalistly said…
Let me just say this

The much in the middle decisions that may not go as you like.

It has proven to be one of my all time favs. Gray choices in games should be there, and may have that chance to cause Havoc or even the wrong situation to occur.

Anonymous said…
Too much of MMORPG "consequences" directly impact how powerful a character is: gear, skills, etc. And unpredictability there just leads to perceptions of imbalance. But if you could come up with a way for these "unforeseen consequences" to have outcomes that merely flavor -- rather than empower -- characters, then I'd be ALL FOR IT. For example: appearance (scars, etc.); customization for guild/player housing; custom greetings from NPCs; etc.
kryator said…
Has Tempest said...The balck and white..just a shade of gray...we make our own choices, and we have no idea what will happen next because of the choices we made earlier, might be good, bad, and even that may depend on your own idea of good and bad.

A fabulous game indeed, an incredible experience, its on my top 10 of all time.
Waldgeist said…
The Witcher is a perfect example of gray choices, where not only is the outcome of a choice unclear, but there is no black/white choice at all. You really have the freedom to choose based on your ethic (anglo-saxon utilitarism or kant's categorical imperative or whatever).

The question though in my opinion is not only "do gamers like that", but also do all markets like that. While it's clear that often european fantasy worlds/stories/writers explore dark and more gritty settings especially the american fantasy and roleplaying market paints a different image. The most successful P&P in the US is D&D and it's Forgotten Realms setting, which is as cliched and black and white as it gets.

The Witcher was also way more successful in europe, than it was over the big lake. The same goes for the Gothic series. Also a series of games, that encourages gray descisions where the outcome is not clear.

I personally cannot wait for the next Witcher game, especially for the way it's story was told and the choices were presented. So i say yes: Give us more gray choices, that have an uncertain outcome!
Niko said…
I can only agree with what has been said. Witcher style of moral gray choices, consequences that come clear at delayed point... all those are appealing to me. I think it would sell well.

Now, Waldgeist has good point in that it might not sell as well elsewhere. Probably it would appeal only to European market, but not to US or Asian. Then again sometimes it is better to go for a niche that may not be the largest group out there, but is untapped. For example I think that The Secret World will do well, as it seems to take some less used choices (no classes/levels), while some other new games will have harder time competing. I'd be thrilled if TSW also had one server for those of us who wanted the thrill of permadeath (would make the scary/PvP sides much more effective!), but I doubt I will get that wish. >.>

Sorry for wandering thoughts, but yeah. I would like to have those gray choices et al.