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This past week Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer was kind enough to have myself, Justin Keverne (of Groping the Elephant), and Matthew Gallant (of The Quixotic Engineer) on a new edition of the Gamer’s Confab. A lost edition of the confab, sadly, as computer error has denied it from existance in a form that you could enjoy.

However, I certainly enjoyed it, as it was a great conversation about games with meaning, and no technological difficulties can take that from me (so there, computers). There was one particular point that we talked about that I wanted to share, because it was a connection I hadn’t really made myself. A point or, more likely, a theory. Interesting, in any case.

In discussing games that have a deeper impact on us or changed the way we thought about the world, Michael brought up The Path. One experience he had with it, while not going too much into it since it was his play-through, involved something he had done to put his avatar, one of the girls, into a dangerous situation. The exploration of how much a game actually allows, how dark it allows you to be, is a natural, if unsettling, compulsion. And bad things happened to her, of an implied sexual nature, possibly that she was raped – but they were implied through imagery, so Michael had to interpret and decide what actually happened. He was upset with himself for exploring that choice, and with turn of events, but not upset with the game.

I couldn’t but help think of a parallel in Mass Effect where the player is given two conversation options, one not violent and another more so, but not drastically. Only upon chosing the slightly more violent option, the player-character pulls out their gun and kills another character. Everyone I know who played through that sequence has directed their frustration at the game for giving them a choice and not telling them what the consequences would be. They suffer from that pretentious sounding but nonetheless exceptionally accurate term ludonarrative dissonance.

The game gives you a choice whose consequences are unknown and you have to interpret what the consequences of will be, given the context of the game and story at that point. If you’re greatly wrong, you’re thrown out of immersion in the game by being confronted with the fact that you’re not on the same page with its story.

Giving the player more choice allows them to feel like they own the narrative, and that’s a good thing, but given our current technology and methods, you will run into problems like this with large player choices.

The interesting thing that happened to Michael is that he wasn’t frustrated by the game, and did not blame the game for his decision. By using ambiguity & implication over heavy handed exposition in describing the results of a player’s choice, you make the player complicit enough to get past that barrier and accept the choice as their own. By taking part in the interpretation of the effect as well as the decision, the player’s ownership of the decision is increased.

Not something you can apply to every decision in a game, but used judiciously it might help you squeeze through some tight spots. Or so the theory goes. Check out the rest of the podcast, with Mary Flanagan and Suzanne Seggerman, at The Brainy Gamer.