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Via the blogroll on Emily Short’s excellent blog, Josh Giesbrecht at faithgames looks at the topic of moral choice by way of some of Clint Hocking’s thoughts on the matter.

Which I’m not going to talk about, that’s all just context for you, because that’s what brought me to what is my little hotbutton phrase – authorship in games.

Specifically, he and Hocking both compare moral choice in games to the moral journey of a character in a novel – the writer of a novel can always express the character’s regret at an early decision through the rest of the novel. Giesbrecht writes:

“Yes, the novel chooses what the character believes about the consequences of their actions – the regret is authored.”

Well, sure, it’s a heck of a lot easier to write “Bob regretted his decision” than it is to make a player feel regret over their own choice, but they’re very different feelings (reading one and experiencing the other).

There’s also a really fine line between making the player regret a decision and making them hate the stupid game designer that didn’t inform them of the consequences of their decision. Assuming you buy the fact that there is a distinction between the two, how would one go about creating the former without the latter?

Here’s my hypothesis – give a player a choice to perform an act with clear short term and long term effects. The short term effects are overall positive (maybe not strictly positive, you may want some negative or ambiguous effects just so the player doesn’t get suspicious that we’re trying to do exactly what we’re trying to do). The long term effects must be declared to the player.

(Most RPGs that aim for ambigous/conflicting moral choices still fall prey to this problem – yes, in an ideal world you should be able to have ambiguity surrounding the effects of player’s choices, but until we establish a language as a medium for what choices can be ambigious and what can’t, it often ends up just being annoying for people to play a game that messes with the few premature rules we have established).

The player must be truly be the one making the decision to prioritize the short term benefits over the long term effects (such that eventually when the long term arrives, said regret is achieved). There’s some room to play there – how much do you spin and sell the short term benefits over the long term ones? I’m thinking you can get away with as much salesmanship as you like, downplaying the long term, as long as you’re honest about what the effects are (so spin them how you like).

Then when it comes time for the whammy, remind the player why they picked this choice – because of their greed over the short term benefits (and not because of the scheming designer). And some of the people who follow this path should feel regret – not all of them will, and neither will the players who picked a better longer term solution. Does that mean it’s not authored?

Yeah maybe in a zen sort of way, like if a book goes unread, was it really authored? I know, it’s just a word, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a nice word, authorship, you know? Like you spent some time thinking about the game you’re presenting to the player, like there’s some weight to it, I don’t know.

So how would you author regret in a game?

11 Responses to Authoring regret

  • josh g. says:

    When you say that the long term effects must be declared, do you mean telling the player exactly what is going to happen? Or is suggestion and partial knowledge good enough? My take on it would be that it’s okay to have some ambiguity, as long as negative consequences aren’t a complete surprise, and they aren’t a show-stopper (ie. you can still complete the game, although maybe now it’s a bit harder).

  • Borut says:

    Yeah that does seem true, as long as the player knows what the general shape of the long term effects are, it may not be necessary that they know their exact form.

    Like if you know this character is going to hate your guts if you perform some action, if the actual effect in the game means you can never deal with/get information from/trade with/whatever that specific character, that’s a pretty straightforward inference. So as long as the player has enough information to infer the effects, everything’s fine. You can just wander into more problematic territory when your suggestions are only clear enough that some players get it and some don’t – the ones that don’t suffer more drastically compared to the benefit the others get for being clued in.

  • Patrick says:

    I wish I had something more to add, but I think your proposed approach is a good one. Now the question is: how to author the rest of the emotional palette?

  • josh g. says:

    It’s probably worth mentioning that games can also “author” regret in a player character without actually causing regret in the player; or at least without hinging the regret on a suboptimal game play decision.

    The easy examples of this are your standard railroading of a player’s actions; set up the game world so that a player has to do something to advance which later on turns out to have been a “mistake” the character made within the narrative. It actually advances the game, so the player doesn’t hate your guts for lying to you. It’s easy to write this off as simply identical to writing “Bob regretted his actions” in a textual story, but arguably the player experiences that regret in a different way than a novel. The game player could identify with the player-character in a stronger sense, such that even if the regretted action was railroaded, the experience of regret is still more personal and immediate. (Arguably. I don’t know, it sounds plausible anyway.)

    Ironically, I think railroaded regret falls apart in games in exactly the opposite way than choice-regret does. If the player can see the negative consequences of an action, and yet is forced to make it anyway, the player / character identification gets shattered. I’ve seen this used deliberately in a really good way once (maybe twice, although I’m undecided), but it treads a really fine line between being a powerful fourth-wall-breaking thought-provoking effect or simply leaving the player feeling ripped off and cheaply manipulated.

    I know, it’s cooler to talk about creating a response in the player due to choices they get to make, since games are all about choice. But I couldn’t shake the memory of games which, despite the actions being scripted or otherwise forced, still managed to create a powerful response of regret. (Also, I could give examples, but I think they’d all be spoilery.)

  • Borut says:

    Spoil away. :) I know what you’re talking about, and it feels like there are a couple examples on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite recall them, or I’m getting confused by slightly similar moments in more recent games (where they use forced/false choice to trick you later on – like Bioshock’s reveal when you get to Ryan).

    So yeah, you can cause the player to empathize with their character, and if their character is regretful, they will feel some aspect of that. (also true of a lot of other emotional effects). We do tend to, I think, underestimate how powerful for a player it can be for them to simply go through and *experience* the forced/railroaded version (still potentially more powerful than just reading/watching it).

    It ends up being just as (if not potentially more) effective because they’ve agreed to step into their character’s shoes, and identify with them (in a more visceral way). Even though a lot of developers think they must reduce any defining aspects of a main character so the player can identify with them more – the opposite can be just as effective (I think), you identify with them just because of the challenges you have to lead the character through.

    Regret in particular, though, compared to other emotions, is an interesting one because it stems so directly from choice. It’d be interesting to compare both approaches side by side in a few games, but I’m still having problems coming up with good examples. Maybe you regret a decision for a moment, but not for any sustained period – like in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. there was a segment where it was possible to do things that would side different factions with or against you, but at that I just realized it would be better if I reloaded from a save game once I had gone down a path I didn’t want to (so the cause & effect also need to be far enough apart in time).

  • josh g. says:

    Hmm, I was commenting late last night when I thought I had examples, but now I’m feeling like they’re on the tip of my tongue as well.

    The game I was thinking of which uses railroaded actions with KNOWN bad consequences to a great effect is the interactive fiction Photopia. I haven’t played it for years, but when it puts you in the perspective of someone who is about to do something horribly tragic near the end, I was cursing and trying to tell the game to make him stop and it wouldn’t let me and then – it’s too late.

    Bioshock is a mixed bag that I’m still sorting out the effects of. The revelation when you actually meet Ryan, and the way it takes away direct control at that moment, was fairly well-done. But the moment right after when Atlas asks you to do something, and you are given back “control” but in a locked room with no real choice except to do what he’s just asked you to, felt kind of cheap. The illusion of choice had already been shattered, very deliberately and for a good reason. But if you’re going to literally wrench control away from the player to make a deliberate statement, don’t pretend to give control back via movement control only to leave no tangible choice remaining in the game world. I don’t know if the intent was to create a stronger sense of regret by forcing the player to be the one to actually push the button themselves. For me, the scripted scene was effective because it centered the lack of control directly onto the player character himself, whereas the following scenario shifted that lack of control away from the character and back into the environment, which didn’t fit the plot twist at all.

    I haven’t played Metal Gear Solid 2, but I read someone’s analysis of it and from what I remember it sounded like it had plot moments where actions you accomplish as a player end up being “failures” of the player character. I don’t know if they worked to create regret or not, but it sounded like a likely candidate.

  • Borut says:

    Yeah, Bioshock drops the ball in a lot of ways after Ryan, that’s certainly one of them. They point out you’ve got no free will essentially, give you your freedom, only to then put you on the most linear chunk of the game.

    I don’t really recall that sort of moment in MGS2, but that’s mainly because the plots of those games are alwayy so convoluted… Just reading the synopsis on wikia confused me. :)

    I thought of a couple more not-quites. Knights of the Old Republic – if you play the good path, learning you are actually Darth Revan, would that have any effect on you (I didn’t play it that way so I don’t know). But it raises an interesting question if you could regret things outside your experience of the story, things that are part of the character’s past.

    There was also a really interesting moment, although a very minor story beat, in Vampire: Bloodlines (the Troika Source engine based FPS/RPG). The game starts when you’ve become a vampire, and so everything about your human life is ignored and never referred to, which is also common enough for V:TM chronicles. Except, maybe 3/4 of the way in, while you’re in the middle of another quest/mission, this lady runs up to you, saying “Oh my god, there you are” and such – eventually you realize it’s your human sister, and naturally your family’s been looking for you. (Depending on what character you select to play I think different characters show up here).

    If you can’t convince her you’re somebody else (which may require vampire powers), she’ll go off and call the police, which breaks your cover as human and is bad thing in terms of the game. So you can kill her or suffer the consequences (if you get enough masquerade-breaking moments you lose them game). So I was in a position I had to kill her for my own survival, because I was close to the limit.

    So the thing that’s interesting there is that, because there wasn’t a delay in when the secondary, long effects kicked in, once I made the choice the pros/cons of the decision never change weighting or perspective. So I never felt like I should have chosen differently – I definitely felt *guilt* (which was cool) but not regret, interesting but subtle distinction.

  • josh g. says:

    Hmm, I played KotOR down the good path (as usual for me) and there may have been some twice-removed regret. Although I guess the regret aspect was overshadowed by the questions of identity; for the most part the player character seemed too detached from the old Revan to be held accountable (or to feel regret) for those past actions. I also chose to play it that way, refusing to identify my character with the name Revan.

    On a second playthrough I tried being more ambiguous on that respect – playing ‘good’ up to the reveal, and then being a bit more muddled afterwards. My intent was to have him try to actually identify with his past self and yet still act out a redemption – but whenever you chose to identify yourself as Revan, it seemed like the game assumes that you are taking on your old evil characteristics and gives you dark side points. (I might be overgeneralizing, but there were definitely some moments like that.) So in some sense I guess the game’s assumptions were excluding regret – either you embrace your “clean slate” identity and ignore your past, or you fall back into your old self and embrace your evil deeds again.

    (Also, it’s funny and/or annoying how less enjoyable the game was on a second playthrough. I guess the awesome plot twist had me so sold on the game the first time through that I was incredibly forgiving of all the dragged-out hoop-jumping and awkward plot moments surrounding it.)

  • Gilbert Bernstein says:

    Sorry if this is a little off topic. I didn’t have the time to read through all the comments, though it seemed like there was a desire for some good examples of authoring regret in a game.

    Personally, I keep coming back to Shadow of the Colossus as an example for its storytelling. I think there’s a conscious effort to suggest that the player should feel regret for killing the colossi–some of them at any rate, it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for that bull that just charges at you like mad. To top it all off there’s putting you in their shoes at the end, to further evoke empathy.

    Also, (straying off topic) my favorite technique used was giving the player control when you’re sucked into the vortex. The outcome is inevitable, but this little concession of control really amplifies the lack of control. I imagine similar techniques, applied sensibly, could be used to effectively author fate into a game, in a way that other media can’t. Maybe regret could be authored using this sort of false control.

  • Borut says:

    Yeah, actually Shadow of the Colossus is a pretty good example (not sure why I didn’t think of it before, even). Most of the other examples so far have been either eh, or somewhat confused with the notion of guilt (like in KotOR) – but when you get to towards the end of SotC, regret is a good description. The empathy for the Colossi builds pretty slowly, so once you have that realization/connection, you’ve already done in a number of them.