The Prestige: Starcraft 2 Narrative Innovation

By Kieron Gillen on August 11th, 2010 at 8:44 pm.

No, I don't mean shooting an enormous alien.

You won’t find many people hailing Starcraft 2′s narrative. The characters are lumpen, the dialogue weak and the general plot simultaneously archetypal to the point of cliché while only really working if you assume players are invested in characters like Kerrigan. Which even for a game as successful as Starcraft, is a big assumption to make. There’s people playing it now who weren’t even alive back then.

However there’s one area where I think it’s quite clever and even genuinely ground-breaking, at least as far as mainstream games go. I talk about it below. There’s no direct spoilers, but there’s structural spoilers which may be even worse. I’m about to basically explain how a card-trick works…

The area is how it handles its moral decisions. You’re presented a binary choice. Either you do one thing or you do the other. It front loads most of the effects of the decision -as in, you get this unit or that unit – but in narrative terms it’s about believing in one person’s advice or another’s. Who do you trust?

At least as far as I understand, there’s no wrong decisions. Talking hypothetically, if the game offered you the choice of siding with someone who was a bit suspicious or not, if you decide to believe them, they’ll stay true to you throughout the game. Conversely, if you decide they’re suspicious, it’ll swiftly turn into a fight and they’ll die.

I’ve seen quite a few people respond with anger at this idea. I can understand why. But what interests me is that… well, it’s actually doing something radically different with game narrative. It’s simply rejected the idea that the game’s an objective world, in favour of doing anything to create the sort of dramatic story they want the game to possess.

Heroic lead characters rarely make mistakes in fiction – at least, crushing ones. The exceptions come right at the start of a story, and the story is about recovery from that failing. Because if they make too many mistakes, they stop being heroes. Jack Bauer going in to rescue a hostage after being told it’s too dangerous doesn’t usually lead to the hostage getting their throat slit. It leads to Bauer stabbing them in the eye with his celphone.

Because, in fiction terms, the writer is almost always on the side of the hero. In any fair universe, Batman would be annihilated from orbit by the first supervillain with any sense. However, the odds are stacked on his side. They won’t act with the full level of their powers, with the full freedom that a human would do – because if they did, the hero would be negated. Whatever Batman does, will be basically right. Batman always wins.

Or, in Starcraft 2 terms, Jim Raynor always makes the right call.

Not Jim Raynor, yesterday.

The effect of Blizzards choices about choices means that it always results in a heroic story staring Raynor. It’s a story which each player customises according to their own decisions, but it’s still a heroic story. Because if Blizzard gave you room to fuck up, they wouldn’t end up with a hero as heroic as they need to.

Because – this is the key thing they’ve realised – the idea of “meaningful decisions” doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those meaningful decisions need to have a negative consequence.

This reminded me of something designer and old-Cassandra Project friend of mine Tim Fletcher created as part of his Neverwinter Nights mods.

(At which point, I briefly plug Maugeter, which is well worth playing)

It was part of a design test, where he asked you to replay a short detective scenario twice, answering questions about your experiences after each play through.

It’s set in a village where someone has been found murdered. There’s seven villagers who are possible suspects, and you’re given the job of deducing who is responsible for the slaughter. I travelled from one to another, picking up all these fragments of evidence. And then, after some thought, went to bring my evidence to the community leader.

At which point, it goes wrong – he reveals a fact which clears my suspect of the crime. Bollocks. I go for my second choice. They’re brought before the judge and when they’re accused they transform into a monster. There’s a fight as we cut it down, and the mystery completed.

So I wrote a few notes afterwards, explaining why I did what I did and all that. And then I played again…

At which point, what the game is doing becomes obvious. It doesn’t matter who you pick first. A piece of evidence will always be revealed which clears them. Whoever you pick second is revealed as the monster. The mystery is 100% smoke and mirrors. It’s a piece of coding designed to create a dramatic conclusion to a courtroom drama. It’s not interested in simulating a realistic world, but conveying an emotional journey to you.

And obviously, most players would be a little outraged if they found it out when they replayed the game.

There’s an important “if” in there. People who didn’t actually replay the game would never know. And – this is where I start smiling – it’s possible that you could program a similar scenario which a player would never discover. If you changed all the suspects’ names. If you changed the evidence which turned up – and when it came up. If you did that… well, rather than a completely fake situation it’d appear that you randomly generated a mystery which has a different solution every time. You’d probably be hailed as a genius, creating a game with massive replayability.

Games are trickery, by their nature. They’re machines creating an illusion we experience and interact with. Normally games use their trickery to support the sense of simulation. Even games like Deus Ex are about a simulation, and the story you create on your choices is based on the world inside it being real. You are someone in a real world.

I think things like Starcraft 2 and Tim’s little example above point out that’s not the only way to do it. I think it shows that games can use their trickery to increase the sense of pure narrative drama, and relegate the idea that this is an objective rules to the back-burner. I think people can – and will – do more and more of this in single-player games, making the rules create whatever story they choose. It’s worth noting that a particularly nihilistic developer could use the same Blizzard-esque methods to make all your decisions be bad ones, presenting a world where all humans are basically doomed to failure.

And perhaps – now this is the scary idea – perhaps they are already. Because they’re not going to tell you about it. These sort of tricks on the gamer are sort of the Black Ops squads of the designers tool box, doing things which keep the population happy which they’d be revolted with if they ever found out about.

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176 Comments »

  1. Spaceman-Spiff says:

    I thought we like our RTS dialogs that way… cheesy on the outside :P

    Though the C&C series were cheesy on both sides.

    PS: RPS, please switch to recaptcha. Your current captcha is hard to read.

    • SpakAttack says:

      Agreed – current captcha looks like it was written by a doctor.

    • Sam says:

      Top of the page, register button.

    • Dhatz says:

      yea, recaptcha is what I suggest since I came across it. At least captcha isn’t as bad as youtube flood protection.

  2. sonofsanta says:

    I think we have a tendency to do the same thing in our lives as well – no matter what choice you make in a given situation, unless you royally fuck it all up, you adjust to the change and justify that you made the right call and it’s all worked out much better than it would have done if you’d made the other choice. But then we’re all just heroes in our own narratives with everyone we meet as supporting characters and oh my god I’ve turned into a wanker right now. LOOK WHAT YOUR NEW GAMES JOURNALISM HAS DONE TO ME KG

  3. Bowlby says:

    I mentioned on one of the other posts that I was rather annoyed by this contrivance. My issue is that the moment I know the choice is rigged in some way I am no longer invested in that decision, as it’s been rendered pointless, and I feel cheated. It’s not necessarily the rigging that’s the problem; it’s that the game perhaps doesn’t hide its trickery well enough.

    • Bowlby says:

      Also, I think it’s great that you’ve decided to address this. :)

    • DeliriumWartner says:

      For me it works the opposite way. Normally when confronted with a binary choice I’ll try and game the system. I won’t mean to, I just do it automatically. If I’m playing “good”, I’ll try and pick good, and vice versa. If I misunderstand and get a result I didn’t mean to I get annoyed – the game wasn’t clear enough for me to choose the outcome I wanted.

      In SC2 thought, my “moral” choice is taken away. I’m played a story where I’m always the good guy. I have to be to be on this quest – it makes sense. Therefore all my choices are about which I feel to be a “better” choice, not a correct one.

      The only problem comes when you want to choose to be bad in a game where you play a hero. Maybe we should label the gamebox Hero or Anti-hero?

    • Bowlby says:

      I’m not sure if this is what you’re saying, but I don’t want a guarantee that if I do a good thing a good result will happen. The problem, I find, is that the choice is presented as such that you could be wrong, but the game never allows you to be wrong, so the tension within that decision is lost because I’m always right. Not only that, I feel my previous choices have lost some degree of significance, too.

    • DeliriumWartner says:

      I think I get what you mean. It’s the lying that bothers you – the lack of meaningful consequences when presented with a choice? I suppose I view it more as a gameplay mechanic than anything else. If it was all high def vids and clicky talky people, with no choices, I wouldn’t feel I had ANY control. At least this way I get to choose which bits of the story I get to see. It’s more like a “choose your own adventure” than choose you moral outcome.

      I guess it comes down to the storytelling style you prefer. Me? I prefer the illusion of control to no control at all.

    • Bowlby says:

      Yeah, it is the lying. I just wished they’d lied a bit better. ;)

      You know, for the record, it didn’t bother me too much. By that time in the game my narrative standards had been suitably lowered, and I was actually pleasantly surprised by their attempt to shake things up midway through with this apparently meaningful moral choice. It was only afterwards when I played the alternate missions that I felt patronised and, ultimately, a little disappointed.

    • Jools says:

      Bowlby, I think you may be looking at this the wrong way. The choice really isn’t any more or less meaningful than it would be if you weren’t “tricked,” it just has a different sort of meaning. Instead of choosing a path through the story, you’re actually taking part in CONSTRUCTING the story. You’re essentially deciding on character motivations, which I think is a far, FAR more interesting use of video games as a narrative medium than what amounts to a dolled up choose your own adventure story.

      To make an incredibly nerdy analogy, it’s a bit like the advice that some pen & paper RPG GMs will give about never saying “no” to players. If you never say no, and instead adjust your story to accommodate what the players want, you end creating a sort of collaborative fiction. I think this is a very primitive version of that same idea, and it’s a direction I hope games move in.

    • DrazharLn says:

      That’s a terrific link, Jools. I think there’s a place for this kind of thing in our games. I don’t think that you should always be right, but having a subjective story in this way is quite compelling.

  4. rocketman71 says:

    StarCraft 2 and Innovation in the same sentence?. Tsk, tsk.

  5. Justin Keverne says:

    This is essentially a variation of the magician’s choice. The magician puts two cards on the table and asks you to pick one, he wants you to pick card A so if you select card A he simply says: “Ok so you’ve picked this card” and gives you card A. If you actually select card B he says: “Right so we’ll get rid of that card” he discards card B then gives you card A. Either way you’ve made a choice and he’s been seen to react to it but you still have exactly the card he wanted you to have.

    I’m also reminded of BioShock, the economics of the Little Sister choice is such that either way you go, Harvest or Rescue you will get essentially the same quantity of Adam. However if you’ve never going to reply the game or lookup the graphs for which route is the most profitable you could be tricked into thinking that by Rescuing you are sacrificing a lot of Adam compared to the player who is Harvesting. Irrational didn’t really do much to imply that but the potential was there.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      Except that as soon as you save 3 sisters and get rewarded the choice from then on is false.

      The most dissapointing design choice in BioShock for me.

  6. Armyofnone says:

    Excellent read! Thanks Kieron.

  7. Devan says:

    The one problem with aiming to mislead the gamer and hoping he doesn’t catch on is that it’s part of human nature to want to fully understand something. Perhaps most people who play that game would be perfectly content with their single playthrough, but others would want to create a walkthrough or discuss that really tough mystery quest with their friends. As soon as people discover that it’s dynamic, they will play it again and again to figure out the system and explain it to others.

    While systems like Starcraft 2′s may very well may provide a better narrative experience to a player that would have otherwise made poor choices, it relies on the player making the assumption that the choices are statically right and wrong. If this type of system becomes popular, gamers will no longer go into a game making that assumption (realistically, they will probably have heard about it being in that game before getting far into it).

    So I guess the question is: If you know that all choices you make in a game are going to be “right” ones, is it as interesting to make them as it would be if you knew that the consequences were static and pre-determined?

    • Justin Keverne says:

      A great example of that mentality of players to try and understand a dynamic situation can be seen with the ending of Mass Effect 2, the BioWare forums are still full of people trying to work out exactly what factors determine the events that occur in that final sequence.

    • K says:

      On the other hand, we have Bethesda, which will tell you frank and clear that killing people of the evil cult of evil who poison kittens and eat babies will remove karma. Which annoys me way before the second playthrough.

    • Urthman says:

      Presumably, the main point of this is to give the player an excellent experience the first time you play the game. If later you go back and play it again and see the man behind the curtain, that shouldn’t change whether or not the magic fooled and delighted you the first time.

      (Same with the ending of Mass Effect 2. Playing through Portal a second time with the developer commentary explaining how they manipulated me into having fun didn’t change the fact that I had fun on my first play through.)

    • Chris D says:

      I think it changes the nature of the choice from “What would you do in this situation?” to “What kind of story do you want to participate in?” It’s a choose your own adventure book in video game form. (Am I the only one who remembers choose your own adventure books?)

      Other ageing geeks may also remember the Fighting Fantasy series, basically single player RPGs in book form. These were much more like video games in that you had to figure out the best course of action and you would be right or wrong about it. Bad choices could kill you instantly.

      Choose your own adventure books were different in that the story would change completely depending on your choices. In a story about aliens you might make one choice and discover that it was all an elaborate hoax by the CIA. Take the other choice and you might be abducted by actual aliens and end up in Alpha Centauri..

      I don’t think either approach is necessarily right or wrong, just different. With the objective approach it’s a problem to be told, a game to be beaten. With the other it’s more of an artistic or aesthetic choice, a story to be told.

      It could be interesting to explore this approach some more. Plotting games is tricky. If you limit the players choices they feel like they have no input and that it’s too linear. Too much freedom and the plot starts to fall apart, a problem with sandbox games particularly. You may have a mission to save one guy, but in getting there you left a trail of dead pedestrians behind you.

      If you have a subjective, changeable world it may be possible to give the player a large amount of freedom but still be able to tell a compelling, engaging story at the same time, just not necessarily the same one. This could be worth exploring some more.

    • DigitalSignalX says:

      bah xhtml fail.

    • Lambchops says:

      “If later you go back and play it again and see the man behind the curtain, that shouldn’t change whether or not the magic fooled and delighted you the first time.”

      Spot on Urthman. This is the reason why I’ve never watched some utterly brilliant films again as they wont have the same impact the second time other than to note how clever the trick was (I’m looking at you usual Suspects) and see if there were any clues to it that I might have missed.

  8. Lunaran says:

    “There’s people playing it now who weren’t even alive back then.”

    Well! Thanks for making me feel old.

    • Jeremy says:

      Don’t blame his words… blame your hip replacement.

    • Benjamin Sherwood says:

      Yep, had pretty much the same affect on me… I remember playing SC1 to death over a dial-up connection… And to think that was ten years ago, well, that just makes me feel really old!

  9. Isle says:

    The Interactive Fiction work Shade (Andrew Plotkin, 2000) uses this kind of smoke-and-mirrors to great effect. At one point in the game you are looking for an object, and it will always be in the third place you look. Throughout, the author uses this device in different ways to create the desired pacing and atmosphere without destroying the illusion of choice.

  10. Theory says:

    If there was ever a complete opposite of Deus Ex, this is it.

    • Archonsod says:

      Deus Ex did exactly the same thing. It doesn’t matter what you opt to do throughout the game, the only choice to have any actual effect is what you decide to do on the last level. Everything else ultimately leads to the exact same outcomes.

    • Jimbo says:

      It’s not the same thing at all. What they’re doing here is fixing the outcome of every player decision throughout the game so that it always feels like the right one.

      It’d be like if you didn’t find the a bomb! but then it transpired that your pilot was secretly plotting to kill you anyway. Phew!

    • Archonsod says:

      As opposed to fixing every player decision so it always leads to the same outcome? Not seeing a whole lot of difference there.

    • Jimbo says:

      Your position is akin to saying “it doesn’t matter what choices you make in life because you’re going to die anyway”. This isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey.

  11. Max says:

    I’m honestly surprised that there are people upset by what (in my opinion) was a clever bit of sleight of hand. Of course your decisions have a practical choice: it’s revealed right up front as the rewards you earn. When the writing to begin with is so much dreck, it’s intriguing that people are decrying a lack of (terrible) narrative feedback. Reminds me of a joke: two people are eating in a cafeteria. One turns to the other and says, “God, the food here is AWFUL.” The other replies, “I know! And the portions are so small, too!”

  12. Metalfish says:

    I think that for a heavily choice based game this sort of thing could represent an interesting take on difficulty settings, or even a way of dynamically scaling the difficulty. Say, if a player is consistently having their arse kicked by the bads and often misses health pickups/clues to extra loot/whatever, you could have it so that the next choice they have to make has no chance of negative consequences, even if it looks like the sort of decision that could screw them up royally.

    On the flip side, the power gamer who has slaughtered everything and is now wearing it as a hat might find that, unless they’re really careful, their allies become flaky, their supply drops don’t turn up or they’re now forced to give their epic hat to the guard to get to the next area.

  13. Sagan says:

    I thought this aspect was actually disappointing.

    Spoilers follow. (But surely that can be ignored for a story as weak as Starcraft 2′s)

    So I helped the scientist whats-her-name save the settlers, and it turned out that the Protoss had over-reacted and they were wrong in trying to kill the settlers, and I was right in trying to save them. I later went back to play the other side of that mission, helping the Protoss kill the settlers, because I wanted to see how that would turn out. The result was, that everything was completely different, and all the settlers including the scientist had been infected by Zerg, and I was right in trying to kill them. Boo I say! My curiosity was not satisfied. I wanted to know how the scientist would react when I tried to kill the settlers, but instead the scientist became infested by Zerg. That is not what I wanted to see.

    Spoilers end.

    I wanted to see how the character reacted to me being evil, but instead it turned out that my action was good no matter what I did. Very disappointing.

    • Koozer says:

      Personally I think it’s our brains recording the plot as a linear story that creates the problem; this happens then this happens then oh look she’s infested. Play it again and your brain says “right, this is what happened, she’s infested, this is the plot, so what happens if I do this instead?…Wait, that isn’t what’s supposed to happen, the plot shouldn’t do this!”
      Then your rational thought kicks in and you become mildy disappointed, followed by praise/hatred of the innovative/stupid narrative.

    • tekDr agon says:

      I especially enjoyed that bit

      having chosen to roast them the first time around I was especially relieved that I had made the right call. I didnt realize I’d been tricked until I replayed the missions and I thought it was a “nifty” bit of trickery.

    • Raum says:

      SPOILERS BE HERE

      I think the decision Raynor has to make in the cinematic after (killing them instead of rescuing them) leaves the character in an altered state to a much greater degree than Kieron makes it out to be. I mean, he essentially becomes quite the anti-hero (he is the reason the events unfold as they do). It fits more with his character (beaten down drunkard). The “big” change in his character isn’t until much later in the game. If the writing/directing had been better, maybe they could have done more with him being torn, but as it is now, it seems the “good” choice is out of character, and the “bad” one is more in line with what Blizzard intended the character to be (and it’s much more fitting to the story).

      Basically, you’re not making a wrong choice per se, but you are altering the character arc, the story of Raynor, and your thoughts toward the end-game quite a bit. The whole struggle for Raynor is facing what he ultimately have to do, and that is very much affected by what the player imagines Raynor is going through (and for the life of me, I can’t understand why there isn’t a binary choice in the ending — that would have been brilliant use of it).

      It’s not like we don’t get it’s bogus, although Blizzard seems to think so. It sort of feels like Blizzard thought they could fool us if they used the mechanic in the middle of the game, but we would figure out a potential last one when there turned out to be just one storyline in Heart of The Swarm.

      By the way, how the “good” choice turned out seems to me like a cop-out. Before the choice you’re presented with a hope of a cure, then after it all goes down, it’s sort of just scrapped. “Well, never mind the über important work I’m doing here, I’ll just drop off at the nearest planet and be on my way”.

  14. Vinraith says:

    No matter what you do, you’re always the good guy. No matter what you choose, you’re always right.

    How. Fucking. Boring. Without consequence choice is meaningless, without real choices what’s the point of interactivity in the first place? If you want to tell a story with only one outcome make a movie or write a book.

    • D says:

      My first thoughts. But then, the outcomes are different. The missions you play are different, the story is different. So it has to be a “meaningful” choice. Annoyingly.

    • Matt W says:

      There are consequences. People live and die by your actions. Yes, you’re always vindicated in your decision, and you end up the hero. But equally, you always sacrifice something, and if you care about the story, that’s a cross to carry.

      And if you don’t care about the story, why do you care about the story?

    • Jimbo says:

      Pretty much agree with this. Once you know you can’t fail, there’s little satisfaction in success. Like riding a bike with stabilisers.

      The difference between this and a book/movie is, as always, the interactivity. When I read a book, the successes and failures always belong to the hero. I can cheer the victories, but they’re never my victories. With Starcraft 2, the player essentially is Jim Raynor. You are making decisions on his/your behalf, so you are able to feel like you earned that victory, or deserved the temporary hardship you have brought on yourself.

      I don’t know what you would call this – Dynamic Authorship? Story Stabilisers? – but I don’t consider it a step forward. It moves the medium closer to traditional passive media if anything. It undermines your good decisions by not allowing you to make a bad one. It takes your victory away from you and gives it back to the author.

      If the author wants to tell a story in a game where every decision the hero makes is the right one, then that’s fine, but I believe a single handcrafted example of that will always be superior to one where you offer the player a false choice and then have to fudge characters and the storyline to make sense of whatever decision the player made.

      Either allow me to play the protagonist, or just make me a spectator – don’t try and trick me into believing my choice matters and then pat me on the head. Once you realise (and even if you don’t realise it in the first or second such game you play, you will surely recognise it in the third) that your interaction is pointless – as it is pointless in the courtroom/monster example – isn’t the next logical step simply to remove that interaction entirely and just tell the best possible story?

    • FunkyBadger says:

      COmpare with ME2 where your choices can have negative outcomes (I’m sorry, Garrus!)

    • Matt W says:

      I’m not sure I agree that story needs to be about winning or success.

    • Zelnick says:

      Jimbo said: “…the player essentially is Jim Raynor.”

      I played it as if I was an unmentioned sub-commander that advised him. It never felt like I was actually Raynor; It felt like I was watching him and I got to tell him what to do sometimes.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I did find myself comparing the ship-side bit to Mass Effect 2 continuously, with the effect that I was thoroughly disappointed. Equally, Dawn of War II showed how to do a similar thing well – depicting a dying theocracy through the eyes of its fanatical warriors. Starcraft managed to portray a messed-up universe where the only good guys were too haggard to really make a difference. Starcraft 2 undid all that by being utterly cack-handed with its story direction and character development, to the point where Raynor was portrayed as a kind of messiah. The missions are well-designed, but it’s a crying shame that a company with the resources that Blizzard has can’t write a decent story. It’s like having NASA mis-spell its name on the rockets. It’s inexcusable.

      So yes, the idea that you always make the right decision is fun. But it kinda misses what Starcraft did, which was to paint whatever you did as a near-failure, with the heroes barely treading water against their foes.

    • Carolina says:

      I don’t know. Personally, when I encounter a “Good Choice vs. Bad Choice” scenario, I feel pretty much forced to choose the “right” one. Free will is an illusion too if they punish you by showing you an undesirable outcome and telling you “This is what you get for your choosing wrong. Now go play again and get our canonical ending”. It’s just an alternative storyline that doesn’t have any importance whatsoever because it isn’t part of the true script. That’s what made The Witcher so compelling for me, not having a “good” or “bad” path, just shades of gray and choosing the lesser evil.

      In SC2′s case, I’d have more reasons to try and see what happens if I choose something else, since they don’t punish me making me feel that I’m wasting my time in a pararell storyline in which the hero isn’t a hero, but a moron who make all the wrong choices.

      You may not have a say on the outcome, but the path is yours to choose. It doesn’t sound that bad.

    • Wraggles says:

      @Vinratih;
      “How. Fucking. Boring. Without consequence choice is meaningless, without real choices what’s the point of interactivity in the first place”

      See that’s where the arguments fall down. There is consequence, each decision you make has a result different from the other, one even leads to a characters death. Sure your character is always the hero and if you play both options the story doesn’t make “sense” and you’ll notice the trickery.

      But if you play it as many people would, you go from one end of the story to the other, the world remains consistent and the decisions seem important (or to at least make sense in the SC universe) . Really, the only problem with Blizzards design is that it can be easily seen through by people who replay missions, and that it’s somewhat jarring if you do a second playthrough.

      People complaining about “seeing through” the illusion, have to be the same people who give a big “F-U” to the story anyway by trying to replay binary decisions, because if you don’t you won’t know otherwise unless someone tells you, or you’ve finished the game and started again.

    • Damien Stark says:

      I’m baffled by this whole conversation. It seems like the Bioware good/evil conversation choices, which we used to complain about, are now the only way we understand choices?

      Everyone seems to be assuming that when you’re given a binary choice in Starcraft II that says “pick A for Ghosts, B for Specters” that they secretly mean “pick A for good, pick B for evil”, and we’re all disappointed that they’re cheating us out of the “meaningful” story we got from the good/evil choices in KOTOR/Fable? It says right on the screen what the consequences are, and they are just as permanent and significant as Deus Ex’s upgrade choices or GEP gun choices etc.

      Of course the whole plot doesn’t shift and end in failure. Of course there’s not fifteen endings based on every permutation of people you could side with. What in the world made people think otherwise? And why does everyone’s definition of choice here seem to be “I wanted to be evil” ?

      In the whole of popular video games, how many of them actually give you the choice to shift the story from “good guy saves world” to “bad guy dooms world”, and of the few that do, what made you expect that from Starcraft?

      It’s a Real Time Strategy game. Think of Supreme Commander 2, Dawn of War 2, etc. It has much more significant choices than Starcraft 1 did, but everyone seems to be expecting KOTOR from it, and I don’t understand why…

  15. Max says:

    As an afterthought, I wonder what these people would make of the original warcraft/warcraft 2 campaigns.”You mean whichever side I play as wins? Where’s the fun in THAT?”

  16. Bas says:

    So basically, you just said Starcraft 2′s choices aren’t really choices and they’re really well thought out? That’s a load of shite.

    “Oh no, the Protos are going to kill all the settlers!”

    “No fleshy human, they’re all infected with Zerg, we must kill them!”

    “But we can cure them! I’m the hot scientist chick with glasses!”

    WHO DO YOU CHOOSE?

    Seriously, they poured millions into the singleplayer, and couldn’t spare some to hire a competent sci-fi writer to write the story for them?

  17. Dean says:

    It’d odd, I’m okay with it in SC2 as the decision isn’t really part of the gameplay. It’s part of this plot meta structure. With that NWN module I’d hate it as making the decision is the gameplay. Figuring out the suspect is the point. Dodgy FMV adventure Ripper sort of did the same thing: a whodunnit but the who was randomised, but 90% of the clues weren’t changed, so until the end of the game the experience is the same.

    I’d also argue that you can’t do this secretly, because of the internet. It’ll soon become apparent on the forums if no-one has ever won or lost a given scenario. And the negative side of this, the decision always being wrong, has sort of been done on those plot-based unwinnable levels in multiple genres. Actually I guess that’s sort of an example of both sides of it.

    Could it be argued Mass Effect also does this? Not on the large scale, but in the conversations where most of your responses don’t matter.

    • D says:

      Yeah, Mass Effect has a lot of dialogue trees that end up with the same consequences. I guess ME sacrifices the choices in favor of one well thought out narrative to run through, where SC2 sacrifices the action of choosing in favor of more varied missions. But better than ruining the believability of their world, they could have worked on different valid points of views for the narrative. I don’t think this trick is something you can call innovation.

  18. Melloj says:

    It is introspectives like this that make RPS more than the sum of its parts…..(it’s smelly, unshaven parts!)

  19. LintMan says:

    I don’t really care for this as an “innovation” – it basically says my reasoning for the decision didn’t matter and that I should have just picked based on which reward I preferred. And that the Hanson and Tosh storylines will likely never be mentioned again in the next parts of the story.

    I actually kinda liked the whole cheesy story and Tychus and Tosh et al, cliches and all. So this is rather disappointing.

  20. Max says:

    @Vinraith: But the outcomes, both descriptively and practically, are completely different. The only constant is you made the correct choice. What Blizzard’s done, since their narrative is character driven, is cause the player’s choices to affect the environment, rather that the protagonist. You can’t make Raynor a baby-eater: what HE is is set in stone. What narratively changes as an outcome, then, is the setting and storyline. This is the opposite approach to say, half-life, where the events are fixed, but the context and personality of Freeman is what the layer attaches to him.

  21. suibhne says:

    Playing a game means playing a game system, which for most humans involves trying to understand that system. Blizzard’s “innovation” makes sense if you view games as basically interactive movies, where the gamer’s primary role is to passively receive what’s on offer, but it doesn’t make nearly as much sense if you’re more concerned with the actual gameplay.

    Re. the argument that of course Raynor’s choices end up being heroic, because he’s the hero, &c., &c. – the same argument could be made to offer a big “Win now” button in each map. (Granted, maybe that’s mass air. ;) )

    This “innovation” irritated the hell out of me, because there was no real cost to any of my choices. I felt particularly frustrated by the development in one later-game mission – where the setup makes you think you might be doing something really bad (i.e., criminal) by siding with a particular character, but Horner points out afterwards that you’ve actually struck a very real blow for freedom, democracy, and kittens – and his argument for this position is one which your character, and Horner, and everybody else should have known all along. At that point, I lost all interest in those fake choices, realizing that they weren’t worth even a single cycle of cognitive functioning – because they really, truly didn’t matter at all, and they were even written that way.

    Maybe if SC2′s writing and characters were better, this structural issue would be no problem at all. E.g., one choice could turn out to be “justifiable but sad” and the other “justifiable and happy”, or whatever. The problem is that, with Blizzard’s execrable writing, both choices always end up equally happy, with no downsides at all – even the downsides that the game tries to convince you to consider before you’ve made the choice. In other words, this system flatly abuses any sense of player agency by encouraging you to make an apparently challenging, multifaceted choice, then demonstrating that, oh wow, it wasn’t multifaceted after all, and the thought you invested in the choice’s moral dimensions and ramifications was all irrelevant.

    I understand that this piece is a little notional, Kieron, but this really doesn’t seem like the kind of “innovation” we should be supporting – or at least not in the manner in which Blizzard actually implemented it.

    • Diogo Ribeiro says:

      In other words, this system flatly abuses any sense of player agency by encouraging you to make an apparently challenging, multifaceted choice, then demonstrating that, oh wow, it wasn’t multifaceted after all, and the thought you invested in the choice’s moral dimensions and ramifications was all irrelevant.

      Player agency is not just about pressing buttons, making choices, breaking down game systems to explore all possible ramifications. Player agency is also about giving players a personal reason as to why they would press those buttons, why they would make certain choices. Choice without consequence may be meaningless, but choice without motivation is equally stupid.

    • Arthur Barnhouse says:

      But it’s hard to mimic the sacrifices that occur from making right or wrong choicees in real life. As much as I loved Bioshock, the central question of “are you going to be a good person and not kill the sisters, or are you going to accept that you get less adam” never worked because the game was not much more difficult without that adam. To make it more difficult would make it especially hard to sell to people because then it stops really being very fun. Fallout and Mass Effect had constant decisions that in a hypothetical sense effected me, but not in super significant ways. Choosing Liara over the army white guy only really altered my interactions with them, and didn’t alter the story a great deal. And Starcraft’s strength isn’t it’s writing, so it can’t even mimic decisions on an emotional level. This solution works really well for what Starcraft is. And in the long run, a game company with really good writing could probably come up with an even better implementation of it.

    • suibhne says:

      That’s precisely what I mean: Blizzard is presenting you situations in which you think you’re making a choice with motivation, but the consequence undermines your entire sense of motivation. In both of the choices I’m recalling, there was an apparent, significant downside to the choice I made – and it turned out to be totally obviated by the outcome, which basically invalidated all the time I’d spent thinking about it.

      Keep in mind, I found this to be a major narratological irritation even before I discovered that the choice didn’t matter a whit (in terms of consequences).

      So I’m not saying this situation (of fake consequences) is necessarily impossible to implement in an effective fashion. It’s already been done in other games. I’m just saying that, at least partly because of the poor caliber of Blizzard’s writer(s), the implementation in SC2 is ultimately not an example of good design.

    • Diogo Ribeiro says:

      Does it undermine the consequence or what you though you’d get you’d get as a consequence? Is the practical consequence of saving or condemning Little Sisters (the same amount of ADAM) more important than the motivation behind it (being or not being a bastard about it)? Do the fiscal benefits outweigh your moral stance?

      Unless you were expecting that a “good” choice to be less rewarding and more troublesome than an “evil” choice, which isn’t really mandatory.

    • bleeters says:

      “one choice could turn out to be “justifiable but sad” and the other “justifiable and happy”, or whatever. The problem is that, with Blizzard’s execrable writing, both choices always end up equally happy, with no downsides at all”

      I’m not sure I’d describe riddling an infested crewmember with rifle rounds as a ‘happy ending’, myself.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      @Arthur: you exactly the same amount of Adam if you saved the little sisters in Bioshock. Hence a choice without consequence, hence no choice at all.

    • cjlr says:

      @Diogo Ribeiro
      “Is the practical consequence of saving or condemning Little Sisters (the same amount of ADAM) more important than the motivation behind it (being or not being a bastard about it)?”

      Isn’t answering that question the whole point of the exercise?

    • suibhne says:

      SPOILERS AHEAD

      Fair enough about the Protoss choice leading to a “sad” ending – i.e., having to gun down an infested crew member, never mind the whole colony. But I’d argue it’s not different in that regard from the other choice, where you have to gun down a whole bunch of noble Protoss (not the nutty Tal’Darim cultists you face in all of the other missions with Toss enemies). I can illustrate my overall point with the human choice in this mission and the Specter choice in the next one. The downside to the human choice is presented as “well, the Protoss won’t be happy with me”; the downside to the Specter choice is presented as “golly, I’ll end up releasing the most hardened criminals in the galaxy”. But neither turns out to be the case: the Protoss give you some speech about dying in glorious battle and how honored they have been to face you, and gosh, the prison turns out to actually house a bunch of poets, baristas, and kittens.

      It’s one thing to structure the narrative so you turn out to have made the “right” choice either way. It’s quite another to additionally wipe out the consequences which are clearly telegraphed, and which are apparently designed to make your choices difficult. Honestly, I would have preferred to see the Protoss get shirty with me after the earlier mission, or to discover that I’d unleashed a bunch of bloodthirsty murderers and cake-stealers in the later mission – because those were the consequences that I willingly accepted when I made my choice. Those are the consequences which defined my choice, the measures against which I tested my decision-making and, by extension, my character. Removing those expected consequences doesn’t make me feel powerful or heroic; it makes me feel that, really, I needn’t have bothered.

  22. Arthur Barnhouse says:

    It reminds me of the training program the NYPD uses. The trainee is put in front of a screen with a lightgun in their holster and given a scenario. However, the scenario can be altered at any time by the person who is administering the test. So, for example, if a scenario where a person acts, looks, and reacts like a criminal, and the trainee becomes aggressive towards the suspect, the administrator of the test can change the scenario so that new information will come to light that suggests that the suspect is not actually the criminal. If, on the other hand, the trainee softpedals, the test admin can ramp up the suspect, leading to an altercation. The point of the NYPD program is different from Starcraft (the NYPD wants the trainee to understand that they can and often will be wrong, and that each new piece of information needs to be examined, whereas the Starcraft version is to assure that the player is never wrong), but it is interesting to have scenerios that are not objective because they can force you to think a little bit more about the choices.

    • ExplosiveCoot says:

      This is very interesting. Having outcomes change dynamically based on a player’s actions seems like an idea ripe for exploring when designing new games. This could produce unique opportunities for self-reflection on the part of the player, the same way powerful movies and books can. Right now developers seem to still be working out the best way to do this (and at best everything seems to be only a binary choice), but the future of games is along this path.

    • Saul says:

      That’s really interesting. Get an AI to do that in a story situation and you have something really fascinating.

  23. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    Chrono Trigger, probably as close as Square Enix ever got to making an excellent game, featured a similar situation.

    During the first moments, Chrono is visiting a town fair and bumps into Marle, a tomboy who is walking around. They slump to the floor and her pendant’s clasp opens. Chrono looks around for the pendant and returns it to her, whereupon both characters decide to go together and see what the fair has to offer.

    During this stage, a number of mini-games – from betting to Simon Says – are available, but you also encounter peculiar events. A girl looking for a lost kitten. An old codger guy who wants Chrono to trick Marle into selling her pendant. A guy who has his lunch on top of a table. You can take action in these moments, like stealing and gulping down the oaf’s lunch or helping the child find the pet. All of this seems trivial…

    Until Chrono is arrested by soldiers who believe he kidnapped Marle. A huge trial is set up to judge Chrono’s character and how he may be guilty or innocent of the accusations. What’s used as evidence? The previous events at the fair. Depending upon what you did, the judges will change their opinion of Chrono. My first playthrough saw Chrono being a prick and the obvious result is he was found guilty and being thrown into jail, waiting to be executed. A long sequence where he walks, chained and accompanied by guards, has a positive note as he manages to break free from his cell and escape with his friends.

    When you replay the game, being a nice guy doesn’t change anything. The judges may decide to release him but the corrupt minister will always jail him.

    It was very much an example of narrative drama, and in a game like Chrono Trigger – so entangled with time travels, choices and consequences – it set the tone for future adventures: watch out because your actions will have an outcome, and you never know what that outcome will be. Simple but very effective and well laid out, but many people took offense at that. Which seemed fairly obtuse because both choice and consequence existed. Both were real. Except that they didn’t venture into the usual territory, anddecided to simply create something that had players making an emotional investment in their characters which – while tricky to pull off – was certainly more welcome than what the entire JRPG genre (a healthy exception being Phantasy Star III) had done up until then, which amounted to static, yes/no choices, all abusive in their vacuity.

    This was in 1995, fyi, so Blizzard aren’t particularly novel about it, but it’s nonetheless an interesting decision they’ve made.

  24. Freud says:

    For the NWN module, wouldn’t it be even more interesting if there is only one criminal but your information leads you to pointing out the wrong man. Why? Perhaps you misunderstand one piece of evidence. Perhaps someone lies to you (it bugs me that in most games with conversations people tell you the truth all the time). Then you can have the dramatic climax anyway, while removing the silly notion we as gamers have that the game tells us the truth all the time.

  25. DeepSleeper says:

    So no matter what I pick, I come out looking awesome?

    I’m okay with that. But I probably wouldn’t be if I didn’t know ahead of time.

  26. Dean says:

    Actually the more I think about it, the more having two positive outcomes makes more sense in a world where you can just reload if you don’t like the consequences.

    And just because both outcomes are good, doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Just that they play out differently: different people stay on the ship, you get different units and the story is entirely different.

    You give a player a choice that results in a good or bad outcome, chances are he reloads to get the good one. As such, most of the big ‘moral choices’ in Dragon Age or The Witcher are ambiguous, there is no right answer, so by contrast there’s no wrong answer either.

    This is the same thing, just people feel a little cheated as their choice also changes a variable that should have been in place before the choice was made and shouldn’t have been effected by it.

    • Saul says:

      This. Except they don’t have to give two “positive” outcomes, just two that are compelling enough to keep the player involved in the story, wanting to know what happens next. There’s no way they’re going to want to reload if you keep them hooked.

  27. Zyrxil says:

    30+ replies, and I just want to be the first to say- I liked the title movie reference.

  28. Zwebbie says:

    I think it’s important to see here that there’s a grand difference in approach between continuous-world (i.e. traditional) and shifting-world (like SC2). What happens in a normal game is that you get into the skin of the avatar, consider what you think is the best option, and go for it. In SC2′s system, once you’ve found out how it works, you’re no longer actually considering something, and you’re no longer Jim Raynor; you’re the grand director, who decides how the story flows. That doesn’t, of course, work seamlessly with gameplay, where you are supposed to be Jimmy, but that’s another matter.

    Fascinating things can be done with this; no longer the actors, we can be directors. A game that’s purely built around such a shifting world, where no option is wrong in the ludic sense of the word, allows you to take distance from the characters, and thus be comfortable with failure. Failure! You might decide that main character Bob does something stupid, because you’re not too fond of perfect characters – and the game will continue as well as ever, maybe becoming even more interesting. That would require a ton of guts and skill, though.

    As an aside, I like that RPS is and has been for weeks now plastered with SC2 adds, yet the writers aren’t scared to point out how bad the game’s narrative is :) .

    • Archonsod says:

      You’ve never been the actor. Outside of sandbox games the narrative in a game is no different from the one in a book or film, it’s still set in stone based upon what the author decided long before the player came into the picture. A game can offer you a choice of paths, but it’s no different from a choose your own adventure book; you can go to paragraph 22 or paragraph 102, but ultimately you end up at paragraph 333.

    • Zwebbie says:

      What I’m trying to say is that the question is no longer “what would I do (if I were Jim Raynor)?”, but “what would I like to see (if I were me behind a computer)?”. The difference between the approaches is huge, and it’s why I think you can’t compare (most) games to choose-your-own-adventure… And I wouldn’t mind a digital version of the latter every now and then, to be honest.

    • Diogo Ribeiro says:

      A game can offer you a choice of paths, but it’s no different from a choose your own adventure book; you can go to paragraph 22 or paragraph 102, but ultimately you end up at paragraph 333.

      Yet, paragraph 112 may see you expelled from a Thieves’ Guild which costs you allies in the final battle; paragraph 278 may cost you 1 or 2 total maximum hitpoints from a trap you didn’t saw coming; paragraph 8 may rob you of the special item you needed to confront the end foozle, which means you’ll need to backtrack.

      We already know, for the most part, how a journey’s gonna end. Shouldn’t the minutae of the journey itself be were we let ourselves be enthralled?

    • Saul says:

      Yes. I pretty much try to say the same thing further down. While it’s interesting to be in the shoes of a character vs the world, this approach seems to much better suit sandbox games, where you can experiment by butting your head against the rules of the universe as created.

      In story-based games, the only possibilities are failure or continuing the narrative, unless the developer uses choices to fundamentally change the outcome, based on player decisions. This is possible within a static world, but the drama needs to be maintained, and having the power to dynamically alter the world to serve the story is a powerful tool in the interactive storytelling toolkit. I’d like to see more of it.

    • Archonsod says:

      “Yet, paragraph 112 may see you expelled from a Thieves’ Guild which costs you allies in the final battle; paragraph 278 may cost you 1 or 2 total maximum hitpoints from a trap you didn’t saw coming; paragraph 8 may rob you of the special item you needed to confront the end foozle, which means you’ll need to backtrack.”

      And in SC 2 you unlock either unit A or unit B depending on what you choose, which is much the same thing. In fact SC 2 loses out in that respect, in a book the narrative is the focus so choices do affect the end result in a sense. With SC 2 it’s always about selecting one group of guys and clicking on another group, so in that respect the narrative is redundant; you could replace it with random teletubby clips and it would have the same effect (although admittedly, the quality of the writing would be improved).

  29. markec says:

    In Warlords Battlecry 3 (a bit older RTS) you had choices that could change the story and your allegiance to certain factions. You had to choose carefully since your choices were not only cosmetic and immediate (just a new unit) but would influence the story to the end.

    What Blizzard has done is nothing groundbreaking or complex, but rather shallow attempt to create c&c.

    I still think that SC2 is a good game but nothing special.

    • bildo says:

      Shit! I thought I was the only person in the world to play that game. Never met a single person who played it, so reading that was surprising.

  30. Max says:

    I think the actual “argument” here is a difference of opinion on what constitutes meaningful consequences.

  31. Urthman says:

    The all-around brilliant text adventure game Photopia uses tricks like this.

    In one section of the game, the POV characters lands on an alien planet. When you exit the spaceship, you can go [North, North, West] or [South, East, South] or [East,East,East] or [North, South, North, West, East, South, West], but no matter what you do, the 3rd new “area” you visit will always be the place where the next interesting thing happens.

    It’s brilliant because

    1. It means the designer makes you feel free to explore in any direction on a completely open planet but he only needed to implement a few actual locations (I’ve simplified it to explain, it’s actually more complex with 5 or 6 areas to explore), and

    2. Even if you know it’s happening, it totally fits with the rest of the game in a way that would be a spoiler to describe but is not what you’re thinking so no I didn’t spoil it.

    It uses a similar mechanism to produce an even more amazing, traumatic effect later in the game which I won’t spoil.

    Play Photopia. It’s short and easy, no real puzzles to get stuck on. Then play it again to see how the magic works. I’ll wager you feel impressed rather than cheated. [Warning! If you are Ebert, do not play this game unless you want your mind changed about whether games can be art. If you are John Walker, bring a hanky.]

    http://pr-if.org/play/photopia/

    • Xurathar says:

      Man, I love that game. I played it when I was a child(my uncle loved text-based games, and had me playing some of the games he found best) and it really got stuck in my mind some time, before I… Man, I was a child and almost understood none of the real meaning of the game. So it’s time to have another look at it, a bit more mature look :P.

      Thanks for linking it. It’s nice to see it in the original language. Played it in Spanish back then :P.

    • pkt-zer0 says:

      Played Photopia recently (it was impressive and depressive). I don’t think it’s the best example here. It’s sort of doing the opposite, in the grand scheme of things: the entire point of it is that you can’t change things, no matter what you do. Whereas SC2′s world changes to match what you want it to be.

  32. Haphaz says:

    Excellent thought provoking piece and good debate. It appears I may be more of a casual player than the responders above: I think the approach Blizzard has taken here is a good one for the mass majority of players. I (presumably like many others) play games to get away from the ‘real world’ where everything has shades of grey (I like to feel heroic) and therefore having the game adapt round my choices rather than me adapt round the game seems a good way forward to me (removing the need to reload). However I can understand the feeling cheated approach for the more dedicated replayers.

  33. PhiIl Cameron says:

    Ok, so here comes a counter point; The time for this kind of narrative ended the day the internet started to flourish.

    By which I basically mean, manipulation, (both in film, music, and games) only works for as long as you don’t know you’re being manipulated. Or at least so long as there isn’t some kind of meta-manipulation on an Ingmar Bergman scale, where it’s getting you to get all exponential about the whole thing.

    Anyway, what I mean is that Starcraft 2 has done this brilliant, smart thing, but now it doesn’t work, because I’ve read this article. Yes, the choice still has some meaning, but if I know that there are no properly negative connotations associated with either choice, then the drama is lost. Drama is conflict, and when things can’t go wrong, you’re going to get screwed in dramatic terms. All tension is going to go straight out of the window, and you’re just left with an entertaining thought experiment.

    This is basically a magic trick, but one that’s going to be under the scrutiny of gamers, and as we all know, they’re going to be the first to go running to the forums as soon as they figure out exactly how the trick is performed. And, again as we all know, magic is ruined as soon as you understand how it’s done.

    Which bring me back to the original, attention grabbing statement. This doesn’t work, and is quite aptly proved exactly because of this article, because now we know how/what it’s doing. It would’ve worked when we all had dial-up and needed to ring up a hints line to progress if we got stuck, but these days, with information just as far as our fingertips can type a search term in Google, there is no way anyone even a slight bit curious about the other choices they could have made, can truly properly enjoy such a trick.

    And it is a trick, and I would be ok with that, except now I know how it works. I guess it’s an immersion thing; as soon as I realise I’m being played, I’m suddenly taken out of the experience. It’s almost as bad as blasting up an ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED logo and expecting me to pay attention to the narrative.

    Or something like that.

    • Chris D says:

      I think it depends on your expectations. When you were a kid did you ever have someone tell you a story and half way through you’d chip in with a suggestion which they’d weave into the story? That’s essentially what’s going on here. And I think we only mind when we were expecting something different. Like watching a movie and then saying “But you mean none of that actually happened?”. Once we know it’s all made up we can relax and enjoy the story. Or to put it another way, when you go to see a magician you don’t expect he can actually do magic. You know it’s a trick but you watch because it’s great to see a trick done well.

    • Dean says:

      Except, most people don’t discover that it’s a trick until after they’ve played through the game. So it still works. If people want to spoil themselves by reading about the other choice online or reloading to play it then that’s their decision. Guess what? The song at the end of Portal was 10x more amazing and wonderful if you didn’t know it was coming. Nature of ‘spoilers’.

      Now that this trick is known, it’ll always be in the back of our heads that a game could be doing it, but we won’t know. Your argument is sound but it applies just as well to any medium that faces internet spoilers. If I read online that Jude Law survives to the end of the film, there’s not going to be much tension when the bad guy is standing over him with a gun. We know he gets out of it. It ruins the tension and the drama in that moment. There’s no difference here. It’s just “spoilers”.

    • Dinger says:

      Alright Phill, I think you’re on to something, but I don’t think you have it locked down.

      One of the show runners for the US heist-superhero show Leverage posted on their blog an explanation of the mechanic between the ringleader and his co-conspirators:

      Not abandoning a crew member is just good con sense. No one will trust a ringleader who bails on his guys (hence the threat we made in #207). But manipulating them is fair game.

      The same is true, mutatis mutandine (as the Italians say), of writing heist stories, or doing magic tricks or authorship in general. The moment we start reading, playing or viewing, we expect to be manipulated. If this weren’t the case, Christopher Nolan wouldn’t be directing films, and Vladimir Nabokov would be known only to the Butterfly-and-Moth crowd.

      We don’t go in expected to be cheated.

      An “Everybody Wins” narrative mechanic (=Short Bus Special) could work, but only if, in keeping with the same pedagogical principles, your “victory” would be colored (in a meaningful way) by your choices.

      Otherwise, it ends up being the 2010 incarnation of You Can Be the Stainless Steel Rat, a “choose your own adventure” where the author reveals that you cannot, in fact, choose your own adventure.

      If there has to be a “threat of failure”, a better choice would be the US Army Ranger mechanic, where failure is just enough of a threat (10%) to instill a sense of achievement and group belonging to those who (eventually) succeed.

      Otherwise, if it’s just a short-bus trick: the moment it’s uncovered, it ruins the challenge. Once the player knows that a brain-dead automaton can achieve the same results, there’s no reason to try.

      So maybe make the critical question a Turing test?

    • Saul says:

      Phill, I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think you’re right. A great storyteller can move you, even if you know the ending. There are many novels and films where we see the ending, and then get to watch the journey that led to that point. “It’s about the journey, not the destination” is a cliche because it is true. I can see what you’re saying applying to games that aren’t actually any good, but if a master could pull off an interactive tale that branched and changed the rules of the world depending on your choices, that would be a very different thing. The magician analogy is a good one, I think. We don’t believe in magic, but we can still get carried away when we see something really impressive.

    • Archonsod says:

      I’m not even sure the journey matters. Look at James Bond for example, 22 films which follow an identical plot; you know he’s going to end up in some bizarre death trap, escape and shoot the bad guy, yet the films have been consistently popular despite this. There’s always an evil genius with a hidden / remote base and a plan to destroy the world, he always has some hot chick in his employ who’ll be seduced by Bond and betray him, and there’s always a comedic foreigner.
      In fact, you could say the appeal of Bond films is that they’re Bond films, they tend to be criticised more for deviating from the established formula rather than repetition.

      SC 2 is the same. The Terrans are the good guys, so if you’re playing the terrans then every choice is going to be good, because they’re the good guys. It simply wouldn’t be canonical to make bad choices.

    • Lambchops says:

      @ Phil

      I kind of agree with you to an extent. If I was a developer I’d be wary of putting time and effort into narrative tricks when I know they are just going to be revelaed with in days or even hours. On the other hand as a gamer I know not to read anything about games that I might want to have some narrative investment in. It isn’t as a hard as all that – I’ve still managed to avoid Bioshock spoilers while I wait to eventually getting around to playing it.

      . . . I guess i can’t read this comment thread now!

    • Urthman says:

      So you’re saying a game narrative might not be as effective if you read spoilers first? Duh.

      And then you’re saying, because spoilers exist on the internet, no one should try to make a game or movie with a twist or other narrative device that doesn’t work if you know about it ahead of time? Screw that.

      I want developers to make games with cool narrative tricks. And if you can’t resist ruining it with spoilers before you play the game that’s your problem.

  34. Max says:

    I know I’ve been commenting up a storm here; promise these are my closing thoughts: it’s actually given me newfound respect for their writers in that they were able to conjure such tension over these choices that people were terribly upset when it was revealed that there was no tension at all. Now if they could learn to string together words at a 12th grade level, they’d be almost passable.

  35. Psychopomp says:

    The story shifts around a bit based on your choices, but there’s never really a “wrong” choice.

    Are we talking about The Witcher?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      No – in the Witcher there’s no *right* choices. And with the Witcher the choices assume a logical, coherent outside world. The effects are grey, but they’re based on a “real” world those choices impact with.

      KG

  36. DMcCool says:

    This article is exactly the sort of thing I think we should see more of. There is one major point missing though, which is that Starcraft 2′s narrative really, REALLY isn’t designed for the sort of people that’d, well, discuss it on this website. 99% (could probably throw in a decimal point and a couple more 9s in there) of people that play this game really won’t look into the narrative symmetry or even if they did, care. This is writing to a certain group, and thats fine.

    Such a stunt pulled in a high-brow indie game, maybe we should be right to be upset about, really when you are dealing with an auidence that is critical and system-minded symmetry is THE ONE THING YOU MUST TRY TO AVOID. But for a blockbuster game like Starcraft 2? We should be applauding the trickery. It really is a step foward in thinking.

    Endlessly in interviews with developers from top successful companies like Blizzard we hear designers talk with such pride about games were the narative seems like it hasn’t had much effort put into it at all. Actually these guys are tirelessly working at ways to trick us into adventure, but I never see it read about or appaulded anywhere. All the real genius is behind the scenes, the sort of views through the cracks we get in the developer commentary on Orange Box games from Valve. I think we should have more articles exploring this sort of thing in the gaming press, rather than only complaining the bits we are meant to work out aren’t good enough. Some balance would be great.

  37. manveruppd says:

    What rock have you guys been living under? RPGs have been doing this for years! There’s probably dozens of examples, but the best one I can think of is the end of Act III of The Witcher (which Kieron probably never got to cause the sex cards made him blush…)

    The best RPGs put branching quest lines, decisions and consequences, etc. in there, but in many cases it’s only possible for you to find out about the consequences of your decision by doing something specific. In that example from the Wticher,f or instance, you might end up accusing the wrong person of a crime, and never discover your mistake! You _might_ discover your mistake, if you take a particular course of action, but if you don’t, then the player (and the character) might remain convinced that their course of action was the right one!

    The only difference between those and Blizzard’s version is that the latter is particularly lazy. But I suppose it’s just an RTS, the plot in it is nothing more than a thin excuse to get you from one battle to the next (rather like a porn film), it doesn’t need to do anything more than it does. But crediting it with inventing a new subjectivity in game narrative is a bit too much frankly. Other games have been aware of and using this narrative trick for decades, but they’ve managed to do so without necessarilly denying the existence of an objective narrative – they simply allowed the objective narrative to exist in the background, allowing the player opportunities to uncover it, but letting him persist in his/her subjective narrative if they don’t – it’s possible to get all the way through games like that while still retaining lots of delusions about what actually happened and who did what in the game – isn’t that an even deeper exploration of subjectivity in game narrative than simply having all the NPCs just nod furiously in affirmation of every choice you make?

    • Chris D says:

      I think you might be describing something slightly different. Many games have choices where the consequence echoes forward. The choice you make affects how future events will play out. This is something else, the choice you make rewriting the past. It’s arguably lazy writing but I don’t think it has to be. More just about bringing different expectations to the game.

    • manveruppd says:

      My point, however, was that if you don’t discover the consequences of making the “wrong” decision, then from the subjective point of view of the player there’s no difference between games that offer “real” choices (ie. with consequences) and games like Starcraft that just pat you on the head and affirm everything that you do by having all the fratboys surrounding the PC whoop and throw airpunches.

  38. JonWood says:

    I’m slightly bemused by the levels of anger about this being done. I had assumed from the begining that none of my choices were going to cause me to “lose” the game. It’s an RTS, not an RPG, and therefore the only place where I expect to be able to make game breaking decisions is in my strategy.

    I actually quite enjoy that fact. So long as I’m able to suspend my disbelief a bit, I can fully invest myself in the decision. I can sit back, and wonder what my particular Jim Raynor would do in that situation, knowing that while it might cause unpleasant things to happen, or some later awkwardness, the only real impact it’s going to have is on my character.

    • Jimbo says:

      I don’t think it’s about expecting to be able to ‘lose’ necessarily (though it would be brilliant if more games were ballsy enough to do that), but it’s jarring when a character or story element has to turn on a dime to turn whatever decision you just made into a positive one. There’s also the problem of the author’s hands being tied by the need to make all player decision’s turn out positive – Tosh felt like he was ambiguous primarily to facilitate the player decision for example.

      You don’t get the seamless feel of a linear storyline, but you don’t get the satisfaction of having genuinely made a ‘good’ decision either. If the ‘smoke and mirrors’ were effective enough then the game might be able to trick you into feeling that satisfaction, but I don’t think any game has truly achieved that yet.

  39. Wilson says:

    I’m kind of on both sides here. Having done the campaign on SC2, and reading about how all of my decisions would have been correct, I think that’s pretty clever. I had to think carefully about some of the decisions, and I was worried about making the wrong call. I felt good when it turned out I’d done the right thing. So that’s great! I wonder how long the game could have kept it up? If I’d had another five or ten or twenty decisions to make, would I suspect something was up? I don’t think I would, and it would have just felt like I was an amazing decision maker.

    Obviously there is a time and a place for this (in SC2 especially because the story is a bit bleh it works since I’m not thinking about it too much or expecting too much) but I don’t have anything against it as a technique. I think it’s neat that the game ‘tricked’ me this way.

    Also, as someone said above, the text adventure Photopia is very good. I wasn’t aware that had any particular trickery either, so I might play it again with a new perspective.

    • Jimbo says:

      The question is, will it trick you when you play the next game? Or will those good decisions feel hollow because you now know what’s going on?

    • Wilson says:

      @Jimbo – Yeah, it wouldn’t work with the next two SC2 expansions. And any future choices like that where I did know what was going on might feel hollow, but it doesn’t change how I feel about the game I’ve already played. I guess I’m saying I’m fine with it as long as I don’t find out about it before the game is over. Ignorance is bliss I guess.

      Though I do think you’d have to be very very clever to make this technique work consistently in a game with a deeper story where the plot is actually important. In fact, SC2 could have stripped out the ‘plot’ and just made the game a series of barely connected choices. I would have found that much more interesting. I enjoyed the choices, and didn’t find the rest of the story very compelling.

  40. Saul says:

    @Chris D: You’re spot on– games that are structured this way are about choices of story, not right/wrong decisions. It’s not that any given decision is artificially made “right”or “good”, but that the game says ÿes” to every decision the player makes, and changes the rules of the universe to ensure the narrative continues in an interesting direction. This is the basic technique of good GMing in a tabletop RPG– never allow a player’s decision to lead them to a dead end.

    As the narrative in SC2 is quite shite, it’s not a particularly good example of how this could work, but it’s still very interesting that this is the way they’ve chosen to go. I’m not far enough through the game to have realised this is the way it was working. This kind of narrative structure is an idea I’ve been playing with myself, and one of the reasons I’m teaching myself Actionscript is to play with these kind of narrative ideas.

    Quite conversely to DigitalSignalX and other posters who feel “cheated” by understanding the narrative logic at play, I’m actually now far *more* interested in the possibility of replaying the game than I was before reading this post. If done well, I think the possibilities for this kind of structure are amazing– you could replay a game numerous times and essentially be surprised by a new story each time.

    • Tuor says:

      ‘This is the basic technique of good GMing in a tabletop RPG– never allow a player’s decision to lead them to a dead end.’

      I would hate it if my GM played this way. And if he did and wouldn’t change from it, I would stop playing in the group. It is one thing where a player makes a decision without having any information to inform him as to the possible consequences beforehand, but a good GM (or author) should provide such information if the player(s) actively seek it out and/or if they are paying attention to what is/has been going on.

      Choices ought to have consequences. For less important choices, the consequences can be pretty mild, even comical. But serious choices are serious because their consequences are serious. A game with no “bad” choices is to me not worth playing.

  41. Sardaukar says:

    I’m glad Blizzard did this. I’ll replay the game more willingly now, because I know the choices are not the usual bland Good/Bad that you get in a lot of popular RPG’s these days. One poster mentioned The Witcher, which is a great example of why this system works.

    I enjoyed Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc, but I never felt like I was the hero. I was an actor. I knew that my choices had static outcomes that were two sides of a coin- good, bad. I didn’t really care about the decisions like I should have, because I knew that while I wanted Situation A, if I wanted to get the most out of the game I’d need to choose Good or Evil and stick with it. My decisions were not about influencing the story, they were about deciding which cutscene I’d see at the end, because that’s all they really amounted to in the end.

    In The Witcher and now in StarCraft 2 (and also recently in Infinite Space) my choices were actual choices. They were not Right or Wrong, Good or Evil, Ending A or Ending B. They were what I wanted. The story adapted to make them work. That’s what storytelling is. When I chose to save the colonists, I did it with my usual thought process from playing so many BioWare RPG’s- I didn’t think “what would I want to do?”; I thought “okay, let’s do the Good Guy thing.”- and no amount of dressing would make it anything but the good choice. A great writer can pile on little twists, but smart gamers will cut through them with a few minutes of extra thought. Now that I’ve learned that Blizzard broke from this boring trend of +/- plot direction, I’m eager to replay the campaign because in all honesty I’d rather help the Protoss, now that I know the story is going to punish me with arbitrary lost opportunities/difficulties because of what I wanted.

    Also, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, I like how Blizzard handled Kerrigan. The protagonists are told halfway through the story that they have to do X to win in the end, but everything leading up to the finale seems to fly in the face of what they were told. If they apply the phlebotinum to her, she’ll presumably lose the things which qualify her as savior, so I assume most gamers expected some twist, betrayal, lie about what the phlebotinum would do or a failure to apply it. No, actually, surprise, it works. We actually do what we’d think was dooming the universe. As the audience, we know this plot has to resolve in a victory somehow, in the very end, and that’s made this event and the prospect of how it unfolds in Heart of the Swarm interesting.

    • Sardaukar says:

      Argh, one can proofread a post once or twice, hit post, and only after this- and always instantly- spot a simple error that changes the meaning of something.

      “now that I know the story isN’T* going to punish me with arbitrary lost opportunities/difficulties because of what I wanted.”"

    • cjlr says:

      @Sardaukar

      I don’t really see how that’s the point under discussion.

      We’re not talking about whether choices are good or bad or whatever. It’s whether it’s possible to make the wrong choice. That’s my understanding.

      I mean, almost all choices in gaming are stupid. To shoehorn a demented dichromatic morality rigamarole is stupid. It’s all about the cost/benefit, whether measured in material gain or against your [character's] moral compass.

      It’s been a while since I played the Witcher, but I played it a number of times. I remember (either Act II or Act III) where you’re investigating a bunch of stuff… It’s really not the same situation. The guilty party is always the same – how you get around to finding that out can be radically different. And in the finale, it’s not as if whichever faction you join is revealed as saints and your opponents as jackals, they’re all grey on grey no matter who you join. The rough plot structure is the same, but you react to the world – the world doesn’t react to you (well, it does, but it doesn’t rewrite its own history for your silly narrative’s sake…)

  42. A-Scale says:

    I don’t mean to insult, but what was your point here regarding SC2? I might have missed the main point, but it seems like you just announce a technique that SC2 uses (choices), note how they cant let you screw up too much, and then go on to discuss an unrelated game and unrelated technique. The article ends there. What is the conclusion here?

  43. cjlr says:

    @Saul
    “It’s not that any given decision is artificially made “right”or “good”, but that the game says ÿes” to every decision the player makes, and changes the rules of the universe to ensure the narrative continues”

    I think that’s where people disagree. I just don’t like the feel of that, for lack of a better word. Remember Galatea, hivemind? There was a thing that annoyed me similarly. Anything more than cursory examination reveals that the world contorts itself to match your actions – and reality doesn’t work like that. Of course fiction isn’t reality, but it should feel similar.

    But regarding a tabletop RPG – I’ve had tons of fun trying to dig the party out of a hole we got ourselves stuck in. A good GM adds that extra step of, instead of having the player’s choice always be more or less correct, allowing for bad decisions – but never letting the consequences of failure be insoluble (most of the time).

    I mean, in almost all fiction and storytelling we “know” that the good guys will win, but we don’t KNOW that. I’m not sure how to express this thought. Even if we accept the convention that good guys win a good story will make it feel like they might not.

    But because this is a video game I suppose we are back to two views again. I think while playing people are primarily thinking either, “hmm, how will this shape the story“, or, “oh shit, did I make the right decision there?”. The former perspective can remain interesting amid the smoke and mirrors of SC2, but there is only ever one answer to the latter question. That just kinda bothers me.

    • Saul says:

      @cjlr: I’m not saying that the outcome of every choice should be that “the player wins!”, just that it should lead the story in an interesting direction, one that doesn’t make the player say “oh, that was the wrong choice, I’m going to reload”. If distorting the “reality” of the game world helps with that, then I’m all for it. This is something that games can do in a way that is impossible in most media, and I think if people are involved enough in a game as a story (rather than as a simulation), then that the game “cheated” will become less of an issue. If it cheats you into an awesome experience, then where’s the problem?

      Again, I’m not saying SC2 is a great example of this, just a signpost on the road to something more interesting.

    • Chris D says:

      I think part of the problem is that we’re just not used to this kind of thing in games.

      In one sense playing a game means something like football or chess, a challenge to be overcome or an opponent to be beaten. But playing a game can also mean “Lets pretend to be spacemen, or cowboys, or Mutant Ninja Turtles!”. Most video games combine both senses to some extent but tend to lean more towards the challenge side. We become used to this so we expect everything in a game to be a challenge.

      Where SC2 seems to be different is that it alternates between the two. The battles are a challenge but the story is actually a game in sense two. If we were expecting another challenge we’ll feel cheated when it’s revealed that both choices were “right”. The same would happen if we read a novel thinking it was a factual account or if we saw a stage magician and thought it was real magic. We’re familar enough with these that it tends not to happen. On the other hand our experience with games leads us to expect a challenge all the time so we’re more likely to have false expectations when it’s not.

      I think in one respect Kieron’s original post was wrong in that knowing how this works doesn’t actually spoil the trick but allows us to appreciate it for what it is, a good trick as opposed to fake magic.

      This is still a storytelling technique I’d like to see explored in games, although probably it needs to be signposted more clearly until we get used to the idea.

    • cjlr says:

      I wasn’t really thinking that way, but it’s a good point… Making it impossible to ‘game’ the system, as it were. That’s good, and I’d agree. The Witcher sort of does this by burying consequences, and Obisidian seem to try to do the same. Bioware, alas, tend towards immediate effects, or at least very heavily telegraphed ones, to say nothing of Bethesda.

      But then, we’re left with the issue of the storyworld’s immutability. It’s not exactly cheating to warp things so, but at the same time, I don’t like it. Yes, it can be effective. Of course! And especially the first time around… Maybe the developer has thought of good alternatives for the choices, maybe they all form a reasonably solid narrative, but I think the disagreement is this –

      If I replay a game I want the opportunity to make that different choice in the same situation. I don’t want the situation to have become having been changed because of it.. (also, how the hell do you conjugate a knot like that? Where’s Dr Streetmentioner when you need him…). I want to see multiple routes out of one scenario (and no idiotic pseudo-moral dichotomy, please); I’m less enthusiastic about (though I see the potential and potential advantage of) seeing multiple routes out of (disguised) multiple scenarios.

    • Saul says:

      @Chris D: Well expressed. Games have many aspects. While I often enjoy the challenge aspect of games, I’ve always been more interested in the possibilities of narrative that the interactive form allows. The Japanese focus on this side of things with their “interactive fiction”, although by all accounts it is fairly limited. Other kinds of games try to combine narrative and challenge, but the way they do it is almost always linear– you attempt a challenge, and if you fail you are dead, and must try again.

      Even RPGs generally fall into this pattern, as most of their challenges are combat-based. Combat is a good challenge for linear games, because there are only really two possible outcomes– survival, which continues the narrative, and death, which cuts it short.

      What I’d ultimately like to see are narrative games where challenges still exist, but failing them doesn’t result in a “game over” screen, instead it spins the story off in a different direction. This kind of game would suit challenges other than combat, which would be grand.

      @cjlr: I understand your preference and why you have it. I personally think both “static world” games and “flexible world” games have the potential to be equally interesting, depending how they are presented. There’s room for both, but not many people have yet attempted the latter, and I’d very much like to see more of it.

    • cjlr says:

      @Chris:
      Your post appeared while I was writing mine…

      It’s not that I dislike the approach because of a lack of challenge; never did it enter my mind that it was about the ability or lack thereof to make the ‘right’ choice. There’s never a right choice in reality! Under a narrative focus that should never be the situation at hand – but anyway. You mentioned the roleplaying (dare I say roleplaying? there’s a word that’s lost its meaning in games) aspect. It’s the play approach, the improv approach – just run with everything, because it’s all good. Sure, but in the game it’s like the computer/writer is allowed to improv, and you as agent are not – you’re still only reactive. Maybe a wider variety of responses would alleviate that feeling somewhat.

      @Saul:
      “What I’d ultimately like to see are narrative games where challenges still exist, but failing them doesn’t result in a “game over” screen, instead it spins the story off in a different direction. This kind of game would suit challenges other than combat, which would be grand.”

      Hey, that’s just what I want too! I also echo your desire to see a different approach attempted. I mean, we don’t know anything ’till we try. I’d rather have a character reacting to a world rather than vice versa, but I don’t even really have that much of a preference – it’s like preferring an ale to a lager. The really important thing is execution. And here, Starcraft 2 fails, because there’s never a ‘sub-optimal’ outcome – at least, there never appears to be.

    • Saul says:

      @cjlr: It seems we agree, then. I guess the last point I want to bring up is one of resources, a perenniel problem for developers. Games which give you a lot of “true” decisions are going to end up with an exponential amount of content, of which most players will only see a small percentage. 3D graphics are expensive to produce, and only getting more so. Therefore RPGs where the story pretty much carries on according to plan, no matter what decisions the player makes.

      What a mutable world allows is the possibility of using the same models, locations etc for wholly different purposes, depending on choice. The player makes a decision that means they will never meet character A? Use the model for character B. They end up meeting character A eventually, anyway? Use character C’s model. Or, you know, put a different head on the body. Re-use a house fromone story branch for a quite different purpose in another. I’m only starting to think about the implications of this, but it’s something I’d be interested to experiement with and see others experiment with.

  44. Lipwig says:

    At which point;

  45. Al3xand3r says:

    So it’s innovative because it has the Bioware style non-choice shit that always have the same outcome?

    • Sardaukar says:

      Because the outcomes are different and the game changes the supporting facts to suit them.

  46. paganite says:

    Starcraft 2 has a great story that only artfags could complain about.

    • Saul says:

      The story is mediocre, but I don’t think that’s what puts most people off. It’s the utter un-likeability of the characters that really grates on me, to the point where it’s put me off playing it. If that makes me an artfag, then so be it! Artfags unite!

    • Nick says:

      I had to give up artfags, they gave me Paul Lung cancer.

    • bildo says:

      It’s an RTS. The characters honestly don’t mean anything. Just about every lead role in a videogame which has a focus on characters is somewhat cliched. JRPGs (a hero looking to find meaning or fight for a cause), FPS (some super human), MMO (a blank character which represents you), etc.

      RTS is a genre that has never really tried to focus on the characters this much before. You can say C&C did it, but that was hardly to be taken seriously. Blizzard tried to focus on the core characters. You can say it was mediocre or whatever, however, to my knowledge, not many RTS devs have gone so far to get the guy making the choices on the battlefield so involved in their characters, cliche or not. No need to get uppity because this-is-Blizzard-and-they-have-a-load-of-money-so-everything-should-be-perfect. Over all, the characters weren’t that bad, the voice acting was good, the writing was okay and the gameplay solid. What more could you ask for than solid gameplay?

  47. drewski says:

    I think my problem with this kind of storytelling is that once you’re aware of the reality of the storyline, your ability to exercise choice is rendered meaningless. It doesn’t matter which button you press, you’re always right.

    For me, the whole point of interactive gaming (as opposed to non-interactive mediums) is that my choice matters. If I kill this guy or that guy, I have a chance of being wrong. Obviously not all games pay attention to this, but at least others are generally honest about railroading you. The thing that bugs me about Starcraft II’s storytelling is that it pretends it isn’t railroading you, but it actually is. It’s the same as Deus Ex – it’s the transparency of the illusion of choice that negates the entire story construct to me. Once I realise nothing I do has a genuine effect, I stop caring what I do.

    • FluffyPanda says:

      I feel a lot of people are missing the point that Kieron was making. Which is odd as he made it very well indeed.

      Basically, most RPGs have decisions that carry forward. You save that orphan and he might become a dictator in the next game. You kill the kitten and the princess is so grief-struck that her father doesn’t get talked out of a silly war. Far reaching consequences.

      This is a different way. In this the decision doesn’t just carry forward, it carries backwards too. Kill Tosh and he was always planning to betray you, but now he’s gone for good. Save him and he was always loyal and going forward he will be your friend. The execution is pretty shit in SC2, but the concept is solid.

      It doesn’t negate your choice simply because both turn out to be correct. In Dragon Age killing or saving an NPC might both be equally good options (he’s evil and deserves to die / if he lives he achieves some good act). The choice has consequences, but neither is particularly negative. In SC2 the consequences are simply slightly different: they operate on the characters and world in ways that most other games don’t. That evil dragon age NPC is evil. The character in SC2 might be evil or good, depending on your choices.

      Again, it wasn’t well done in SC2 by any means, but I wouldn’t have felt at all cheated if in Deus Ex Paul could have been an evil traitor or a good freedom fighter depending on your actions.

  48. fishyjoes says:

    This is why I read RPS. Thank you Kieron.

    I actually saved the game right when the dicision came up, played the set of missions for Options A, loaded and played Option B.

  49. half says:

    I’ll readily agree that SC2s storyline sucked, but I don’t see why this is a contributing factor.

    Its actually a far more coherent tactic then the ones used in ME2 and other Bioware games. This “Illusion of choice” causes any choice you make to be able to be realigned with the core story they’re setting up. In Bioware games, a far more jarring approach is taken. Your choices simply do not matter, and have no lasting consequences beyond the fact that it happened.

  50. MinisterofDOOM says:

    This is an EXCELLENT point. And goes right along with one of my big rants with games storytelling right now. At the moment, everyone’s worried about letting the player “make choices” when playing games. More often than not, there’s a “good way” and a “bad way” to play a game. And in those cases, nearly EVERY TIME, the player finds that, even if being “evil” is more fun, it often comes at the cost of opportunities. Developers still haven’t figured out how to balance the results of those choices on a macro scale. Sure, there’s cost-vs-reward at the individual decision level. But I’ve yet to play a single game that is just as rewarding (not with the same rewards, but with EQUIVALENT rewards–or costs!) EITHER WAY you play it.
    Fallout 3 is great fun for sadists. But being evil often gets in the way of story progress more than it helps, despite all the sneaky, cheaty, unscrupulous bonuses offered in return. When you play the evil route you’re left searching out alternatives to things “good” players can do without a second thought.
    Or take Oblivion, which lets you become a master thief but only sell stolen goods to certain people. WHY are you PUNISHING me for making a decision?
    It almost feels like games writers are afraid gamers will forget that being evil is…bad…if they don’t constantly remind us through neat-sounding but critically limited evil powers.

    In most games, when I’m asked to make a decision, my choice is based upon which choice offers the best mechanical gameplay benefits. In SC2, at least a couple of choices were based on me wanting to see the story go a certain way. It’s the latter we should be pursuing: players forgetting about the underlying math in favor of the story that’s unfolding.
    I don’t NEED to have a certain answer as to where each choice leads. In fact, the impact of the results of the decision can be MUCH stronger if I do NOT already know. Out in the “real world” no one makes “bad” decisions intentionally. You make them because you aren’t sure what the good decision is. And if you can make the player feel like that while exploring your game’s story, you’ve done something special.

    We need to stop making it about good and evil or right and wrong and start making it about choice A or choice B. Telling the player which option leads down the “good rewards” path undermines the purpose of the choice.