The Paradox of Choice: A story about games and storytelling

“Video games, however, can ask that we experience not only empathy but agency too. You don’t just feel with characters, you feel through them. You bind yourself to them and become temporarily responsible for their life onscreen. Whatever happens, you’re in it together.” — Tevis Thompson, Half-Lives: The Walking Dead: 400 Days, Sorcery!, and Depression Quest

The Paradox of ChoiceI find myself searching for ways to articulate the essential elements of storytelling within games and other interactive systems to my students, but it can be difficult.

Too often I find myself falling back on the mechanics of the game, e.g. the player must choose A or B before proceeding, instead of explaining the underlying process for telling a story or arguing why those processes matter for how you tell a story.

A few months ago, Tevis Thompson, designer of these wonderful gaming corner desks, wrote this story on Grantland that did an excellent job explaining just why storytelling — and not mechanics — are what make great interactive stories.

This piece reminded me of a conversation we had with Richard Garriott as he was developing the original version of Tabula Rasa (before it was gutted and transformed into something nearly unrecognizable.)

His goal with massively-multiplayer worlds was two-fold: create a unique experience for individuals who wanted to experience an adventure and give players who wanted something else the ability to create their own experiences. While he clearly wanted players to have the ability to latter, Richard was most interested in the storytelling aspect of the former.

These dual ideas, creating a story-driven experience and allowing players do experience other adventures, is at the heart of the interactive game world. However, they aren’t actually inter-related. The storytelling of the individual experience has little to do with the “freedom” experience, and understanding that has helped me articulate what I find compelling about interactive stories.

What made Myst so great

When I think back to the best storytelling in a game, I always return to Myst, which was the first computer game that I remember non-gamers talking about in the same language that computer gamers normally talked about gaming. People who played Myst were effusive in their descriptions.

The first time my then roommate Jeff described it to me, though, I had little interest in playing. It sounded dreadfully boring. You weren’t fighting anybody. You weren’t running away from anything. You’d simply been given two books, which revealed certain aspects of the game’s story as you unlocked a variety of puzzles on these worlds.

The action took place entirely within your mind, and the game essentially had one decision, which came at the end of the story. Once at the end, you either chose poorly

or you chose well:

You spend days and days wandering these various worlds just so you could make 1 decision, which was hardly the kind of action and adventure I’d come to expect from my game play.

The Paradox of Choice

Myst was a massive success, bringing in an audience that spread far beyond the traditional game playing crew. The argument was that it’s attention to detail and its lack of violence-as-game-construct made it more available to audiences who then found the Myst world entertaining and engrossing.

I never quite bought that argument entirely because there were certainly other games built around exploration and puzzles that hadn’t caught on. Certainly those were factors in its success (as was its attention to visual detail at the time), but I also think that it got game storytelling right.

The reason: The story was a fixed point, which means players had almost no influence on its development. The player determined how it navigated the story. The only impact the player had was on which ending they encountered.

Whether purposely or not, the designers understood The Paradox of Choice, which tells us that giving people ultimate freedom over a system makes it nearly impossible for people to make decisions.

The Myst story was fixed. You couldn’t change it. You could really only unlock it at very specific points in the narrative. Your actions had no real impact on what the authors wanted you to experience.

And people love it.

The Story is the Story

What I’ve come to believe about storytelling and interactive spaces is that interactivity — or player/reader choice — is a happenstance to the events of the story. Certainly in games such as Dungeons & Dragons, players must have the chance to influence internal components, e.g. choose A or B, but those components can’t actually have any real impact on the flow of the game.

Modern computer games oftentimes add up your choices to reveal an ending to you or to influence how computer-run characters interact with you, e.g. too many bad choices and you get the bad ending, but the essence of the story narrative remains unbroken.

You must know where you’re going and what kind of journey you’re giving to your players/readers. If you do that well, the interactivity they are given can become a mechanism for telling that story such as it was in Myst, when you made one substantial choice.

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This newsletter is the outgrowth of The Downtown Writers Jam podcast. What that means is I will collect information about the authors I interview, book happenings around the Web, and other literary events that I find interesting. Without you, I'm just a crazy guy sitting in his office furiously screaming on the page for no reason.
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