Choices, Consequences and the Ability to Plan
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Previously posted on the Frictional Games blog.
Say you are playing a game like The Walking Dead, or any other interactive movie, and you are faced with the choice whether or not to help someone who is hurt. You decide that you want to help the person, after which you never see them again for the rest of the game. Reloading a save and playing through the scenario you find out that if you chose not to help, the same thing plays out. Simply put: in this case, your choice really has no consequences.
While the scenario is made up, it presents a very typical situation that opinions are heavily divided on. Some people are totally okay with it for various reasons. But others will argue that this lack of consequences ruins the entire experience, as your choices doesn't really matter. It's really easy to say that people who feel this way are simply playing the game the wrong way or are not properly immersed. However, I think it's really important to investigate this reaction further as it gets us closer to some fundamental problems of narrative games.
The argument from people who get annoyed by these non-choices goes something like this: if every branch leads back to the same path, then you really don't have any say in how the game plays out. You are not playing a game, you are only pretending that you are. It's like when you are playing a split-screen game and notice you've been watching the wrong side. The feeling of play is just an illusion. Nobody would tolerate a Super Mario where a pre-written script - not the player's skill - determines whether or not they survive a jump, so why tolerate games where all choices lead to the same conclusion?
One could counter that by saying the intention is to put you into a hard position and the game is about your varied emotional reactions as you ponder the different choices. It isn't about affecting how the game plays out - it is about making an emotional journey. If you require the game to show you the consequences of your actions, you are not immersed in the game's story - you are simply trying to optimize a system. This might sometimes be the case, but I also think this line of thinking is missing what the actual problem is: the failure of the player's mental model.
Let's start by breaking down the problem. A mental model, as explained in this previous post, is how the player perceives the game's world and their role in it. As you are playing a game, you slowly build a mental model of the various objects and systems that make up the game and attach various attributes to them. At first a box might just be a piece of the background, but as you learn you can destroy it in order to gain items, attributes are added. The object gains complexity. The reverse can also happen. For instance, when you first see a character you might think that you are able to speak to it and therefore label it with various attributes you know that humans usually have. But when you find out that the character is really just a piece of the background without any sort of agency, most of those attributes are lost.
Your mental model of a game is something that is continually revised as you are playing, and it is something that always happens, no matter what the game is. In fact, this is a process that is a core part of any medium, including books and films. So, obviously, when you are playing an interactive movie game, you are not simply reacting to a direct stream of information. You are answering questions based on your mental model.
Take my "will you help your hurt companion?" scenario from above. The knowledge you take into account about that choice is not just what is currently projected at you from the TV screen. It is a combination of everything you have gone through up to this point, along with a bunch of personal knowledge and biases. Even basic concepts like "hurt" and "companion" aren't just created in this moment. They are ideas that the game has spent a lot of time building up, be that for good or bad, from the very moment you started playing.
When you are faced with the hypothetical scene of a hurt companion, you are not just dealing with an animated image on a screen. You are dealing with a whole world constructed in your mind. This is what your choice will be based around. While it might objectively seem that everyone is reacting to the same scenario, they may in fact be dealing with quite different setups.
So when someone gets annoyed by the lack of consequences, it is not necessarily the direct consequences that are missing. The issue is that they have constructed a mental around a real person in need, along with that person's future actions. So when it becomes apparent that the game doesn't simulate that as part of its own model, the player's mental model is broken and it feels like a big let down. Remember that we don't play the game that is on the screen, we the play game as we perceive it in our heads. So when it turns out that your imagined world is fake, it has a huge impact.
It gets even worse once we take into the fact that planning is fundamental to a sense of gameplay. As explained in a previous post, engaging gameplay is largely fueled by the ability to make plans. The way this works is that the player first simulates a course of action using their mental model, and then tries to execute that in the game. This is a continuous process and "planning and executing the plan" is basically the same as playing. Interactive movies normally don't have a lot of gameplay and it is really only in the choice moments that the player gets to take part in any actual play. Hence, when the choices turn out to have no consequences, it becomes clear that planning is impossible. In turn, this means that any meaningful play is impossible and the experience feels fundamentally broken.
As an example, take this experience I had with Heavy Rain:
[...] one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.
I think that people to complain the loudest about the lack of consequences are extra sensitive to situations like this. But, as I said, this is not due to lack of consequences per se, but due to the impact it has on the consistency of their mental model and sense of play. It is really important to note that this is not due to some sort of lack in immersion or ability to roleplay. On the contrary, as I have described above, many of the issues arise because they mentally simulate the game's world and characters very vividly.
So the problem that we are faced with is really not a lack of consequences. It is because the underlying systems of the game are not able to simulate the mental model for a subset of players. One way of mending this is of course to add more consequences, but that is not a sustainable solution. Additional branches increase exponentially, and it quickly becomes impossible to cover every single possible outcome. Instead it is much better to focus on crafting more robust mental models. Sure, this might entail adding consequences to choices, but that is just a possible solution - it is not the end goal.
As I outlined in the previous blog on the SSM framework it is incredibly important to keep track of how systems and story help form a mental model in the player's mind. For instance, if you start your game saying "your actions will have consequences", that will immediately start filling up your player's imagination with all sort of ideas and concepts. Even how pre-release PR is presented can affect this. All of these then become things that lay groundwork for how the game is modeled in the player's head and it is vitally important to make sure this mental model remains stable over the course of the game.
One of the main things to have in mind is consistency. Remember that as someone is playing a game, they are building up a mental simulation for how things are supposed to work. If you provide information that certain events are possible when they are in fact not, you are running the risk of breaking the player's mental model. You either need to remove this sort of information or to make sure that they never take part in situations where these sort of events feel like a valid option.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind is the ability to plan. A major reason why the lack of consequences can feel so bad is because these consequences were part of the player's gameplay plans. So when it becomes apparent that they don't exist, the whole concept of play breaks down. In all fairness, this might be OK for certain genres. If the goal is to simply to make an interactive movie, then losing a subset of player might be fair. But if the goal is to make proper interactive storytelling, then this is of paramount importance - planning must be part of the core experience.
That doesn't mean that every choice is something the player needs to base their plans on. But in that case then there need to be other things that lie on a similar time scale and which are possible to predict and incorporate into plans. I think that one way around this problem is to have a more system-focused feature that runs alongside the more fuzzy narrative choices. When the players make choices, their mental model will have the best predictive skills around this more abstract system, and play revolves mostly around this. Then when more narrative choices are presented they will feel more game-like and part of the a solid simulation, despite not really having any consequences.
A simple and good example is the choices you have to make in Papers, Please. This game is driven by a type of survival simulation where you need to gain credits (though doing proper passport check) in order to keep your family live. Entwined into this are choices about who you will allow into the country. Many of these don't have any far reaching consequences, but that that doesn't really matter because your ability to plan is still satisfied. But despite that, these choices still feel interesting and can have an emotional effect.
This sort of approach relies on combining several elements in order to produce the feeling of something that might not actually be there. This is something that is used in a wide range of applications, from how we view images on a TV, to how films can create drama through cuts. We don't always have to have solve problems straight on, but often the best way is to split the problem into many and to solve each problem on its own. The combined effect will then seem like a solution to the original problem. This is a technique that is super important for not just this, but many other narrative problems. I will write a blog post later on that goes into more details.
Once you have a game that is consistent and that has some sort of planning apart from the more narrative choices, the probability of satisfying the people will be greatly improved. And not only that, your narrative experience will improve over all, for all players, not just a subset. In this case I think it is fair to view these extra sensitive people as canaries in a cave, something that is first to react on a much bigger issue.
This blog post by no means presents the solution to end all problems with choices and consequences. But hopefully it will give a new way of thinking about the problem and some basic directions for finding a solution. I don't think we will ever find a perfect way of dealing with choices, but the better informed we are at underlying causes, the better experiences we can provide.