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Failbetter's Kennedy: Good game story is like a well-mixed cocktail

March 16, 2016 | By Chris Baker

March 16, 2016 | By Chris Baker
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More: Design, Video, GDC



"I think a good well-crafted interactive narrative has lots in common with well-mixed cocktail," said Alexis Kennedy, co-founder and creative director of Failbetter Games, at the outset of his GDC talk "Choice, Consequence, and Complicity." To his mind, the "mixological resonance" is that game stories and mixed drinks both require theme, vivid flavor, known ingredients, and an emphasis on quality over quantity.

To prove his point, Kennedy demonstrated an example of player choice to the audience. He described the contents of two classic cocktails--the Blood & Sand and the Smoke & Mirrors. He asked the audience to vote with their applause on which sounded preferable. Then he produced a shaker and all the necessary ingredients, and mixed up a glass of the winner, and toasted the audience.

After toasting the audience and taking a swig, Kennedy shared insights from his work presenting players with meaningful and engaging choices in games like Sunless Sea and Fallen London.

"Players crave attention and self-expression," he said. "If players feel a game is paying attention to them, that is the most effective thing you can do to engage their enthusiasm."

When thinking about choices the player makes, he feels it's important to think not just about the explicit content of those choices, but the context and the underlying motifs. "You can only fit so much story into their brain when giving them a choice," Kennedy said. "You want to find choices that comment on, elaborate on, and annotate the theme of the game."

Kennedy adds that it's important to ask yourself if the choice you're asking the player to make could be explained in a single sentence. For example, he observes that it's well-nigh impossible to keep track of the various factions in Witcher 2. "But throw me a sword and tell me to decide who to fight for, and I’ll make that decision."

Kennedy advises a "show don't tell" approach to choices. "Don't let them choose an emotional state, but the physical enactment of that state." For instance, if they are invited to the palace, don't give them the option of replying with pride or scornfulness. Let them choose to dash off a reply at once, or labor over  a response, or put off sending a response. The player will fill in the appropriate emotion to accompany the action themselves.

He feels that it's important to be sparing with choice points, and make sure that the player understands when some outcome is a consequence of their earlier decisions. "The more that's happening, the less the player notices," says Kennedy. "And if a player doesn't notice that something was a consequence, it wasn't actually a consequence. It doesn’t happen for them."

He advises game makers to create choices that have real consequences that players must live with...but that don't eat up all of your time and budget creating content for every eventuality. "You can feed the hunger of choice-based narrative just with brute force," he says. "But that’s expensive, it’s not the most interesting thing to do, and players don’t always appreciate it."

There are less costly ways to insert powerful choice points. For instance, in Failbetter's Sunless Sea, the player can choose to enter a mystery cult, kneel to be beheaded, and have their body hollowed out and occupied by a mysterious thing that pretends to be them for the rest of the game. The game plays out normally afterwards, but the player's perception of the gameplay experience is deeply altered:

You will leave the chapel in the shape of the captain, and take your place aboard the captain's ship. No one will ever know. The differences will be invisible. Perhaps one day a sweetheart will trace the scar around your neck and ask laughingly, were you once beheaded? And you will shrug and answer, "Only once."



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