Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

Choices in the context of context


I’ve written a few times already about my new, novelette-length choice-based story built in Undum. The project began life as technical experiment – a quick attempt (a bit like this one) to “do” a text-game as a multiple choice adventure. The concept was simple: the game would have locations, and objects, but streamline the usual breadth of Interactive Fiction’s parser down to just the choices that mattered for the story.

It didn’t work and I had to change the design. But I learnt a lot in the process.

The game, No Space to Breathe, starts off in a corridor, outside a room, with a guard. (Guess the source game, if you like.) You had four options: look at your possessions, examine the guard, talk to the guard, open the door and go inside. Choosing to talk would bring up more choices; looking at what you’re carrying would bring up the option to read one or other of two documents; and alongside was the option to go back up a level (“Do something else”).

And so on. Opening doors, picking things up, using them, and all the while, the option to examine things, over and over again.

I wrote about a quarter of the game this way before the – surely obvious conclusion – hit me, that it was a terrible, terrible structure for a game. It played horrendously. The problems were manifold:

  • If there was an option I wanted to take, it wasn’t always clear what submenu to find it on
  • If there wasn’t an option available, it felt weirdly like there was a gap
  • If I took an option (examine the guard), then went back up to the same menu, the same choice was there again, as if I’d never taken it
  • If an option was listed but turned out to be unimportant, it felt strange that it had been there – and doubly strange that it was still there later
  • It was easy to forget what menu level you were on, and indeed, you didn’t really care. The result was, it became difficult to move the game forward

One could group all these problems together under a single banner: the interface made the game look static and stupid, and like it had no idea what was going on.

But the effect is even worse than that. The problem is, during the first few moves of a game when a player is getting themselves orientated, they tend not think “this game is stupid”. They’re more likely to think that there’s system, but they’re just not getting it. An interface like this one – an unintelligent, static one, with all the options listed all the time, is more than clunky; it’s actively misleading.

Because the choices provided by a game – or by any UI system at all – are more than just the sum of their names and icons and positioning. They’re also affected by their content – which is to say, the meaning the player assumes a choice to have will depend, at least in part, on the other choices offered alongside.

Which is to say, people expect a choice to be a choice.

Maybe this is obvious. It’s certainly true that any choices you might think of in real life are selections between vying alternatives. From buying a chocolate bar to picking a dentist, or selecting which tool to use on a filling, whenever we think of a choice we think of alternatives that exist on a par with one another.

The problem with my text-game-as-clicking-buttons was that the choices, placed side-by-side, became suddenly, and spontaneously, absurd.

The king rolls the die in his hand, thoughtfully.

  • Talk to the king
  • Examine my possessions
  • Pet the dog

So. I rewrote the game, trying to bring all the choices into line with one another. Gone was the ability to click a link more than once; gone was the ability to research freely. Gone was unchecked navigation, conversations that could be dipped in and out of at will. The result? Not just a less confusing game. Not just a less broken game.

What I got in return was a game with a stronger sense of place.

Imagine the scene:

  • Drink the coffee
  • Read the newspaper
  • Listen to the radio

Compare that with:

  • Drink the coffee
  • Go to the garden
  • Check your email

There’s nothing wrong with either set at first glance, right? But of the two, the first creates a sense of place; the choices bind each other together into a general sense of morning-breakfastness. They add up to more than their sum: despite the player only being able to click one, having the three on offer actually improves the story.

By contrast, the second set has no inter-association. It’s hard to remember the choices once you’ve read them; they don’t fit together. They don’t characterise the protagonist, his location or state of mind. (Or worse, maybe you find yourself creating explanations when reading them. Perhaps the character is a procrastinating writer, or a job candidate, waiting for the phone to ring?)

Now, in case you think this is a problem peculiar to text-games, have a think about LA Noire. I’ve written before about the weird interrogation mechanic –  three choices: Truth, Doubt or Lie. The game tells me I should decide based on the body-language and facial expressions of the NPC – except if I want to call a Lie, in which case I’m supposed to decide on the basis of the evidence I’ve collected.

The reason I get this wrong, and forget how the game works, is exactly one of context. Truth and Doubt are alternatives designed for me to decide what I think about the character. Truth and Lie are there so I can sift the evidence. The distinctions are pretty clear, but as soon as the three are available at the same time I start wondering, again, what the difference between Doubt and Lie is, and a smooth, simplistic interface becomes cluttered and confusing.

The choices we produce in a game are the player’s only way in to affect the protagonist, but they’re also a crucial way for things to come out too. Choices represent the bits of the game we’re putting in the player’s mind for them to turn over and think about. However good your graphics engine or your sizzling prose, the choices themselves will be the most real part of the experience.

And like any other part of a piece of writing, the choices represent an opportunity to add value or damage your work. So whatever we do, we shouldn’t let them be decided by algorithm or a static tree. We need to craft them as carefully as we would craft the words themselves.

(Postscript: The only alternative is to make our choices invisible, the way a console joystick does, the way parser IF does, the way keyboard shortcuts in a word-processor do. Richness of experience goes up, accessibility goes down.)


Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

16 thoughts on “Choices in the context of context

  1. Have you seen The Adventures of Pheobe McGee, by chance? I think it’s something of a first draft, and it has its flaws, but I was impressed by the way it used a choice-based format to create a model world with a map. It felt like it had rooms and objects to examine (and it did have an inventory, though if I remember you couldn’t do that much with it).

    (My guess for the source game: Spider and Web, from the point of view of ‘with.)

    • I had seen Phoebe. I thought it was interesting, but not quite there yet (but I didn’t get far enough in, maybe, to really become hooked). But in what I saw I thought they did a good job of trying to give you that broad control while still maintaining a sense of context.

      As for the game – good guess, but I’m adapting one of my own, I’m afraid. (It’s not so much of a technical exercise that I would forgo the liberty of changing the plot!)

      • Oh. All Roads then?

        I agree about Phoebe being not quite there yet; I hope he keeps working on it. I get the idea that he thought it was sort of a middle-sized project and it turned out to be more complicated than anything else on chooseyourstory. Anyway, I think it works as a proof of concept, that you can use this structure to do something IF-like in a choice-based format.

  2. In my experience, multiple-choice games in Undum/ChoiceScript are even stronger when they avoid IF-like objects and locations, preferring to leap directly to dramatic choices in context. Do you kill your enemy or offer mercy? Divorce your spouse or cheat? Save the world, or end it?

    • I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been working in console games too long already, but I find this kind of choice can be a little distancing from the heart and mind of the story. If I’m going to cheat on my spouse in a game, I want to buy every drink and pick every sleazy line, and if I’m going to file divorce papers, I want to decide if they’re sent over with a wad of money or wrapped around a brick.

      Huh. Though that said, none of my examples there have anything to do with IF-like objects and locations. Perhaps there’s a “middle way”, where the interaction is moment-to-moment but the choice is textured and varied and deep.

      Nice blog post, BTW. I disagree with point 1 (!), but I think point 2 – the player should have some basis to make a decision – is absolutely critical and nearly always overlooked in favour of making choices that seem more exciting, sensational or extreme. It’s something LA Noire does really well by making choice into challenge; and something Mass Effect 2, for me, fell down on completely.

      • Moment -to-moment interactions can definitely be a good thing, but, yeah, I don’t recommend using objects and locations for them.

        Rule 1 (“Every option should have real consequences”) is really about skipping the boring stuff. If you can make a “coffee vs. newspaper” decision interesting, then that’s great. But a mundane decision like that starts at a disadvantage; you have to work to make it cool.

        Exploring a house of rooms has the same problem; it’s boring by default. If you put a lot of heart into it, you can make the kitchen interesting (I loved exploring the kitchen in Blue Lacuna), but they’re usually/mostly just simulationist filler. Houses have to have kitchens, so we put in a kitchen, even if the kitchen isn’t relevant to the story we’re trying to tell.

      • Well, it can be boring, or it can be a pacing mechanism. One thing I did like about Phoebe McGee was that it gave you the chance to explore things in a leisurely way before getting into the main part of the story.

        One potential issue with every choice having consequences can be that the most important choices don’t stand out. The only one of your games I’ve played has been Choice of the Dragon, and while I’d like to play it again, I did have the issue that none of the choices seemed particularly momentous or climactic to me that I can remember. (It may just have been that I was pretty mediocre at accomplishing my goals.)

      • Actually I have a better example — I’ve just played through the first act of Christine Love’s “Don’t Take It Personal,” in two sessions, and I didn’t even hit any momentous choices in my first session. Most of the interactions were just choices about what text to read then (I think; there might have been some times where I elicited some flavor conversation by clicking on a character). Then when I got to the choices that — I assume — make a difference, they stood out more because of the long buildup.

      • @matt w Do you think it’s good or bad that the momentous choices were so rare? Or just different?

        My model is still Alter Ego which has perhaps the same problem: every choice is pretty cool, so it lacks major plot events.

        Still, IMO, even “mundane” choices aren’t best represented by objects and locations. Let’s say your action story-game is too action-packed; you want to fix it by adding tension between the action. So you add a scene where you’re waiting for a phone call from the kidnappers, and ask the player whether to read the newspaper, have some coffee, or turn on the TV while waiting. That’s a great example of a mundane choice with tension; it highlights how powerless you are while waiting for the phone call.

        But that mundane question is best asked directly: “Read the newspaper? Drink some coffee? Watch some TV?” Don’t ask me whether I want to go to the kitchen (where there’s coffee and a newspaper) or the living room (where there’s a TV and a sofa).

        In other words: exploring is a particularly bad way to manage pacing, because it gives the player too much control over stuff that doesn’t matter. The multiple-choice format frees us not just from the parser, but also from exploration and puzzles as the gatekeepers of story. In a well-written CYOA, the author manages the pacing, not the player, and for once, that’s a good thing.

      • I agree. After a long period writing parser-IF, the reason I keep coming back to multiple-choice stuff instead is that sense of offering value-for-money to a player: every choice is, if not significant or dramatic in itself, at least *worth* something; it has a reason to be there, and it reflects the pacing of the current scene – tense, carefree, whatever it may be.

        Of course, people into parser-IF – myself included! – would tell you that a text-game doesn’t have that much tedious wandering between rooms, because once you’re accustomed to the system you don’t really notice that aspect of the interface; it becomes invisible, in the same way that wandering around a 3D world in a console game doesn’t feel like making a choice. (And goes unnoticed, except if you’re someone who can’t work the camera properly, in which case it’s a show-stopper).

        And there are things choice-based stories can’t do; like puzzles, or sudden moments of insight. I still haven’t seen a choice game do a puzzle well, if only because most puzzles need the ability to toy around with something, and choice-based stuff isn’t good at that. (Though I do now feel the need to link to Kingdom Without End, which was brilliant.)

      • @Dan: “@matt w Do you think it’s good or bad that the momentous choices were so rare? Or just different?”

        Oh, definitely just different. It’s something I’ve appreciated in the game so far, but it’s only one possible style. (It’d be pretty hubristic for me to tell you how to write choice-based narrative, anyway.) And it may be important that it’s just the opening; a matter of easing me into the game, perhaps. (Though I’m not necessarily expecting tons of choices, since I think this is partly about the PC observing everyone else.)

        And I did have a similar problem when I started Alter Ego — the choices seemed a little undifferentiated (and didn’t have much buildup) so I didn’t find them very engaging.

        @jon: Man, wandering around lots of rooms often drives me crazy. Particularly when you start off with fourteen rooms available and you have to wander around looking for the one item that will do something in one room and then cart them back and forth. In fact, one of the things I liked about Phoebe McGee was that you could just wander around to investigate the environment (and that this was an in-character thing to do), because the choices told you pretty clearly what you could and couldn’t do in any given place. –Though the environment really got in the way at the end, when I blew a timed challenge while trying to navigate the lighthouse (partly that the timer was too strict, also I think I might not have explored it enough before the timer started to know my way around).

        (FWIW, I also have a lot of trouble with the camera in many 3D games, though I’ve only tried a few Unity games and Lugaru. I stopped listening to Jon Blow about IF when he claimed that fumbling with the interface was integral to parsers but not to FPSes.)

        The best puzzle that I’ve seen in a CBN is in Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile — a book, not a game — which is kind of a big optimization puzzle, which isn’t that innovative in itself (lots of CYOAs do try-and-die puzzles), but has a couple of nicely implemented password puzzle within it, where you enter the symbols one at a time. Not that password puzzles are any great innovation (though figuring out how to snoop for the password is nicely done). Still, that’s one decent puzzle. (But it might not work in a computer, where you’d have to click a character, have a new set of characters come up, click that…)

        Kingdom without end: “requires TextRun.​exe” 😦 Do you know if there’s a Mac port?

      • Re: Kingdom Without End — after mentioning this in a comment, I got to wondering if there was a playable version out there somewhere – I remember that someone once converted this and the other TextRun games to TADS 2 format. I couldn’t find those, but I did write a quick Perl script to turn KWE into Inform 7, to use with Edward Griffith’s Adventure Book extension, the result of which is a Quixe-compatible version.

        Since the game is available on the archive, I’m going to assume the author doesn’t mind me posting this, but if anyone knows how to contact Shannon Cochran that would be awesome. This game deserves to be hosted somewhere properly: it’s excellent, and really uses the multi-choice structure to remarkable effect.

  3. drilling down on LA Noire, note that “truth, doubt, lie” aren’t even the same sort of things..

    your suggestion that “doubt” and “lie” are both opposed to “truth” suggested to me an ‘interface’ that puts truth in the middle between the other two, and I was trying to find some single continuum that all three would lie along that would match that, and failed.

    but this led me to think changing “lie” to something that suggests “i have evidence that disproves this”, and in thinking about that realized that the existing three things aren’t even the same, and that simply making them the same might possibly help LA noire…

    i.e. revise “truth, doubt, lie” to something like “believe, doubt, contradict” or “believe, doubt, disprove”.

    (note, I haven’t played LA Noire, so I can’t guess whether this would really help)

    • I’d say it’s just a 2D choice – Truth/Lie -> Evidence/Suspicion. (Or a 1-and-a-half-D, since truth is truth). So first you pick your feeling about what’s been said, and then you decide if it’s a hunch or you can back it up.
      The crazy thing about LA Noire is this is exactly what the game does, in a way: once you’ve selected Lie, you then have to select the evidence to disprove it with. So on each question, first you read your notebook, choose a piece of countering evidence, go back out of the notebook, select Lie, go back into the notebook and pick the thing you decided on already earlier…. it’s a dreadful muddle; all for the sake of having a 3-way choice rather than a 2-way choice.

  4. Pingback: Gamebooks, interactive fiction and hypertext « No Time To Play

  5. Pingback: Kingdom Without End | Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

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