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  • Out Of Weakness, Strength: The Three Ds of Narrative Design

    - Danny Allen

  • Decision

    "Every decision for one something is a decision against something else." -Dark, S01E07

    In season one of Netflix's time-travel drama Dark, (mid-season one SPOILER WARNING), a teenager named Jonas discovers a time portal that leads to the year 1986. While wandering around town listening to A Flock of Seagulls and bumping into the teenage versions of his friends' parents, he also spots his ex-girlfriend's little brother, Mikkel, who mysteriously disappeared a few days earlier. Jonas wants to rescue the lost boy, but before he can intervene, he is interrupted by the Stranger, who warns him that if he returns Mikkel to the present, he will also be cancelling out his (Jonas) own existence. In the original timeline, the boy Mikkel remains in the ‘80s, falls in love with a girl his age, and grows up to become Jonas' father. 

    So Jonas can choose to reunite a scared boy with his family, but if he does this he will cease to exist. Mikkel will never meet Jonas' mother at the right age and so Jonas will never be born. At the end of the episode he decides to return to the present without intervening, allowing his father to follow along his original temporal course. Jonas lives to exist another day. He also has second thoughts about getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, who is actually his aunt...

    When players make choices, they should always come at a cost. This is simple to achieve in RPGs: Whether you choose to return the [quest item] to its rightful owner or to the unscrupulous interloper, is a simple matter of scripting and branching dialog.

    Early in InXile's Wasteland 3, the player, in character as an Arizona Ranger, encounters an enemy Dorsey Stalker holding a gun to a fellow Arizona Ranger's head. The player has a dialog option to let the Stalker go in exchange for releasing the Ranger.

    "Make like a tree and pound sand, Colorado scum."

    Once she's gone, the grateful freed Ranger warns the player that the Dorsey Stalker will now alert her cousins about the player's presence. Which is exactly what happens next.

    The Dorsey Stalker races to the next screen, where her cousins are holding two Arizona Rangers captive. She warns them that enemies are coming. In preparation for a shootout, the Dorsey Ambushers execute the hostage Rangers.


    But what would happen if you choose to attack the first Dorsey Stalker, at the cost of the first Ranger's life? Would you have a chance to save the subsequent Rangers? In-game decisions like this should always have rippling consequences. In the brutal world of Wasteland 3, there are no perfect answers where everyone can be saved. This is excellent reactive storytelling.

    Bethesda's Fallout 4 is another great example of a game that forces the player to choose for one thing and against something else. Throughout the game, the player becomes familiar with four main factions. The final section of the game requires the player to choose between them. But whatever the player chooses, the rest are destroyed. This was a difficult choice for me. The Brotherhood of Steel seems to have taken a step towards fascism since the last game, the Institute is indifferent to human suffering, and the Minutemen are just annoying.

    Thanks, Preston.

    I allied with the Synth-liberating faction The Railroad, because they seemed to be the purest of heart, but afterwards I fretted that I had made the wrong choice. The Railroad was hobbled by their good intentions and would never bring about meaningful change to the Commonwealth. A savage land requires a heavy hand to rule it, and the Brotherhood of Steel has the heaviest hand of all: Liberty Prime.

    It's a decision I still wonder about six years later.

    That's significantly more complex than the ending of Fallout 3, which boils down to a choice between good and evil: kill everyone in the Capital Wasteland or provide them with clean water. This isn't a complex choice. The Fallout 3 ending did spawn a memorable moment in video game logic though, so maybe it's a tossup.

    Radiation isn't deadly to mutants, so Fawkes could have turned off the reactor without the player having to sacrifice themselves.

    Right now, fans of the series are agitatedly stroking their replica PIP-Boys and hissing at their screens, "What about New Vegas?" Once again, Obsidian knows how to create a complex game. New Vegas introduced a Reputation mechanic, companions characters who react to dialog choices, and an endgame decision point that, with the exception of one faction, is almost entirely shades of grey. The Caesar's slaver Legion is clearly evil, but who among the remaining factions, New California Republic, Mr. House, or Yes Man is clearly good? The choices are more about player decision than generic good or evil. Does the player side with budding imperialists, the techno-robber baron, or do they choose the tabula rasa option with the robo-sidekick? The player picks their poison.

    The examples I've given above are all from RPGs with unlimited personal customization, but it's also possible for fixed-protagonist games to give the player control over certain outcomes. In CD Projekt Red's Witcher 3, the player is the gruff monster hunter and bath aficionado Geralt of Rivia.

    Who doesn't like to relax after a long day of fighting Nekkers and Drowners?

    Throughout Geralt's quest for the Wild Hunt, the player is offered scores of side quests to choose from. Many of these are simply killing a beast for a village, but some end with a choice: should the player kill the godling or set him free? Should the player put the poltergeist to rest or turn it in for the reward? Many times the repercussions of the player's decisions are not made present until much later. 

    I also like how Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V lets you choose which of the three protagonists to kill for the game's final mission. I chose to kill Trevor, because I hated him. After being locked into so many cutscenes of him behaving psychopathically, I was happy to finally put him out of his misery.

    "Now it's Trevor's turn to get a yee yee ass haircut."

    But speaking broadly about gamers and games, what drives the decision? I'm not presenting this as some clever maieutic. The answer is as simple as the question: Identity. What the player chooses depends on their desired outcome, which is the result of who they are.


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