Choose Your Own Character: games, fiction, and the illusion of choice.

So I’m getting better about writing fiction every morning.  I missed a couple of days last weekend, but I went to a funeral, so sue me, shoulder-angel.  But I’ve already cleared out the queue of stories that I had in mind, so I need to find something else to write.  Turns out when you set yourself a daily BUTT IN CHAIR goal, you become less picky about story ideas.  I haven’t lost sight of the doubt-story that I’m researching for, but there are some things I want to play with first to test that out.  Like conscientious worldbuilding, but that’s another story.

Here, the important thing is, I went to Lee and Ray and said, “I need subjects for boy-middle-grade stories to write, to fill out my next Tales Told Under the Cover collection, because I have ONE boy story and four girl ones.”

I wrote one of the stories already, and it hared off in an unanticipated direction of such scariness that I don’t know that I can use it.  It’s more Stephen King than Goosebumps.  Even though I think it’ll be good for kids (especially kids who have lost a family member), it doesn’t seem like anything I can sneak by parents.  No cussing, no sex – but lots of violence.  A dead brother comes back to haunt a kid who just wants some Halloween candy.  There are guns.  That kind of thing.  I think it’s a great story.  But I’m going to sit on it for a while.  If nothing else, I need to come up with a title for it.  It was supposed to be about a kid who goes trick-or-treating and gets attacked by evil caramels.

On to the next idea: a kid gets sucked into his computer, into a video-game world.

Wellll, I’m working on finishing the first BioShock.  (I just started it this fall; FPS used to make me ill, but I think framerates have improved enough that I don’t need to avoid them anymore.)  And I looked at the list of stations for the submersible and said, “Those look like nice choke points for a CYOA story.”

The problem with writing a CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure)-type story is that the emphasis isn’t on the story, but on the branchings.  How many branchings can you have?  How many deaths vs. lifes?  How can we maximize the amount of page-jumping?  The mechanisms of how to lay out options are there, but not how to design the story itself.

Pfft.  Game designers have to deal with story design in a kind of multiverse, a story-space with multiple choices, all the time.

Personally, I think you have to have an overall story arc that can be adapted to the multiple choices that a character can make (either in games or in CYOA-ish books).  As a creator, while you’re controlling the kinds of choices your characters can make, the reader/player makes the choices for the characters.  The kinds of CYOA-style books that eventually frustrate me are the ones where the choices don’t matter; they’re just split points where the choice leads to an arbitrary outcome.  “Go right or left?” kinds of choices.  Or the choices where you think you’re doing something smart, but something pops out of nowhere and kills you.  Whoop de do, how satisfying is that?  Not very.  However, I often find that controlled game play is often satisfying: I’m playing a lot of Torchlight II lately, too, and I really enjoy the choicelessness of it.  You have all this freedom to wander around in any order that you like…within a certain area.  You have to complete XYZ before you can pass a chokepoint, though.  It’s an illusion of choice, while forcing an action.  The choices only seem arbitrary; you can only be killed by your own stupidity or lack of skill.

BioShock, I think, deals with the problem of choice vs. not writing a game the size of a multiverse by telling a story about control vs. freedom, backing you into places where the game takes over for you.  What’s the one choice you really get?  How to deal with the little sisters.  Everything else is “how can I survive this using the fewest resources?” Which isn’t choice, but optimization.

In the end, you can’t get away from the reality that you can only give the player/reader so many real choices.  You have to railroad them down certain paths.  You don’t have an infinite amount of time to build a world for all the possible options a player might want to take.  So how do you deal with providing an illusory freedom (or even meaningful choices) in a limited environment?

Writers have been dealing with the problem of providing the illusion of freedom without meaningful audience choice for a very long time.  Nobody in a story is free to act the way they want.  Nobody.  They’re written creations, and they only have one option, which is to do what’s on the page.  The writers, we have a lot of choices to make…but once you’ve set up the story, there are only so many types of ways it can play out, in order for the story to be satisfying.  The more I study structure, the more I know how limited I am.  Which, to be honest, I kind of like.  I used to go, “How will this story end?  Howwwwwww?”  No I go, “Eh, I forgot what I put in the beginning again, didn’t I?” And I go back to the beginning, see what kinds of tools I left lying around for the character to play with, apply the lessons learned in the middle to the tools they had in the beginning, voila, an ending.

So.  Let’s say that games and stories have things in common and things different that they do, and that a CYOA-ish story might be a good place to play with the tools at hand for both.  My rules: all paths must be satisfying.  That is, they must either have a beginning, middle, and end, or they must end unsatisfyingly due to a poor, believable choice (not random crap).  All choices must have meaning, either a substantial choice about the way the character will develop, or an optimizational choice that makes the character better or worse at what they do.

The story will be organized by structure that reaches across all choices: choke points.  For example, the first phase will be the setup of the story, the debate between major options in a decision (admit to love and get shaken up or stay single and safe; try to defend your current way of life or leave it behind in search of something new–whatever). The second phase will be entering into a new world or state of being of some kind.  The third will be the ramifications of the new stuff–the problems/bad guys closing in restrictively, taking the character down to a moment of death.  The fourth will be resolving the problems of the new way using tools from the old ways of doing things: a synthesis.  I intend to have multiple paths through the choke points in order to keep continuity, but the choke points must be passed through.

Most MMORPGs don’t do this; they don’t admit to nice structures like this (well, not that I know of).  You set up the character and choose your specializations, and that’s the extent of your substantive character choices.  After that, it’s all in how you optimize your character, including your gear, skillset, and style of play.   Game play changes depending on what level you are, but you can get to different levels using different methods (like by not actually killing anything, or by not actually completing any quests, etc.).

MMORPGs get repetitive, and add things like new character classes or new play areas or new abilities or whatever to keep people interested.

Books, on the other hand, never have to add more material (except as sequels of one kind or another), yet people will go back to them repeatedly, if they like them.  Nothing ever changes, yet they are still satisfying. Fiction writers have to know how to control readers who had no choices, and yet make it feel impossible that the character could have made any other choice, to the point where you will reread a book on purpose, even knowing how it will come out.  Movies, too.

BioShock has worked really well for me so far, because it uses fictional techniques to railroad me, mixed up with some satisfying gameplay.  (But, again, I’m no FPS expert, so maybe it’s just me as far as how good the mechanics are.)

I wrote the intro up to the first choice on this kids’ story this morning.  The first choice is whether the kid enters the video game world or not; if he doesn’t, boink! Out of the story he goes.  I think I’ll give three or four fantasy MMO class choices for the character he “plays,” then carry him through a structured story, using each of those classes.  I’m debating over whether to use specializations or not.  –And, if he makes it through the challenges in the game (which will be of a fantasy quest nature), he will get booted out into the real world (I’ll force this, but provide a couple of options so the reader can try to avoid getting booted out first), deal with his real problem, and THE END.  I may even use the turning points in the game-world to give the character a couple of thoughts about his real-world situation, because I’m all clever like that.

We’ll see how it comes out, though.

And I have NO idea what to call this story, either.  Oh, well.

7 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Character: games, fiction, and the illusion of choice.”

  1. It’s not just you; Bioshock is one of the best games ever made.

    My husband is a video game designer, and we’ve talked about this player choice thing at enormous length. I even published an article about it in The Escapist last fall. The conclusion we came to is that if you give the player total freedom, not only is that an impossible game to create due to practical considerations, but it will frustrate the player beyond playability. Enjoyment also depends greatly on the player’s personality. Some people thrive on MMORPGs and sandbox games where you can choose to play in almost any way (although those games DO have fences and restrictions, even if they’re subtle), and some people react to that plethora of offered choice with boredom.

    I also think that building video game narratives is extremely different from building a book’s narrative, if only because the different types of immersion in the experience have different psychological effects on the audience. Unexpected inevitability seems like a good guiding rule for resolving any given conflict, but in a video game it can seem predictable. Bioshock is one of a tiny handful of games that actually builds a game narrative, a story that can’t be told any other way, rather than using a structure borrowed from books or movies.

    Beyond the Little Sister choice, which Matt and I agreed was ultimately a not-very-interesting binary choice, Bioshock turns inside out the metaphysics of the very act of playing video games at two key points in the story. Books that are similarly meta and yet readable come along once in a blue moon. I can only think of two, in fact – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Lost in the Funhouse.

    Games that endeavor to make your choices matter come out ALL THE TIME, but they only infrequently deliver, usually in cosmetic ways. The Fallout games, the Mass Effect games, a few Star Wars games, a bunch of other games I know have branching choices that mean you could play a slightly different game every time, but you might just as well look up the other endings on YouTube. It’s kinda neat, but it’s not world-shaking.

  2. Oh, good. I was hoping you’d comment.

    You said, “Unexpected inevitability seems like a good guiding rule for resolving any given conflict, but in a video game it can seem predictable.”


    –I would disagree that you couldn’t tell BioShock from another perspective, but it would have to be adapted to the media you moved it to (movie, probably).

    I also disagree about the Little Sister choice not being interesting. It was, because it, also, wasn’t a choice for most people, yet it was something that had to be considered. My husband had a great reaction to it: “I guess I’ve changed as a person since I’ve become a dad. Because I just couldn’t do it.”

    I haven’t read Lost in the Funhouse, but Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius put me to sleep. An example I like is Little, Big, by John Crowley. I thought House of Leaves was okay but ultimately a letdown at the end. And I’ve always liked The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. I could probably find more if I dug deeper…oh, Club Dumas was good…

    I played SW:TOR and was ultimately bored with the play. Hm…I should send you the plot map for this when I’m done with it, see what you think of the flow.

  3. Unexpected inevitability being predictable: Matt just finished Uncharted 3, and there was a lot of that in that game. If you haven’t played them, the structures and narratives of the Uncharted games are highly cinematic, and while the first one was extraordinary and the second one was pretty good, Matt and I were both far less impressed with the third one.

    A Bioshock novel came out this year. I haven’t read it yet, but apparently it’s just a prequel, explains all the backstory of all the characters. I look forward to it, for sure. The point I was making is that you couldn’t possibly tell the “would you kindly” thing or the scene in Ryan’s office with nearly the same punch to the audience in another medium.

    For the Little Sister choice – the thing is, either choice gave you plenty of Adam, so you don’t get any particular advantage for harvesting. There’s nothing pulling on you in game design to make the evil choice, so it’s really more of a lark to decide to do it or not do it. You have to live with yourself, sure, but within the game it doesn’t really matter.

    Heartbreaking Work only has one scene that I remember that’s truly meta, but it totally rocked my world. It’s an ordinary sort of bedtime scene, where Dave is putting his brother to bed, and his brother speaks up and asks if the scene is believable at all, and points out that this memoir, which was supposed to be all conflict-ridden and radical, has turned sappy and sentimental. Dave as author has to defend himself. It’s a very cool moment.

    I don’t remember Little, Big having any meta moments. But then I gave up on it partway through.

    Anything you send, I’ll read… 🙂

  4. On metafiction, to nail down terms: when you break the fourth wall (theater term) and talk directly to the audience, that’s not metafiction exactly, but a technique of postmodernism. Anamaniacs does this all the time.

    Postmodernism is techniques that play with suspension of disbelief, of the “reality” of the story that’s being told. Metafiction is fiction about fiction, and, by extension, stories about stories.

    Narnia, although it never breaks the fourth wall, has metafictional moments. Tons of things do. The Name of the Rose. The Shadow of the Wind. The Dark Tower Series. The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

    Metafiction uses postmodern techniques from time to time, because they allow the reader to examine the story. But metafiction also relies heavily on metaphor and subtext in a way that postmodernism does not.

    The meta in Little, Big is in the different, strange ways you have to get into the house; the way the number of doors changes; the way the rooms are fundamentally different and incongruous, yet part of the same house. It’s been a while since I read it, but I can pull up some quotes on the way Crowley builds subtextual hints into the descriptions of the house.

    Any specific examples from Unchartered 3? I probably won’t get to it anytime soon.

    I wasn’t all that impressed with the “would you kindly” thing in BioShock; I knew Atlas was running me around, so the exact method of it didn’t feel like a big reveal. It could have been anything. It was like the moment when you see a monster too clearly in a horror movie, and it no longer has the power to make you afraid–or drive the story.

    I was much more impressed by the story of the con he was running–the given reasons of why he was telling you to do things, so it was perfectly logical why you did them. “Would you kindly” felt like an unnecessary, cute addition. Could you do it in fiction? Sure. The character would have no option but to do what they were bid to do; it wouldn’t be too hard to point that out. I think to bring in the meta element in a similar, fictional (not CYOA-ish) setting, you might need to lay down a bit of a red herring…like having the character controlled by something else, drugs or something, to explain away the compulsive behavior. –Insanity is often used to pull that off, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. By the time you get to the end of that, the reader is supposed to be questioning their sanity just as much as the main character does, yet refuses to admit to.

    It’s a different kind of mind@#$% than “would you kindly,” but bear with me…you set up the “drug mind control” red herring (or whatever), do the “would you kindly” thing without pointing it up much, and then, in 3rd omniscient with a narrator, do the same thing to the reader. Then resolve the red herring, leave the reader wondering for a bit why the character is acting obsessively, if it’s not drugs, then do the reaveal about “would you kindly.” The smart reader will then go back to the “would you kindly” stuff laid down by the narrator directly to the reader and go, “Ooooh.”

  5. I want to read the fiction writing books you’re reading. 😀

    I love CYOAs, but like you said, hate the ones that offer cheap choices. Why give the choice if you’re only going to force the story a certain way anyway? I’ve always wanted to try writing my own, but it seemed pretty overwhelming… until you broke it down this way. Put something in video game terms and suddenly it’s more doable. Heh.

  6. Liz – the important thing is to plot out the interconnections. I’m saving each section in a separate sub-file in my writing program, with the section name on each, and notes giving each “in” section and each “out” section. I’ve also done a PowerPoint flow chart, which worked really well.

  7. The examples from Uncharted 3 are all spoilers. Sorry.

    I think we’re talking about two different things – you’re way clearer on the definition of metafiction than I am, and I guess I was partly talking about the fourth wall. Fourth wall breakage examples abound – The Princess Bride (the book) comes to mind, and heck, the Muppets do it a bunch – but I was thinking about works that integrate breaking the fourth wall into the craft and technique.

    Lost in the Funhouse does this in the title story by giving the reader no clear boundaries of what happened vs. what could have happened in the narrative. It also occasionally recites a sentence or two of writing technique information to show what Barth was working at in a given paragraph, and sometimes Barth himself drops in to talk about his insecurity as a writer. All this while sort of telling a story about the main character’s visit to a carnival, although it’s never clear how that story actually goes. The point of all this fooling around isn’t just to give the reader a glimpse of the writer at his desk, and it isn’t just to tell a story about how stories aren’t exactly real. It’s both, entwined, and it’s all integral to the story’s mood and feel.

    I guess this mixes fourth-wall mischievousness with postmodernism? Your definition isn’t how I learned about postmodernism in college, but I wasn’t studying it specifically in fiction. When I said “meta” I didn’t mean fiction about fiction, I meant fiction that’s metaphysically self-aware – a deeper level than The Shadow of the Wind. That’s where Bioshock sits, I believe.

    The thing that’s cool to me about “would you kindly” is the knife-twist it gives to tutorials as a concept. Most games include some kind of tutorial, lessons to help you enter the world of the game, and a lot of times, that tutorial takes the form of another character telling you how to do things. In Bioshock, it’s Atlas guiding you through the first…half? 2/3? of the game. (After a short while he stops being a tutorial voice and starts being a guide, but you follow his lead all the same.) The intent of the creators, if you ask me, was to mind-eff gamers who’ve run through a ton of games without even thinking about why they do what the voice over the radio tells them. It messes completely with the structure of gaming, because how else are you supposed to play if you don’t follow Atlas’s lead? You can’t. You can’t rebel at all. You can try to do other stuff in the game, but you won’t move forward to the end of the story unless you do what Atlas says.

    Building that necessity of mechanic into the fabric of the story (rather than just the gameplay) is a good deal of what I admire about Bioshock. The same thing happens in Ryan’s office, when you truly have no choice about what you do next, even while Ryan insists over and over that you do. So the player begins to question the whole matter of choice in gaming, and whether there really is any at all or it’s just the illusion of choice. You, holding the controller, are a slave to the game, just as Jack is a slave to Atlas.

    And that brings us back to the beginning. 🙂

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