Life Update

I’ve decided to start updating my blog more – the introduction to many a blog post that has heralded years of inactivity, but I will try to make sure that’s not the case here! I have lots of fun and hopefully interesting posts in mind about game design that I would love to share and see spark a discussion. So the plan is to get myself into a regular posting pattern!

I’ve written a little on Twitter about some of the big changes in my life over the past few years, but for anyone who isn’t sure who I am or what’s been going on with me – hi! I’m Alice, I’m a game designer, writer and PhD student. In 2016 I graduated from the University of East London with a degree in Game Design: Story Development, and then spent a year and a half in industry, interning at Failbetter Games and King and then working as a Designer at Outplay Entertainment. In October 2017 I returned to education to start work on my PhD at Abertay University! My research looks at creating interactive narratives and games for cancer patients. I wasn’t planning on continuing my studies at postgraduate level but, between my interest in interactive narrative and the opportunity to be able to make games that will help cancer patients, the PhD felt like a perfect fit.

Some upcoming posts I have planned will focus around my research – branching narrative, serious games and applied design. Others will discuss the design practice and theories that support my work or interest me, and I may write some commentary on games I’m playing (or tabletop games that I’m running). In the meanwhile if anyone wants to chat about story-heavy games, tabletop RPGs or writing for games these are topics I’m always ready to talk about, so comment here or tweet me!

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The Illusion of Choice – and How it Can Improve Games!

I’ve wanted to write a blog post about choice, and lack of choice, in games for quite a while, but I’ve struggled to coherently summarize my thoughts on the topic.Last night while at the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Meetup we ended up discussing stories in games that appear to give players choices but reach the same outcome regardless of player choice. This conversation has helped me reach a conclusion about what I want to say in this blog post.

As someone who studies, writes and designs games, and as a particular fan of games with branching narrative, I’ve often heard criticism of games which present players with choices that have little to no impact on the subsequent events of the game. As a player I have mixed feelings about these inconsequential choices. Although it’s frustrating to know that my choices will ultimately lead to a forgone conclusion, I enjoy making the choices nonetheless. Despite knowing that my character’s actions have no real agency, I’ll buy into the fiction of roleplaying the decision-making process.

When the conversation first turned towards these redundant choices, the group reached a consensus that many decisions which don’t affect the game itself might have a huge affect on how the player experiences the game. Although there is no mechanical change happening, such a choice might completely change the tone of a game for a player. There’s a game design book – Half-Real by Jesper Juul – which expands on this idea of the fiction of the game, and the fiction which the player perceives creating a story that can vary entirely from player to player.

This line of thought lead me to a revelation of my own opinion on the illusion of choice in games. One of the first things we discussed in my creative writing classes at university was the difference between story and plot. One of my lecturers shared E.M. Forster’s definitions of a story and a plot, which have stuck with me since:

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story, “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

So in a game where players have choices, but the choices have no effect on the outcome of the story, Jenny might die regardless of whatever decisions the player makes. But, Jenny could be sacrificing herself to save her best friend Max. Or perhaps, in another player’s game Jenny might think Max is jerk and is dying because of his sheer incompetence, her only death wish that he learn a valuable lesson from this shambles. So although the story remains unaffected by the player choice, the plot has been very much changed.

So to sum things up: can the illusion of choice be a good thing? Definitely. While I think it’s really important for interactive fiction writers to strive to include more impactful choices which branch the story as well as the plot, the illusion of choice can be a powerful tool in IF writing. Players can make decisions which have zero impact on a game’s story, but the game’s plot – the reason that events unfold the way they do – might be completely changed.