A screenshot from Balloon Diaspora['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at incidental character choices in "Balloon Diaspora."]

Sid Meier, designer of Civilization, described games as "a series of interesting choices." Janet Murray, new media researcher, defines player agency as "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions." Emily Short, IF author, refines this further by claiming true agency requires the player to care about and be able to guess at the consequences of his actions.

In tabletop roleplaying games, players often construct elaborate backstories and personalities for their characters. In the best campaigns, these character details affect future stories and events. But in less integrated games, the choices made at character creation feel important to the player even if they don’t change anything about the rest of the game.

There is a conflict in the heart of any video game design between agency and authored story. The simplest game narrative is one which is linear: once which does not change in response to player action. However, this sort of narrative fails to take advantage of the most special aspect of games: their interactivity. On the other hand, accounting for every possible way a player could affect a story requires either an impossibly detailed simulation or a creative mind serving as Game Master in the style of a tabletop RPG.

How, then, can we resolve the conflict between the player’s desire to express himself and affect the game world in a meaningful way and the practical restrictions on the scope and complexity of the game’s story? How do we provide interesting choices that don’t require extraordinary design feats?

"Balloon Diaspora," a short game by Cardboard Computer, takes a clever approach. It presents the player with questions that carry emotional weight and visible consequences that paradoxically have little to no effect on the events of the game. This is emotional agency, not narrative agency, and it provides a startlingly effective way of making the player feel empowered while not requiring a complex story design.

A screenshot from Balloon DiasporaAcross the Gusty Sea

In "Balloon Diaspora," the player inhabits a visitor to a dark land where the residents travel by way of balloon. The player character’s own balloon has crashed, and to repair it she must collect six patches of cloth. The non-player characters in the game are all exiles from a place called the Balloon Archipelago, which is suffering some vague upheaval that prevents them from returning.

Character interaction occurs through standard dialog trees, where the player selects options from a menu. Unlike many games, where the PC is always asking questions and the NPCs are always responding, the characters in "Diaspora" often ask the PC questions, sometimes of a very personal nature.

In the game’s first conversation, the PC’s new companion Silas asks a series of questions to learn more about the PC. Where do you come from: The High Plateau, Across the Gusty Sea, or Neither? What’s your family like? What should I call you? In a computer RPG like Morrowind, these questions would determine character statistics or starting situations. Here, however, they just result in comments on how an only child is like a hunting owl. The game does remember your responses, so that later a character will comment that you smell like the Gusty Sea, but the responses only provide incidental flavor. They have no effect on the large-scale narrative: collecting six patches to repair a balloon.

Later conversations follow the same pattern. The PC is asked interesting questions with little significance: "Have you ever been engaged in serious scholarship?" The player can only choose to answer in the negative, but can pick what she prefers to scholarship: "the warmth of conversation" or "the silence of the stars."

These questions as described seem incidental, even trivial, but in the game they gain greater weight. This is a game about conversation; conversation is the only way of affecting the world, and the only thing the PC does other than walking from place to place. Taken on its own, one of these questions would be an unremarkable distraction. However, when they are asked more than once in every conversation for the entire game, they gain an importance. They are how the player expresses himself, and they are how the player discovers the character he is playing.

A screenshot from Balloon DiasporaThe Warmth of Conversation

Many games encourage the player to create and roleplay a character. In order to tether the character to the game world and grant it significance, designers often attach mechanical significance to the choices made. Maybe being born as a nobleperson means the PC starts the game with more money, or ethical choices affect a "morality meter" that governs available powers or NPC dispositions.

Too often, though, these links between story and mechanics feel artificial or arbitrary. Every important choice is telegraphed and has a "good" and "bad" option, and every other choice has no ethical weight despite its consequences. However, making the connections deeper or more important often adds too much complexity. One could imagine a game with a complex ethical system, where every choice made affected a selfishness meter, an idealism meter, a friendliness meter, and so on. Such a system would collapse under its own weight, becoming impractical for the developer to construct and difficult for the player to understand.

"Balloon Diaspora" avoids this artificiality by removing consequences from the choices. The game recognizes reacts to the player’s responses, but they do not have any real effect beyond that. Is this true agency? Perhaps not. But it gives the player a feeling of interaction and expression. The player is making a series of interesting choices about her character. This is meaning and significance without consequence or result. By the end of "Diaspora," the player has a good understanding of the character she played and how she felt about the game’s setting.

Here, then, is a possible solution to the dilemma of characterization through choice. A game that responds to the player’s character choices grants significance to those choices, even if it never gives them consequences. Assassin’s Creed has NPCs protest when the player starts scaling walls; if it also had them comment on interesting character choices, it would lend the player’s actions more emotional importance.

These incidental character choices have two requirements in order to be effective. They must be interesting, and they must be frequent. If the choices are dull, the player will get tired of them very quickly. Asking the player if he likes an NPC’s dress is boring; asking why the PC dresses the way he does is interesting. If the choices are too rare, they will come across as odd non sequiturs. The player should expect these choices to occur with regularity. Of course, choices that are too frequent or choices that repeat will tax the player’s patience; a balance must be struck.

The choices do not need to be conversation options. The game’s characters can respond to the weapon a soldier uses in a situation or the path the player takes through an area. The game can give the player a choice of downtime activities between missions that need not have mechanical results. Because these options do not need significant consequences, the cost of including them is limited to the resources and code needed to implement the immediate response.

Using the technique presented in "Balloon Diaspora," developers can give the player’s choices about her character the same emotional significance as the choice of backstory has in tabletop RPGs without requiring many development resources. Presenting the player with frequent, interesting choices that result in responses — but not necessarily consequences — can make the player’s decisions feel important and make her identify more closely with her character.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer (The Majesty Of Colors), and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]