April 28, 2011 12:00 AM |
['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.
Categories: Column: The Interactive Palette