Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every Action is a Choice, Every Choice Makes a Difference.

I hope that this GIF of a panda sneezing livens up an otherwise dry discussion of game design stuff.
Last week, I wrote about The Last of Us, a linear, stealth-based zombie shooter that provides one of the most moving, emotional experiences I've ever seen in a video game. It's pretty terrific. It even has giraffes.

Now I want to talk about art, video games, and how emotional effect is generated in an artsy, boring way.

But Back To the Question

It's a great story, but why did The Last of Us need to be a game? Why not a movie? I mean, this thing could have been an insanely cool A&E miniseries.

(Note, for this discussion. I’m focusing on first/third person real-time games. Turn-based more tactical games, like the ones I write, have their own powerful, distinct appeal.)

This perplexed me for a while, because I've long felt that one of the great powers of video games as art is the ability to give the player choices. Last of Us doesn't have any choices of import. My insistence on choices (which, in the end, are usually of a simple Choose Your Own Adventure level of depth) is kind of a dead end for figuring out why Last Of Us is best as a video game.

Except for one key thing:

Every time you touch the controller, you are making choices.

It IS a Movie, and You Are Directing It.

The first thing you learn about making movies is that there are many factors that affect its emotional effect on the viewer:

Pacing - How fast or slow the movie moves.

Editing - What you look at, from what angle, for how long.

Composition - The arrangement of visual elements on the screen.

Framing - Techniques used to focus your attention on one element or another.

These elements dramatically affect your perception of a scene, and thus its emotional effect on you. When you are playing the game (outside of the cutscenes), YOU determine all of them.

In addition, in almost any shooter, there are many ways to approach it. Do you charge in shooting? Or do you approach slowly and snipe? Do you rely on the crafting system if there is one (in Last of Us all your best weapons are crafted), or are you a Gun Guy?

These choices, combined with the way you move your view and the speed you move around, reflect the way your brain perceives things, your chosen way to interact with this fantasy world. They in turn change the qualities of what you are perceiving, changing the way they affect you emotionally. Which, in turn, affects how you play, which affects how you perceive the game, and so on.

This feedback loop, as you make your own movie based on your own perceptions and personality, occurs in every shooter, no matter how linear. Every twitch of the controller is a choice, and those choices change how the game effects you. Everyone who plays Last of Us gets an experience tailor-made to themselves by themselves.

For Example

I went through Last Of Us in a very slow, methodical, exploratory, stealth-based way. My Joel was a cautious guy. He liked to make things and set traps. He hated the slightest risk. He was ever eager to run away. This is character development!

My Ellie really liked stabbing guys in the neck.

Your Joel experienced the exact same story as mine, but he went through it in a different (perhaps very very different) way.

But Anyway

I don't have too much more to say about it than that. I think it's an interesting idea. Storytelling is important. Choices are important. However, the many tiny, elemental choices we make when playing a video game, especially one with as complex a presentation as Last of Us, have a huge effect on the experience. An effect that is unique to video games, which is really cool.

I hope soon to write about Saints Row IV, which is basically a Grand Theft Auto V that doesn't make me want to take 50 Xanax.


  1. Personally, I don't get much out of movies. Video games are more effective media of storytelling for me because of the interactivity. I care about the dude on the screen whose fate is up to me, no matter how the interface that lets me run his (sometimes doomed) little life is set up. When I was first playing Exile 2, I felt like I had a little world to escape to every day. I bothered the hell out of all your characters, trying out different key words to wring every bit of information out of them that I could (especially Rentar). I don't think I would have felt the same about it if I didn't have the freedom to poke at everything and bother everyone. The characters were that much more real to me.

    Seriously, I love the hell out of Rentar.

  2. Hey Jeff, I feel the same way. One of the things I love about third person real-time games is that I can take the time to linger in the world. I can take as many moments as I'd like to soak it all in before moving on, unlike in movies where that opportunity is not in my hands.

  3. It's not making your own movie, it's something different and better. Movies are a storytelling medium, but games are (realistically, can be) a story-experiencing medium.

  4. I don't think I agree with you. Games that Want To Be Movies are kind of a pet peeve of mine and when I find myself enjoying such a game despite it doing that thing I hate, it's usually because it's just so well written and fun to play that it makes up for the linearity.

  5. Hi Jeff,
    I love your blog and enjoy your games!

    The ability to make choices differentiates games from other media, generally. However, I don't believe that it is the key to a game's success or the sole basis of what makes gaming special.

    When it comes to books, there are choose-your-own adventure books and there are standard literary novels.
    I enjoyed choose-your-own adventure books a lot as a kid, but I wouldn't want to read a choose-your-own Rabbit, Run by John Updike.
    I want to read Updike's novel, see his world, understand his characters. Updike is an artist and delivers a satisfying story.
    The Last of Us is not a game based on choice. It is a game more literary in style. Its success comes from its well-drawn world and characters and satisfying story.
    Why is it a game? The artist chose this medium. They could have made a series. But they didn't.
    We can ask of 'The Walking Dead,' why isn't this a game?
    And, in fact, the Walking Dead game is more effective, in my opinion.

    I think there is room for games with limited choice or even no choice, just some gameplay. Games in which we experience the artists' vision - their world and characters. Is 'Gone Home' an example of this?

    Jeff, your games are great because they create a world of deep interest and offer choice as a way to further our experience of these worlds and characters.
    I'd say Avadon has the perfect fusion and balance of choice and literary world.

    I look forward to playing Avadon 2!

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