Free, Affirmed, Expressive, Consequential

Awhile back “Doctor Professor” of the blog Pixel Poppers wrote some interesting stuff about interactive storytelling in video games. In the first half, he discusses how video games have failed at storytelling, by imitating other media (film, mostly) instead of playing to their own medium’s strengths: interactivity and dynamism. In the second half, he takes a look at what successful and innovative videogame storytelling might look like.

Doctor Professor’s points resonate with me. I’ve come to love the newest generations of VG technology (Playstation-onwards) for their ability to convey a story through cinematic presentation, and I’ve favored the kinds of games that present fully-realized characters with emotions and personalities (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy) over games that provide blank protagonists to imprint your own emotions and thoughts onto (Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls). I’ve found that the latter tend to fall short of actually feeling like a story, while the former at least provide story in a meaningful way, even if it’s spoon-fed to you and beyond your ability to impact.

But Dr. Prof is right; these stories are wasting the medium’s artistic potential. They’re showing movies with intermissions for gymnastics and target practice. They’re often pretty movies,  sometimes with characters and themes that speak to me. And the gameplaying segments that alternate with cinematics can often be rewarding and fun in their own right. These are not failures as games.

But as an art form, they can be more. Some games are pioneering this change, such as Metal Gear Solid (known for its interminable cutscenes but also for making gameplay decisions matter in new ways) and Mass Effect (which will allow pivotal choices made in the first game to load into the next one). Pioneering new ground doesn’t run smoothly, of course. Both the above gamers have severe limitations on the player’s ability to affect the story. But hopefully as this trend continues we’ll see a radical shift as, like Doctor Professor says, the video game medium comes into its own.

The Professor names four strengths of video games that are vital for exploring their storytelling potential. 1) choices must be free, 2) choices must be affirmed, 3) choices must be expressive, and 4) choices must be consequential. When a player’s input is not channeled or forced into a predetermined path, AND receives feedback that validates the choice (characters thank you,  get mad, etc), AND allows for emotional expression and thematic statement, AND has a meaningful effect on the world and its inhabitants, THEN the player can truly be said to shape the outcome of the story. The user is a collaborator rather than a consumer.

Which is one of the strengths of face-to-face roleplaying, presumably–with human imaginations on tap for content, rather than computer algorithms, the potential for free, affirmed, expressive and consequential choice, for all participants, is vast. Collaborative story should pulse through a roleplaying session. And yet I’ve had many roleplaying experiences that have shut down each one of those attributes of choices, often several at once. Just as video games, in emulating movies, aren’t realizing their unique artistic potential, so “pen and paper” games fall short of their calling when they merely emulate the pre-written novel or the pre-programmed video game.

My friend Christian of Berengad Games also recently explored ways of achieving dynamic and interactive story in video games. He had a specific theoretical implementation in mind and I contributed my own. But whatever the specific implementation–and there’s room for multitudes–I think the key lies in Dr. Professor’s 4 elements: free, affirmed, expressive and consequential.

And if computer programmers are breaking new ground here, can interactive group storytelling in the real world do any less? For myself, I can’t go back. Those four criteria are my minimum bar for participation. At the very least, if any of those elements aren’t on the table, DON’T LEAD ME ON–tell me up front, so that I can make the mental shift and NOT approach the game as group storytelling. But when I’m seizing story, I’ll stay in the company of the innovators and explorers, and keep my eye on the horizon.




11 Responses to “Free, Affirmed, Expressive, Consequential”

  1. 1 buriedwithoutceremony
    December 16, 2009 at 6:53 pm


    This is really cool, and a beautiful distillation of how choices should work in interactive media. So, concise, I immediately see how I want those four things to interweave and be expressed.


  2. 2 Joel
    December 16, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Don’t thank me, thank Doctor Professor. He’s the one that struck sparks, I just fanned the flame a little.

    Which is to say, I found it an immediate distillation too, and was happy to spread it around.

  3. December 16, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Hey, Joel. Glad you enjoyed my posts. :)

    It never occurred to me to apply these concepts to face-to-face roleplaying, or interactive storytelling in general, but now that you point it out I see it generalizes quite well. It reminds me of the “Yes, and…” principle in improv. ( http://greenlightwiki.com/improv/Yes_And )

    Thanks for the writeup! I like your take on these ideas, and it’s good to know I’ve struck a resonant chord.

  4. December 17, 2009 at 2:57 am

    The problem for me, as a philosophy grad, is that I hit “free” as the first one and descend into a miasma of ontology.

    I have to parse “free” as “un-prescribed by the system” before I can move on, i.e. that it isn’t simply a multiple choice with “Do something” and “Do the expected thing” as the choices.

    I’m thinking about this in conjunction with recent stuff from, frex, Ron about the dysfunctionality of the “crazy” character to protect “my guy” in dysfunctional groups. The maxim “you can’t tell my character what to do” mutates into “My character acts without any rational explanation, don’t railroad me”.

    In computer games, the designer has to accommodate the range of reasonable responses; a GM at the table with dysfunctional players may be called on to accommodate unreasonable responses. A dysfunctional GM may have a too narrow definition of reasonable responses.

    I feel I’m going somewhere with this, but I have no idea where.

  5. December 18, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Great blog. I can’t settle for less, either!

    I loved your Darths and Droids reference. I read that comic for laughs and perspective, and then proceed to occasionally get totally frustrated by its assumptions. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has mixed reactions :-).

  6. 6 Joel
    December 18, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Professor: “Yes and” is right! There’s a great book, Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, applying improv and storytelling techniques to roleplaying. I’ve been influenced by it quite a bit.

    I’m delighted to apply valuable principles from all kinds of disciplines and artforms across the board in a cross-pollinating creative orgy! :)

    Peter: Your parsing works fine for me. Your points are interesting because they raise the issue of the two media’s disparate strengths: video games can more easily maintain focus and tone, because they’re only accommodating a narrow range of inputs, whereas focus and tone can be notoriously difficult in roleplaying because, as you say, participants can technically “do anything” even if that “anything” is unreasonable or disruptive.

    I too am not sure where to go with the insight, but its good to note.

    Hmm, maybe the takeaway is that maintaining empowerment of choice and input across the group is important so that nobody feels they need to engage in disruption or power struggle for their voice to be heard?

  7. 7 Zac in Virginia
    December 20, 2009 at 8:13 am

    I’m about to start a D&D4e game (as a player) and the game is going to be Drifted like whoa. My GM is most likely going to engage (quite deliberately; we talked about it) in consensual railroading – i.e. she subsumes our actions and decisions INTO her metaplot, but fundamentally she’s there to tell US a story, exactly like folks have outlined as problematic.

    This is going to be some kind of reverse culture-shock, in that I’ve spent years finding alternatives to this sort of thing (and succeeded, thankfully), but now I (’cause of friendship-related reasons) need to appreciate that a) this is how plenty of gamers have fun and b) yes, even if they’re presented with an alternative.

    I was always kind of frustrated about the limitations of AD&D and Vampire and so on, since there seemed to be a lot of rules I just didn’t care about. Exalted actually pushed me over the edge and made it painfully clear that whatever mainstream RPGs were doing, I wasn’t interested. Now I’m back, and I have to say that D&D4 is actually very well designed! By no means will it be a collaborative storytelling experience, but it might still be fun.

    And then I can twist her arm into coming to story-game night again ^_^

  8. 8 Zac in Virginia
    December 20, 2009 at 8:23 am

    @Julian: I see what you mean about assumptions in that Star Wars comic. If you only read the comic itself, it’s really funny and great, but if you read the author’s commentary, it’s downright irritating. He’s written such a wondrous thing, but then he gives bad play advice? !?!

  9. 9 Joel
    December 20, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Zac: Consensuality is key! If everyone’s on board and having a great time, then super. If there’s a shell game going on, or if participants are in denial about what their process really is, that’s when my blood boils.

    Continuing a Darths and Droids conversation much further is probably going to be confusing for those who haven’t read it, but let me say this: just like in my comment above, what really gets me isn’t just the implicit “of course” assumptions riddling his commentary in general (“Of course GMs have to control the story in RPGs!”) but rather the increasingly strong theme that not only “must” RPGs be this or that way, but players must be FOOLED into enjoying it. :P

  10. 10 Zac in Virginia
    December 20, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Yeah, I’m going to just ‘appreciate it for what it is’ ^_^ and read the comic without the commentary, even though it’s the author’s words.
    Come to think of it, I tend not to enjoy the author commentary on most comics I’ve read, with the very important exception being Bill Watterson. Of course :)

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