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Sid Meier’s Narrative Design: Part Two

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Looking for part one of our “Sid Meier’s Narrative Design” series? Check it out here!

Situational choices encourage the player to look at their choice as a piece of a larger context – in other words, a good choice is more than the literal options in front of the player, but one that asks the player to account for the shifting variables around those options.

Think of a game where you have a fairly limited set of actions you can take – say, a super simple first-person shooter where you can only run, duck, and shoot. At any given moment, the player’s choice is which of those things to do, which given that there’s only three options, is not a particularly interesting choice on it’s own. What makes it interesting is the situation: am I in a big open arena, or a small tight corridor? How many enemies are there, and can I surprise them? What’s my current health? Do I have the high ground? By constantly evolving the situation around the player’s decision, the choice remains an interesting one, even if the options stay constant.

Building on the well-established techniques of novels and cinema, narrative designers have a bevy of unique tools for creating situational context: in narrative games, everything from particular word choices in a dialogue exchange to the use of a certain dramatic camera angles can be a cue to the player about their situation. The double-edged sword of these types of non-explicit storytelling techniques is their nuance.

On the one hand, allowing the player to make inferences and extrapolate from incomplete information is a large part of what defines the “problem space” of a narrative game – for instance, if the player knows exactly how a character will respond to their dialogue choice, then the interaction becomes rote and boring. On the other hand, the subtlety of qualitative information can often lead to misinterpretation – such as the frequent complaint of “that’s not what I thought that option meant!”

Narrative games are – like all good stories – fundamentally mysteries, in as far as the player is driven to uncover what happens next. As such, they are not games of perfect information, and the challenge to the designer lies in how to regulate the flow of said information: enough for the player’s decisions to be sufficiently informed, but not enough to allow them to completely predict the outcomes. Unlike in procedural/systemic games, however, if the player fails to correctly anticipate the outcome of a choice based on their situational understanding, it feels like an unfair failure at guessing author/designer’s intent, rather than a legitimate, if equally frustrating, twist of RNG.

Perhaps one of my favorite examples of giving “just enough” situational narrative comes from Frank Stockton’s 1882 short story, The Lady, or The Tiger? In it, a peasant man is caught in a romantic affair with a princess and sent to the kingdom’s arena as punishment. He’s given the choice of two identical doors – behind one, a tiger that will tear him to shreds, and behind the other, a beautiful woman whom he’ll be obliged to wed immediately. Looking to the stands, he sees the princess, who nods towards the door on his right, which he unhesitatingly opens… and then the story ends, and it’s left to the reader/player to hypothesize about what happened next.

The longevity of Stockton’s story lies in the fact that it provides a host of situational narrative clues to the player, and yet the ending is so genuinely ambiguous. We know some things to be true: one door has a lady, and one door has a tiger. We know that the couple was in love. And we know that neither the princess nor the pauper hesitated in their actions. And yet the situational context created by these clues creates a genuine dilemma when applied to the personal interpretation of the reader/player.

Did the princess send him into the jaws of a tiger, or into the arms of another? Did the pauper think he was walking confidently to his death, or to a lifetime of heartache? The reader is left in a position of being able to anticipate what happened after the door was opened without being completely confident, and that’s a perfect allegory for creating well-situated narrative choices.

To create good situational choices in a narrative story, the designer should provide clear clues to the player about what makes this choice distinct from other choices that the player has previously encountered. “What makes this set of doors different from the previous set?” The balancing act with narrative is that the tools that the designer has to distinguish choices from each other is their inherent–and necessary–ambiguity. A story where the player always knows what is going to happen next isn’t much of a thrill, but a story where the player can never predict what happens next is a bunch of nonsense.

Life is Strange stands out as a particularly unique example of how “situational context” can enhance the player’s choice experience with its clever use of the “time-rewind” mechanic… allowing the player to situate their choices not only based on the information they have going in, but a glimpse at what the immediate outcome is. For example, a choice to “report” or “not report” a gun-wielding student becomes more of a dilemma when the player realizes that the former means levying the charge against one of the town’s most influential families, while the latter leads the principal to – correctly – suspect that The Player is hiding something.