The Blogging Parlour

I think I have some biscuit crumbs down my trousers.

Quick Time Blogging Event!

HeaderParagonRenegade

Historical Note: This comment originally appeared as three, in response to Pengun, on Rock Paper Shotgun.

“Your husband… Is dead,” said Brent Hardjaw.

And this, gentle player, is where the story of Brent Hardjaw – ACTION HERO – splits in three. Two icons appear on the screen, one for Renegade action, one for Paragon action. Choose your path wisely, dear player!

Renegade

Hardjaw goes to put his arm around her – but no, it’s a feint! He punches her full in the face! She falls to the floor, and he frowns at the camera woodenly:
“This widow… is a BOMB.”
The widow lies on the ground rubbing her jaw, eyes flashing with rage, and a little smoldering lust.
“How did you know I have been a terrorist bomb all along, infidel?” she spits her words like deadly, deadly knives.
“I didn’t,” smirks Hardjaw. “You just confirmed it.”

Paragon

The grieving widow slumps forwards into the manly arms of Brent Hardjaw, sobbing deeply! She clutches him for the strength only his wooden arms can provide:
“But… You see… I am a BOMB!”
Hardjaw nods quietly, and deadpans: “I know.”
“I’ve been a terrorist bomb all my life.”
Hardjaw smiles at her and takes her hand gently in his own.
“I’ve always known. But it’s okay, you don’t have to explode.”
“…Okay,” sniffs the widow.

You didn’t select one and time ran out!

“Your husband saved a kitten sanctuary by smothering flames with his own flesh… To death.”
“Brent, you’re the godfather to our children and have been a close friend for many years, and you’re also my brother-in-law, but… I am a BOMB!”
“How could I have missed the signs that are so obvious in hindsight?” cries Hardjaw.
“FOR TERRORISM!” she shrieks, detonating.
Hardjaw is blown through a closed window, landing in a shower of glass shards.
“Nooooo! Mrs. Doomed-Sidekick! I shall avenge you!” swears Hardjaw.

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7 thoughts on “Quick Time Blogging Event!

  1. When you lay it out like this, with the ability to almost-immediately go back and see all the different consequences for each action/inaction, the narrative certainly begins to fall apart. How could the previously established narrative support a protagonist that has never known and never suspected, never known and always suspected, and always known the bomb-identity of the late/defused/still alive widow Mrs. Doomed-Sidekick at the same time?

    But when you’re playing in the moment, and your action excludes your knowledge of the other consequences, the narrative doesn’t really unravel. It seems natural, and flows into the next scene/decision/etc.

    This begs a few interesting questions: Do we destroy or cheapen experiences with branching narratives when we play as obsessive completionists, desperate to know every outcome before making a decision? Is it vain or missing-the-point-ish for a designer to require a player to play a certain way (don’t go back and immediately find out the other consequences, you should make decisions and not be able to change the past, like in real life!)? Would playing that way make the game a better/worse or less/more complete/cohesive experience? Can we design narratives and backstories that can support all three consequences being true without too much suspension of disbelief?

    Am I overthinking this?

    Also, does the player get the option to start as Brenda Hardjaw at the start of the game?

    • What thorough thinking. Yes, you’re right, you have identified the cardinal sin that it doesn’t hold up as a consistent narrative. However, while the Mass Effect series largely manages to remain consistent with its own past, the same cannot be said for Starcraft 2 Wings of Liberty.

      In Starcraft 2, the player is sometimes asked to make a choice. A good example is the Colonist mini-arc. Protect a possibly-infested Terran colony from the Protoss who have come to cleanse it? Or side with the Protoss and burn the colony as a sacrifice to save potentially millions of lives? Whichever you choose turns out to be the right choice. If you side with the Protoss, the ladyscientist you’ve been talking to turns into a ladymonster and tries to kill you, and you spend the next mission burning infested Terran buildings. If you side with the Terrans, the colony was clean all along, and you have to defend innocent civilians against the advancing Protoss. The same with the other choices you have to make. You’re incapable of making a wrong choice – which is fortunate, since you don’t really have enough information to make a meaningful choice anyway.

      This was, actually, part of my original intent while writing it, spurred partially by Kieron Gillen’s RPS article here. I am not sure where the line is between an interactive game, and a user-steered story. If you can’t make mistakes, do you really have agency?

      • Hadn’t heard about the “choices” in Starcraft 2. Do you think those “The player can never be wrong” style choices are a result of the game trying to deliver a power-fantasy?

        “We would never want the player to feel like they’d made a moral mistake, because that would ruin the feeling of badassery we want them to feel while playing the game. Because being a badass is fun, and therefore making mistakes and not being a badass is not fun. And games are about FUN ONLY FUN WHOO BE A BADASS YOU CAN DO NO WRONG!”

        On user-agency: I think sometimes having the illusion of agency and then yanking it away can be useful for delivering a theme, but definitely gets old. Not sure if you’ve played Telltale’s Walking Dead games. If not, spoilers below.

        In one of the episodes, someone is accused of being a traitor, and another of the characters has become pretty unhinged while flinging accusations. I stuck up for the person getting accused, and the game told me she would remember that.

        The mentally unhinged lady then blows her head off. I guess she remembered it for the rest of her life.

        I went back and played through the scene again, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t save her. It was frustrating, and I think that was a design choice. The Walking Dead is all about forcing you to realize how powerless humans are, how monstrous we can be, and how weak we can feel when circumstances are outside of our control. It’s about real people learning to deal with a world outside of their control.

        My choice was meaningless in regards to the narrative, and had no effect on plot outcomes. But was it meaningless to me? Didn’t I feel as though I had made the right choice to stick up for her? Didn’t the fact that I made the choice that I thought was right mean something? That should matter, at least to me, right?

        Returning to Mass Effect. I have admittedly only played the third game, mainly because of the hubbub surrounding the endings. And yes, there were three buttons you could get at the end to watch three different movies, but that doesn’t mean that your choices had no meaning. I chose to save a race of sentient machines from extinction! I chose to keep myself romantically detached from everyone even though they were practically throwing themselves into my bed! I empowered a race of genetic monstrosities that had been oppressed nearly to extinction!

        Those decisions tell a meaningful story in the onctext of the game and its narrative, regardless of the fact that they didn’t directly influence the final cinematic I saw at the end of the game.

        /rambling.

        Ah, my dear Smingleigh. You make me want to write more. Thank you for listening to my ramblings, my good sir.

      • More succinctly put: Mass Effect 3’s ending is not meaningful on its own. Regardless of what you choose, you will save the universe. But all the decisions before that ARE meaningful, and help to add meaning to your final decision. Because, in the decisions leading up to saving the universe, you are building a universe that you personally believe is worth saving.

        Electron Dance also wrote something on choice you may enjoy if you haven’t already seen it.

        http://www.electrondance.com/stop-crying-about-choice/

        Sorry, I have certainly overthought all this.

      • While I agree with you that cannot-be-wrong choices are pure power fantasy, they’re also lazy storytelling. A choice made without sufficient information to be able to make a meaningful decision is no choice at all. Were you to give someone enough information to allow them to make a choice and then make their choice the correct one no matter what, you either have to rewrite or ignore the prior story.

        My main problem with the Starcraft 2 choices were that they prevented any meaningful information being given to the player. What’s better – a steady stream of clues leading to the player deciding for themselves that the colonists are not to be trusted? Or no information either way, and then reality warping around the player’s choice? It’s a story device that, by its very workings, prevents the delivery of meaningful parts of the story! Now if the mission it had gone to were, say:

        1) Defend the colonists against the Protoss. The colonists turn on you half way through the mission, and you have to switch sides to join the Protoss to wipe them out.
        2) Join with the Protoss to wipe out the colonists. The first few scripted sequences are the colonists begging for mercy. Perhaps wiping out a few buildings results in screams and sobbing. Then, when the player is starting to doubt things, the colonists turn toothy and attack.

        Now that would have been a meaningful choice, and it would not preclude giving the player the information they need to make the choice in the first place!

        On the other hand, though, the Mass Effect ending’s narrowing down to “pick one of three” sat well with me. Yes, that entire choice was a win-regardless choice, but there was no story omitted to make it that way. The choices existed naturally within the story-space, and required no rewriting of the past.

        I guess I found Starcraft 2 to be a betrayal of story integrity, and the Mass Effect 3 ending was a culmination of the story that left the story intact, and required no butchery of the past to make it work.

        I’m going to have to think more about the Walking Dead choice you mentioned, as that is clearly a different beast, but I’m not currently able to articulate it the way I’d like to.

    • PS: Brenda Hardjaw would be acceptable.

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