Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ten Rules For Writing Video Games

I've emerged from my cave clutching a few quality pages printed by The Guardian entitled "Ten rules for writing fiction". It's actually more like 300 rules from 40 authors, some of which shouldn't be rules because they're being wrought in stone by someone who sounds just a teensy bit too self important for my tastes. In fact, when I mistook the image above the article (a spaghetti of intertwined fountain pens) for a naked orgy of fish (something I think I've mentioned already on this site -- weird) I felt like that was appropriate. The slimy, scaled bodies of sea creatures dancing in chaotic discord, making it impossible to latch onto a particular one, felt like a poignant metaphor for their barrel of rules. But pay no mind, if you like to write there are rich veins of valuable ore to be mined in those hills. But it got me to thinking about the rules of writing games, so I thought I'd share my take.

At first, it was easy to write a list in my native tongue of "assholish," but realized I would better served by offering up some legitimate learnings in my time here. Rules like #36 "If thinking about writing a game, don't," and #67 "First kidnap a programmer and keep him trapped in an old well," have due purpose if sitting down at home to write the Great American Video Game, but these rules presuppose that you have all the things in place to make some interactive fiction (including team consensus on a design and overarching story, scope, and resources) and now you just need to get it done.



#1 Design the game. If you're not deeply tied to the design process from the beginning, as a core member of the game play and puzzles, you're going to want to kill yourself. It would be like being asked to write "a thing" while in another room a group of madmen toiled away on the actual medium (tablet, notebook, elephant hide) you'd be transcribing your work upon.

#2 Don't write a video game. In the Guardian article Elmore Leonard says "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it." I think we can say the same things for games. If it sounds like something that you hear in a video game, even if it's a bark from a space marine, rewrite it. Things get interesting the more specific you make them. Games suffer from a lack of specificity in general -- generic or cliche motivations and backstory create a gelatinous foundation from which to tell a story. Don't reinforce that with trite, gamy dialog. Let a character talk about strange and specific things and you'll write a good character, not a good video game character.

#3 Understand the impact of your writing on the experience. IE: Don't hold on to a particularly genius turn of phrase or your most quality quip because you love it, gosh darn it, and it's going into the game even if it has a negative impact on playability. What I often find is that I'll write something that I really like and then realize (or more often than not have someone tell me) that it made them think their goal was something different than it was or that they didn't HAVE to talk to Doctor MaƱana, the shady pediatrician/black market organ wholesaler, because because I thought it'd be funny to suggest staying away from him. Don't let your writing (or your ego) get in the way of a good time.

#4 Read otherstuff and play other games, but be discerning. This is a piece of advice from the Guardian that really resonated with me. Don't play and read everything because that's unrealistic. Play and read the stuff that you want influencing your work, because it will. I'd love to think that my nightly Gears of War sessions don't rub off, but I assure you they do. That being said, don't stick your head in the sand either. PLAY AND READ STUFF. It makes you better and keeps you informed.

#5 Frequency of player feedback is at the utmost importance and to uphold it you have to trim the fat. I actually learned this from the Secret of Monkey Island. There is some long winded exposition and character interactions in that game but nobody remembers them as boring. Why is that? It's because you constantly, and I mean constantly choose what Guybrush gets to say next. We can have long "talky" scenes in video games. Just figure out a way to make the player a part of them. In a SCUMM style game, or in a Telltale Game, I do that by keeping my sentences short and trimming the bits that can be snipped. But most importantly, if the protagonist is going to say something in my script, why not let the player pick which way he says it? I'll make a rule for myself about how many seconds I'll let pass before asking for the player to say something. I was dreadful at this in Wallace & Gromit (where we didn't use dialog trees). If your game is about a lot of character interaction, design a mechanic where choosing what is said next is fun.

#6 All the things that make you a good writer will also make you a good game writer. So basically, everything. Treating it like a job, writing all the time (outside of the job even), treating story-telling like a craft, understanding the tools at your disposal, knowing your process, being confident of and in command of your voice, and simply just doing the work. You never write a game "for fun" because you need a team to build it. But people write screenplays and novels and plays all the time -- and the trick to being any good at that is to write write write. A lot of writers compare writing like going to the gym -- and I'd agree with that.

#7 Be flexible about what writing is. Writing isn't just dialog. It's filling out the world with the specifics of storytelling. Level designers write a large chunk of the game. Art writes the game. Create documentation and build relationships that allow you to influence these things if you're in charge of the story. That doesn't mean be a tyrant (unless you're the CCO of your own studio or a ballsy game director, then tyrant away if that's your bag) but remember, while you may be the "writer" this game will be authored by many people -- so love them and give them reasons to love you back.

#8 Don't act like a writer. Just do your job. Get the words down and act like a designer. Writers have a tendency to be self-absorbed, tortured alcoholics, but you can't act like it -- if your Art Director moped around complaining about being Wacom-blocked and feeling uninspired, he wouldn't have many friends. And neither will you. (Side note: I do this all the time and have only managed to save face at my company through pity and bribes.)

#9 Save exposition for gameplay. You know the old "show don't tell?" Think of it as "force don't tell," which is a creepy phrase out of context. Force the player to create, engage or even imagine the exposition of the story instead of relegating it to cutscenes (unless you've got a whiz-bang one that I've just gotta see). Let your writing provide texture and fine tuning to the conflicts, problems and dramas int he world.

#9.1 Drink if you have to. Generally not advised if also authoring logic or having to constantly worry about non-linear sticking points, but I say if you need a cocktail to settle in and get the shit off of Twitter, then go for it.

#10 Have fun, goddamit. You're writing a video game, not the Port Huron Statement. We get the rare opportunity to craft make-believe-button-pressy-magic that a bunch of fellas are going to have to spend good time to bring to life. If you're not having fun, get up, clear your head and come back to it. Yes, it's a job. But it's also every 13 year old's dream.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Marry, Boff, Kill

The funny thing about this column is that by the end of it will have contributed directly to the personal plight that I'm about to illustrate. Its like I want to prove that jumping into a lake -- from the cliff near old man Riley's house, not the Ox-bow bridge -- will lead to your certain demise by tossing our friend John the Slut in first and watching his frail legs shatter on the deceptively shallow bottom. In trying to communicate a thing, I've caused the very outcome I wished to prevent.

©Vincent Perea

I'm talking about creative opportunity cost. In the time it's taking me to write this (which, I will agree, is hardly creative genius) I could be crafting the great American novel, working on a pitch for a totally sweet interactive video gaaaaame, figuring out the plot of the comic I'm trying to cook up or taking a nap. I have eight to twelve functional productive hours a day. I have eight to twelve million things I'd like to write. One must choose. One must also find time to check that cheddar so he can do things like put diamonds in his Jesus-piece or get the gyoza AND the dipping sauce at Trader Joes.

Maybe it's because in today's day and age you feel compelled to take every opportunity because one might not come up again. Or not only do you want to write novels, short stories, movies, TV, games, comics, blogs and religious pamphlets, but any avenue is essentially OPEN to you and they all have their weird cultural caches. I don't think Hemingway had to deal with this shit. He broke out his Royal Portable, drank a daiquiri (an not a froo-froo strawberry slushy, I'm talking about the real McCoy), shot a fucking leopard, and then wrote the great American novel. EN BEE DEE.

I'm sure it's just a flagpost of writerly immaturity -- the sort of "kid in a candystore" vibe where you just want to shove everything in your mouth and nom til you puke. I kinda feel that way with writing. I mean, ACTUALLY writing, where I have to sit here and make words into sentences and so forth? Fuck that, it's hard and a real pain in the ass. But having WRITTEN something? That's a feeling I can get on board with and indulge in quite regularly. If I could just find a way to stand proudly above the fruits of my labors without all that... laboring, I would be one happy camper. But alas, each thing that ends up on the page is a byproduct of infinite strikes of the delete key (or "backspace" for all ya'll PC squares) and takes about a quarter of a century to produce.

I don't believe in writer's block really. I don't believe in "you've only got one great thing in you." I mean, success can breed complacency, but look at a guy like Michael Chabon. While quite a bit wordier than our man Mister Hemingway, he drops a Pulitzer Prize winner on us and then turns around and writes the best detective novel of the past forty years. The man goes to work.

But what I do believe in is the body of work you're able to accomplish in the time you've got. And that, as much as I wanted to believe that I could be the 21st century renaissance man and dabble in a little of this and a little of that, history rewards specialization -- being the best you can be in the field you're in -- and is much as it pains me to say it, that takes focus. And experience. And your fair share of misfires and fuck ups. These are things that you don't get if you get distracted and decide it's time to write a short-story via Twitter.

Because your time is valuable. It is the only finite resource you have. You can expand your vocabulary, you can go have wild experiences, you can get into trouble, you can add to your well in a million different ways, but you cannot add to your clock. Nevertheless, opportunities arise and you leap at them. You'll make time. You'll get to work early and get home earlier and eat dinner faster and write later. The same thing applies to other lines of creative work, as my very good buddy Vincent Perea knows. He's a full-time art director at an agency and a full-time artist for the upcoming "Misadventures of PB Winterbottom" (and responsible for all that redonk art you're seeing on IGN and such), he works on his own paintings and gets hit by my roommate (the incomaprable Adam Nace) to illustrate some crazy architectural combat narrative. He's a ragged shell of a man. But his fire burns and he has to do it ALL. I feel his pain.

Studios have the same problem. Except instead of it being a personal plight tied to directly to one poor bastard's ego, you've got to choose the right project for your studio at the right time. What does your audience want? Fuck, what do YOU want? What can you afford? What will make sure your studio makes another game? You're about to burn 1600 hours a week of grown people's time and make sure a bunch of fellas don't see their wives that often. This is creative opportunity cost. Far too often, in this industry, you get one shot at it. What the hell do you choose?

There's really no right answer. Or should I say, any wrong answer. I've found -- finally -- that whatever I pick to do is the right thing. It has to be. If it's a pitch or a script for a TV show that will never get made or whathaveyou, the thing that I'll give up fun stuff for is usually the thing I should be working on. And then, you've committed so much of yourself to something that man, it had BETTER be the right choice, or you're going to be ordering the single-serving bullet appetizer followed by the cheque please because countless hours of your life are going to be gone because of it.

Which idea am I going to marry? Which one am I going to make sweet throwaway love to and which one am I gonna kill? I've made peace with having to make the choice, but that doesn't mean it's not a huge struggle. I mean, goddam. Think of what I could have done with this time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's About Time

I have to imagine that my fellow designers at Telltale often think I'm a total ass. Or a confusing mix of pretentious and dim. It's hard to say. In our latest team meeting, we were discussing hypothetical future projects, and as we tossed a certain premise around, there was traction for the sorts of things you would do in a video game if it were set in this specific place. As we continued to brainstorm and banter I found myself struggling to find a foothold in the conversation primarily due to, well, the aforementioned dimness, but also because the idea we were discussing, at that point, wasn't ABOUT anything. So I said... "but guys... it needs to be about something." To which I, deservedly, received some dismissive stares and my daily serving of "duhhhhh" eye-rolls. About something, you say?! Why! What a novel idea! It should be ABOUT something! Somebody get this man a mahogany desk and tarty little secretary he can sexually harass!

Look, I know "guys, it has to be about something" is a thing a douche would say. But it's important. And I realize I say lots of shit is important. But that's because... well, you know, it is. Things are. Important. This is one of them.

I can't really do anything much of quality until I've figured out what something is about. Wallace and Gromit's Muzzled! was a steaming pile before I realized that it was about Gromit's relationship with and faith in Wallace and not about flash gadgets that turn arctic water-fowl into jewel thieves. Same goes for Monkey Island -- I routinely pee'd in Joe Pinney's cheerios, metaphorically speaking, giving him narrative garbage to work with until I put my finger on the pulse of Guybrush's grand story and what it's about. (Uh, monkeys, right?)

And regardless of control hitches or the odd wonky puzzle, those two games are ABOUT something, and for that I'm tremendously proud. But being "about" something does more than give me a smug sense of satisfaction: I found that once those games were clearly about something, the team found a common language for which to do their work, instinctively knowing which sorts of things were important and worthy of their energy (such as spending extra time on Gromit's facial expressions during pivotal emotional moments) and which were not (a joke that was axed in MI:Lair of the Leviathan that may or may not have made a vague reference to a despicable sex act). Anybody who's ever made a videogame, or, shit, ever made lasagna understands that time is a precious resource and must be spent where it counts. On the sauce of course.

I lump theme, mission, purpose -- these sorts of things -- into my catch all word "about." How would you describe what Team Fortress 2 is "about" based on the way I described Wallace and Monkey? It's difficult. The characters aren't really at the heart of the conflict and unless you're a hardcore fan who digests all the comics and movies that Valve puts out around every update (which are awesome by the by), there isn't really a story there trying to convey any message. I suppose you could really stretch the FPS premise wafer thin and say its a game about the eternal existential conflict of man vs self where innumerable clones of the same type of combatant must do battle ad infinitum simply because one half of himself is "red" and the other is "blue" -- a dichotomy that could be paralleled to Freud's ideas behind the id and ego, which would explain the aggression, the instinctive nature of the battle and why my k/d ratio never gets over one. Of course, if you made this stretch in earnest, you would be an even bigger douche than I. Welcome to the club, here is your sash.

The point is, Team Fortress is a game about building the slickest, constantly evolving and well-balanced multiplayer shooter anyone's ever played, while testing the paradigm of visual design that core gamers will embrace. If someone walks in to the room carrying fifteen million dollars and says "this is what this game is going to be about" everyone can go back to their desks and at least begin to work. Did that happen at Valve? Probably not. Did they still make a great game? Yeah. How did they do it? Magic. How the hell should I know?

I only bring this up because I feel like a lot of games don't know what they're about. Or aren't trying to be about anything. I'm not going to name names or point fingers but I will use my belt buckle to gesticulate subtly towards my most anticipated game of the year. Figuring out what your game or book or project or startup or comic or oil painting is "about" gives you the only rubric you need to make creative choices. You ask yourself two things: does this fit in line with what this is about and is this over complicating or drawing attention away from the core of what this is about? From there, you're only limited by your ability to conjure up crazy and compelling shit and make honest calls about what fits and what doesn't.

Joe and I went through a 48 hour phase where we wanted the manatee love match puzzle in episode 3 to be about making your manatee more attractive. We thought it was going to be hilarious! He's got bad breath! YES! He's predisposed with terrible underwater flatulence! HAHAHAHA! He's a premature ejaculator!* BUWAHAHA BRILLO! (*not a real idea) But as you can see, this idea, over time, quickly became what Jake (@Ja2ke) described as "you want to put lipstick on a fucking manatee?" It didn't fit in the world and it certainly wasn't helping support what the game was about. Where we ended up -- having to help an aloof male and overly aggressive female manatees communicate landed perfectly because it related to Guybrush and Morgan (who *spoiler* don't swim off to bone like the manatees do). We had to be honest about what the episode and the franchise as a whole was about, and the game was better for it.


So answer the about question. Whatever you're doing. Maybe it's obvious to everyone else, but it's something I have to spend real energy doing every time I start something. Whether it's a blogpost, a game, a story, a comic or a relationship, knowing where you're going and why you're headed there makes all the difference.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Of An Uncertain Tone

I haven't decided if this is going to be about games yet.

It's relatively simple to tie anything back around to the state of the industry, storytelling, or environmental exposition in Bioshock. I just don't know if I'm going to swing it this time. If that's your bag, read on, because maybe I'll parlay my thoughts into a tangible talking point ar-ee interactivity. But, if the idea of having to wade through something more nebulous and potentially personal to get to said point gives you the the heebies and perhaps the jeebies, then wait for you obligatory "Tales of Monkey Island is wrapping next week" post where I'll talk about what it was like to be a part of that game.

I was at a birthday gathering on Saturday with some extended family - a great aunt and uncle, their children, my god sons, and the family's network of friends, most of whom it had been a couple of years since I'd seen. I approached the event with the same attitude and expectations as I always have: knowing, narcissistically, that I'd be asked about my job, told how great I was doing and reminded that I'm still a doe-eyed scamp with all the time in the world to yadayadayada...

This is not what happened.

Instead, I was questioned about my girlfriend, or lack thereof. "Where's that girl? I like that girl."

Girl gone. No girl here. Girl left. Girl is in fact ex-girl.

"Oh, but weren't you two--"

Yes, we were.

"Are you--"

I'm fine.

"I'm so surprised--"

That makes two of us, pal.

Now, allow me to quickly pull the brakes on the "Misuse of a Blog About Video Games and Enthusiasms Express" that is barreling into a head-on collision with the "Heart Break Limited." (For the record, this didn't happen recently at all, my heart is fine, and I will not speak of it again). Mostly because of social graces, the ladyfriend line of questioning quickly came to a halt (Except for one older gentleman who a. Tried to convince me to go on a hero's odyssey to reclaim my former mate and b. Asked me to promise that I wouldn't die alone. In response to this, I say a: I'm short on PTO and b: I'm on it) and the conversation quickly turned to "So, when do you think you'll want to get married?"

I feel like this is like asking a kid who just flunked out of community college when is he going to go for that PhD.

Aside from the ridiculousness of the question (which, in their defense, was generally followed with "Not that you should be in any rush..." -- note the ellipsis, denoting a sarcastically casual trail off.) The thing that truly bothers me about all of this is the tonal shift in the line of questioning. I want to be the up and comer, dammit. Remember the aforementioned doe-eyed scamp? That's ME. I'm not a seasoned professional who's looking to put down some roots at the office and at home.

But then I look at my job and the modicum of success I've scrounged up in the past couple years and I start to think "Wait...maybe I AM a grown up?" I've worked on some things. I've taken on a bit of responsibility. I bought a car, on credit. I add these things up and can't help but see the overwhelming evidence that I have, in fact, matured.

Shortly thereafter I write a manatee sex joke for a video game and everything that was in such stark focus racks back out to a cloudy soup of ageless obscurity.

Because, when I'm doing this, my scroungy youth is the fuel in the rocket ship. All of it. The snark. Any sort of "biting" tone. The awkwardness. How the fuck am I supposed to be awkward if I'm getting married? I'm under the impression that if you're eternally bonding yourself to your soul-mate, you should have your awkwardness on lock.


I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been struggling with tone lately. I left school and began to write in recreational and professional capacities with a firm sense of my voice. I knew what I was about. Every penny I (and my reluctant Dad) gave to my college was put towards cracking that nut, and it was money well spent. But here I am on a much different precipice and that voice feels as elusive as ever.

Which is sort of how I feel about the game industry. Aha! I did it. I brought that shit RIGHT back. Like Bruce Willis in any sort of sequel he decides to participate in we are too old for this shit. It's an industry that exploded on the raw energy of its potential, and succeeded in establishing itself in every sense. But now some seventy-two year old in a private room of a North Bay restaurant is telling us to find someone, marry them, and put no less than two seeds in their belly before we die alone. Five minutes ago we were shooting aliens in the face and giving each other fist bumps. The contrast in tonal shift is paralyzing.

The same way I'm now trying to, in a very new time of my life, figure out what the next stint of time is going to be "about," as is the game industry. We're pulled in multiple directions. There's the strong indie games movement. There are the AAA blockbusters. We're generally down with finding enemies, creatures, aliens or zombies and killing them. We're also flirting with the sultry girl in the corner who calls herself "emergent." We're figuring out what stories we want to tell but mainly just doing what we've always done and hoping that the bag of tricks somehow gets a little deeper.

I'm not sure where the tone of what I write is going to go. My life is completely different from when I started here at Telltale. I still feel like a cockeyed optimist. But I think I've got more to say? Maybe experience and clarity have actually given me less to say. It's hard to say. But I feel--and the same goes for the game industry here--that this realization that things are in fact different now, by virtue of it simply being the future is a good thing. We will either rise to the challenge, not missing a step or we'll spin our wheels, quickly becoming that thirty-something guy at the party who is still trading on stories of a faraway youth that have left his ego sadder and bloodier than a prison yard beat down.

I feel like I've still got a few precious moments of daylight left where I can still trade on the stock of my youthful name. Sure, the "So, what's next?" questions will keep coming, from colleagues, friends and family. People will expect babies. Better games. All of it. But like how you had that high school teacher who you knew you could squeeze eight good minutes of tardiness out of without repercussion, I think I can waylay any sort of serious commitment at least for a few moments longer. Now I just need to get back to it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Could've Been

This is really just a post about what this post could've been and probably would've been had I broken my own rule and also not been lazy.

I've been playing Modern Warfare 2. I'm about five minutes from the end of the campaign and have been feverishly churning through the multiplayer with a semi-consistent crew of folks. These are gamers who, like me, have that weird competitive gene that makes me say "one more" when I'm playing an MP shooter or something like Geometry Wars. I'm not proud of this gene. It is a shameful albatross, a flag post for my hubris, my ego and my desire to be the best. I talk a lot about story-driven narrative experiences, but I love those games with a different part of my brain.

The rule I was going to break is where I promised I would never poo poo another game in the industry. I had one hell of a self-righteous rant queued up concerning this scene, its failure at storytelling and what a catastrophic missed opportunity it was for the game and for storytelling in the industry, in general. But then Kieron Gillen at Rock Paper Shotgun had to go all Zeus thunder-stealer on it and drop his opinion in a much more lucid and succinct fashion than I ever could.

So if you're wondering what I think about that level, imagine I'm the guy at a company brainstorm who, when it's his turn to add to the laundry list of ideas on the whiteboard shamefully utters "uh, yeah, what he said."

I was really impressed by Kieron's thoughts. As I usually am with people who agree with me, I guess. Had he championed the scene in such a well-thought-out fashion, I suppose I'd call him a shameless dolt and spend the next two thousand words tearing him down like a grade-a douche. Outside of the merits of the scene, I only find myself angry on one front: you have an audience of (seriously) fifteen million goddamn people. Craft this shit. Bring me through a story with delicate, delicious bread crumbs and then, just as we approach the climax, give me a choice.

Whatthefuck? Didn't I just berate choice one post ago? Yes. I berated "be good/be evil" Fable/KOTOR style choice. But if I decide to shoot innocents, recognize this. If I decide to not pull the trigger, take note. If I shoot over their heads, fucking SAY something about it. This scene could've been a crafted to be something impressive. Now I'm getting into Kieron Gillen territory so I'll spare you the rehash. But goddamn, we were so close. The budget was there. The carte blanche, evident. The time. And, the most coveted of all things: the eyes. A built in audience of millions who were going to digest this story hook line and sinker.

GAHHH...

I apologize for adding (about a week late, mind you) to the discourse about MW2:NR, giving youa shoddily worded, haphazard, hamfisted bit of writing. Hmm. That reminds me of something.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Choices! They Do Nothing!

While strolling through the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Chris Remo, of the late Idling Thumbs recently pointed out that the reference made in the title of this post is actually a widespread Simpson's misquote like "play it again Sam," or "Luke, I am your father;" two culturally pervasive quotations that were, in fact, never said. Mr. Remo was right.

Regardless, I think the line plays better as two sentences and I'm sure if Dan Castellaneta and company had to do over, they would agree.


But this actually a post about video games. And not some cop-out "ooh, I'm playing Torchlight" (I'm not really but I zipped through the demo: it's Diablo, but genetically engineered by bad men to ween out any act or down time that could come between you and it's ability to transform players into addicts) or "hey, my game is coming out, please buy it" (It is out and you should buy it) but an ACTUAL "here are my thoughts about a certain aspect of game design that sticks in my craw" blog post. The existence of this entry is a evidence of an uptick of free time and/or fervent procrastination.

We talk a lot about choice. In the office, as an industry, hell, as a society. From San Francisco to Austin to Cologne, designers stand at lecterns hailing the profundity of "player choice" in an interactive world. "How do you play?" "Will you be benevolent or wicked?" "The choice is yours!"

Bullshit.

Well, I shouldn't say that. Not bullshit. Still poop, but not particularly bullshit. We get so hung up on this idea of choice that somewhere along the way we forget that choices have to matter. And for choices to truly matter -- not just within the robot drawing the game on the screen, but, you know, in our minds a choice needs to be compelling, natural, and unlimited. I'll work backwards from that list to make some sort of argument.

By unlimited I mean without limit. Any sort of "choice" needs to be presented in such a fashion that your attention is not drawn to other options that you cannot choose. Often times, all presenting options does is elucidate the ones that AREN'T there. Interactive fiction (think choose your own adventure if you're not from Squaresville and haven't played Masq) is a perfect example of this.

As you exit the shower, you are stopped dead in your cold, wet tracks. There, in the door, piercing the heavy steam of the bathroom with his primal stare, is a chimpanzee in a yellow rain slicker.

If you kick the smelly chimp in the face, turn to page 37.

If you shriek like Janet Leigh, dropping your towel and exposing yourself to the beast, turn to page 71.

See? Those are some pretty limiting choices. What if you just want to give the little bastard a high five and go make an omelet? Granted, this example is ridiculous (and by ridiculous I mean going into my design notebook under Game Idea: Chimp Creep) but it begs the question, "how do we provide a suite of abilities from which the player can make choices in an interactive space?" Do you just press the "expose yourself to a primate" button? Is there a list of options on screen? Perhaps there's a drop down menu? Anyway you slice this cucumber, you're left in the land of the limiting -- simply because we give you any choice. You're left feeling pushed and pulled in one direction or another, and I argue, feeling less like a real person in an alive world and more like a distant reader picking a curious fate in order to see what happens. More on this a minute.

Natural choices are a little easier for us to get to, as designers. I think using my above chimpanzee story in an attempt to talk about natural choices is probably a bad idea, but we can all think of the sorts of things that one would do, naturally, in a situation. But for, me, that's not compelling either. Sure, I might open the window. I might flush the toilet. I might kick that chimp. What I do is what defines me: it is what makes me a unique person, it is what creates character, it is what creates story. And if we give you choices, you create the story.

Aside: (Which, in a boardroom, seems like a sentence that would drop the proverbial panties: "Our player creates their own story! [Seven men in Brooks Brothers blazers look right, look left, agree, and simultaneously produce erections.] That's dandy if you're playing The Sims - a game where you are building little inferential narratives in your head as you play. If you've sat down with my game, I imagine it's because you want to be part of a story I'm telling. And selling something on that merit, in a boardroom, is a fuckofalot harder.)

And on top of being natural, a choice, to matter, has to be compelling. When presented with the chimp in the bathroom (who I'm starting to imagine as a probable flasher) "brushing your hair" shouldn't be an option. That's not compelling. It's curious, but it's not a compelling action. Who decides what's compelling? The author. As a person sitting down to play a game or watch a movie, you trust that the author has made and presented some compelling choices. If he or she hasn't, we generally walk away from these games or movies thinking that they are not good.

I argue that the ideas of natural and compelling are in direct opposition. I think it's hard enough, in any medium, to tell one good story. When we start giving players choice over what they're going to do in a world -- and those choices start to define the story (ie: choices that take future choices off the table) we are writing many many many stories. And some would argue that ALL of those stories can be compelling. "But did you kill the corrupt cop? What happens if you didn't? Go back and play it again and find out!" I, in general, disagree. Diverging paths doesn't make something more interesting. It just makes it, well, more.

If you're going to force me to make choices in a game, what I find interesting in games is when I can be given a binary choice that DOESN'T effect the world (ie: state) of the game, but some how colors my interpretation of future events. I don't want limitless options. If I'm given options, I want to be between a rock and a hard place: given a binary choice with limited information and ambiguous moral consequence, think for a minute about what to do, do it, and move on. I don't want this choice to open up a branching path. But I want it to tint the lens through which I see the rest of the world and experience the rest of the game. Bioshock's Harvest vs Save child-murder-toss-up is a great example of this.

I don't want to make a choice in a game world to see what happens. I want to experience a game world the way I experience the real world: I do things that put me in a favorable position, are fun, interesting or ultimately fulfilling. I don't kick chimps in the face to see what happens. I do it because I'm afraid of them and I tend to jump to violence far too quickly. A world where I'm pulling levers (making choices) to just see what happens is chaotic. It's a toy, a device, a big question mark machine. Games like that can be fun. But I don't like to make (ie: I'm not good at making) those types of games.

Any game can present a system where the choices I make have consequences. But it's rare that a game can ask me to make those choices and give a shit. GTA IV has those moments, but again, I don't feel like I'm taking a branching path. I still go do the same missions, but the effect of my "choice" lingers with ME, the player, which is far more important than my XBOX's hard drive (although I do concede that one character is available on my celly and another is not - again, not a huge earth-shattering choice but an elegant reminder of whose brain caught a bullet).

And for a choice to linger with me, the story and the world has to be well constructed. And I think the more "choices" we give a player, choices that are generally not tied tightly to a central theme, the harder it is to craft that narrative. I've done a lot of talk about binary choices: life/death being the heaviest, primitive example. Because, from a story telling perspective, to me, binary choices are the ones that I'm able to manage elegantly. Did you or didn't you. Yes or no. Alive or dead. From there I can really make the theme of a story do its work. Bioshock asks you: are you a cold man of logic or are you a sympathetic man of fate. And then it asks you again. And again. And again. All the while throwing more and more danger your way. Are you still a sympathetic man of faith? It isn't that I chose to save or harvest a little girl. It's that I continue to. Everything that happens outside of that choice is tinted by it. In my opinion, if we're going to have choice in games AND have taught cinematic narratives, this is the way choices should be presented.

And then there are the Uncharted 2's of the world: lauded romps of unbelievable adventure. There are no choices other than continue to move forward or pause the game and catch your breath. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, it seems like a perfect proving ground for the industry to hone our storytelling skills, mature, experiment with new and different themes, and revolutionize our industry from a perspective that everyone (gamers and nongamers) understands: that of audience member. I don't need to be presented the foreign idea of branching narratives: I need a goddam good story. I need a character I care about. I need a character I can put myself in the shoes of. There are exceptions to this, but shut up, I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about how in every Coen Brothers movie, no matter how flawed or fucked up their protagonist is, I truly care about them (this is one of the most impressive story-telling feats of our time). Let's start there. Let's build systems that allow us to stop worrying about them so much and focus on the things that we, as humans respond to.

Lets, as writers, designers and authors make our own choices. Because, at the end of the day, that is what our audience will respond to the most.