I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot
Choice-based / Twine
Play online: http://www.ifcomp.org/ballot#entry-1174
(This game is mobile friendly.)
highly randomized fantasy begging sim or bleak slot machine poem
This is a begging simulator created in Twine with a very minimalist fantasy setting. You can choose to beg, causing a random event, and sometimes you can choose – or are forced – to leave and beg at a new city. Sometimes people give you money, sometimes they ignore you, and sometimes they react abusively. Often you die, from random events or starvation and tiredness. There is no other interaction – you have no control over the events.
I could dig into the subject matter in this review and talk about society, homelessness, begging, the vulnerability and invisibility of our underclass. Instead, I want to talk about meaningful choices and the games that subvert them.
Game developers spend a lot of time thinking about how to give players meaningful choices. It’s one of the holy grails of game design that people have lectured, written, and argued heatedly about within the game industry. Since I have a lot of students that read my blog, here’s some articles and talks I recommend on the topic of meaningful choice:
- “Improving Player Choices” by Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain, and Steve Hoffman
- “When Choice is Bad: Finding the Sweet Spot for Player Agency” by Soren Johnson
- “Interesting Decisions” by Sid Meier (talk)
- “Meaningful Choice in Games: Practical Guide and Case Studies” by Brice Morrison
If you take our word for it, then meaningful choices are about giving the player control over the events in the game and imbibing each choice with appropriate, significant consequences. Choice is the key to allowing players to test their skill, develop short-term and long-term strategies, express themselves creatively or morally (such as in Minecraft or Fable, respectively). In some games, the choices may be who you kill, what items to craft, which spell to use, what kind of unit to build, how you spend your resources, or where to explore. Almost every game is filled with choices, big and small, since choice is usually tied to the main gameplay mechanics.
I would argue that the lack of choice is meaningful in its own right when done carefully and deliberately.
“Begscape” is a good example of this. By taking away choice and taking away control from the player, it’s demonstrating the lack of agency a (metaphorical) beggar has in society: they exist at the whims of others. To play in this role, the player must relinquish their power, a situation completely contrary to any player’s natural expectation that games serve as their own personal power fantasies. Now, when I talk about power fantasies I’m not talking about saving-the-world-and-getting-the-girl sort of fantasies, but rather fantasies of power and agency. We construct artificial worlds and then fill them with rules that give players power and agency over that world and everything within it. We create a fiction where players act as the most powerful characters – warriors, conquerors, heroes, gods – where power is a reflection of meaningful choices.
Below, I’m going to talk about these games (all short, free games):
- Good Fortune by Austin Breed
- Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn
- Calories by Emma Fearon (content warning!)
- Save the Date by Paper Dino
All of these games deliberately and intentionally rob the player of meaningful choices using a variety of techniques, and all of these games are, narratively, about power.
In “Good Fortune”, the player has only two choices: pray for good fortune to deliver you from poverty, or check the mail slot for that never-arriving good fortune. It’s a lot like “Begscape”, just replace “beg” with “pray”. If you think “Good Fortune” isn’t a very good game and that the lack of consequences means the choices are meaningless, all you have to do is look at the fifty-five pages of comments on the game’s page filled with different interpretations and debates about religion and the role of hard work.
Next up is “Depression Quest”, a Twine game about – you guessed it – depression. The player does have agency in the beginning of the game, with plenty of choices with significant (but small) consequences. As the depression sets in over time, the player’s choices are taken away – still there, visible but struck out, taunting you with paths you can no longer take. Here, we see first-hand how depression can rob a person of their own agency, how mental illness can exert control over your life. Even if you know what action you should take to right things, that doesn’t mean you are actually able to take it.
“Calories” is actually the very first Twine game I ever played. It’s extremely short and covers life in a day for a young woman with an eating disorder. Choices in the game are almost entirely about food, and time passed is marked by meals or snacks. Anyone familiar with eating disorders will know that they are, for the most part, not about food but about power. Many people who suffer from eating disorders feel powerless in their lives, and food is the one way in which they feel like they can assert control over their own lives. These insignificant choices of “eat an apple” or “eat nothing” grow to become disproportionately significant to reflect the protagonist’s obsessive thought patterns. (The ending of “Calories” is also a narrative about power and agency, but I won’t get into that here).
“Save the Date” looks on the surface like a simple narrative about a date with a girl, but ends in her death. The title gives you an implicit goal to save your date, but each time you replay it doesn’t matter what choices you take – she always dies. The player retains information (the knowledge this is a game, how she dies, etc.) and is presented with more choices on each replay. But the player can never actually circumvent fate and eventually comes to the conclusion that they cannot win and must choose to give up. The only way to prevent your date’s death is to never go on the date in the first place, or hack the game to reach an ultimately unsatisfying and unearned ending.
There are of course other games that play on agency and power. “Stanley Parable” and “Portal” both lift the curtain between game designer and player. They still give players choices – often to deliberate disobey the carefully constructed game rules – while narrators mock them for it. These are games that, while being about agency, still give the player a great deal of agency rather than take it away.
I think we focus a lot on player agency without really touching on how lack of agency can also be meaningful. Our games are often power fantasies, and we know that taking away power – usually in the form of abilities – can have a strong emotional effect on players. If you want to make a player cry, then take away something they love – take away their agency, not a meaningless sidekick. I would argue that the real reason people were so upset that Aerith in “Final Fantasy 7” died is because as the party healer she was the single most useful character in the game. By killing her – and taking away those abilities – Sephiroth becomes the player’s villain, not just Cloud’s.
Taking choice away from the player unfortunately falls into the category of “gimmick” – a one-use technique that doesn’t bear out over time. The effect can be powerful, but it’s also short. Continue to take away player agency and they will lose interest. If you make an entire game about lack or loss of player agency and players will not last very long unless the game has a great deal of other content to distract the player, like in “Dear Esther”. When this technique does appear in larger games it’s usually during the early introduction (given great powers and then stripped of them at the real start of the game) or at the tail end of Act 2 (a low point in the narrative – capture by the enemy, death of an ally, failure to stop the bomb, etc.).
I don’t think “Begscape” is the best example of how lack of choice is meaningful in its own right, but it does follow a trend in experimental art games to explore what role choice and agency can have in games if you abandon the idea that all games are power fantasies.