We play games for the story. Win or lose, we love telling stories to each other about the events that happened, the victories won, the ones who got away, the times we may have gotten beat down and things like that. I still know stories of interesting sessions where it was like watching a high roller in a casino in one of those movies, the dice roll, spinning, spinning, as time slows down and you’re waiting to see the crucial seconds of what number does it stop on before the cheers or weeping begins.
What makes stories is the choices made. Game Theory talks about various decision making examples, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. These choices can be interesting, like mentioned on this article at Gnome Stew. There can be a lot of great information gained by studying the details of decision making, but what about making the decisions actually mean something? Even thought it says so in the intro I doubt Freakazoid wouldn’t rescue Washington D.C. if something better was on TV. Players generally won’t turn down a plot hook when presented to them, and some will try to min-max them all, so what you usually want to do is give them choices that they can’t just solve at their leisure. Dead Rising is one of the first games I remember with time sensitive plot points rather than ‘Do these at your leisure’, and it required the player to strategically decide what they wanted to do and when and where and manage resources to make sure they could achieve that goal.
Mark Waid, comic book writer for DC (and some Marvel) has said in one of his Waid Wednesday post, that ‘the most arresting moments in stories, the ones that make them unforgettable, are the moments where someone makes an outrageous third choice that you never in a million years could have seen coming.’ How many times have you been surprised by a choice a player makes, some plan they come up with that circumvents your entire big encounter? Some people will come up with reasons why it won’t work to get the players back on their path, others will reward the players for outthinking the GM and others will make up some challenges to make it interesting. All can be valid strategies, but I am of the mindset that if a player makes a move, give them their victories but also be willing to come up with realistic counters. Sometimes, your villain may have seen it coming and prepared for it, such as a Xanatos. Other times, they’ll shore up the weakness by coming up with reaction plans, such as routing troops to the spot you are coming from. It won’t be the whole force, but it will be better than nothing.
Of course, while speaking of choice, what we really want are choices that matter. In another Waid Wednesday post, he says, ‘If you’re going to have a character make a plot-driving choice between two and only two alternatives, at least have it be Sophie’s Choice. Try making it a lose-lose, see what that gets you.’ His examples here of the sort of choices he’s talking about and how to push the edge could lead to some interesting examples.
A few examples of this, beyond the choices mentioned in the Waid posts come from various sources. Some are a bunch of indie games I have found. Two good ones for this are Always Sometimes Monsters and Gods Will Be Watching. I’ve already talked about The Walking Dead game a few times, but I think these take the tough choices a step further by getting rid of the rails that TWD put you on.
Always Sometimes Monsters does that surviving really well, and especially focusing on the fact that life is a grey area. You don’t play as the hero, you play as, to quote Simon and Garfunkel, ‘a poor boy though my story’s seldom told. I have squandered my existence for a pocket full of mumbles such are promises.’ At the start of the game, you are evicted from your apartment unless you can come up with a lot of money to get back in, and then you find out that your ex is marrying a new guy and you need to earn money to get cross country. The choices you make here aren’t like Bioware’s ‘Good versus Evil’ scale, more they essentially boil down to who gets hurt. You can play a selfless person, helping others but trying to get the money is a lot harder when you need to worry about food and time and money, especially living on the streets. Read some of the reviews of the game and you’ll see what I mean about how hard some of the choices you’re going to face will be.
Gods Will Be Watching started out as a game programmed in 48 hours for a Ludum Dare challenge. There are a lot of great games being created for these, so I suggest checking it out. Gods Will Be Watching initially was you surviving in the middle of a wintery area, having to manage food, ammo, a fire, sanity of your team, medical supplies and radio repairs, trying to keep people safe and sane while you wait for people to save you. Other scenarios were added later and you can see the game at the manufacturer’s website. The thing I love with games like these, is the stories you will have with failing can be as good, if not better, than with succeeding. As this is a larger game being made now, it is not just that scenario either. This commercial release spans “six tense chapters that examine a multitude of mature themes ranging from hostage situations and wilderness survival to biological weapon prevention and agonizing torture scenarios.” In an RPG, I can see a lot of that, such as the torture or hostage situations being simplified to a number of dice rolls, but just look at those scenes in movies and how gripping they can be if done right.
TVtropes Article on Grey and Gray Morality talks about how ‘In an all-grey conflict, neither side is totally good or completely evil. Both sides have a strong, justifiable reason for fighting, and contain a mixture of people of all kinds, from admirable, upstanding individuals to vicious, slimy scumbags.’ Those two games show that there are different ways to make the choices to get you to your goal, and all of them are valid, the key is that none of them are easy.
There are other games that give you examples of having to weigh these sort of choices and decisions, but they didn’t quite capture this sort of darker tones as well. Like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, Spec Ops: The Line, Witcher 2, and so forth. Others like the indie game Cart Life, where you play as a street vendor, will have you trying to manage all sorts of things like supplies, making money, and important interactions with characters. Making the choice on what to do at any specific time can be hard, like in one story, you may forget to pick up your daughter from school as you are busy making money for your court costs which are coming due in a few days.
To some groups, this may sound like it is taking some of the fun out of RPGs. Escapism, the getting out of your day to day routine to be bigger than you are. I agree, it can definitely make that harder to forget about all your real life drama if your game persona is going through them too. However, with gamng, you have a lot more ways to deal with these choices and if played right, these choices can add extra layers to your games. What lines will you cross, who will you hurt, how far will you go to win. These can be just as defining, if not more so, than the actual victory. You may beat the bad guy, but if no one is around to celebrate with you, then is it really a victory?