Branches vs Stakes

Oh, how wonderfully witty and punny of me.

Anyway. I was talking to my friend on Tuesday night, and we were discussing Bioshock. What was interesting was that he said something like, “I don’t know, I didn’t like it because it lacked what I liked the most in System Shock. You basically can never die because there are health stations everywhere. It wasn’t scary.” I asked him whether he meant that, in System Shock, the stakes were higher, and therefore there was a real fear that you’d lose. This was exactly what he meant.

While personally I am a big fan of “safe,” linear use-your-brain-puzzle-solving-adventure games with witty dialogue, I completely understand what he’s getting at. Once, games were hard. Really hard. They were scary (and not being they had horror themes): they filled you with adrenaline, and while the loss was frustrating and disappointing, the win was less “epic” and more “masterly.” There was a struggle, and there was eventual success. I do need to clarify that I’m not talking about games that are so dicky and tricky that it’s almost impossible to play in the first place, though. I’m talking about games where the stakes were high: you had a lot to lose.

Recently, Peter Molyneux has… well, gone back on his advocacy of branching storylines, emergent gameplay, multiple endings etc. He says that people get annoyed when they feel they’ve “missed out” on parts of the story, simply because of a choice they made. Hmm, that sounds like good ol’ anagnorisis and peripetea to me! But I think this really touches on a mistake made by a number of developers.

I don’t think people need more choice or agency within the storyline of the game. Sure, branching narratives sound cool, but they basically boil down to an electronic choose-your-own-adventure book. Wait.. “book”? Shock! Horror! Games aren’t allowed to be like any other type of pre-existing media, are they? Well, apparently they are… hence branching narratives.

But what about situations where it’s so important that you do things right (ie, succeed in achieving the win-conditions), that you actually become so immersed due to the game gradually building to extremely high-stakes? Psychologically, he higher the stakes, the greater the payoff. The more options, the greater the chance of feeling “ripped off” by the “wrong” choice (I put these in scare quotes as these are both emotionally-driven, personal responses that may have nothing to do with the actual storyline, events, or writer/designer’s intentions). Statistically, we are happier when we have less options, less room to move, less potential we can potentially fail to realise. Once a peasant, always a peasant. Game didn’t quite go the direction you’d hoped? Oh well, time to go plant some seeds (aka, write some fanfic).

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