Monday, 17 May 2010

Heavy Rain & Decision Making in Games

Since playing Heavy Rain and Bioshock 2 I've been thinking a lot about decision making in games, and how it affects emotional engagement in the narrative. So much, in fact, that I wrote a sprawling blog post, got myself a bit confused, and had to start all over again. This post, therefore, is not a hard and fast rule, but an exploration of the options open to us. My conclusion, I think, is that we need to step back into the stone age.

There are a host of problems with decision making systems in modern games, and most of them have been documented extensively. Western RPGs, for instance, tend to flounder for their binary handling of the moral compass:
"There are very rarely clear-cut good and bad decisions in real life, and as a modern day RPG, we wanted to reflect that." - Matt Hickman, Producer, Alpha Protocol
Decisions as polar as Bioshock's harvest or rescue options just aren't living up to the potential interest of the context. Playing as someone thoroughly evil might be a valuable perspective, but there's no real decision making going on here - the game might as well come on two discs, one with the good ending and one with the bad. Another common issue is that the motivation to immoral action is generally personal gain. In the majority of games it's viewed as unfeasible to have one path be radically different or more challenging than another, so we're never punished for being good, rendering the decision to be evil unreal. With no small thanks to Bioware, today's games are infatuated with exaggerated, over simplified ethical dilemmas. Don't get me wrong - Bioware's early work revolutionised decision making in games, and I'm grateful for it. I just wish it had moved forward in any sense other than the aesthetic over the past ten years.

Heavy Rain's been criticised for its decision points being largely irrelevant to the overarching plot (the fantastic Emily Short has that more than covered). This is an approach I find very interesting. One of the first things I learnt as a game designer was that the illusion of freedom is often preferable to freedom itself. Unfortunately, as gamers we're encouraged by the inherent challenge presented us to test the mechanics, to play them to best effect - as a result we quickly see through Heavy Rain's tricks. This is another problem - as long as decisions are presented in the context of a challenge to be beaten there will always be ulterior motives rendering that decision unreal. This is, surely, the biggest problem we face - how to encourage players to inhabit their characters, to commit to the game world and to make decisions as they would in real life.

Lewis Denby picked up on this issue after a recent talk at GameCamp (which, incidentally, I'd never heard of - why not?!), and elaborated in his GameSetWatch column. He asks why some players are resistant to fully engaging with the fiction before them.

I'd argue that as long as games render decisions made within them unreal, players will never fully bond with the story.

Heavy Rain's clever trick is to free the player of gameplay-relevant consequences to his decisions. We tend to view decisions very much in terms of how they affect our progress - loot, new companions, new areas - and quite rightly so, but should this really apply to an experience like Heavy Rain? Is there any reason why, for the most part, short term consequences - a hug from a loved one, a telling off from the boss - shouldn't be reward enough? Well, yes - we rightly demand that our actions carry greater meaning - but regardless, Heavy Rain frees us from the video game mechanisms of trial and error, risk and reward, and in doing so explores a rich and unfamiliar landscape where decisions are based on our emotional whims rather than our objective need for more paragon points or a new shotgun.

The bigger issue for David Cage's interactive movie is that the only really meaningful story branches arise as a result of player skill, as opposed to player decisions. There's a special section in hell reserved for games with multiple endings arrived at arbitrarily. Arguably gaming's greatest strength over other mediums - and presumably the reason we provide players agency in the first place - is that the narrative can be as much about the audience as it is the artist. Heavy Rain's endings entirely failed to move away from that win-lose / happy-sad dichotomy. Until our decisions in games affect not just our objective progress, but our subjective experience, those experiences will never be fully relevant, they will always keep players at arm's length.

How do we fix it?

I don't think the decisions we make in games need to be real world decisions. They don't need to be about whether it's steak or macaroni for tea. They do, however, need to be modelled as if they were real world decisions. The world in which they exist can be fabricated, and it can be limited, but within those limitations it has to be plausible, consistent and comprehensible. It has to be real.

How many times have you been forced to reload an RPG because a decision you made had unpredictable consequences? It feels unfair because the game is asking you to make what looks like a real world decision, but is following its own, unreal rule set. More and more I'm beginning to think of storytelling in modern, commercial games as analogous to learning French from a phrase book. You can communicate, you can fool people into thinking you speak the language, but you don't truly understand it the way you would if you'd started with the grammar and worked your way up. Likewise, games such as Mass Effect 2 do a fantastic job of pulling the wool over our eyes - they create a world that looks like a real world, and they give us interactive dialogues that purport to be real conversations. But when the simplified mechanics behind the decision making structure fail to live up to that promise we're disappointed, we end up reloading.

In games like Spelunky or Weird Worlds, our methods of interaction are severely limited - but within those limitations our decisions are 100% real. I've talked about it before, but to my mind, even without the narrative window dressing of more 'advanced' games, those decisions are a lot more interesting, a lot more immersive than any I've made about whether to give back or keep for myself someone's lost ring. Because games chose a long time ago to run before they could walk - because they chose to show us glimpses of a complex freedom they had no hope of truly providing - we've ended up in an unwinnable position; an unwinnable position that alienates players from their characters, and makes it very difficult to move forward without first moving back.


  1. This is a topic that fascinates me. Playing Bioshock 2, I'm going against my instinct as an experiment and harvesting the little sisters. If it's anything like the first game the only consequence this will have is in the final (rubbish) cut scene.

    So far I feel a little distanced from the game - presumably because the implied character motivation for harvesting is personal gain, and I know full well the good and evil paths have roughly equal reward, rendering my decision meaningless. When I complete the game, the first thing I'll do is youtube the alternate ending/s.

    How will this affect my experience?

  2. Ahoy thar! Quick query, if I read the above article in full will I find plot spoilers to either Heavy Rain or Bioshock 2? Hoping not, and to read shortly =)

    - Jack

  3. There are no specific details in the post. It does talk broadly about the mechanics, specifically Heavy Rain, but no more so than any review I've read.

  4. Mercenary: Escape from Targ (and sequels) are still among my favourite games. They didn't provide a linear story, just situations and consistent rules. They provided a beginning and an end, and you very much wrote your own in between, with plenty of moral grey area.

    Oh, and The Palyar Commander's Brother in Law is probably my all time favourite videogame character.

  5. Great read. With Bioshock, it seemed like 2k was so intent on coaxing the player into assuming the role of the sort of psychotic that would murder little girls to feast on the slugs that live in their bellies that the extremity of the situation was completely lost.

    It was so contrived the way they ended up doing it too. With all the concessions they made you'd think you were choosing mayonayse or mustard on your sandwitch for all the repercussions you were given for your decision either way.

    They provided nothing more than the mcguffin that killing children is bad, but we're not talking about a real, modern society where there are severe repercussions for murdering children, this is some wacky video game land where you run over old women with walkers without a second thought because it's faster than obeying traffic laws in GTA.

    If there were creepy little girls in other shooters I'd probably kill them in those too. We as players are so detached from our own real world morality while playing that these sorts of devices often fall flat.

    I think Heavy Rain tried to make it's characterization create attachment in the players to give the game moral weight, similar to GTA4, but then that was entirely dependent on whether the characters actually took with the players, otherwise it was the same as any other game.

    It seems like the sort of thing you need a whole lot of finesse to get right however your going about it, and considerably more than most developers seem to have at this point. Once you introduce morality into your game it seems like it would be really hard not to make it either didactic and heavy-handed or just pointless. Considering now unneccessary it is to have all of this moral choice in games it surprises me that so many developers still try to do it. Maybe they just love a challenge.

  6. Personally, I found the way Mass Effect (1 and 2) to use "intent" over direct lines to be preferable over other games of the type (ie Dragon Age or NWN). By that I mean they pulled it into more aggressive/passive choice then a direct quote, thus allowing for the spirit of your action if not the word of it. Granted, there were a decent few times that their interpretation of your intent was rather strange, but this choice by intent and not direct control led my Commander Shepard to be one of my most personal characters I've played in a while.

    After saying that though, I'll state that one of the games I felt most "open" (freedom of choice) in was Half Life (at least for the first play though), for the sheer fact that even though the world was rather linear, map design made you feel like you went somewhere because it was where you as the player wanted to go, and not so much where they were forcing you to go. The way they "led" your attention instead of the player itself allowed for the immersion of a scripted world and the feeling of freedom of going where you wanted (Again, effecting intent instead of the physical body). This was not without it's flaws or shortcomings sometimes, and if you ever pulled back from the game to look for a second it was easy to tell how things were mapped out, but for as long as you let yourself be immersed, you felt free, which from a development standpoint is all the allowance of choice a player needs. (Callous sounding, but true.)

    You can see some of this trade off of interaction with rules versus the removal of actual choice leading to the feeling of freedom if you look at games like Fallout and STALKER. In a game like Fallout, you have all the choices of the world, but unless you do something, the world is stuck in time, waiting for you (As the only important person in the world) to act. On the other hand a game like STALKER makes you insignificant, with drastically less choices available to interact with the world, but the world moves on without you. People come and go, creatures rise and fall, and the world really doesn't care what you do, which makes everything you do feel of your own volition, not adhering to the laws of some invisible deity.

    It seems to boil down to if a choice is given to us to make, it becomes a matter of following the preset logic or rules to the outcome you want. If a choice is set to the side and really doesn't care what you do with it, then it's your choice.

  7. Gordon Freeman is a good example of two different approaches to the same character.

    In Half Life he was very sketchily defined; A few qualifications in the intro, the reactions of the scientists before the incident, and the occasional NPCs you found in the complex. This let you project a character onto him that suited your playing style. For me he was no great hero, just a guy trying to survive. Fine - didn't clash with the game which really doesn't care who you are trying to 'be'. It's a situation: deal with it.

    Fast-forward to Half Life 2 and suddenly everyone's talking to you and praising you as the new messiah, come to lead them to freedom, which you apparently have to be, or it falls apart.

    First few scenes? Barney greets you as an old friend, hurrah! He's got your crowbar! But I saw Barney die and die and die. I sent him to his death. I ran away, quite deliberately, and left him to take out the horrors of the universe alone, with his little pop gun. Half Life didn't care that I did this, the game carried on regardless. Now he's supposed to be my friend?

    Complete dissonance for me, started me off on the wrong foot, which didn't help me forgive the game's other flaws.

  8. Very interesting point regarding the freedom to make decisions in Heavy Rain [which I have not played]. I am often compelled to reload to re-explore narrative decision trees, but I try not to. I often enjoy a game more if I don't know what would have happened if I had not gone the other way -- it is suddenly my very own adventure.

    This approach falls apart when you the game eventually reveals that you either had no choice at all, or there were no consequences. Your investment was for naught.

    Far Cry 2 has choices which are more action-based, but in the end it's a decision tree that is highly symmetric - the only thing that really had control of was which interchangeable ciphers you interacted with (buddies or paymasters). Saying that FC2 did offer one very special moment, but you have to plug through the whole game to see it.

    Planescape: Torment offered something unique, because the conversational decision trees became more enriched depending on how clever your character was. And those options were sometimes a much better way to progress - or sometimes they would offer more backstory, which was generally fascinating. You really could end up with people playing two different games, simply because options were not available if you had beefed up brawn rather than smarts.

    cdrjameson: I actually liked the HL2 approach, because it felt like everyone had pushed this messiah status onto you over the course of those missing years - it wasn't you, but the universe has given you no choice. Gordon says nothing; he gives in to his tragic lot. I also loved Mercenary incidentally - pity the only way to learn the names of buildings was to destroy them! [provided you didn't buy the map extra] I don't think Mercenary would work so well these days, it would need spades more interactivity to compete - and then it would smack into the same problems that modern titles suffer from.

  9. A couple of counterpoints to some of your statements:
    "Heavy Rain's endings entirely failed to move away from that win-lose / happy-sad dichotomy."
    Given the entire plot of Heavy Rain, there's only so many major options available. (Spoilers) Shaun can die, or be saved. Ethan can die or not die, be arrested, or not arrested, and may or may not get together with Madison. Madison can die or not die, and may or may not get together with Ethan. Jayden can die or not die, solve the case or not, etc. Life is, fundamentally, a cascade of interlinked binary possibilities. Each thing that happens either can happen, or not happen (in which case something else happens instead). Heavy Rain's collection of endings is indeed somewhat limited, but it takes the broad strokes of the various possible outcomes by the end of the game and continues them to logical endings.

    "How many times have you been forced to reload an RPG because a decision you made had unpredictable consequences?"
    Never. There have been literally thousands of times I've reloaded in games because I'm gaming the system to find a satisfactory option, but that's not the game doing it. It's me. In real life, if I do something that, say, gets me fired, or pisses off my girlfriend, I can't reload. If I could, I would (probably) choose to do so, because the outcome is suboptimal. In gaming, there are now some games that don't allow you to reload. Games like Demons' Souls, wherein a death consigns you to the fragility of having your maximum health reduced by 50%. It also forces you to replay the entire area to get back to where you died. Tell me, who wouldn't reload in that circumstance if it were an option? But it's not - the game forces you to accept the consequences of your actions. Sometimes there are things that are extremely unfair. As I recall, the first "boss" kills you in a single hit in order to introduce the whole reincarnation animation. The game doesn't give you a warning as to what pits are bottomless deathtraps and which are just dropping down into a secret area. I don't know much about the rest of the game because I gave up in fairly short order, but frankly, the only times I'm actually forced to reload in an RPG is when my decision leads me to an immediate death. (The only exception to this that I've experienced is the Fate/Stay Night visual novel which has at least (and I think only) 1 decision that dooms you to a game over after something like 10-20 minutes of reading, and it's a pretty stupid choice to make. (Hey, there's a person who's offering an alliance who's immensely more capable than I am. Let's turn her down!) Were such an option to exist in a standard RPG format, it would be very much unfair (Unless it's Planescape Torment, since dying in that game is a minor inconvenience.)