Sunday, March 11, 2012

Do (Say) The Right Thing: Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout: New Vegas

Terrible title for a GDC talk, I know, but it turns out the convention guides had no written descriptions of the sessions, so at least the topic was (hopefully) clear.

Eventually, GDC will make a video of this session available at the GDC Vault, though I believe it will require some form of membership.  You can check out my slides here in .pdf form.

Based on feedback I've seen online, I want to attempt to clarify a few things:

* My inclusion of the ME2 "ass" screenshot was to highlight its absurdity.  In the context of that slide, it's an example of how developers have improved things like butt-framing shots but haven't made great strides in choice architecture.  I don't have any problem with improving aesthetics, but I believe we should continue to refine how we develop choices for players.

* When I was discussing karma/reputation displays of +1/-1, I wasn't championing karma systems, but I was championing visible changes in the GUI for all of what I call "Indirect Reaction Systems" (e.g. karma, reputation, influence, etc.).  I think mechanical clarity is more important than immersion, and characters vary heavily in how much they emote reactions.

* Validating all choices specifically does not mean that they should all be subjectively equal.  I gave two examples of "good" choice agony from Greek tragedy: Orestes and Antigone.  Both of these characters have two choices for one decision.  The choices have good aspects and bad aspects, but they are not "six of one / half a dozen of the other".  The values implied by each choice are subjective.  There is not a single right thing to do for each character: both choices contain virtue and sacrifice -- and both are valid.  Validation also does not need to come through mechanics, though using something like reputation or influence (i.e. an Indirect Reaction System) can make an abstracted validation easier than hand-scripting specific benefits and drawbacks to every choice.

EDIT: For a more contemporary example, please see Mookie's choice at the end of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing, from which the title of this talk was borrowed.

I apologize for poor communication on these points.  If you have any other questions or criticism, please feel free to post them here or on my Formspring page.  Thanks.


Mysterious man from the Shadows said...

Regarding the first point: is the Alpha Protocol screenshot next to the Mass Effect 2 one supposed to be for contrast, or is it making roughly the same point that games are focused more on the aesthetics now? I couldn't tell from the slides.

I ask because, personally, I thought the AP dialogue system worked quite well. It was different than a game like PS:T, for sure, but by no means worse, in my opinion. And--again, IMO--AP's system *is* a structural change.

Freud said...

Bioshock dumps a ton of background dialogue during play.
On the surface it describes the world you move in, and the characters you meet and what happened before you got there.

But can the player use those informations to make any choice?
There really are no decisions in Bioshock. The only thing I learned from the all the dialogue is that I'm justified to kill everyone because they are corrupted.
The rest of it sounded like pedantic fanfiction.

It's as if someone decided that since we have bigger textures and more polygons we should have more dialogue too.

Fallout 1/2 (haven't got around to play the latest) used a good mechanism for player choice.
Every decision was built around a specific location (or a couple connected ones), with a number of groups each representing a certain moral stance; the player embracing a side, or working to find a middle ground.
The player was a small-scale hero, and that made actions and consequences believable.

For instance, Vault City and the Ghoul Nuclear Plant in FO2. A player could help the human-supremacist Major of Vault City to exterminate the ghouls and take over the plant; or fix the plant and broker (actually force, iirc) a compromise between the Ghouls and the Vault; or take your revenge on Vault City, by not fixing the radiation leak from the plant, and causing Vault City to become irradiated.

Planescape had an interesting system as well, the entire game was about building a personality, and by every quest you added a little bit of character to your Nameless One.

The thing is, both games had figured out a way to hold my attention when doing exposition, rather that just prompting me for a response.
I know however that Planescape can hardly be mainstream.

J.E. Sawyer said...


Roughly the same point. Although AP did make some very significant (and good) structural changes, we also focused a huge amount of energy on the aesthetics of conversation.


I agree that Bioshock's choice and consequence were not its high points. I included a reference to it because I think that their way of conveying exposition about the world was good. The main story was clear and obvious to anyone playing. Tapes added a second level of narrative to what was happening. At a third level, there were environment details that filled in other gaps.

A player who wanted to know all of the details could learn those details with some searching, but not all players were forced to sit through a ton of exposition throughout the game.

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