Electron Dance
1Mar/2122

Discussion: Choose Life

Welcome to the just-one-day-late February newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

When Ingold tackled the question on how to make choices matter he said, without hesitation: choices don’t matter

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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  1. i started playing thief gold a couple years ago, being an overly cautious boy, and it was pretty taxing. i started again a few weeks ago and changed my playstyle: way more risky and avoid savescumming as much as possible. it’s so much more fun this way, getting caught and running and jumping around when that happens, hoping for a moment of respite to try again. in some ways this is why i’m enjoying dark souls so much.

    i guess this ‘choice’ is more on the meta level than anything, but still on-topic?

    oh, and i forgot who at rps said this, but they said they only want to see one ending of a game and that has stuck with me ever since.

  2. Whenever I’m reading an Electron Dance article, I always end up getting caught in all those wonderful little hyperlinks. Then I’m back, off to the past in a little time machine, often reading something I’ve already read (although sometimes, I end up finding yet another new treat).

    Great work as always, Joel. I really love how you write, and it always brightens my day when I see a notification in my email.

    I don’t think infinite choices are necessary–I think a game could walk the middle ground of being ‘a narrative that you can interact with in more than one way’, but I think something I would want to see more is if a game can clearly communicate the depths of the choices it will offer. I want to be able to put myself in the mind of the scope of the game, so I can raise or lower my expectations properly. I want a bit more of a look into the inside of the dev’s head while playing (or ideally before I play much), just so that I can roll with the punches and feel more involved on my own end. You have to work with the game as it’s working with you if you want a truly good experience, I think.

    Thank you again for the wonderful read!

  3. multiple choices, multiple endings… as you say there are no absolutes in art, so it would be foolish to say that multiple endings is a bad idea.

    and so i will say that multiple endings is a bad idea. its inevitably skewed towards player-wish-fulfilment which is a terrible foundation for a game or a story that wants to be interesting (as much as it might be an easier sell). if you want the player to engage deeply, you have to challenge them, not pander.

    and that engagement must be with the continual progress of the game. we must discourage players from playing merely as an instrument to achieve a certain outcome! and the simplest way to do that is to have just one ending.

    im reminded of pathologic 2 (yeah but what *doesnt* make me think of that, you ask ): specifically, two friends who were streaming the game; one—lets call them Ambel—was new to it, and the other—Barta—had played it before and was playing the role of an unspoilery guide. at the beginning, Ambel asked Barta to step in and warn them if they were about to make any decisions that would prevent them from getting “the good ending”. then corrected themself and said they wanted “not the best ending, necessarily, but the truest ending”. and then at intervals throughout the game they would stop mid-conversation to ask “does it matter what i say here? will it affect the ending?”

    thats a mindset that is all too common these days, and that i think games should be designed to head off at the pass. i want players to make decisions based on what they think and feel about the game thus far, not simply in order to get that A on the end-of-game report card that means theyre worthy of “the good ending”.

    anyway, i am rambling. tldr, im with ingold on this. multiple endings can go into the rubbish bin alongside achievements.

    its not player choice that makes games interesting, but player actions.

  4. also i struggle with this with every newsletter but have never actually voiced the problem before:

    i find the newsletter hard to read. im always reading it on my phone, and the text is much too small, but the lines are too long to make zooming in very helpful. i still have to zoom in to read it, but then i have to keep scrolling right and left again just to read each line. using the link to the web version doesnt help either: whatever mailchimp is doing to it prevents both safaris “reader view” and instapaper from seeing the actual body text. im still gonna read them, and swipe madly left and right like windscreen wipers, but it would be nice if someday i no longer had to. :)

  5. @Joel: Good newsletter, and definitely worth bringing those ideas to people who weren’t at the talk. I also happened to be there (Joel cyberwaved at me afterwards) and it was an interesting hour; this bit about choice being nothing but a sort of magic trick to lull the player into continuing to be engaged with the game was definitely the most interesting.

    I’m not sure I 100% agree with Jon about it, but I do think it’s a really important perspective which I’ve never heard from anyone but him. I can also definitely sympathise with the idea that one ending is more than enough, anyway.

    I’m wondering how these ideas apply to my current game project. I’m making a very narrative-heavy game, and 90% of the choices you make moment-to-moment are those sort of “I’m not particularly attached to this choice but I have to choose what to do next so I’m doing it” type choices. But the remaining 10% are very important choices, and will result in very different outcomes for each level: you can wind up killing the other characters you’re talking to if you’re a) not careful or b) a dick. But I actually think those choices, though they are “important” narratively, are not very important in terms of the game state as a whole: we don’t use a massive branching tree to micromanage every last outcome. It might be tragic if you accidentally mess up and get this character killed, but the game will continue regardless and it really won’t matter.

    I think this is akin to some of the more weighty choices in Sorcery or Heaven’s Vault: moments that feel big and important in the moment, but the game is going to keep going anyway so they don’t ultimately matter. Both those games were designed with an “always forwards” design mindset, so that’s not surprising.

    We do have multiple endings (or will, when I get round to making them), and I wonder whether that’s a good thing now. When we were designing them they seemed like the natural upshot of the player aligning themselves with a certain way of playing. One thing I am certain of is that, if we were to make a sequel, I would choose Ending A as the canon ending, explaining that if you picked Ending B it did indeed happen just as you remember it – but that Ending A was secretly inevitable and all Ending B did was delay it. The avatar’s a part of the game’s history, and I’m a proponent of the idea that one person can bend history significantly if they’re in the right place but not actually fundamentally alter it.

  6. Daniel

    Well, you know, when Matt W turns up he’ll talk about what he wants to talk about anyway, so don’t worry about being vaguely on-topic :)

    I think I still love my old-skool Thief play, of creeping around and not being discovered and reloading when I make a stupid mistake. (Hence, my initial problems with Wildfire.) That’s my choice :) Ach, don’t bring up Dark Souls. You make me feel bad I haven’t gone back to conquer Blighttown!

    I’m not necessarily against multiple endings but, well, I’ll write more about endings in the other responses below…

    Gwen

    Ha, ha, thanks Gwen. What you said makes me a little nostalgic for the internet of old, where you’d swing through links from site to site, unsure where you’d end up. The usual answer to “where did all the links go” is Google, but the real reason we don’t tend to walk the web any more is social media. That’s where we get all the random stuff we used to hunt now. I haven’t been linked to by another site or blog for years – this isn’t to complain about “my lot” but more… commentary on change. Back in 2010, you begged RPS for a link. Today, it’s social media hustle.

    Jon Ingold did say that a game that offered infinite choice sounded like an impossible computer project to him – I’m reminded of Façade – and I have a feeling it’s not actually what players want at this point. I think Andy’s on to something here in that discrete choice tunnels carved out by the developer make us feel in control, while a blank canvas is overwhelming. I’ve lost count of the times I had a whole free Saturday and ended up doing nothing because I couldn’t decide. You want to make the optimum choice which is easier with fewer options, something that can be mapped.

    I think you’re right, though, that to appreciate what a game is doing you usually need to know the developer’s context. Are you searching for the right ending? Are you searching for a personal ending? Are you just colouring the path to a single ending?

    Andy

    Like I was saying to Gwen just above, I do think we’re conditioned to see choice as a “gameplay mechanic”, one to be defeated like any other. Adventure games started out that way and, largely, big box game design has held to that, I think?

    So as I said to Daniel, I’m not necessarily against multiple endings but there’s this problem that the player has paid for content they won’t see… they’ll be a need to hollow it out and see everything. They might just YouTube the other possibilities as it’s human nature to want to see everything. But I still haven’t played Cart Life since those first games.

    I’ll look into fixing that newsletter problem, Andy. It might even be my fault, trying to make it look nice vs the defaults which looked bloody awful but probably more readable. (And by fix, I mean replace the format completely.)

    James

    I think that “forward momentum” is pretty important. Which makes me wonder what Inkle were doing with all those sailing interludes :)

    Having to rewind events to perform them “right” is such a pain. I just finished Seers Isle which has a LOT of decision points but having checked out some Steam chatter afterwards, the game is more like a dating sim: it’s counting your choices on various different axes and the axis you’re furthest along is the one that chooses the ending – I’ve simplified it but you get the idea. You’ll always reach an ending. And if you want the achievements… you’ll have to find them all! Er, no thanks. The one we ended up on is the one that is actually my favourite (despite the lesbian sex in front of my children). It’s quite boring reading the same text again – especially if you suspect there are minor differences that you might miss without close reading.

    I see why you attended the talk, now, so good luck with Silicon Dreams! (Are you aware that “Silicon Dreams” was also the name of a trilogy of British text adventures in the 80s? You *probably* are, I’m sure you would have Googled the name already.)

  7. Deus Ex is an interesting ch- er, selection for an example here. Stop me if I misremember, but weren’t the mutliple endings something not originally planned but added in later stages of development? It wouldn’t surprise me if the developers felt that a single, prescriptive ending didn’t reflect the ethos of the game. After all, this choice isn’t the only branching point in the game’s plot: based on player actions, allies can live or die, foes can be killed in multiple places, and so on.

    Moreover, the game was an early monument to choice’s close cousin, agency. Anyone who read Kieron Gillen’s gloria of a review can hardly forget the innumerable ways to approach the game (and then stun it with a prod and dispose of it in a dumpster). There was a philosophical through-line – game design as accessible subtext! – in the freedom afforded to the player in situ and the freedom to ultimately decide the future of the planet. Crude perhaps, but are we really such sophisticates as to find that a snook worth cocking at?

    Players love to express themselves. Some lavish more care on in-game decor and couture than they do in reality. Others like to carry a flag all through UNATCO HQ so they can photobomb the cutscenes with it. Which isn’t to say that a developer can’t have a firm vision for the experience they want to deliver, but if you feel the urge to lock the camera (and while you’re at it the spacebar) during your Powerful Storytelling Moment, wouldn’t it be better to insert a cutscene rather than letting the gears of the medium grind together so? Or, y’know, make a movie instead…

    Last stop on this meandering thought train is the Illusion of Choice. I have the same problem with this as I have with the Illusion of Challenge that comes from, say, putting rubber-banding in your racing game. It might deliver a compelling experience in the moment, but if and when the trick is exposed, if I get a glimpse of the strings, the 6d6 points of immersion whiplash will often undo all that good and more, retroactively tainting the experience.

    On the links: this isn’t the first time I’ve felt Jonas Kyratzes has a similar outlook to my own. It is rather alienating. I shared it with my friends in a signal group and the first response was “this is depressing. Read less depressing stuff, you’ll be less depressed for it [thumbs up emoji].” That was even more alienating.

  8. Regarding the piece on efficiency, it reminded me of the old adage that ‘work expands to fill the time available for it’. People hold this up as a wry comment on human tendency towards laziness, but I’ve always seen it as the opposite: an expression of the important intuited workplace fact that assigned work operates like a ratchet, and therefore to be mindful that any exceptionally productive day risks being seized on as your new baseline.

    On the other hand, I had a friend whose first job out of uni was at Whirlpool. In his first week he’d created macros to get through his daily workload in half a day. At first he spend the excess time sleeping in a toilet cubicle, then he just started going home at lunchtime. Within six months he’d been promoted and within 12 he’d been hired by Microsoft and put on a managerial fast track. Not quite sure what the moral of the story is, but his initiative was certainly rewarded..

  9. I was going to talk about how Cardboard Computer games epitomize the thing you were talking about but now you’re going to get a thirty-comment thread on Knytt Underground.

  10. Hmm, Knytt Underground also epitomizes the thing you’re going to talk about. Maybe you’re going to get a wall of text on “How can I take epidemiology advice from Dr. GOG when she can’t even design a game portal that won’t launch at startup.”

  11. For all intents and purposes, I only ever get one ending anyway because it’s extremely rare I replay games. I’ve played several games now where choices are offered but I don’t think they affect a thing which, if you know that, feels ‘cheap’ or misleading, perhaps, but I think it’s fine. If you don’t know the decisions don’t matter, then you still engage with them as if they do, which is still valuable, and you benefit from a more focused tale or experience. It’s a magic trick or illusion of choice. Of course, there will be folk who explore every eventuality and discover the truth, but magic tricks can be spoilt too. The idea of replaying all those same sections and sequences again just for a few differences does absolutely nothing for me though so I share your sentiment with Seers Isle. Glad you got your favourite ending though!

    Andy, the idea of gaming the choices for the best/good/true ending is weird to me. I’m playing The Longing right now and I’ve got one really big decision to make at some point (and plenty of time to consider it) but what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is pretty much on me to decide at this stage, until I make the leap. It’s exciting and scary given the game’s idle real-time(ish) 400 day counter. I don’t want to look it up though; half the fun is not knowing.

    I was going to suggest that if you’re going to go with multiple endings, instead of having them on a scale of good to bad, have them more ambiguous and fuzzy so they can’t be so easily pegged as true or good or whatever (and perhaps even encourage discussion).

    Joel, you raised the trolley problem and while I’d never thought about it before, when I read ‘The crudest trolley problem that comes to mind is…’ I just muttered ‘Life Is Strange’ to myself without thinking and… my god, that’s totally why the ending pissed me off. Good grief. And I’d enjoyed my time with it until the final chapter!

    Some great links by the way.

    The ‘Corporate Memphis’ article was very interesting. I like that style a lot, even if it is overused. Going Under, which I finished a week or two ago, skewers and embraces that whole aesthetic and corporate ethos perfectly. Given the game’s wit, it doesn’t surprise me at all.

    At first the ‘lazy’ comment didn’t sit right with me. Technology, software, stock libraries, templates, presets, actions etc. has made my job so much quicker and easier but, at the same time, this has collapsed deadlines and timescales so clients often expect faster turnaround. Couple that with things like Fiverr and the ever lowering perceived value of the craft… Unfortunately, unique design, art direction and actual honest-to-god illustration takes forever (and–rightly–costs a lot as a result!) so we have to fall back on to what’s quick and easy to produce, scale, maintain and adapt. The simple, bold Memphis design is really good for that, but for big corporations with the big money, big teams and plenty of time? It is lazy. Then you shared that fantastic diminishing returns of productivity culture article. :-) I love the Beyond Burned Out illustration at the top as well.

    “You figured out how to do your tasks more efficiency [sic], so you must now do more tasks.” This is pretty much how my additional video editing work has turned out. We started at one 15 minute episode a month. Then, as we got more efficient, it went to a 12 minute episode every fortnight and, as of last month, one 10-12 minute episode a week (start on Wednesday for sign off on Thursday for upload on Friday). As CA said ‘work expands to fill the time available for it’.

    Oh god, gaming gear. the-goggles.mp4

  12. CA

    I do not dis Deus Ex’s endings. I like that weird choice of three endings which all offer an uncertain but open future – and none of which could be called “the best ending” (complete chaos, complete order or the end of humanity). This is somewhat turned on its head by DX:IW where all endings are varieties of despair. However, I’m not sure other games can really capture that magic again; Deus Ex was breathtaking in scope and the triple ending was icing on the cake. Other games with multiple endings often feel like filler. I didn’t enjoy Papers Please enough to want to find all of the endings, to be honest.

    There are two different perpectives of these games, of course. One is on the game as theatre, with a plot to follow (more or less). The other is on the game as sandbox, the realm of the asshole player. Can you be both? I’m going to skip the cutscene… comment as I think that is it’s own rabbit hole. (Maybe someone else will take up the mantle.) When you think about it, though, giving up on the illusion of choice (a la Ingold) seems like a safer bet than offering choice which is likely to be unsatisfying or crude.

    I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include Jonas’ piece in the roundup, simply because I wasn’t sure if I am in the right headspace for any comments relating to it. I mean, I’m not. But I felt I had to include regardless.

    “Work expands to fill the time available for it.” Amen, but also not sure I want to share your Whirlpool story to friends and neighbours.

    Matt

    Oh you started out so well, Matt, but then you threw in a GOG pun. Take a time out.

  13. Gregg

    Oh God we crossed the streams.

    I consider myself warned whenever I get around to Life Is Strange (I don’t even have a copy so I doubt it will be soon…)

    I think, what perhaps isn’t appreciated, is that “productivity culture” doesn’t just apply to work but actually all of life. We can do so much more with all this technology, so we try to do more and feel like failing every day. I read about Leigh Alexander typing up her articles during a presentation as someone was presenting; that made me feel slow. I look at like-minded YouTubers like PixelADay and can’t help but notice she is getting better turnaround on her videos. I look up and down the street at people doing great DIY on their houses and we’re just about getting a shower fixed. Everything is so fast and it’s easy to compare yourself with the fastest movers especially as it seems there’s “no reason” WHY you couldn’t be achieve what others have. It was natural that FOMO became a way of life in the internet age. Activity expands to fill the time.

    How do I credit the work you did for me on the upcoming film? Corporate Memphis Advisor?

  14. Joel, I’m sorry to post a big comment while you’re responding to others. Again.

    matt w, I bought Knytt Underground last week!

  15. Gregg, do you know anything about the ending of Knytt Underground? It is controversial but when I talk about it I may need to calibrate my spoilerosity depending on your preferences.

  16. I know nothing about Knytt Underground other than it being in the Knytt world. I only played plain ol’ Knytt (and loved it. Gosh, those were simpler days).

    Joel, yeah that’s absolutely true. Hai and I are definitely on the more sedate end of the productivity spectrum and, thankfully, we’re okay with that :-) Most folk we know are knee-deep in DIY too (and having babies!). We’ve done some house organising and fixing stuff (the kitchen extractor, booyah!) and I’m merely considering shuffling the living room and my room around but other than that… not a great deal. Slow solidarity high five!

  17. Choice discussion!

    I’ve graveyarded so many games because of choices! I used to be super into JRPGs when I was a kid. Like everyone, I played FF6 oodles of times. But then, games like Valkyrie Profile, FFX-2, umm, the Secret of Mana sequel maybe, and others always ended up paralyzing me with their weird unknowable choices about how you spend your time or organize the map, and how those have Serious Ramifications! It’s not just narrative branching, but there are non-obvious gameplay choices to make, so good luck on your first few playthroughs of these giant games! Oh, Tactics Ogre, too! People rave about these choicey games, but I’ve often just been too much of a coward to commit to a potentially sub-optimal path of choices. Linearity can be really helpful. But sometimes all I really need is for a game to signal “hey man, just play. It’ll be ok. Or it won’t, but that would be ok too.”

    I did make it through a full playthrough of 80 days (and I made it home!), so I guess good on Inkle. Reviews talked about exploring all the different routes and learning what to trade and stuff, but fie on all that.

    Oh! Sunless Seas! People seemed to love that game! But the pressure and choices under ignorance. Yikes! Oh, and I believe our host got sucked into Cultist Simulator, too. It’s astounding how differently folks experience various games.

  18. [This post contains basically no spoilers for Knytt Underground.]

    If we’re talking about choice in builds too then even roguelikes are on-topic! That was my real backup derailment plan. But maybe not right now.

    What Jon Ingold said about choices being about engagement rather than changing the outcome sounds a lot like what Sam Kabo Ashwell calls reflective choice (I think it originates from Failbetter Games and Emily Short picked it up);* you choose something to express yourself even though you know it has no effect on game state. Not super surprising because Ingold comes out of the same interactive fiction space as those folk.

    Cardboard Computer is a master of this; I first encountered it a lot in Balloon Diaspora where someone would ask you about something you’d read and you could say “it sounds like a poem” or “it sounds like a prayer” and it’s obvious that this isn’t part of the point-and-clicky puzzles you have to solve, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. And then Kentucky Route Zero dispensed with the point-and-clicky puzzles.

    Knytt Underground has a similar thing–throughout most of the game you have a choice between two dialogue options in most of your conversations, and it’s pretty clear that they aren’t going to affect what quest you get, etc. There is a huge amount of choice in where you can go when you explore, which is what you’re really doing most of the time, but that’s independent of the conversations you have.

    Though is it true that the choices don’t matter? They affect the next thing you see, and if they don’t affect things you see later, is that not mattering? This is in line with the theme of Knytt Underground, which I will not discuss because I promised basically no spoilers.

    OTOH this can feel like a copout. “Players want to interact with Data and Picard, not make big branching choices!” Yes but it just so happens that the linear-with-flavor-choices is also easier to program.

    Dan, I feel you about the weird unknowable choices with Serious Ramifications. It always makes me anxious when I feel like I’m about to hit a choice point. The game that signals “Just play, it’ll be OK, or at least something interesting will happen” is what I want.

    And then I realized… I was playing Signs of the Sojourner a while back and I put it down when it opened up into a part where I had to choose lots of things, but I realized it is one of the best examples of choice without pressure I’ve seen and I should pick it up again.** You have a bunch of conversations that are played out through a card game, which makes every conversation either succeed or fail, and the symbols on the cards represent emotions and I think the symbol that predominates may have an effect, but I’m not sure. And if you fail… you go on. It may block something off but there are other things. In fact there are some hints that it’s not good to win every conversation and I deliberately lost one because one character had asked me to persuade another to do something, I thought winning would mean persuading them, and I didn’t think they should do it.

    I definitely missed out on things because I can’t be in two places at once but that was OK, I can tell I had to miss something. The mechanics of how your conversation affects the story branching are opaque and I think that helps, because I’d rather not know I did something irrevocable. (Emily Short’s writeup of the alpha does seem to suggest there is branching.) The character’s longterm goals aren’t very clear–or at least it’s not clear what goals you should have for the character–and that also helps, because I don’t need to worry that I’m failing them, I can focus on more immediate things like going on journeys and having conversations. I’ll be interested to see if replay is rewarding.

    *Check comments to see what I won’t do in a game. I bet you can guess!
    **Another is Emily Short and that other guy’s Blood and Laurels, now sadly unplayable. Also I heard about Signs of the Sojourner from Emily Short’s blog when it was in Alpha, and she went on to do some writing for the finished version, so there’s a theme here. It’s in that Bundle of Absolutely Everything for Racial Justice that many of us have.

  19. “Reflective choice” yeah, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean!

    Ah! I have Signs of the Sojourner installed from the bundle and hope to play it in the near future. I hear nothing but good things about it.

  20. I mean I was going to write “What I dream of is a game where you can make conversational choices and they can go wrong in a way that has an impact, but whatever is left to do is still interesting, which means there are a lot of NPCs doing their own thing instead of just supporting your story, and also that you can’t have one overriding goal or you’ll be frustrated in it,” and then I was like “Wait that is literally Signs of the Sojourner, why did I stop playing it?”

  21. Dan

    I didn’t know a lot of the later JRPGs had so much choice in them. I’ve never played a Final Fantasy. You make it sound like you get all those decisions without any inkling about how they will play out. That is literally begging players to draw up the map of choice.

    I played through 80 Days a couple of times – I think because I failed first time – but that game is really rewarding for a single play, leaving you fascinated that there’s so much more in that world than you can see.

    (I don’t see Cultist Simulator in the same vein, that’s more about unravelling mystery mechanics than making capital-C Choices.)

    Matt

    “A Bestiary of Player Agency” a big old article. I can’t remember if I’ve read it or had it on a list to read many, many moons ago…

    I think your most important question here is whether it is true that choices don’t matter. Because I think it articulates the problem quite well: players typically don’t think choices matter unless they have significant implications. Maybe that’s because we’ve all grown up with bullets blowing up aliens and this is just how games stumbled out of the primoridal swamp, reaching for the first lever they found. And they can’t shake off the Important Choice, aka Choices That Matter.

    Let’s go to the extreme. If a game has literally no choice memory, then in this instance can we say choices don’t matter? I think, even here, it may not be true – it depends how much of the story and investment you project into the player’s head. Then again, some would say you’d only do that if you gave the choices weight…

    I also think sometimes media people put too much emphasis on Choice, about how the future of film will be stories you can direct yourself. Netflix tried this but I haven’t heard much about it since Bandersnatch. Considering videogames survived the FMV period and, most of the time, thosee titles felt like the simplest games anyone can make but with a pretty shell, I’m surprised the industry hadn’t take a moment to think MAYBE THEY WEREN’T TRAILBLAZERS.

    Sorry for branching off on a tangent, but this is what got my neurons bubbling.

    Added Signs of the Sojourner from the Racial Justice Universe bundle to my itch library… but I still have more Death Crown to play.

  22. Has everybody played Masq? It’s the literal King of Branches, with the clever idea of only being 15 minutes long to make that a thing that is possible both to make and to play.

    https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/have-you-played-masq

    I’m a little bit stubborn when it comes to reflective choice. Player expression is all well and good, but it reminds me of the terrible things that have happened to dialogue options in the last 20 years; of ‘yes/sarcastic, but yes/tell me again why I have to say yes’ and the primary-colour-coded nuance of paragons and renegades. But even as I type this, I’m reminded of a time when it worked for me: Oxenfree.

    Why did it work for me there? I think it’s because no choice was also a choice. Reflective design ‘choices’ can be a little like The Vote – a big fuss is made that you’re about to do something meaningful, but in reality [[REDACTED DUE TO EXTREME CYNICISM]]. If a game won’t let you proceed unless you make a reflective choice, it obliges you to endorse and legitimate the idea of reflective but non-impactful choices, of expression without consequences, of contenting ourselves with a surface-level aestheticism, in a way that might offend the sensibilities of the particularly disagreeable and generally me-like player.

    But Oxenfree is pretty chill. At any given point in the conversations, which flow in real-time, you can simply elect not to choose any of the options presented to you. The game will continue onwards, and if it results in a particularly pregnant silence where dialogue probably needed to be, this can often draw quite funny comments from your companions, or throw a whole new dynamic into a scene.

    I realise this is itself a sort of self-expression on the part of the player, but it also functions as an opt-out of sorts. You only need to engage with it if you find it engaging.

    Oh, but also sometimes the options are impactful and the game does in fact branch and the game is set up to be replayed a large number of times. So, er!


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