Electron Dance

Stop Crying About Choice


In his epic Dark Souls Diaries series, Matt “Steerpike” Sakey wrote about a key moment when he felt guilty for killing an NPC he had intended to save. Sakey didn’t have long to mourn. Rather than leave him to wallow in his misery, one commenter told him there was actually nothing he could do. Don’t feel bad about it.

Player guilt is so easily destroyed, it seems, if we learn everything is a foregone conclusion. We are fascinated by what lies behind the curtain and the fear that the game might be making a fool of us, exploiting us through an illusion of agency. No one wants to be Stanley of The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013), the developer’s puppet.

We crave the weight of consequence yet revel in its destruction. How do we make sense of this contradiction? 

the hypertext story

A few months back, I revealed my lack of twine love in an article titled You Complete Me. My particular problem was the conditioning that comes from using hyperlinks day in and day out. I could not stop myself from scurrying through the twine links to find an ending, paying little regard to the words on the way. It was so easy to run amok through a twine that I felt that decisions had no weight. This was never going to be my story.

The implied question: if a player can easily select a particular ending with a few well-placed clicks, whither agency?

In the comments, George Buckenham referred me to John Brindle’s interpretation of twines as “node maps”. Brindle liked to sketch a twine’s cartography, the decision tree through which the player advanced the plot. I had always approached things from the perspective of player agency, what we can and cannot do, instead of looking at the story as a whole.

Mapping the decision tree is like reverse engineering and it’s a useful exercise for a game critic to unravel the blueprint of the game, or a game designer to learn how things are made. Here’s the opening passages of the twine Dive (Amanda Lange, 2013), from which I learnt never to go scuba diving:

amanda lange dive

It’s common to think of the act of “reading” to be a linear, sequential experience. With this lens, we could visualise a twine as a reader choosing which story tracks to lay before the narrative train. I’m going to take “narrative” to mean a particular story path through to the end.

Suppose I crack open a twine and the protagonist can either drive to an important destination in a brand new red Ferrari or travel by foot. I choose the car – but it’s booby-trapped and explodes.


I could see this as a fail state, but there are plenty of twines which do not have anything resembling a “success” state. I know we’re not done because the story feels truncated, incomplete. I don’t need to be told this.

Twine allows us to rewind such choices, but some twine developers do away with this ability – Duck Ted Bundy (Coleoptra-Kinbold, 2014) and The Matter of the Great Red Dragon (Jonas Kyratzes, 2014) are two examples that do this from the recent Fear of Twine exhibition. However, even if the reader is unable to rewind, it is always possible to restart.

There’s obviously more to discover in this twine, so I rewind and choose the walk option instead. Eventually I step through the game to an ending passage which feels more complete. Yet it turns out the walk option takes us through a narrative that never refers to a car bomb, so a reader who selected the walk option would be oblivious to its existence. But I cannot “unsee” those future paths already traversed, so I am aware of a car bomb even though it is never referenced during the walking branch of the story.

There’s a significant difference between the narrative I selected and the richer model of the story I’ve assembled in my mind. I do not think of the car bomb death as the narrative of the game neither do I think of the successful ending as the narrative. I remember both: a story of a car bomb which is possible to survive and reach success. I have built a node map:


By exploring every branch, I acquire a composite understanding of the story that’s independent of a single narrative. We are so comfortable with the concept of multiple narratives that we rarely distinguish between “an instance of narrative” and the complete picture, the hypertext story.

creating meaning

Twines are sometimes snubbed as digital “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) books yet there some important observations in this comparison.

In truth, CYOA books were often in thrall to the idea of finding the correct narrative rather than choosing your own. The stronger the emphasis on correct over personal, the more irritating the book. In the classic Fighting Fantasy book Deathtrap Dungeon (Ian Livingstone, 1984) the hero must find several gems scattered about a dungeon. The book is much beloved but if the reader reached the end of the dungeon without the necessary gems, the story came to an abrupt end. Forced replays like this have several repercussions.

One, it means CYOA books, hypertext works of the 80s, could only be finished if a reader developed a significant repository of story information from previous attempts. In other words, they were building a composite picture of the hypertext story, not “choosing their own adventure” at all.

Second, being tripped up time and again by sudden, unpredictable deaths meant some readers shifted from making brave choices to checking out all the options – using their fingers as rewindable bookmarks, allowing them to back up a few passages in the text. Sometimes, players might re-roll the dice in combat a few times to “encourage” a positive result if they were frustrated.

Here’s an excerpt from Demian Katz’s review of Deathtrap Dungeon:

Ultimately, I ended up sending dozens of adventurers to horrible fates just to get a rough idea of what I'd have to do to emerge victorious. I wasn't trying to win, even when I rolled Skill 12 characters; I was just mapping. I knew I stood no chance of victory without loads of foreknowledge. This reduced the book from an adventure to a mechanical exercise, which is a shame. It was also rather displeasing that even after all this work, there was no easy path available -- it's very frustrating when you have mapped every inch of a gamebook and still can't win without a certain amount of dice-fudging.

So the experience of twine and the CYOA book are, in fact, quite similar. The readers of CYOA books were true hypertext explorers, just like the readers of twine. But there’s often a tension between “my personal adventure” and completing the story, finding the One True Ending.

This obsession with a real ending has been ignored by many interactive fiction works. In parser-based interactive fiction Photopia (Adam Cadre, 1998) – which is actually closer to twine than parser – you can replay to have different conversations with central character Alley and it is through these conversations you can learn more about her. There is only ever one ending to the story, but a single play will not tell you everything.

We’re used to the common wisdom of books and films being uni-directional media. We start on page one and know we’re finished when the credits roll. We’re drawn to the idea of “The Narrative”, a master sequence of events being played before us. Even films like Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) or 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003) which present fragmented stories, still take their passengers on a directed ride from start to finish. We’ve bought into the idea that storytelling is about a journey to an endpoint, an authored destination.

The real destination is the creation of meaning, whether that be the reader’s interpretation or reconstructing the author’s intent. The work is not completed by reading the final page but by reading the all of the pages. We should be mindful of attributing holy status to the raw text as our interpretation is influenced by sources outside of it, such as what we know of the author, other related works and conversations about the work. (The academic terms you may be grasping for are intertexuality and paratext.)

Hypertext tales are often sold as games of choices, of agency, of your version of the narrative – when it would be better to embrace what they are good at, which is telling a different kind of fiction: one which is host to multiple narratives, narrative superposition for want of a better term, from which meaning can be derived.

And it’s probably about time I stopped pretending I’m writing about twine fiction.

everything is hypertext

Virtually all narrative-driven videogames offer hypertext stories. Players work their way from one story node to another not through clicking, but through sections of gameplay. Sometimes the node branching is more explicit through the use of dialogue trees. What has been bothering me for a while is that despite all the cheerleading about choice and personalisation in our game stories, we’ve been embracing them as works of hypertext for years.

Let’s start with the game critic. Critics are expected to be aware of the significance of the choices in any game, to show some effort to understand how the story works. Although I haven’t read Brendan Keogh’s book on Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) Killing is Harmless nor Rowan Kaiser’s as-yet incomplete Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007) book Possibility Space, I imagine both works explore the decision trees of those games and what they imply; these critiques are hypertext-literate.

But it’s not just critics who are exploring the hypertext nature of narrative-driven games. Going back to the ending of Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000), the game offers the player three choices. Each one leads to a different challenge with a different closing cutscene. The primary story branches as follows:


The Ion Storm team wanted to offer three starkly different futures, allowing the player to reflect upon what the game had taught them. The question is which one did players choose? I can tell you what players chose. They chose all bloody three.

Obviously players, who have come this far, have a desire to exhaust the game’s content; it’s just too tantalizing to leave the other two endings fallow after choosing one. Seeing one ending wasn’t considered “complete” – we had to see all three, and that’s hypertext fiction in action.

It’s important to realise that it’s not all about exhausting content because if that were true we wouldn’t spend so much time following up the alternative endings on YouTube and walkthroughs. A couple of years ago I described my dissatisfaction with Lone Survivor (Superflat Games, 2012) in Destroy After Playing. In Lone Survivor, it is unlikely a single playthrough will lead to narrative closure and a player will need to play through the entire game again to glean more information about the game’s plot. What did I do? I went straight to YouTube to do the job for me.

The Stanley Parable is about the relationship between player and developer but most coverage interpreted the game as being about choice. Parable lampoons choice and is the definitive hypertext game, demanding players track down every ending for laughs. No one plays Parable for the “good ending” or a personalised playthrough, they seek its meaning in aggregate.

In fact, the different narratives of The Stanley Parable are contradictory. There are many other works which also embrace this such as Fear of Twine’s The Girl in the Haunted House (Amanda Lange, 2014) and interactive fiction Aisle (Sam Barlow, 1999) in which one move not only determines what happens but also what happened. We appreciate them as a whole and not a single story. We do not reject these experiences for being inconsistent because it is part of their explicit design.

the retread problem

However, Aisle is the only example here that sidesteps the fundamental flaw in hypertext fiction. Katz hints at it in his Deathtrap Dungeon review, but Espen Aarseth executes a more rigorous take-down in his book Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Aarseth, 1997).

After the player has navigated through a hypertext story once, it is inevitable that the player will be forced to revisit previously trodden sections in an effort to find virgin ground in the text. It’s a wearying exercise and a subtle change in a familiar looking passage is not going to be enough to convince a player’s bored eye to do anything other than jump on a link.

This is why developers try to shoehorn every important story beat into a single playthrough, exposition and cutscenes be damned. They realise it’s not necessarily fun to jump through the same hoops time after time trying to find a little bit more of the story.

Where are the tools for reading hypertext fiction?

Most games provide scant support for hypertext readings. It’s become popular with some indie games to signal how many endings have been reached; the acclaimed Papers Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) tucks away a series of unremarkable dots in the corner of the start game screen to denote which endings the player has visited.


The purpose of this mechanism is to inform players of “undiscovered content”, to make them feel that a game is far from complete, despite reaching a completion state. Yet this is also a kind of hypertext navigation device: dear player, you have not yet read the whole story.

There’s also the “chapter selection” menu, which allows a player to jump directly to a particular point in the story, but this is usually reserved for games that offer a single narrative thread with no branching such as Half-Life 2 (Valve Software, 2004) and Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013).

The problem is that hypertext literacy opposes the conceit of narrative-based agency. The easier it is to navigate the decision tree, the more obvious it becomes that players aren’t making “real decisions”. Developers employ different tricks to distance the work from a hypertext perspective, to make decisions seem poignant and weighty.

The most effective way to achieve this is to create a hypertext structure which is so dense that it dulls our need to explore it – a convincing discrete approximation of free will. But this is expensive and complex work, particularly in AAA development where branches have a heavy cost in artwork and motion capture. Indeed, developers increasingly want to obscure the story scaffolding which leads to mixed results such as Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream, 2013) being tarred a “linear” game when in fact it features plenty of branching. Brian Boudreaux wrote: “Players had no clue that they were making choices, or that they missed whole scenes until they talked to another player, or replayed the game.”

There are cheaper alternatives: demoting save games to checkpoints, stretching the distance between cause and effect to make replaying consequences more prohibitive and, down at the extreme end, eliminating all save game mechanisms or even revoking the ability to replay. For all the talk of games with “real choices,” developers have typically dealt with this need by stripping the player of narrative control.


Let’s put aside developers’ lacklustre support for hypertext navigation, because the solution to the hypertext retread problem has always been here. It is the collaborative reading.

Mapping hypertext is often laborious work for the individual, but not for the group. We’ve always taken part in a grand collaborative read but social media, YouTube and organised mapping projects like wikis have accelerated hypertext understanding. These elements of paratext have become part of the reading process.

Despite the obfuscation efforts of developers, players have been painstakingly mapping these decision trees. Look at the walkthroughs. Look at the wikis. Look at the YouTube videos.

The hypertext maps are out there.

hypertext competitors

It is important to separate hypertext storytelling from other forms of storytelling.

Consider environmental storytelling which I last discussed in The Beautiful Dead which is heavily authored but normally renders a static, dead backstory – not one which the player has any say in. For example, the environment of Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) expresses what kind of city Rapture was and also intimates that something terrible happened to it.

There’s so-called emergent storytelling, which are take-home stories that describe what happened in play. Take Matthew Weise’s wonderful journal of his time in ZombiU (Ubisoft Montpellier, 2012) or my encounter with The Beast of Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). These were experiences that arose from the structure of play. I do not expect emergent storytelling to deliver the layered hypertext writing of Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999), but neither do I expect hypertext fiction to surprise on repeat viewings like Spelunky (Mossmouth, 2012). Arguing whether one is better than another is a moot point.


The Holy Grail, of course, is procedurally-generated story, emergent stories that look just like authored ones. Recently, Ken Levine gave a GDC presentation on a “narrative lego” approach but I remain unconvinced. Anyone can describe a concept of replayable story; the difficulty is in implementing something that convinces the way authored story does. Okay, Symon (GAMBIT, 2010) and Stranded in Singapore (GAMBIT, 2011) have procedurally-generated stories; but all that “narrative lego” feels predictable after just a couple of throws of the dice. Does this have any more longevity than authored hypertext?

This shines more light on the issue of game ethics I had with Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012): the truth is no one cares about the ethical conundrum about whether to take lives or use stealth. The use of violence was more about an alternate form of play and different game endings. It’s as much a hypertext exploration as it is playing a different kind of game. The idea of feeling the hideous weight of those consequences is way, way down the list of wants, here.

This isn’t to say there aren't plenty of examples where the hypertext branches transmute into something that feels like agency. Many people found the choices they made in Papers, Please uncomfortable and the mistakes players made in Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2012) affected some deeply. Those who enjoyed the Mass Effect trilogy and The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2012) cannot help but talk about the consequences of their choices. It is clearly possible to synthesise a sense of complicity in these stories.

It is as much a player’s responsibility as it is a developer’s to maintain immersion. But when choices forced on the player are designed to make the player feel bad, sometimes players call this out as cheap exploitation. But does it always have to be about the player? It might just be the only narrative step consistent with the hypertext story.

And even if we do buy in, it can so easily come undone as I described in Sakey’s Dark Souls encounter. The best we can do is avoid the hypertext reading – I, for one, refused to replay Cart Life multiple times, for fear of undermining how the game made me feel.

But, on the whole, agency in story is a remarkably fragile thing. It also makes little sense in a world where we can excavate alternative narratives and endings with a quick Google search. What players really seek is a work which is complete in a hypertext sense, that the story is closed.

It might be time to forget about forcing players to cry over consequences and let them cry over story.

the hypertext holodeck

Except… well, good luck on that, because players are going to hate you. Implicitly, we’ve been accepting of hypertext but the holodeck framing (players are the real author and should be able to control the story) has a stranglehold on the development of videogame storytelling. Before we move on, I fully acknowledge I write this as someone who has often celebrated the power of consequences.

Players have always pined for additional narrative options, to reflect what they would have done. Even in a game as flat and linear as The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) there have been calls for alternative choices at the end of the game. It is always difficult to patch in extra choices to serve player whims because they need to be consistent with the existing story structure. It is to satisfy player curiosity at the expense of believability and hypertext closure. It’s the same problem that Tom Bissell complains about in his piece on L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, 2011):

As everyone who plays video games knows, masking systems can be greatly amusing to test and prod, and the first thing I did in L.A. Noire was drive my car directly into some pedestrians and plow through a few streetlights, after which I insisted on driving my partner and me to our first crime scene in a dump truck. Once we got to the crime scene, I stranded my partner there and took off, still in my dump truck, spreading more mayhem. Had this been GTA or Red Dead Redemption, the law would have come calling, but the most incisive criticism I got from my partner during all of this was: “What are you doing?”

But the games still sell despite critics hurling around mouthfuls like ludonarrative dissonance. Do players throw their controllers in disgust if the shooting is fun but the story is cranky or broken? What the player can do has always been more important than what the game wants to say. Players want the asshole option. Even if the asshole option isn’t provided there’s always someone who will make it, capture it and post it on YouTube.

Also, there’s a complex interplay between our holodeck cravings and hypertext structure. What if you embrace the holodeck and throw away the hypertext signposts? You get the Beyond: Two Souls problem of “hidden choices.” Brian Bourdeaux takes this point further:

Players were just not ready for the kind of responsibility Beyond puts on them to better their own experience. When a game does everything for us, we complain that it doesn't give us the freedom to express our agency in the story. When a game gives us the freedom to express our agency in the story, we complain because we don't know how to use it.

There’s another issue, though, with an emphasis on hypertext. Those “sections of gameplay” that bridge the narrative nodes define how those nodes are perceived.

Failing to be successful in Cart Life makes the endings more painful to bear. Even the emptiness of grinding in RPGs becomes part of the journey up the narrative mountain. Instead of clicking through a few twine nodes to the end of the story, the player suffered for hours killing mice and sheep – and this becomes part of the sense that the player suffered with the protagonist for the Great Quest.

That is partly why there was anger over Jennifer Hepler’s suggestion of skipping combat in a game to progress the story. In acknowledging these games were fundamentally hypertext she also implied the grind up the narrative mountain was not important. This casts action sequences as acts of pure masochism instead of one that informs the journey. (The resulting personal attacks on Hepler, of course, were unforgivable.)

Raph Koster wrote how narrative's only purpose in a game was player feedback. Tom Jubert, the writer on Penumbra (Frictional Games, 2007) and The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013), was once told that “plot is gameplay’s bitch”. Except it’s possible to turn this on its head. Gameplay is often what gives the narrative some resonance, that gameplay is plot's bitch. Everyone is actually playing a version of Cart Life, except those routine mechanics – point, shoot, point, shoot – are skinned well enough to feel fun.


So where does this leave us?

Viewing games rich with authored story as hypertext fiction is useful for explaining some of the apparent contradictions in player behaviour. There’s obviously more that can be done on the development side to support player exploration of the embedded hypertext. However, there are problems associated with exposing it for easy exploration, as well as burying it completely.

Will there be any change in how we perceive such games? Will we see them more as hypertext in future?

I didn’t think much of Tale of Tales’ Over Games presentation in 2010, but now looking back I see much in common with how I feel about videogame design today. Plenty of people are okay with the lack of choice in Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games, 2012): seeing something more fundamental through the “agency illusion”. And some find the well-received albeit flagged choices of The Walking Dead quite hollow.

Things change. Things do change.

notes: alternative endings

  1. Wired recently ran an article titled Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story. “It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write.” Well, that’s not true, Wired. Everyone was looking in the wrong place for hypertext works, imagining them to turn up in bookstores. They should’ve been checking out videogame stores; also consider Twine as a more recent resurgence of the naked hypertext format. I think the real problem is that a hypertext story is difficult to read (the retread problem).
  2. I used Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext to sharpen my thoughts. It’s a strangely inaccessible book if you’re not familiar with academic nomenclature like semiotics. However, it is interesting and makes a stab at generalizing the notion of a text out to a superset called ergodic literature. Hypertext is just one entry (which Aarseth savages) inside that superset.
  3. Cybertext is notable as it explains Aarseth’s stance against literary theory and narratology, with concerns that the field will be “colonised” with theories requiring patches and extensions rather than a better more general theory of text (ergodic literature).
  4. Cybertext would label the hypertexts discussed in this essay “exploratory hypertexts”. The other type is the “constructive hypertext” which permits users to modify the hypertext.
  5. The melding of hypertext and gameplay into a single “entity of fiction” that I left without a label is fully generalized by Aarseth’s idea of a “textual machine”. The textual machine consists of three elements: operator, verbal sign and medium. That's as much as you're getting out of me on the subject.
  6. This essay is not an end, it is a means to provoke. Please feel free to throw in counterexamples or highlight flaws. I cover a lot of ground here so I'm going to be stretched thinly somewhere, most likely over France.
  7. Rare is the game that prevents replays, but they do exist. For example, One Chance (Dean Moynihan, 2010) which I discussed in The Consequences of Consequences.
  8. Twine works do not necessarily have to conclude. They could keep going in a story loop and the loop itself could hold meaning.
  9. Twine works can use variables which, if used carefully, can substantially complicate node analysis. State variables will not prevent the game being mapped into a tree structure, but each variable can increase the number of nodes required to explain the game. Usually the node map would be augmented to take account of states rather than simply bifurcating the tree with each variable change.
  10. It’s possible to argue that “narrative” should cover the full journey the player takes, going forward and backward through all the branches in a hypertext story, thus discarding the possibility of superposed narratives. I’m not sure that’s altogether useful and smudges some boundaries which are better left intact.
  11. From my hypertext fiction perspective, I would prefer to call a twine a story rather than a “game”. The word game carries this cancerous seed of challenge, of defeating the work. It’s why I asked developers the question of whether they would prefer an alternative to "game" in No Alternative because I am precisely the kind of person who feels uncomfortable writing a work of hypertext fiction and calling it a game. Note there are more complex twines that endeavour to support more traditionally game-like elements.
  12. Environmental storytelling can support dynamic elements and traces of player activity (e.g. bullet holes) but it’s better suited for world-building and backstory.
  13. On narrative lego / replayable narrative: is replayability a worthy goal? This is something the gameplay-first crowd always get carried away with. Steady on, fellas. I’ve only read Greg Bear’s Eon once and I thought that was an awesome book.
  14. Symon and Stranded in Singapore were part of a series of experiments in procedurally-generated story run by Clara Fernández-Vara. I’m only using them as illustrations. The project that followed these, The Last Symphony (Shoefish Games, 2012), was far more interesting and geared towards a different approach to story (indexical storytelling).
  15. John Brindle also wrote a piece called “Fuck the Holodeck”. It’s got nothing to do with modes of storytelling but you might like it anyway. It’s a rejection of the conventional wisdom that videogames’ goal should be immersion/realism.
  16. The thoughts in this essay were being developed as I was writing my twine, Truth is Ghost (Joel Goodwin, 2014). I’ll relate how this impacted my twine during the post-mortem next week.
  17. Actually, that NPC could have been saved.

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Comments (37) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Fun fact : I never completed Deus Ex, as I couldn’t decide what ending I wanted.

  2. That was great, and easily the most concise and cogent summation of narrative complexity in game design that I have ever read. There is still much to learn about choice structures in games, whether they’re Twines or AAA shooters. Any unifying theory is likely to be very broad and accommodating, if one is possible at all.

    When I published that installment of the Dark Souls Diaries, I got a handful of responses from various readers. It became a bit like a hypertext adventure itself, since everyone was essentially advising me on how to cope; how to “live” with the consequences of what had happened. Examples:

    1) Please stop playing that game. It’s horrible and I worry what it’s doing to your mood (my mother)
    2) There was nothing you could do, the NPC is doomed regardless (the reader you mentioned)
    3) You have stared too long into the abyss (a friend, questioning my claim that it was an accident)
    4) He died at the very end of his story, so at least you saw the whole thing (another reader)

    As you note, #2 is incorrect. Siegmeyer of Catarina can survive that encounter, but doing so requires the player to set the stage in a very explicit way. This reflects your comments about finger-bookmarking in CYOA novels: you’re unlikely to predict or prevent the usual outcome unless you already know what’s coming, so players who save him are already engaging in a meta-narrative. It’s worth noting also that the scene is quite late in the game, and triggering it requires that the player accomplish five or six other things in a particular order. If you don’t, Siegmeyer simply isn’t there at the fateful moment… though that too is a sort of narrative outcome, since his absence means he “survived.”

    Personally I feel that multiplicity of choice is an option in games, not a requirement. It’s not written anywhere that player decisions must steer every aspect of the outcome, or even that player decisions need to be taken into account. If they are, they are. If not, perhaps that is part of the author’s intent. I may be the only person on earth who liked the original ending of Mass Effect 3. It was very profound to get to that point, after all I had been through, and be told that none of it had really mattered.

    Some saw it as invalidating, but games are about the journey, not the destination. And just because all your choices amounted to nothing in the grand Mass Effect scheme doesn’t mean you were wrong to make them. You fought the good fight knowing you would lose.

    What do you think of this: maybe the mistake is that we think of plot and gameplay as distinct. Maybe that’s why no balance can be struck between then, and the debate about which takes priority is pointless. The gameplay informs the narrative in many games, and vice versa. I directly experienced Dark Souls, including being party to the death of that NPC, and it was the experience – the active involvement – that made the story matter so much to me. You can’t achieve the same outcome by simply sitting someone down and telling them the story. “You had to be there.”

  3. Alan deNiro (author of Solarium) had an interesting and, I suspect, insightful point about why the first wave of hypertext didn’t take off: Eastgate charged $20-25 for their hypertext stories and a cool $300 for the authoring system. This kept it niche.

  4. I think you’re giving videogames too much credit for writing hypertext stories well. It might be that I’m looking more at AAA titles than indie ones, but I’ve found a complete disinterest in gameplay when it comes to narrative games: for instance, in The Witcher, I’m more interested in catching ’em all and finishing the story to see what happens next… and I’ll go online to find out everything I didn’t choose. For the nitty gritty work of actually playing through? Easy mode. The challenge takes away from the story for me.

    I was talking about something similar with a friend and pointed out that tabletop RPGs have been accomplishing this for a long time; it’s just that the alternative paths are never written down anywhere because the players don’t retread. Is that a hypertext story? I guess not. But it is an example of how much more fulfilling it can be to have a generated story that really reacts to your choices.

    Of course, the problem with this is that you run into the problem of work-to-choice ratio. Every choice that the developer provides is a mountain of work to prepare beforehand that may not be consumed. You want to drive a dump truck around? The developer didn’t account for that. TTRPGs deal with this by letting the GM switch gears between sessions, writing out new material and improvising or bailing when it gets too crazy during play.

  5. This is a great piece. And I really appreciate you exploring and analyzing the way I handle choice in my own hypertexts.

    I wanted to write an author’s note about “Haunted House,” but this will stand in for it for now – where “The Matter of the Great Red Dragon” was not supposed to be replayed, I pretty much write every interactive fiction I’ve done assuming and even requiring multiple plays. Generally I like the conceit that multiple plays give you full knowledge of the scope of the scenario, but, in the case of Haunted House I was experimenting with a sequence that was not internally consistent, as you point out. (A lot of the old Choose your Own Adventure books were like this.)

    The game Virtue’s Last Reward was a recent inspiration on me and I want to write about it in more length. It doesn’t solve the problem of having to replay the same content multiple times, but it does an interesting thing with how it displays branches and how branches interact with one another. I know it’s 3DS, but you should check it out if you ever get the chance.

    As you also pointed out on Twitter I did some research relevant to this that seemed to confirm my suspicions that binary choices in games are somewhat pointless, though I focused on those choices coded as “good or evil.” Lots of people just do one set and then the other, as it turns out, though if they don’t have time for two plays, they choose “good.” There’s not a ton of thought put into this the majority of the time.

  6. I’m going to push at your “everything is hypertext” and restate it as “everything is a database.” Instead of thinking of text as connected by links, we can think of anything created in relation to everything else as experienced in connection with it. That is, in the context of games, we experience them as a series of assets and running code connected to each other through APIs that present a series of running states.

    Since I come from a background of computer science, I tend to bring to the humanities, and discussions like this especially, a way of thinking about narrative and hypertexts that is based in mathematics. What you described at the top, with the flow chart, is pretty close to a Finite State Machine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finite-state_machine). It’s a conceptual model for explaining how an algorithm works step by step.

    From that perspective, I agree with you that a narrative is “a particular story path through to the end.” You could describe any valid path traveled through a series of states as a narrative through which points were visited and decisions, based on the conditionals present and user’s input, were produced in connection to each other. However, a story, and here is where I drift in a weird place, is merely a set, a collection of elements that may or may not be used during any valid path. (My narrative of reading a book, not unlike making blind decisions in a game, could be an incomplete set of elements.)

    That Twine maps so well to node diagrams is not overly surprising, then. It is based, during runtime, on nodes (literally called that in the specification that named them) as part of a tree-like structure in memory called the DOM (Document Object Model). They are connected to each other through familial relationships. Nodes have parents, ancestors, and often siblings.

    The JavaScript that runs Twine binds these relationships (usually) as a result of user action. A node does not exist as part of the narrative, as attached to the traversal path of the user through the elements of the page itself, until it does. Unless a user clicks on a link, the passage or code it is associated with does not exist. It is always in potentia within the page. They are generated in connection to each other via the user’s input and the binding Twine does. (This makes Twine projects, for the most part, close to “constructive hypertext” in nature. But few care about that label.)

    To get back to the idea of states, and at the risk of this being a very long comment, the digital domain is finite. All computers have a finite amount of memory. A finite amount of time between one processed instruction and the next. They cannot ponder. They compute mercilessly.

    This is what makes the mathematician and programmer part of me laugh a little at the idea of procedurally-generating believable content. It is very computationally complex. With each step, the number of possible states canbe graphed to a curve that is a multiple of exponential growth. (Which is why games like Spelunky ‘cheat’ by arranging a finite number of sections in a large, but also finite, number of combinations to create this illusion.)

    That we tend to think of experiences in some approximation of linearity complicates all this too. We want the ‘full story’ and, like you wrote, will reread and replay in hopes of getting more. That we re-enter the path with advanced knowledge often twists the expected journey. This can produce interesting new takes on artifacts, but it also tends to pervert, if you want to think of it in that light, highly prescriptive works like a BioShock Infinite.

  7. Virtue’s Last Reward is the first game that comes to mind when I think of the narrative retreading problem. VLR tackled it– not perfectly, as Amanda notes– but with a fascinating conceit. The developer doesn’t try to give every branch a sense of finality, but instead essentially removes meaningful choice by having the player explore every choice “branch” as a part of the story, which is ultimately linear but played out/observed non-linearly.

    When you reach the first “game over” or “the end” screen you know you’ve not reached an actual ending. It’s a bit messy at times and there is a certain amount of retreading the same sections (thankfully there is a fast-forward button) but the experience is carried by its bizarre humor and fun whodunnit sub-plots.

    The difference is that, while many games expect you to replay the same experience to achieve a different result, VLR just shows you every possible branch from the start and sets the player up to travel each to reach the true conclusion. It probably sounds odd without foreknowledge. It was an interesting experiment of sorts.

    P.S. It’s unfortunate to be the bearer of bad news but :Siegmeyer cannot be saved. He’s doomed in the end no matter what! Poor guy was always going to go hollow. (Trust me. I’ve played All The Dark Souls.)

  8. @George: That’s too funny. I’m going to have to rewrite the whole thing now.

    @Steerpike: What I perhaps should have articulated is that hypertext is a close approximation of choice structures in games. It’s not a perfect mapping. Games like The Last of Us, of course, are flat hypertext structures.

    I was discussing the essay on Twitter with Justin Keverne and he took issues with the idea that all paths are the same to players. We always make at least one choice – our “canonical choice” in Keverne’s words – and in George’s comment you can see the same issue. We may execute all of the options, but may well regard one as “ours”.

    I recognise the truth of this in my own play because I usually play the good guy. But I wonder how… important this is, considering we knock ourselves out with hypertext reading via walkthrough after finishing the game. How closely do we associate that choice with ourselves?

    I’ve found myself increasingly disinterested in “narrative choice” the more I’ve played. I tend to see it as fake except in rare cases (e.g. Cart Life). So I wonder if I won’t be the only person who feels that over time, causing us to drift towards a hypertext perspective as we lose our faith in the choices. It’s just a thought.

    I think the relationship between plot and gameplay is far more nebulous that it’s been given credit for, and that they need each to survive (if that’s the kind of game you’re going for). Writing this article suddenly made me sit up and realise that grind had real purpose and to remove it would likely change certain RPG experiences completely.

    This is, of course, the big defect in the hypertext perspective that I’m waving in your face at the end. You can read the hypertext structure online, but your particular narrative path is the only one infected with gameplay experience.

    @matt: While researching this article, I discovered that Eastgate are still charging $25 for hypertext stories.

    @Michael: Hello and welcome! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t consider the hypertext stories of videogames are beautiful works of art, save for a special few. I tend to play “easy mode” myself these days, but there are still exceptions. I resent the ungodly notion that a Thief-style game (e.g. Dishonored) can be defeated with violence, because I think that’s too easy and undermines what the game is about. However, through self-restraint, I can still enjoy the game in a stealth-only capacity. I’m not sure everyone feels that way for every similar situation.

    If “gameplay challenge” gets in the way… well, that’s Hepler’s point, of course. That some enjoy the story but don’t actually care about the challenge that bridges the story nodes.

    The term “hypertext” corresponds to a system where the story nodes are defined and the reader’s job is to navigate through them via permissible links. Parser-based interactive fiction, for example, cannot be considered hypertext. (Technically, you could decompose it into a impossibly large decision tree with the cross-product of game, item and NPC states, but this perspective is useless for such games.) Tabletop RPGs are not hypertext. Aarseth would categorise this as a type of cybertext and he is supportive of user-generated story – the RPG is a system that generates text better than any digital RPG (it’s closer to an online multiplayer game where much of the intrigue is produced through player interaction).

    Aarseth has concluded that computers just aren’t going to be very good at making story on the fly. Chris Crawford worked on Storytron for years and, in the end, considered it a failure. Now Ken Levine is going for narrative lego.

    The most convincing approach to responsive story I’ve seen is Façade which responds to player input. This is still heavily scripted, but it cannot be considered hypertext.

    @Amanda: Thanks! I like the idea of a story in which a narrative is consistent, but the hypertext reading is riddled with contradictions. It reminds me of the trouble I had grappling with the meaning of Inland Empire.

    Not sure if I’ll get on to Virtue’s Last Reward in the future, but I will note the game down just in case.

    @Dan Cox: Hello Dan and your first comment here!

    Okay, so while I agree that videogame narratives can be generalized into databases (and then we can include concepts like parser IF too), I wanted to focus on the specific case of hypertext. Two reasons: a) virtually all game stories play out as hypertext and b) it means we can talk about hypertext literacy of players.

    When we shift up to the level of the database, it’s difficult to make similar arguments. This is similar to what happens if you define “everything is a game” you then need to move to subcategories in which you can deduce something concrete.

    I’m aware that the Javascript implementation of Twine is just as one big structure but I’m wary of confusing implementation versus the perceived system. For the same reason, I can’t agree that Twine is a constructive hypertext system because the user only gets to “create” pre-authored nodes through links which is, well, identical to moving through pre-defined cards with story written on them. The constructive hypertext version of Twine would be an open wiki.

    But procedurally-generated story? I can see the wisdom in breaking down story into actors with emotional states, interacting according to story rules… this is roughly the approach of Levine and Crawford. How many vanilla slot-in cutscenes are you going to have to record to render replayable AAA output? You’re trying to create emergent storytelling which is more complex than the player shot an elf in the heart and got 50 XP. But, in the end, I think these projects will feel like systems and not stories. As mentioned above, the best example at breaking through this I’m aware of is Façade.

    Ah… I should have brought up Dwarf Fortress at some point. That’s one of the most successful emergent story machines. It creates compelling stories that people want to hear about. They are often of the “and everything went to shit” variety, of course.

    @Max: You make me want to see this interesting edge case of Virtue’s Last Reward!

    Oh and when you say it’s not possible to save Siegmeyer, do you dispute what’s asserted in the wiki I linked?

  9. Sorry if there are mistakes in that long comment. It’s late and I’m really tired!

  10. “Okay, so while I agree that videogame narratives can be generalized into databases (and then we can include concepts like parser IF too), I wanted to focus on the specific case of hypertext. Two reasons: a) virtually all game stories play out as hypertext and b) it means we can talk about hypertext literacy of players.”

    I wasn’t writing that videogame narratives are or even can be databases. More that the data is organized within a computer in the form a database. The cylinders of the hard drive are addressed as a database that talks to the filesystem, which is itself database. Files, with headers, content, and footers, are databases. The native view of the digital is a database. (Every UI is itself a constrained view of some sort. You don’t see everything all the time. Some information is lost in every window, every view of a greater abstracted level.)

    I’m worried that if we state that games play out as hypertexts, we create a form of equivalency. It is often convenient to think of the narrative created from interacting with a game as a hypertext because the diagramming is the same. Flow charts and state machine have very similar semantics. We can think of input, decisions, and progression in conceptual models that share the same ideas and placement.

    The problem, I think, is that I don’t want to write “all games are hypertexts” as much as I don’t want to write “all games are databases” (even if I probably believe it). Nor do I want to write “everything is a game” either. All of those are boring worlds.

    “I’m aware that the Javascript implementation of Twine is just as one big structure but I’m wary of confusing implementation versus the perceived system.”

    The problem I have with this is that it creates the tendency to prop up Twine as some sort of savior of interactive fiction. The often perceived system of Twine is that it is a kind of magic to many people. For them, it works and that is all they care about. It could be science. It could be magic. They don’t care.

    I’m probably alone in thinking the implementation is vital to understanding what is going on within Twine. But, then again, I’m a programmer at heart and I think language and its interaction with humans is vital to understanding the world too. I also think math plays a role in this, but I know that’s not particularly helping this conversation at the moment.

    ” . . . Levine and Crawford. How many vanilla slot-in cutscenes are you going to have to record to render replayable AAA output? You’re trying to create emergent storytelling which is more complex than the player shot an elf in the heart and got 50 XP. But, in the end, I think these projects will feel like systems and not stories.”

    Ah, well, I should probably explain that I’m not too concerned with ‘story’ as a concept. It’s too loose for me. And I often lump ‘systems’ and ‘stories’ into a general category of ‘prescribing things’ that attempt to inflict an order. In the same way systems suggest linearity, stories do too.

    I also don’t disagree that Levine is going about the same thing Crawford tried before. The problem, each time, is that every approximation is a loss of accuracy. A loss of information granularity. The more you stack one system that approximates something on top of another that does another thing, you introduce a greater loss. It’s a composite loss to the entirety of the greater system that was trying to be approximated.

    To come back to the hypertext conversation, though, one of the most interesting questions I had after reading Cybertext myself was the continuum of overdeterminedness in hypertexts. For example, how many nodes and in what state of connectivity is the threshold for something to be or not to be a hypertext? Are these strong ties between nodes, ones we might considered ‘fixed’ in some way, or weak ties in that they could be joined during the path through them, binding as sibling nodes during the course of any one path?

    For example, is the world wide web a hypertext itself? The links between the pages change rapidly. They mutate as a result of others changing connectivity. New nodes are introduced. Some even exist but are not connected to any others.

    How much of a hypertext is determined? And at which stage?

    (Please don’t feel the need to answer these last ones. Player overdeterminedality is one of my favorite discussion points. I can generate lots of questions without easy answers.)

  11. I think I’ve written about this somewhere before, but I don’t think Dwarf Fortress actually creates stories. What it creates is a simulation in which interesting things happen, which then get turned into stories *by the people who write about them*. What makes Dwarf Fortress diaries interesting is the result of a process of transformation that the raw data is subjected to by the writer; that’s where stories come from. They’re not just a series of events, but events given meaning and perspective, edited, aesthetically arranged.

  12. I should have been clearer in my original comment when I said that Siegmeyer of Catarina can survive that encounter, but yes, he is doomed no matter what. Briefly, this friendly but incompetent knight gets it in his head to “save” you by creating a distraction in which he jumps into a pit filled with Lovecraftian horrors and you, as he puts it, can “slip away in the confusion.”

    But he can’t survive the encounter with the pit monsters unless you soften them up (but don’t kill them!) first, and you can’t know to do that unless you’ve already played the game or consulted a wiki. In my case, he jumped in the pit, I jumped in right after to save him, and in the chaos of the battle I struck him with my sword and killed him.

    Max is right though, Siegmeyer – like most characters in Dark Souls – is doomed regardless. If he lives through that fight you’ll meet up with him once again on the shores of Ash Lake, where he goes hollow. The “good” ending to his story is simply that his daughter knows what became of her father.

    Phil Kollar’s Dark Souls 2 review on Polygon remarks that you don’t really play for cutscenes or upgrades or narrative rewards, you play because progress is its own reward.

  13. PS – I’m with Jonas on the Dwarf Fortress argument. The game provides building blocks, but all the effort of assembling the story falls to the player. Plot, meaning, motivation, and so forth are all on you. I suppose many abstract or non-narrative games (like city builders, for example) could also qualify, though Dwarf Fortress has a real gift for it.

  14. “all the effort of assembling the story falls to the player” – while not necessarily true the game, this sounds a bit like State of Decay. “Not necessarily,” because it had its own pretty weak story, but the emergent gameplay did sort of help the player create their own story. You might say “some” instead of “all.” One reason I liked the game so much. It’s also a simulation in which interesting things happen, albeit some just a bit scripted, by necessity.

    Dwarf Fortress on the other hand … it will probably still be in beta by the time we’re all dead. And still a massive game. It frightens me.

  15. HM: Well, Eastgate is kind of charging $24.95 for hypertext stories. Really they’re charging $24.95 for elaborate coasters:

    “This title runs on Macintosh Mac OS X 10.3-10.6 (Panther through Snow Leopard) and on 32-bit Windows XP through Windows 7. It is not yet compatible with Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) and 64-bit Windows 7. New editions for these systems, and for iPad, are in preparation. Contact Eastgate for details.”

    I hear there’s going to be a version of Patchwork Girl sometime but who knows.

  16. This was a really interesting and heavy read for me. I was going to comment yesterday but my head was still spinning from all the points raised here. I had difficulty understanding ‘hypertext’ which is presumably the sum of all the different threads of a game’s narrative?

    One of the reasons I didn’t want to read the final part of your Dishonored series was because it dealt with the killing path; the one I avoided but was tempted to explore in future. I tend to only play games once so I make sure my playthroughs are very thorough so I take my time. (In Dishonored I think I saw most of the content besides the narrative threads I cut off from the decisions I made.) Often, by the time I finish a game, I’ve little desire to start it again or even try out different routes to see different outcomes. I’ve been guilty of watching a few alternative endings or scenarios on Youtube in the past but it is quite rare for me. I tend to take one route through a game and call it a day for time reasons and because of the retreading problem. As much as I’d like to play through Dishonored again to see what would happen to the Pendletons and Slackjaw if I make some different decisions, to use all those other abilities and toys, to see how the game accommodates first-person action instead of stealth, to see Dunwall again, I think about the retreading and the possibility of tarnishing my one real playthrough.

    So I don’t usually enjoy games as hypertext. I suppose the only hypertext readings I get (besides the odd Youtube peek) is from other people describing their experiences and how they differed from my own (like with Heavy Rain) so I get an idea of where the story diverges. Of course, when one of my characters died early, I knew that wasn’t the only ending he had, but it was mine and I stuck with it. All I know of the rest of his story is what my girlfriend told me!

    I have a philosophical debate with myself sometimes about choice and single playthroughs: if a player is only going to play through something once, do they benefit from choice? I remember seeing a Bioshock Infinite video thumbnail in the sidebar on Youtube before I’d played the game saying ‘How to save Elizabeth!!’ I was like ‘Shit, spoilers!’ So when I played the game and got to that bit, I ripped through that sequence thinking that she could die. Just that one video gave me the impression my actions could have consequences and it made me play harder or with more intent. If I’d known the experience didn’t really deviate from one player to the next, taking practically the same course no matter what, I’d have been taking my time about it, doing all the things that players shouldn’t be doing when there’s IMMEDIATE UNSTOPPABLE DANGER. The illusion of choice/agency can be a powerful thing if it convinces you (in my case it was with the help of a video thumbnail outside of the game, in addition to the ‘cage or bird’ type choices).

    Which brings me round to hiding the hypertext signposts and what Bourdeaux said. In Heavy Rain I liked that I didn’t know what decisions were effecting what so I took every interaction seriously, just in case. Though I only played it briefly, I think Blade Runner does a much better job of obfuscating the signposts still; I didn’t have a clue how the story was altering based on my actions (or inaction!) so I just had to play carefully and roll with the punches. I loved that.

    Anyway, I think I’m getting a bit lost now :-) Great article Joel; it’s clear you’ve spent a long time thinking about this and collecting and assembling all those references.

  17. Speaking of which, thanks to this article I played The Matter of the Great Red Dragon and thought it was wonderful. I’ve played a few great Twines recently – Harbour Master’s Truth is Ghost, Amanda’s The Girl in the Haunted House, and now this one – each contributed to a different perspective on the storytelling platform. Per Dragon’s introduction I decided to play only once and live with my decisions, and while I’m curious about the other possible outcomes, I was also very satisfied with mine. Typically choice-heavy games leave me feeling anxious, because by choosing one path you’re skipping another.

    Like Gregg, I enjoyed Heavy Rain’s more subtle approach. Very few signpost decisions, and sometimes small things had big impact. The result was an experience that, once again, I played through once and was satisfied by the ending even though (as it happens) I got a terrible one.

    HM, do you think we will see an actual backlash against choice in coming years? Already some developers have experimented with taking choice away at times you’d most expect to have it (the Andrew Ryan scene in Bioshock, for example). Given this discussion and the debate over authorship, I wonder if the next step is a more profound lean toward directed narratives. I’d be okay with that, at least for a while, to see what they’d be able to do within different constraints.

    A less-choice environment would still leave room for games like Cart Life, I’d think, since despite the vastness of player agency in that game, it seems like certain themes were pervasive. I assume that was Hofmeier’s intent.

  18. @Dan Cox: Time to clarify why we aren’t a million miles apart in viewpoints. You say you’re worried “all games are hypertexts” but that’s kind of my point. Most of our “celebrated narrative work” is equivalent to hypertext and it’s time to face that so (a) maybe we can get better at hypertext work that we’re immersed in and (b) get off our asses and realise that we’ve been plugging at away at the same story structure for years.

    That’s why I like parser IF because it doesn’t reduce to hypertext in the same way, as the text mutates. Plus why I don’t understand twine as a saviour of IF because it’s spinning the same story structure as we’ve seen elsewhere: the only difference is the accessibility on the developer-side (possibly reader-side too). I was never a fan of parser IF implementing menu choices, which was like admitting that parser had limits.

    I’m not going to write an article about how twine has broken down game development barriers, it’s simply created a new canvas. Twine accessibility doesn’t mean we’re going to see FPS games by fresh artists. Working with Fear of Twine has given me some insight that although twine is “just hypertext”, it can conjure up different visions than we’ve seen elsewhere.

    With the system-based story generators, I do wonder where “nuance” will come from; maybe this is what you mean by approximation. And Erlend Grefsrud was unhappy on Twitter that the lack of a human authorial hand would make him feel that there was nothing there – that he was seeing what he wanted to see, rather than prising out some designed truth. (We could go into a side discussion here about meaning created by author vs that created by reader, here, but I don’t want to fight out Gresfrud’s argument here.)

    I understand your concern about the “continuum of overdeterminedness” which I have to say is a crazy mouthful and we must find a better term =) While I was writing this I was wondering at what point do we say that something isn’t hypertext – because many games usually have something in them that breaks classic hypertext structure. Mathematically even parser IF can be modelled as hypertext, but the horrible complexity means this is not a good way to study parser IF structure.

    I guess I understand your original point now. I’d argue I was talking about the *model* that makes most sense/best fit approximation for our modern story structures. For parser, hypertext does not make sense. For Deus Ex, sure it does.

    @Jonas: I suppose having not played it I wouldn’t know. But, I might argue that, surely if a player can interpret this story from the noise of the game– then it is a valid interpretation? The reader has created meaning? Of course, in the writing down of that story, there is polish, embellishment and artistic license. But still the game + reader made something together in the first place from which that polished fiction was derived. I’m being more devil’s advocate here rather than disagreeing; I don’t know. But it sounds like the emergent story is much richer than that of, say, Spelunky.

    @Max: There’s nothing wrong with emergent story! The review on Tap made me want to play State of Decay. Of course I still haven’t, like all the other games I have…

    @matt: Yeah, I didn’t feel in the mood to strike out and buy one of the coasters.

    @Gregg: Thanks for sticking at it! Here’s the wikipedia definition of Hypertext fiction. Basically it’s nodes of story which are connected by links. These links are usually clickable in HTML but in a game like Deus Ex it’s usually through dialogue options or actions.

    As for “I don’t usually enjoy games as hypertext” I think even your minimal interaction means you’re engaging with them as hypertext on some level.

    That question you have about the paradox of hypertext choice is one which has also bothered me, too. What is the “benefit” of choice? Of unexplored paths? Do I feel better about my interaction of the game? How much of this game really is open? And when those questions get the better of a player – they go off searching for comparisons with other parallel narratives. Anyway, that’s the question that was at the heart of this article really – you only know how good the narrative agency is by Googling down the hypertext map, but that then destroys the agency by giving you too much awareness of impact.

    Cart Life was a big mystery in this sense, and it was so convincing I was frightened learning that events X Y and Z were fixed would totally destroy it.

    I’ve got more to say along these lines in response to Steerpike…

    @Steerpike: I think we have a problem that the classic decision tree is becoming too predictable. You look at Amanda’s survey on ethical choices in games and you can see this is happening already. I’m extremely disconnected from the AAA choices because I know the game wants me to “win” in the end; it destroys any sense that it’s my decision.

    We’re sitting in a crappy spot between hypertext perfection and games-with-consequences. I’ll be honest, I think Beyond: Two Souls might be a harbinger of the future, where choice is invisible and we trust playthroughs to be personal rather than having to be told. We need to get away from good/bad/Trolley Problemesque decisions to simply choices. Nuance.

    But I still think even hypertext games that feel very strong on consequences will still be mapped to death. Can games which require players to show discipline and avoid walkthroughs to respect them survive in an overly-connected world? (Think Drew Davidson’s Post Secret world.)

  19. Hypertext is absolutely the underlying structure behind the interactive bits of most game narrative, and I’m glad to see someone talking about it.

    It clearly gets a bit dangerous commit to the hidden choice design unless you properly train the player. Deus Ex: Human Revolution actually had a moment that did this well, in the opening bit: if you wandered around headquarters for too long, the hostages would die. Sets up expectations of consequences early (even if the rest of the game only sporadically followed up on that).

    And an additional problem with the good/evil choice: it is particularly bad because it’s really just taking all the choices in the game and reducing them down to two (seems obvious, but I didn’t see it until Craig Perko pointed it out).

    Where does something like Crusader Kings 2 fall in your analysis? It has reams of little hypertext stories embedded in it, but it also has a much larger system going on around those.

  20. Take a look at Echo of the Wilds: http://caiysware.com/echo-of-the-wilds
    It incorporates multiple replays in the story.

  21. @Isaac: Yes, I think hidden choices are the next stage but we’re not quite ready for it. The Walking Dead, applauded for its take on choice, is strongly telegraphed. That is our current cutting edge. Plus binary choices are now a bit old – the wisdom that we want to live out our hero or villain fantasy just isn’t being played out in practice if Amanda Lange’s ethical choice survey is anything to go by.

    I must admit I’m totally unfamiliar with Crusader Kings 2. I have quite a lot of blind spots, which is always annoying! But the last week of dialogue with people who have read this essay has already done a lot of tweaking to my thoughts on the hypertext perspective. Not sure if there’s a whole new article there but…

    @e-dog: Ooh, thanks. Will have a look.

  22. When I played Deus Ex, I chose the Dark Age ending and never looked back. There were no other endings for me because Dark Age is what I wanted to happen. If I am enjoying a game and the story I will do that.

    Also very relevant to this article is the game Save the Date by PaperDino. It was one of my favourite games of last year and it explores stories and branching and choice in quite an interesting fashion.

    It is also free to play -> http://paperdino.com/save-the-date/

    (recommended reading after playing’ the game: http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?PHPSESSID=fc2dbc156f3f59d5566b2c45c2b4bfb9&topic=33753.msg896094#msg896094 )

  23. Interesting piece; you touch on many issues with narratives in modern games. But I want to comment on a related subject that I feel is frequently left out in discussions of narratives in modern games.

    I take issue with your sentence: “The work is not completed by reading the final page but by reading the all of the pages.” I do not think this is true in the slightest, at least in the context of games. In fact, I would argue the work is ‘complete’ as soon as the player starts playing the game. That’s because I feel the strength of video games does not come from traditional narratives, but from the narrative of the system.

    I would summarize the narrative of the system as the sum of smaller stories, each of which follow the simple structure “action and consequence.”

    When I was a kid in school, I was taught the three act structure to story telling: problem statement, climax (when the problem becomes extreme), and resolution. I think this structure is terrible for stories in video games. Instead, I would propose a simpler model: action, consequence. This kind of story telling is actually very common in dialogue. I work in a scientific lab. I get warnings like this all the time:

    “Do not exceed 400 volts – you will damage the machinery”

    I think that is a story. Action (exceeding 400 volts) and result (damaging the machinery). In isolation, these stories are typically short and might not merit being called stories at all. But in aggregate these stories can create an effective system.

    Consider Crusader Kings. That game bombards you with choices – who do you marry? Do you want to go to war? Will you honor your alliance? Who will you appoint to your council? On and on and on…

    Most of these choices fit the action/consequence model. If you beat your kid for stealing, they will become sullen and have certain changes to their stats. Individually these decisions mean very little. But taken together they can create the image of a time and place – what it was like to live as a lord in medieval Europe. You get to see plots form and fall apart. You can attempt to keep a cohesive kingdom, or a wealthy kingdom, or you may try to become powerful. None of these stories are compelling in isolation, but together they create a sense of place.

    I think the feeling of resolution is overrated by game writers. Consider the many, many simulation games in existence, or the point-scoring games. Super Crate Box and Kerbal Space Program have no “ending” to reach, but they work as games and I feel that they do contain a narrative.

    That’s because the strength of a good game does not come from it’s resolution. A good game creates a world and allows the player to experience that world.

    Of course, a game can have a resolution that adds to it. Little Inferno, for example, spends the entire game building up to a reveal that gives the player more understanding of the world and the systems at work.

    However, the games which grab me from a narrative sense are the ones that make me engage in the systems of the game. Little Inferno doesn’t “work” for me because of the ending, but because the actions you take in the game (burning things to get money to buy things to burn them to…) fits in with the story the game is trying to tell. Really, the entire narrative the game wants to impart is told in that simple action/consequence: burning things lets you buy more things. The rest of the story telling is just an exploration of the that idea.

    My point is, creating video games with narratives that you expect the player to experience in their entirety is interesting, but I feel you will always be fighting with the medium instead of embracing it. As noted in this article, it is tedious, difficult, and frequently boring work to try to experience all of a hypertext story. If you simplify the hypertext to be absorbed in one playthrough, you don’t leave much room for players to explore the game world. Video games look like awful story telling machines when you compare them with movies or books or plays, all of which excel at implementing the three-act structure. Video games excel as story telling machines when you create a system that your players can explore and question.

  24. @Mahdi – Oh my god, my favorite part of that Save the Date thread is the person immediately under the author who misses the whole point and wants a special good ending.

    @HM – I’m not sure if “people don’t want to play out a hero or villain fantasy” is really what I discovered. People do like to play out a hero fantasy. The villain fantasy is just much less common. Some people really enjoy it; they (ok, WE) are just a minority. Is the hero fantasy made sweeter with the knowledge that a villainous path existed but was abandoned? Not something I could figure out in one study; I should do more.

  25. @HM – I only have a small contribution to the sizeable discussion this piece has generated.

    “I’ll be honest, I think Beyond: Two Souls might be a harbinger of the future, where choice is invisible and we trust playthroughs to be personal rather than having to be told.”

    “The Walking Dead, applauded for its take on choice, is strongly telegraphed. That is our current cutting edge.”

    One thing Telltale did with The Walking Dead which I really liked was that it hid the direct results of dialogue and other choices from the player, which particularly in group conversations meant the player was expected to put a little effort in and read the facial expressions of characters to understand their reactions. It was a key part of why TWD worked for me. When I later read in an interview that they’d initially considered notifications about how a character relationship had changed, I was extremely pleased they removed it!

    Sadly, with The Wolf Among Us they have pulled their punches a little. There’s no “Snow likes you 1 point more” popping up, but a notification appears every time a /significant/ choice is made. I feel this still reveals the façade more than I would like, as it makes clear that other choices have no significance, and is an overt reminder to tally up how much you’ve ingratiated yourself with / offended another character. As TWAU also does not feature any more complex group conversations, it’s a lot easier to regard dialogue choices as a simple videogame system and engineer the result you want rather than one based upon the dialogue choice(s) that feels most natural to you.

    Fascinating article. It suggests much about your intentions with ‘Truth is Ghost’.

  26. I will try to a comment to respond on here when I get a chance – unfortunately I made the “wise decision” to write five posts this week.

  27. You really need to play Way of the Samurai, or Way of Samurai 2, 3 or 4

  28. Thank you for this article. I haven’t read through all the responses yet, and I apologise, but wanted to add this to the conversation. It’s an overview of the system I’m working on, which I decided to write up in response to Ken Levine’s narrative Lego talk. I don’t think it’s a complete solution, but I do think it’s a better place to start. I would appreciate your opinion, if you can find the time.


  29. @Mahdi: Hi! Sorry for getting back to these comments so late. Real life, other article et cetera et cetera. This is the kind of issue I was discussing with Justin Keverne on Twitter last week. He was arguing that we often choose a “canonical” ending even, probably the one we choose first, even if we acquire hypertext knowledge about all the branches through direct play or YouTube. You’re right that sometimes agency does work and it’s why I needed to leave the door open towards the end of the essay. The other problem the hypertext view does not address is that the narrative you play will not feel the same as a narrative you do not, simply because your experience informs the story (e.g. grind). We might see the hypertext, but we give some narratives preferential treatment.

    I’ll play Save the Date sometime soon =) Lots of recommendations coming out after this article went up!

    @Sandy: Ah, here you are again!

    We’re diverging here, I think, on the idea of authored narrative vs emergent narrative. I wanted to focus on authored narrative because the big mainstream games of our day are all about the cutscenes – the media go bananas over stuff like Bioshock Infinite – and interactive fiction is also about handcrafted story.

    I wanted to separate out emergent narrative, the story of play, because it’s a different beast. It will not generate the same kind of nuance a solid authored story can: as you say, it’s about a chain of action/consequence. Consumers still like story in their games, they love their Heavy Rain which is about authored plot – emergent narrative cannot replace this any time soon. If it can, and here’s a disagreeable statement, then we’ve found a way to replace humans writing story. (Or convinced people that authored story in games is a cultural cul-de-sac, that works too!)

    I disagree the work is complete when player starts playing because I think it dismisses the “author is dead” type arguments. The author is dead is a bit strong; the truth is that meaning and experience are formed from a combination of both developer in the work and the player experiencing that work. Whether that be an authored tale or the story of play, it doesn’t exist until the player gets in there.

    Also I think you’re segueing from story and plot towards thematic meaning when you talk about Little Inferno. This is the procedural view (Ian Bogost) where mechanics deliver meaning and you can read from them what the game is supposed to mean (or what you think it can mean). Games with authored story can also support thematic concerns in this way – Cart Life builds a thematic picture of determination in spite of grind atop an authored branching narrative.

    I do agree, though, that videogames have problems telling authored stories. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone though and maybe that in itself is an issue. Like many videogame stories, I see The Last of Us as manipulative, but players think it’s fabulous in the story department. I guess my point is that all the theory we have about what makes a good story is fine, but these things are still selling and selling well.

    I could go on and on here, but I’ll stop =)

    @Amanda: It’s my fault, I wasn’t clear. I did mean they don’t really want the “hero or villain” choice. However, it’s horrible to think developers have to create an unnecessary, expensive branch of evil to justify the good one. That’s like all the old cliché that “good cannot exist without evil”. Who woulda thought!

    @Shaun: For all my talk of “all games are hypertext” we might just see more pronounced division between consequence games and hypertext exploration games. (The thing I find profound is that consequence games are still treated as hypertext exploration games at the end of the day. “What did you do?”)

    The Walking Dead is interesting as it makes choices really, really clear, so it looks very much like a hypertext tree. But it sounds like it obfuscates consequences really well and that’s the kind of thing that gets us excited. And anxious.

    @badgercommander: You are always helpful in telling me games I need to play on console. I’ll add that to the pile in which I’ve got Vanquish.

    @Dan Stubbs: AHA! I ALREADY READ IT BEFORE YOUR COMMENT! I liked it. I’m keeping it safe for a later potential piece on dynamic narrative (to use your term), discussing the quality of such approaches – what we might be able to expect and what not. I’ve got a few ideas in there but probably not enough yet for something solid. My concern is that we might see these complex systems as story systems rather than story. That isn’t necessarily a problem, although it depends on your goals. My first draft of thoughts are still very rough right now. It took me three years to come up with an idea to explain the multiple ending paradox (we want an agency of choices, yet we often explore all the choices, so what’s the point) but hopefully not as long to express some thoughts on this!

  30. On the subject of cause-and-effect and stories, I came across a quote recently that I felt spoke to the situation:
    “I have described two causal procedures: the natural or incessant result of endless, uncontrollable causes and effects; and magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.”
    –Jorge Luis Borges, “El arte narrativo y la magia”
    So in this view, the thing that’s lacking in an emergent story is *magic*. Borges was talking about the relationship between magical realism and sympathetic magic, but it does seem that the strength of human authorship is because it can transcend the simplistic simulations. You can write a character’s emotional struggle without having to simulate the emotional states.

  31. Also, I’ll be interested in seeing your explanation of the multiple ending paradox. I’ve arrived at my own conclusion (which I should really write up sometime soon) but I’d be very interested to hear different viewpoints.

  32. Awesome, so glad that article is finding its way to the right people.

    I’m not 100% sure what you mean by stories and story systems. What I want to do is write an interactive story, except that the tools and the grammar I need to do so don’t exist yet. True, I can make an interactive sequence where the player walks (or climbs, fights, etc.) from A to B, and then drop an animation or sound clip into the scene, or take the player out of the equation entirely with a cut-scene, but that’s something entirely different. We pretend that’s an ‘interactive story’, but that’s just because we’ve never actually seen one in the flesh.

    The Hit is basically a first attempt to come up with a *grammar* of interactive storytelling, so I can get as far as my “It was a dark and stormy night.”, before hopefully handing it over to the the people who will write the first great works of interactive storytelling. That’s all ;)

    I still need to read through these comments properly, but I’ve skimmed them now, and think I need to add one more thing.

    Choice isn’t what players want. Not really. It’s not even what we want in our daily lives. It *seems* to be, because when we walk into a supermarket, or a car dealership, it feels good to have all that choice and freedom. But it’s not choice, it’s *agency* we’re after. Having a choice is just a really simple way to make us feel like we’re masters of our own fate.

    There’s actually no need to create loads of content in order to accomplish this in a game. You could just make one near-unplayable escort mission, then ask the player at the end of each chapter if they’d like to do the next proper level, or the escort one. I’m only half-joking.

  33. “The problem is that hypertext literacy opposes the conceit of narrative-based agency.”

    This is interesting! Like stated in the comments, I believe players see one playthrough as more true than another, under certain circumstances (being invested in the story, perhaps identifying with the protagonist, the length of the game, etc). Like I can replay a game to get more info about the world and such, or rather I go to the internet perhaps to do so. But many times, at least in rpgs where I invest quite a lot into the characters, when I replay the game I have a really hard time acting completely different than during my first playthrough. I’m quite the nostalgic person, so maybe that’s why. My point is that no matter how easy it would be to replay the game and choose differently, I’m quite biased toward choosing similarly, and knowing this I get a sense of agency out of knowing that I only really have “one take” (even if I do reload if I die during the game).

    Concerning the Two Souls Problem, I think the game has to communicate what level of detail it has in mind for consequences, for agency, somehow, unless it wants to make a point out of not doing so and then hitting in the ass for imagining you could pull off crazy stunts without there being any real consequences. I mean what is this, a video game?! Communicating the level of adaptability could be done so with the use of for example consistent, strong, authentic exploration of themes, or just blatant signposting. In the beginning of some long games, like adventures or role-playing games, I try to play the game as if it were more ambitiously created than it is, but after a while give up. If the story thus far tells me I probably shouldn’t be running around and asking people questions, or showing my face in public because evil forces are looking for me, then I probably shouldn’t be approaching everyone I see, or disclose my identity, “hello there stranger, I am the brave McWilly Nuggetson”-style. Problem is, very seldom games are that fine-tuned to their own world-building, story, thematic underpinnings, etc, that it makes sense for example not to approach npcs. Another common problem, also mentioned in the comments, is when games tell you that you need to do something really quick, yet you instead opt for running around and doing sidequests for hours, or in the game universe perhaps weeks. For lack of a better term, it has to do with ludonarrative dissonance to some extent. In Two Souls, some “choices” seem to be really weird though, in the sense that they don’t really have much agency in them because you just couldn’t know the outcome of them, which also made it easier for them to become invisible.

  34. @Isaac: Yes, I was never intending to set emergent vs authored against each other, because are a lot of people out there who do that. Crowds love The Last of Us but they also love Spelunky. I’m not sure if a hybrid is genuinely possible, as it almost suggests we have a machine who can replace a human author.

    On the multiple ending paradox – actually this IS the article, the idea that we engage in hypertext fiction a lot more than we do in personalized narrative.

    I would be interested in knowing what “Ergodic Agency: How Play Manifests Understanding” was all about. Wait… is this it?

    @Dan Stubbs: I can accept that maybe we don’t need to model everything (“loads of content”) when it comes to creating a dynamic story in this way. Maybe your goal is not the same as “creating a replayable Bioshock Infinite” – but that’s where my beef is. I cannot see a system replacing the human hands that created The Last of Us. You know what, I’m going to send you an email.

    @Ava: Yes I now think the “canonical playthrough” is a problem for a pure hypertext appreciation.

    Regarding Two Souls, I think that’s the kind of signal-free agency people have long dreamed of. That they can do things and there are no overt signals around decisions but you feel like you’ve had an impact. The concern is that without feedback we feel like it’s linear. This may be a stumbling block or just a cultural shift in gaming yet to happen. Perhaps you’re right – we can only deal with something more clearly hypertext because we can deal with its limitations. Something that pretends to be open, raw and wild is wishful thinking, and we cannot fall for that.

  35. @HM

    Yes, that’s it. It’s not as approachable as it could be (because it was written for a specific audience) so if you have any questions I’d be happy to talk about it. At length.

    For the “canonical playthrough”…something I haven’t seen mentioned in this discussion is the way that Kentucky Route Zero uses its hypertext structure to let the player assign meaning to the scene rather than defining the action. You’re going to encounter the same set of scenes, more or less, so your choices become less about the outcome and more about your personal reaction to it. This is even clearer, if less brilliantly subtle, in Cardboard Computer’s earlier game Balloon Diaspora.

  36. Isaac, I’ll give it a read in the near future but the phrase “at length” isn’t scary because that’s a standard comment discussion here =) I’m currently working like crazy to complete the video project I’ve been developing since last August. Hopefully it’ll be done for May, before I take a site sabbatical in June.

    KRZ is on my list of games I have to play. Another one!

  37. July 24 2012 TP 1834

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