choice design · Narrative Design · Reviews

Bandersnatch, or why Choosing Your Own Cereal is important

Bandersnatch, the first interactive episode of Black Mirror, was recently back in the news because of the lawsuit launched by the Choose Your Own Adventure publishing company has been settled, which has made me realize I didn’t get around to write about the episode yet. As anyone who works in narrative games / interactive narrative, of course I have opinions.

Hearing some of my colleagues in games and narrative design has been interesting, particularly those who made angry pushbacks and talked about it with derision. Much has been made of the first choice of the story, which lets the audience choose what kind of cereal they want to protagonist to have for breakfast, for instance. However, we should not dismiss the cultural impact that Bandersnatch has had on general audiences–thanks to Netflix, many people have learned the title of an actual unreleased game from the 1980s, plus it has made choice-based narratives accessible to others in ways that no other interactive television, let alone videogame, has before. Bandersnatch is very accessible–users do not have to install a new app or learn a new interface by making it available through one’s streaming subscription. Many videogame designers wish their work was as accessible and popular as this piece of interactive television.

The notorious “choose the cereal” moment is actually there for a very particular reason: while seasoned videogame players are used to making choices in games, much of the Netflix audience is not. Anyone who’s shown games at venues where you come across non-gamers knows how intimidating interacting with a game can be for them. Something as innocuous as choosing a cereal and seeing how it changes the advertisement on television helps putting users at ease, so they learn how the interaction of the story works. They make a choice, and soon after they see a consequence, and see that they have not broken anything. It makes them comfortable with interaction, which is good for a story that goes quite bonkers later on.

And before I go on explaining what I like about Bandersnatch, let me state that not every choice has to change the plot or not be trivial, because anyone who’s juggled branching narratives knows how much of our time is spent creating the illusion of choice or giving players small expressive choices so they feel they’re in control when they really not. Rant over.

The episode tells the story of a young man who is working on what he intends to be the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure game for the Spectrum 48k, one of the most popular computers in Europe in the mid-80s. The protagonist is marked by the trauma of losing his mother in a tragic accident, and is trying to gain control of his own life by working on this game.

Bandersnatch was made for me: I love Black Mirror and its frequently cynical approach to humanity (although current events make the show feel less science fiction and more speculative drama). The world of the episode is quite familiar–I work in videogames and mostly hang out with indie developers; on top of that, I have taught a class on European videogames of the 80s and got to learn a lot about the bedroom developers in the UK like the protagonist, as well as the story of the original Bandersnatch. Even without the interaction, the story resonated with me (yeah, indie game development is a challenge to one’s mental health), and I had a blast by figuring out all the easter eggs and references.

The interactive story is very meta: it’s a choice-based story about someone working on a choice-based story. The self-referential aspects help smooth over one of the main challenges of designing choice-based narratives–each choice creates an alternate timeline, which makes it easy to fall into inconsistencies and complicates writing a branching story (at least when branching is understood in an oversimplified way). The editing of the episode is really smart, reusing shots with different sounds or dialogue lines spoken off-camera, as a way to avoid having to shoot large segments of different content at the same time it shows how there are different timelines and realities. To some the episode seemed revolutionary–in the past, branching narratives have been either poorly designed because they are written by screenwriters with a poor understanding of interactivity, or by game designers who have a trite understanding of storytelling. Charlie Brooker is the rare person who seems to understand games, and also happens to be a pretty decent screenwriter, an unfortunately rare combination of skills.

The self-reflective nature of Bandersnatch turns the story into a gimmick–our decisions as an audience/user create alternative timelines that some of the characters seem to be aware of; in certain scenes, the protagonist behaves as if he’s aware that someone is forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, turning us into the incarnation of his mental problems. But this is only true in certain threads of the story, while others turn the story into a conspiracy, while some others tell us a more intimate and ultimately tragic story. But the triumph of the story is bringing all of them together–this is a story about ontological instability, about worlds that have multiple versions with characters that are somewhat aware of that multiplicity. The huge poster of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik in one of the character’s living rooms is a pretty big and unsubtle giveaway. On the other hand, the metafictional gimmick also makes it really difficult to reproduce the success of Bandersnatch–it’s a one-trick pony that can get old fast, and not all choice-based narratives need to comment on the unstable worlds that they create.

(Excuse me if I don’t deign to discuss the “breaking the fourth wall”, because I’m tired the belief that any narrative should make “immersion” prevail, as if there is only one way to tell stories. Only one rant per day.)

Thus, the choice design of Bandersnatch is not about branching nor about agency or control over the story, but exploring the possibilities of the world, focusing on the “what if” and surprising the audience rather than making us feel like the story is at our service. The point where you can tell the protagonist about Netflix, or choose to go on a rampage are part of the fun of the story, which goes in many different directions and story genres–from personal drama to horrible murder to action movie to nostalgia trip.

Yes, choice-based narrative videogames are way ahead of this–see the wonderfully sophisticated works that Failbetter Games or Inkle Studios have been producing over the years, for example. But even with the smartest narrative designers out there, their fantastic works are still intimidating to a large part of the audience because they’re perceived as “videogames”. These are players and users who would be head over heels playing these games, but they seem too complicated to them. For example, I had someone who loved playing Her Story at a film festival ask me if he could download it through the streaming service Kanopy. The technological barrier is overwhelming to many.

There are things that Bandersnatch could do better, certainly. The aspect of social commentary is not as solid or resonant as other episodes, for example, probably because it’s more of a trippy period piece than science fiction. Since the story is about itself and the choices, there’s little room for anything else. There are issues with gender representation–the women in the episode are mostly wives/mothers or helpers and have a supporting role, for example. Mental health issues created by trauma are associated with psychopathy and murder, which is something that we storytellers should be better at–although it is part of the storyline exploration of the episode, the murder storytline reproduces stereotypes that do not need reinforcement. Although my particular pet peeve of the story is how the protagonist is creating a game for the ZX Spectrum in BASIC, and there’s no way that a game of that scope, with graphics and all, would fit in the paltry 48K of RAM that computer had. But while there are issues of representation that could be better addressed, we also have a few lessons to learn about how to engage a wider audience that may recoil at the mention of videogames, while they may probably love playing choice-based narrative games. And at times all it takes is starting by letting them choose their own cereal.

choice design · Interactive Fiction · Narrative Design · Resources

Taxonomy of Narrative Choices

A few years ago, I realized that in order to teach narrative choice design I needed a classification of types of choices. Creating games in the style of choose-your-own adventure, in the style of Choice of Games, Inkle Studios, Failbetter Games, the sadly defunct Telltale Games, or for interactive film, requires having a vocabulary that refers to the different ways in which choices can be expressive.

I came up with my own taxonomy, which I have been teaching in different iterations over the years. Inspired by works like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, I finally realized it’d be best to illustrate the taxonomy interactively, on top of discussing examples in the class. You can read/play the taxonomy on my itch.io page.  (Update 16-Oct-19: Spanish version of the interactive taxonomy.)

This taxonomy is part of a larger lecture, which is the introduction to narrative choice design in my classes. While games may be a series of interesting choices, they also become much more complicated when we make those decisions be part of a longer narrative. One of the reasons why making choices can be compelling is that players can see the consequences of their decisions—that is the foundation of agency, one of the pleasures of digital media as defined by Janet Murray. We like feeling that the game is listening to us, that we are in control of our actions in the game, that our choices matter.

Challenging agency, however, also has a lot of expressive possibilities. First of all, players can have the illusion of agency without having to change the content of the game. If you’ve played any of the choice-based Telltale games, you have probably seen the caption “So-and-so will remember that” after making a decision. Most of the time, it turns out they won’t—but the player can believe that their action had an effect on someone. It is a way to use the player’s perception and imagination in order to fill the gaps and not having to expand on the content.

Frustrating the player, taking away agency, can also be expressive. Games have the annoying tendency to become “entitlement simulators” ; game designers should challenge players to make difficult, painful decisions, have them realize that the world may not revolve around them, and that there may be problems that are beyond their control. Untethered agency can be problematic in dating sims, for example—boiling down intimate relationships to choosing the right things to say oversimplifies how humans connect with each other. Representing love as having agency over a person, or being able to “win” them by achieving a score, can reinforce certain unhealthy ideas about relationships, and push players down the brink of toxicity

The taxonomy I propose is therefore a breakdown of the different ways in which undermining agency can be expressive, and can help players think about what they do. (Maybe.)

combinatorics explosion.001

Using different types of choices is also a healthy way to keep projects under scope. As the image shows, if for every decision the player makes the story bifurcates, the content multiplies very fast. In order to write a choose-your-own-adventure story where each version is only four pages long, and only gives two choices to the player on each page, we  would have to write fifteen (15) pages. It is not very efficient and the combinatorial explosion goes out of control very fast. There are also models of different structures that both provide players with interesting choices without having to generate inordinate amounts of content—Sam Kabo Ashwell provides one of my favourite classifications on his blog.

Last but not least, a lot of what went into the taxonomy and my original lecture comes from the lessons I learned from working  in my classes with ChoiceScript by Choice of games (check out their game design blog posts if you’re interested in the topic).

 

Adventure Games · choice design · Puzzles · Thoughts

Choice vs. Puzzles in Adventure Game Design

It is the season of writing game of the past year lists and hyping the games of the new one. I’m delighted to see how Telltale’s The Walking Dead haunts most of these “best of 2012” lists. Its success proves that adventure games still have a lot to say about game design and game narrative, and that there can be a wide audience for them. It also proves how choice design changes how we play and design adventure games.

The Walking Dead confirCaptura de pantalla 2013-01-09 a las 6.11.29 p.m.ms the potential of choice design in adventure games, something that my friends at Choice of Games had already been doing for a while. The core gameplay is making decisions, usually quickly, and living with the consequences (or dying horribly). Although many scenes change depending on your previous actions, because otherwise the choice would be superfluous, the game does not degenerate into out-of-control branching. Instead, it changes specific aspects and scenes of the story. Designing this game must have still been rather complex, which is what happens whenever we have to set up a choice and a clear narrative consequence, but it is done in such a way that choices create a hyper-tangled rhizome.

What I have not seen mentioned often enough in reviews how different The Walking Dead is from other Telltale games, as well as from many other point-and-click adventure games. This may come from the misconception that adventure games are the electronic version of Choose Your Own Adventure books, so it may seem that this is more of the same.It’s not.

Adventure games are simulations. This is obvious to anyone who’s written IF with Inform, or created games with Adventure Game Studio, for example, but it’s a concept that finds resistance from people who only play them, and usually without much enthusiasm. Zork, Maniac Mansion, Machinarium are all based on creating a world, a space, populated by characters and objects, which have different relationships between them. The simulation creates challenges usually in the form of puzzles, and the player has to solve it by understanding how the simulation works. The story unfolds as the player interacts with the world and solves the puzzles.

The Choice of Games series, as well as The Walking Dead, shift the attention to choice and consequence. This is obvious in the Choice Of… games, where the world of the game is described, and our only interaction is selecting items from a menu. We don’t interact with a simulated world, but with a world represented through text. The Walking Dead is a nice hybrid between traditional point-and-click and choose your own adventure, where some scenes allow us to walk around and explore the world at our leisure, to learn about the place and gather information, which will inform our decisions later. There’s less puzzle-solving, the core of the game is choosing the right thing in the moments of crisis. Best thing of all, what the “right” thing to do is never clear, and often makes you feel like you’re trapped in an awful situation.

As someone who designs adventure games focused on simulation and puzzle solving, I really welcome games like Choice of Zombies or The Walking Dead. It’s refreshing, it proves that there is still so much to do in adventure games beyond paying constant homages to our favourite games from Lucasarts or Sierra (I’m guilty of that too). There is a wide design palette at our disposal, we just have to use it.

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The Walking Dead and Choice of Zombies also fit choice design with their topic very well. It makes sense that we cannot go many places, that there is not a lot to explore: it’s the zombie apocalypse! Plus you’d better be careful with what you do, because any choice could be your last. The limitations in the environment bridge very well the world of the game and the game design.

Choice design is not new, RPGs have explored this for a long time, with varying success. Think of all these games series: Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Dragon Age… Often choices in RPGs are limited to “save the baby or kill it” pseudomorality, where the consequences are relatively predictable. Some of the examples just listed demonstrate how much more interesting choices become when your expectations are thwarted, or, better enough, where there is no easy choice, which is what probably is impressive about The Walking Dead.

Choice is not alien to adventure games either–Infocom’s Suspended depends on your strategies to try to save the world before you are disconnected, for example. Point-and-click adventure games included important choices, usually at the end, because it’s easier to generate three different endings than start working on different outcomes all throughout the game (see The Dig, or Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, for example). More recently, Resonance did a wonderful job of incorporating choices. (It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, but I’ll try.) Resonance also has multiple endings, but does have choice points throughout the game that feel really important, and even if the consequences of the choice are not so different (or inevitable, when it comes to the twist of the game), the game makes you stop and think about what you’re doing. This is mostly achieved by getting you to know the characters and empathise with them, you spend time with them, and when the crisis comes about, you feel for the characters, you feel the pain and the betrayal. The consequences are emotional rather than changing the events. Resonance does in practice what the publicity of Heavy Rain kept announcing, and the game eventually failed to deliver.

resonance_best_scene

The Walking Dead combines plot consequences with emotional consequences very cleverly: early on, you see how your decisions can have awful consequences, people die if you don’t act fast enough or do not make the right choice. Later on, the consequences become more emotional than changing the events. Unlike the adventure games listed in the paragraph above, where it’s a final choice that changes the ending, The Walking Dead takes you to an inevitable ending with slight variations, which may feel different depending on how you have chosen to play your character. That’s eventually the triumph of the game: choice design is about the psychology of the player, not about showing off a complex system.

The possibilites of new adventure games are wide open, it’s our choice. Those who said that adventure games were dead didn’t expect them to come back shuffling their feet and try to rip their gut open.

the-walking-dead-episode-3-9-5-2012