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Originally published May 5, 2010.
By David Harrison Thurpin
Games are communication. The very act of playing to win prompts us to understand a game’s rules and potential strategies; we cannot proceed to successfully play without simultaneously learning from our in-game experiences. The new chess player quickly learns to guard his knights and rooks with pawns, or he will lose his more valuable pieces first. The newcomer to paintball learns to move slowly and hide, lest he will exhaust his energy within minutes under the weight of his armor and gun. Games speak to us through a consistent “conversation” of choice and consequence, which I believe can be effectively utilized to communicate strong thematic messages from the designer to the player.
I am currently employing this concept in my designs for an original action-adventure video game entitled The Towers Effect. The game invites players to manipulate the laws of physics while exploring a mysterious, uncanny science laboratory, while also communicating a deeper meaning about pursuing passion over social prestige. By creating game scenarios that provide positive consequences for embracing adventure, and negative consequences for obeying other characters, I intend to convey this theme to the player. It is communication via a language of choice and consequence.
“The core game mechanic can then be rephrased as such: The player is given the choice to manipulate physics in interesting ways, and the choice to control the way in which his character’s body moves in the game space.”
The Towers Effect’s use of this language operates in three key ways: the core game mechanic, the pivotal, story-driving choices, and the “climactic choice” that occurs near the end of the game. The core mechanic is the “deep structure” of the game’s language and describes the most immediate, fundamental choices that the player must make as he or she progresses through the game. These choices can be thought of as the “syntax” of the game – the elements with which “sentences” and entire narrative arcs can be built. The mechanic is expressive, as it provides a window into the main character’s psyche.
In The Towers Effect, the protagonist is Theo Towers, a young intern who is endlessly fascinated by physics. He seeks to understand it, to touch the “gears” that make his universe work – to look behind the curtain of reality. He loves physics for what it is – not for the prestige it might bring him. He seeks to experience it – to be the “astronaut,” exploring science first-hand while others study it from a safe distance. He is a thrill-seeker – an adventurer – of science. So, then, the core mechanic links adventure with science; essentially, physics is made to be fun.
Early in the game, Theo finds an experimental device called the Hypermatter Converter Gun, giving him the power to change the physical properties of objects in his environment. By converting objects into a fictional substance called Hypermatter, Theo can manipulate the way in which those objects interact with the world. There are three different types of Hypermatter: Reflective, which causes other objects to bounce off of it; Boost, which increases the velocity of any object that collides with it; and Dampening, which decreases the velocity of objects that collide with it. While the player has control over Theo’s movement (running and jumping), he can also simultaneously use the Hypermatter Converter Gun to manipulate objects.
Using this set of abilities, the player engages in a great variety of action and puzzle scenarios that become increasingly challenging and complex as he explores and progresses through the game. The player must fully step into a mode of physics-based adventuring, flinging objects across rooms, knocking down barriers, bouncing Theo’s body off of walls, etc. Theo lives his ultimate dream, actually becoming a part of those “gears” that make the universe work.
“It is communication via a language of choice and consequence.”
The core game mechanic can then be rephrased as such: The player is given the choice to manipulate physics in interesting ways, and the choice to control the way in which his character’s body moves in the game space. As a consequence for effectively executing these activities, the player is rewarded with the ability to progress to new challenges, as well as the opportunity to become a “hero.” The combination of action and puzzle elements allows the game to reward both boldness and cleverness, tying into Theo’s characteristics as a thrill-seeking scientist. The game calls on the player to embrace Theo’s character – to become him.
Theo’s thirst for adventure is helpful in understanding another level of choice employed by The Towers Effect: the aforementioned, story-driving choices. These choices occur at a higher level than that of the syntactical, core mechanic; they operate on the “sentence” level of the language of choice and consequence. While the player utilizes parts of the core mechanic (moving and physical manipulation) to make these pivotal decisions, the decisions themselves are not comprised of puzzle-solving or dexterity in movement. These story-driving choices are not decisions regarding how the player explores, but rather they address the decision to explore: they deal with the question of why Theo explores, and why it is relevant.
There are three such pivotal moments in The Towers Effect, the first occurring at the very beginning of the game. Once the main screen fades in, Theo Towers is seen standing atop a cliff, observing a distant thunderstorm. The adventure will not begin until the player literally turns Theo around and makes him walk towards the laboratory facility on the other side of the screen.
The game makes no attempt to tell the player what to do, because the player is the one who is meant to drive the story. This is key, because by removing any sort of explicit “guiding” that modern games so often employ, the player is allowed the opportunity to think about the meaning and implications of their choices. While this particular choice is simple, it signifies Theo’s initial search of adventure, and it is from this choice that the game’s story evolves.
One might doubt whether this type of choice can really be considered a “choice” at all. Indeed, it is a paradoxical concept – if the player must adhere to a linear narrative in order to progress through the game, how could there possibly be any choice in the matter? The answer lies in how the game represents the linear narrative: it must “rephrase” it in terms of player choice. Such a rephrasing could be expressed verbally as the choice to explore or not to explore. This is, in fact, a rephrasing of an even more basic choice that players always make, which is the choice to play or not to play. I call this the “fundamental choice,” and it is this concept upon which most of my pivotal story-driving moments are based. Rephrasing the fundamental choice essentially means replacing the word play with another verb that pertains to the story. By responding to that choice with a rewarding outcome, meaning can be attached to the player’s very decision to play.
“These story-driving choices are not decisions regarding how the player explores, but rather they address the decision to explore: they deal with the question of why Theo explores, and why it is relevant.”
The concept of utilizing the fundamental choice is not far off from traditional choice-consequence systems in games. All games encourage some choices or strategies over others. For example, the children’s game “tag” mostly rewards running over walking. There is no explicit rule in “tag” that states that a player must run; instead, running naturally emerges out of the rules as an optimal strategy. The game’s predefined feedback system “informs” the lethargic player of his less-than-optimal decision by creating a situation that threatens his status as not “it.” This implicit form of communication is vital to the effectiveness of the pivotal story-driving choices in The Towers Effect, as the “right” answer must never be revealed so explicitly that the player feels he or she does not have a choice in the matter. Similarly to a good movie, a video game should not be “on-the-nose” about its thematic intentions; rather, it should allow the player to discover them for himself.
In 2007, Valve Software released an incredibly popular action-puzzler called Portal that features this sort of rephrasing of the linear narrative. Throughout the game, an ever-present computer called GLaDOS conducts tests on the player as it guides him through a series of puzzles (Portal). The player begins the game as a captive; he cannot leave the facility, and his only initial choice is to do as he is told.
Eventually, the point arrives when GLaDOS informs the player that he has successfully completed the tests. It offers the player congratulations and bids him goodbye. According to GLaDOS, the only option is to remain standing on a moving platform as it transports the player directly into a pit of fire. Upon reaching this point, the player must react quickly to transport himself away from the fire. He then becomes a refugee of sorts, struggling to find his way out of the facility before he is eliminated.
This moment is emotional and powerful because it presents the player with a pivotal choice: to be obedient, or to be defiant. It offers the player the opportunity to express himself through the game, allowing him to say, “No, I want to live!” He is granted the chance to defy authority, and to declare that he is more than a “test subject.” While there is no opportunity for intricate, branching narratives in Portal, the emotion and meaning of this choice-consequence relationship come through powerfully nonetheless.
“The player is the one who is meant to drive the story.”
Portal, then, “rephrases” the fundamental choice by presenting the player with the choice between defying GLaDOS and obeying it. The “correct” answer is not explicitly stated by the game or rule system – in fact, GLaDOS encourages the player to remain calm and wait for his “victory candescence” (Portal). As in the game of tag, the “correct” answer emerges out of implcit rules, allowing the player to discover the game’s meaning on his own. Choosing life means choosing defiance, and through this connection, a message is communicated.
In order to encourage the player to make the “correct” story-driving choices, I have designed The Towers Effect along the lines of Portal, such that not choosing the correct choice generates a non-optimal outcome. For example, as the player progresses through the first few corridors, he becomes trapped inside of a room due to a slight malfunction of the central, laboratory computer. It has already been established that Theo is about to be late for some big experiment, and he has no way of communicating to the scientists inside to ask for help. Thus, the player is faced with a choice: He may wait around for the computer to be fixed (which will never happen), or he can explore an alternative way around the door.
After exploring the room, the player eventually uncovers a secret passageway to a large chamber filled with floating boxes. Theo is amazed, having never seen anything like this before in his life. By venturing through this passageway, he is eventually successful in circumnavigating the jammed door. The player is rewarded with discovery and progress for his decision to explore. It is also important to note that the game never explicitly tells the player to look for an alternate route: the choice merely “happens” upon the player as a result of the evolving story, centering the player as the driving force. The subtlety over what is the “right” choice (exploring or waiting) makes the moment all the more thought-provoking and communicative.
The next pivotal choice is far more emotionally weighted, as it involves brotherly love and deliberate defiance. Once Theo reaches the site of the master experiment, his brother and supervisor, Nick, becomes trapped in a volatile chamber due to a massive crash of the central computer. The player is then confronted with a choice: to find Doctor Zero, the lead scientist, and ask him to shut down the computer and free Nick, or to obey Nick, who orders Theo to stay and wait for the computer to fix itself. Nick knows that there are dangers in the lab, and he fears that Theo might be harmed if he leaves to explore it.
However, the truth is that the computer will never fix itself, and the game is designed such that waiting around will simply not solve anything. The player must defy to progress, which ties into part of the theme: rejecting the desire for social prestige. The player must make a decision that may anger not only Nick, but also Zero, who commanded Theo to never explore the lab unattended, and to refrain from “bothering” him about anything. Thus, part of the theme is communicated through this pivotal choice alone.
Finally, we reach the most important “sentence” of the game – the climactic choice. This is also a story-driving moment, but unlike previous manifestations, it results in a series of short, branching storylines. The climactic choice is the critical moment in which the player’s understanding of the game’s theme is put to the test. In The Towers Effect, this moment occurs when Theo finally tracks down Doctor Zero. Theo immediately tells Zero what happened, explaining that they need to shut down the computer to free Nick. Zero refuses, explaining that shutting down the computer will mean cancelling a once-in-a-lifetime experiment. He insists that Nick will be “fine,” and that if Theo helps Zero repair the computer (as opposed to shutting it down), they can free Nick, and in the process they will all gain tremendous professional prestige for completing the experiment.
The climactic choice is then comprised as such: The player can either choose to assist Zero in fixing the computer, or to disobey him and shut it down. Unlike in previous moments of narrative choice in which obedience led to the game’s inertia, each choice now leads to a separate, divergent consequence.
If the player helps Zero, he can succeed in fixing the computer and allowing the experiment to reach “critical mass.” The player then discovers that the experiment itself is tremendously more hazardous than Doctor Zero ever thought, and the safety of the entire lab becomes jeopardized. Alternatively, if the player chooses to shut down the computer, Zero attempts to subdue Theo. They fight, and if the player is successful against Zero, he is able to shut down the computer. The player then discovers that the experiment has already reached a point in which nothing can be done to stop it – even shutting down the central computer has proven unsuccessful. This might have been good news for Zero, except the hazardous nature of the experiment threatens to destroy the lab. In both scenarios, the characters end up working together to destroy the experimental device in a climactic effort to undo the threat caused by Zero’s unbridled quest for professional prestige.
What then, one might ask, is the point of creating a branching narrative that ultimately leads to the same scenario? The answer lies in how the player reaches this scenario. If the player chooses to help Zero, he becomes partially responsible for putting everyone – including his brother – in jeopardy. If he defies Zero, the player is free of this “guilt.” The game provides negative feedback for trusting the prestige-hunting Doctor and giving in to his desire to gain social esteem through his experiment, and positive feedback for fighting him. Thus, the pursuit of prestige is made an “enemy” in the game, and the theme of embracing passion over prestige resonates through consequence.
“Unlike in previous moments of narrative choice in which obedience led to the game’s inertia, each choice now leads to a separate, divergent consequence.”
By tying the core mechanic to pivotal story moments and the climactic choice in this way, the player can engage in a thematically rich experience that is both cogent and complete. Like a good movie, The Towers Effect aims to take the player on an emotionally engaging and meaningful experience, but unlike a movie, it has the capacity to go a step further and actually reveal something about the player directly, based on his or her actions.
In this game, I hope to cause the player to think about the meaning of ludic cause and effect, motivating him or her to think less in terms of “What am I supposed to do?” and more in terms of “What should I do?” In this way, I believe that the language of choice and consequence taps into the very core of what makes games unique as a medium – the communication of meaning between user action and mechanized rules. Although the medium is still in its formative years, I believe that such a language has the potential to evolve into the artistic standard by which all interactive stories are told.
Portal. Computer software. Kirkland, Washington: Valve Software, 2007.
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