Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I'm Not Evil, I Just Play That Way: Player Motivations and Character Goals

Recently we took a look at the technique of option restriction, which is when a game presents the player with only one path forward, thus eliminating choice while maintaining agency. If it's handled well, it allows for close management of narrative progression while still letting the player feel that they are in control. So what is it that determines whether it's handled well? What allows the player's sense of control to be maintained even with a lack of choice?

"Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesn't necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. It's possible for players to feel in control even if they don't actually have the ability to choose, as long as the what the game asks and what the player wants aligns. A good narrative should foster this."
—Andrew Vanden Bossche, Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will

As long as what the player has to do is what they would want to do anyway, there's no conflict. A well-crafted narrative will direct the player's motivations to the options that are actually available. It's when the narrative fails that the player wants to do something they can't, or specifically doesn't want to do what the game allows. This is where option restriction ceases to be fun, and becomes confining and frustrating.

Final Fantasy X-2 box art
In Final Fantasy X-2, Yuna and company visit Zanarkand, a once-sacred place which remains special in Yuna's heart. But now that Sin has fallen, the dangers of Zanarkand have abated while it retains its historic significance, and it has become a tourist attraction. Yuna and her friends are not pleased by this.

YUNA: This is where we sat that night, the seven of us. I've never talked about it. I didn't want to share my memories. I wanted to keep that feeling, this place within me forever. Now look at it.

(All Final Fantasy X-2 quotes are from Final Fantasy X-2: Game Script by Asch The Hated.)

Yuna soon runs into an old friend - Isaaru, an ex-Summoner like Yuna who has had to find new purpose in a world without Sin. He now works as a Zanarkand tour guide. When it becomes clear that Yuna and her friends do not approve, the following exchange takes place:

ISAARU: I can see this is upsetting you. But this is a place of great historical importance for all of Spira.

YUNA: I know. But, still... I never wanted anyone else to stand there.

A bit later, he explains his job this way:

ISAARU: I bring excitement to those who've come to see this sacred place. I, too, once traveled with the hope of seeing this place someday. Working here somehow fulfills that wish.

When Yuna returns later in the game, Isaaru reports that business is poor. The local monkey population has been increasing, and the monkeys are harassing the tourists. This prompts a discussion between Yuna's companions.

RIKKU: Hey, if there were more of these little guys, you think the place would empty out?

PAINE: It just might.

The player is then presented with a quest to play monkey matchmaker - finding mates for the unattached monkeys so that the monkey population will grow even faster, to the point where tourists will not dare to visit.

The problem is that the game's narrative has completely failed to present Yuna's motivations in a sympathetic light, and so the player is unlikely to share them. Yuna does not come across as the protector of a sacred space. Instead she appears childish, selfish, and destructive. She wishes to prevent the people of Spira from having the chance to visit a place of great historical and spiritual import because she wants to keep it for herself - and somehow, having it swarmed with monkeys is preferable than having it appreciated by tourists. And she's perfectly willing to put her friend Isaaru out of a job along the way.

If the player isn't feeling quite so petty, then they are unlikely to want to participate. The disconnect between what the player and player character feel greatly disrupts immersion and identification, and the disconnect between what the player wants to do and what the player is allowed to do destroys the feeling of control and replaces it with frustration.

The attempt to avoid these disconnects may be why games in general tend to have such stark morality. When there is a clear-cut right and wrong, and the player character is on the right side, the character's goals are likely to appeal to a very wide audience of players - or at least not repulse them.

Perhaps the most common way this plays out is through the presentation of thoroughly unsympathetic villains, against whom even the most violent acts are justified. Many qualify just by being what they are - zombies, demons, aggressive beasts or monsters, killer robots, hostile aliens, or even Nazis or mercenaries. Little if any narrative support is needed to align the player's motivations with the goal of defeating these enemies.

But while these serve well as common minions, they aren't quite so satisfying as central or final bosses. These, by contrast, tend to be much more human, intelligent, and self-directed. Consequently, their irredeemable evil must be demonstrated narratively.

Thus, while most minions will never been seen or heard from until they confront the player, ready to be dispatched, final bosses tend to show up well before the player can do anything nasty to them, and prove they deserve it ahead of time.

"Using highly sophisticated technology - which you couldn't possibly understand - we will be extracting a large portion of your planet and adding it to our new one. Unfortunately, this change of mass will cause your planet to spin out of control and drift into the sun where it will explode in a flaming ball of gas. But of course, sacrifices must be made."
Chairman Drek, Ratchet & Clank

Unsympathetic villains have literally been a rule for certain other media when they were a bit younger. The Hays Code stipulated, among other things, that "...the sympathy of the [film's] audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." The Comics Code Authority held that "Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal..."

These rules were created to prevent the audiences of films and comics from being corrupted, and because film and comics were not respected as art. (In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that movies are not art and therefore not protected by the first amendment - they did not overturn the decision until 1952.) However concerned people were in these times that movies and comics would be a corrupting influence must surely go double for videogames, in which the audience has actual agency.

It should not be so surprising, then, that the moral spectrum is so limited in most videogames. But this represents, more than anything else, a failure to recognize and make use of the narrative power of the medium, instead simply using it to tell modern morality plays. Nor should it be so surprising that while the industry as a whole is recognizing that players may want a bit more flexibility, they are generally not doing it in a very subtle way.

"I'm sick of games that claim to have 'choice' but that only really come down to either Mother Teresa or baby-eating. All I'm saying is that a little middle ground is nice now and then."
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, Zero Punctuation: BioShock

If games commonly present a simplistic moral framework, and players become tired of playing simplistic heroes, it's easy to picture game developers scratching their heads in confusion. How could anyone not want to do these obviously noble deeds? They must want to be completely evil. And so then we get games that let you choose between simplistic hero and simplistic villain, when it was the "simplistic" bit that was the problem all along.

Real-world morality, of course, is extremely complex. It is far more interesting to explore moral questions that share some of this complexity.

"The Choice between Good and Bad is not a matter of saying 'Good!' It is about deciding which is which."
—The Lord of Dark, "The Sword of Good" by Eliezer Yudkowsky

The degree to which developers understand and apply this varies. BioWare's Mass Effect presents a Commander Shepard who is a hero, but what kind of hero is a choice left up to the player.

"Commander Shepard is a hero. The choice between the Paragon and Renegade path is one of compassion versus ruthlessness. A compassionate Shepard will try to minimize the negative impact on innocents. A ruthless Shepard minimizes risk on his mission, even if there's some collateral damage. Both Paragon and Renegade Shepard share the same desire to succeed in their mission, though, and Shepard's mission is always heroic. There's no option to walk away and let everyone die, because Shepard just wouldn't do that."
—BioWare Lead System Designer Christina Norman, as quoted in Revisited: Mass Effect's 'Bring Down the Sky' DLC

Their more recent Dragon Age: Origins takes things even further:

"We're trying to be a lot more grey than that, aggressively. . . . You have characters that have their own motivations, opportunities for you to be opportunistic, and maybe do something that's inherently evil but at the same time, a part of being a Grey Warden and carrying the fate of the world on your shoulders, maybe it's what you think you have to do. It's a choice you have to make.

We're also trying to give you, I guess, a sense that the villains, the characters you're interacting with, they have real motivations for why they've done what they've done. So while it's very easy at first to go 'well clearly he's the bad guy,' as soon as you dig in deeper and the game certainly encourages you to do this, you tend to find there's more going on than just the surface."
—Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw, as quoted in Dragon Age's Moral Choices Will Be 'Aggressively Grey'

Sympathetic villains and questionable acts that nonetheless must be done for the greater good create tension between player motivation and character goals, rather than conflict. When the player is made to do something unappealing or fight someone who doesn't deserve it for reasons that the player can accept, it is not narrative failure but emotional depth. The player may experience frustration, but if so it is as a result of identification with their character's plight, and not directed at the design of the game.

Ethical tension is the lifeblood of the Metal Gear Solid series. The player characters are sent into life-and-death conflicts by commanders who know far more than they are telling. As the player learns more and more about what's really going on, the questionable morality of their character's actions becomes increasingly prominent - but so does their obvious necessity. Due to the emotionally intense nature of these experiences, any worthwhile example will necessarily constitute a spoiler. I'm not going to spoil any of them here, but for a pretty good example, take a look at the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (with particular attention to the "Life's End" and "Debriefing" sections).

Videogames are a young medium. They face the same trials and prejudices faced by other media in their youth. As a result, there is an all-too-typical fear of stories with complex or ambiguous ethics. This combines with a desire not to force too many players to do things they wouldn't want to, with the result that many games only offer up a stark, uninteresting moral canvas.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. We don't really need to know why the Space Invaders must be destroyed in order to have fun shooting them down. But mature media are unafraid to explore deeper, crafting narratives that usher players into places where they might not be so comfortable. When they're poorly done, these stories just frustrate us. But when the narrative matches up player and character motivation, then these are the stories that haunt us. These are the stories that change the way we think. These are the stories that make us grow.


  1. Interesting topic.

    The Witcher is another good example of game where the question of moral choices is well built. In this RPG, there is no "right" choice, but each choice has a moral value and moral consequences.

  2. Good article. I think there is something to be said for the less immersive rpgs, generally the japanese rpgs.

    There are advantages and disadvantages of giving a choice and creating alternate experiences in an rpg, vs the straight line. You have already gone into detail about the virtues of broad options and consequences, so I wont.

    The jrpg type offer what is essential a novel with interactivity. The advantage is that in this narrative, the writer has complete creative controll. Everyone gets the same experience, which can be beneficial when your main character just has to be a certain way to tell the story. Can you image Final Fantasy 7 where you as Cloud turn down certain quests, or act like a jerk, or kill innocent townsfolk? No, it would ruin the story that the creators wanted to tell you.

    I would also argue that creating a plot tree instead of a plot line diludes the quality of the content. Having to plan and create alternative outcomes must take some toll on the focus for the overall experience.

    From a moral aspect, allowing us to be ourselves within the game is fun. Indeed I'm not suggesting by this comment that I think one philosophy is superior to the other. But as far as children are concerned, I don't think wrpg morality choice systems are a good fit. The concept of completing the all important mission with no regard for the wellbeing of anyone else is not something we want to instill in our kids. I think a good foundation is generally set in children with absolute good, and absolute evil. Later they can face moral ambiguity. So for them, a no choice interactive story is a better fit.

    I also want to point out that even way back there were games which had Morally interesting characters. In FF6, you had bad guys turned good: General Leo and Cid, plus you had Human on Esper bang bang.

    Full disclosure: I grew up on the FF series, so I'm a little biased. But I still think there is a place for morally abolute static narratives.

  3. @FractalC:
    You know, I've been hearing a lot about The Witcher lately. Not quite as much as Demon's Souls, but people keep mentioning it. I'm gonna have to give it a try.

  4. @Alex:
    There's an artistic question of whether to give the player a predefined character with established personality, or let them create and define their own. Traditionally, we think of JRPGs as taking the former route, and Western ones as taking the latter, but there's a spectrum there, based on how restricted the player's options are. Cloud, as is typical for a Final Fantasy hero, is pretty far on the predefined side of the scale - so the idea of him doing these things that go against his known and established personality sounds ridiculous.

    Something I find interesting is the 'silent protagonist' like Crono in Chrono Trigger. You don't really get to define his character yourself, and your options are limited to heroic ones, but because he never speaks you have a wider range in which to imagine his personality.

    Anyway, I grew up on Final Fantasy as well, and will always remember the installments I played quite fondly, and that includes VI - but I don't know that I would call any of its characters morally interesting (except maaaybe Shadow). Leo and Cid (and Celes, for that matter, and sort of Terra though it was against her will) are good guys who start out on the evil side. They all eventually realize their side is evil, and rebel against it in different ways, and with different results.

    But they are still rebelling against pure evil and joining the side of pure good. We don't really see them become conflicted, trying to decide who has the moral high ground. We're never given an explanation of why they work for the Empire (not the ones who chose to, at least). There isn't really any moral complexity - they just kind of look around and realize they're on the wrong side.

    The game doesn't even run with this and suggest that maybe other soldiers in the Empire - ones with much less choice than the generals - might not be evil either, and maybe you shouldn't kill them.

    I'll always love Final Fantasy VI, but not because of any degree of moral complexity.

  5. formerly posted as Alex:

    I'll conceed the point that FFVI character aren't that morally complex.

    But back to my point about controlling the artistic vision. I can't remember ever feeling as emotionally invested in a WRPG where I had more choice about my character than I was with the old JRPGs where I had none.

    My hunch for the explanation is that the jrpgs of old were longer, and they had more character development. So even though I don't choose what Cloud or Chrono or Fei Fong Wong does, I still feel like I'm them in the game, and their character is well developed an interesting. Also the Js tend to have more other interesting characters, while Ws like Oblivion or Fallout3 just have you - and you may or may not be that interested by your own decisions.

    So even though I had no choice with the characters at all, games like FF4, 6, 7, Tactics, Xenogears and the Chronos... I enjoyed the overall experience of all of those much more than games like Oblivion, Fallout3, Dragon Age, and Mass effect. In my opinion, WRPGs sacrafice a lot of attention to story and characters in order to pay more attention to diverging plotlines and dialog.

    People are still moved by books and movies, which have no interactivity at all. So I suppose my point is that storytelling is more important for emotional effect than personal choice. I know that's an unconventional thought, but it has been my experience.

  6. @uhzHiro (formerly known as Alex):
    You're in pretty good company with this view, actually. I don't know if you read my earlier post, Play Me A Story, Part One: Metal Gear Solid and the Cinematic Game, but no less a personage than Hideo Kojima agrees with you. In a 2008 interview I quoted, he openly questions whether it's possible to maintain emotional impact over a branching story:

    "...if I make multiple storylines and allow the users to select which story, this might really sacrifice the deep emotion the user might feel; when there's a concrete storyline, and you kind of go along that rail, you feel the destiny of the story, which at the end, makes you feel more moved."

    For my part, I certainly think it's easier to engender emotional experiences with a linear, predetermined narrative. After all, we've been doing that for thousands of years. We have a lot of practice and inherited wisdom to lean on. We're a lot newer at telling more interactive and dynamic stories - at least electronically.

    But I think the potential for emotional involvement here is incredible, because choice and agency - when legitimate, as I discuss in Play Me A Story, Part Two: What Makes A Metanarrative? - invest the player so much more in the events of the story. Aeris's death would pierce the heart so much deeper if the player actually felt responsible for it.

    I do agree that we haven't gotten to that point just yet - it's still safe to expect more emotional investment from more creator-directed rather than player-directed games. But have you ever played D&D, or something like it? I find myself far more attached to my characters there than I ever was to Crono or Cecil. If and when we reach a point where a computer can match a human DM, choicey games will take over as the emotional powerhouses.

  7. Do you think we ever will get to that point? I hope we will, I think the potential is there like you say, but for a given budget will it ever be possible to make a choicey game as emotionally impactfull?

    To make a divergent story line with player impact while developing up to par in graphics and sound would require a significant budget upgrade. You're paying for all this additonal stuff that the player might not even see and hear. And you're paying writers to come up with 10 story lines that in theory are each as good as any single one would be.

    That's why you see games like Dragon age where you can choose varios starting story lines, but ultimately 90% of the game is the same, and the ending is essentially the same no matter what you've done, with the exception of some text box descriptions of what your side characters did - like some end of movie snapshot "Billy finally did get that cow he always wanted."

    I'm not going to play Dragon Age 8 times, or even twice. I wonder how many dollars were spent on the things I didn't see and do? This must be a consideration for developers.

    So while I'd love to see a choicey game with as robust a setting and story (regardless of my many choices), I haven't yet and for budgetary reasons I'm not convinced I will.

    PS thanks for replying, I will continue to check your blog, which I only found a week ago.

  8. @uhzHiro:
    Not all choicy, emotionally-powerful designs require that much extra content generation. It can be as simple as combining existing assets in ways that depend on how the player has acted, as in the example of The Sorrow which I go into at the end of my aforementioned Metal Gear Solid-themed entry.

    But I know what you mean. And I do think we will get to that point, though I don't know when and I don't know how. Videogames might look very different by then.

    As an example, though - one of the current obstacles is voice-acting. Storylines and character traits can't be too divergent, because the cost of recording and storing all the variations on dialog is prohibitive. (Which is part of why you sometimes paradoxically see much more flexibility in lower-budget, non-voiced games - varying just the text is much easier.) But voice synthesis software is improving all the time. It's not hard to imagine that at some point it'll be good enough to generate dialog dynamically, completely eliminating that problem.

    There are other obstacles too, of course, but engineers are a crafty bunch. When it comes to innovation, I have learned to expect to be surprised. :)

  9. i just found this site and have to say: i love your take on things. keep up the great work.