Playing for Dramatic Effect

I’ve been hanging out in a Dragon Age discord lately (nerd), partially because I got re-obsessed with the storyworld, but also because I’ve been curious how others respond to and think about the games. One of my most interesting observations has been that some players, perhaps many, play this kind of game fundamentally different from the way that I do.

“This kind of game”: The Dragon Age games are role-playing games that allow the player to make hundreds of choices throughout the game that impact the outcome of various events and color the manner in which the central story unfolds. 

When I play these games, I tend to play a neutral-good character, which aligns with my general moral compass. “Well, others play it evil, that’s not that big of deal,” you may say. True, and you’re right. It’s not a big deal. The alignment or morality of our different roles is not a fundamental difference. But the reason why we may play those roles is.

At any given point in the story, I could make a choice that my companions will react to. My companions are all different characters with different moralities, motivations, and interests. Some will agree with me, and some will not. The game displays those changes: “Morrigan disapproves -5. Wynne approves +15.” There is a part of me that just wants everyone to like me, because, of course, getting to 100 is the best goal. Get that A! But this doesn’t typically overcome my moral choices. Even if Morrigan disapproves, I will likely still make the choice. In fact, maybe because she disapproves, I know I made a choice that more aligns with my own moral compass. My goal in that interaction is not to maximize my points with Morrigan – it’s to do the right thing. Sometimes I may play a character who is less of a good person, and I will make choices I think are consistent with that character. In both cases, I want to make the choice according to the moral compass of my character

Another reason I may make a choice is because I have an outcome in mind, and I want to try to make the choices that will lead to that outcome. Perhaps I can predict in a situation that there is a possibility of a neutral outcome, where no one dies and no one’s emotions overcome them. That is the outcome I want, and I will gauge the possible choices I have by whether or not I think they will achieve that outcome. This is more of a narrative reason for making choices. I want the story to go in a certain way, so I choose options I think will lead to that result. This could be that I want an event to conclude favorably for the elves, or it could be that I want to romance Morrigan (in which case, this may trump a “good” moral compass).
But there’s another reason for making choices that I had not considered.

While listening to players discuss the games on Discord, I noticed that frequently, they would mention that a particular choice would have the most dramatic effect. Someone may talk about their choices and say, “I chose to romance Solas, because I thought it would have the biggest effect on the story to come.” [Constrast with: I chose to romance Solas, because he’s a sexy elven scholar.] They don’t know what the effect is, but they value an effect of any kind more than no effect. The value to them is not the morality or the outcome, but the drama itself. “I play evil, because I think those choices usually lead to the most interesting outcomes.” Their reason is also a narrative one, but not directed. Their interest is in storytelling as such, storytelling defined as dramatic. Consider this conversation:

The players here are discussing a choice in Dragon Age: Inquisition. At this point in the game, the player is with two characters and they must abandon one of them in the world of spirits (where they will likely die). The two characters are 1) Hawke, the main character the player played in Dragon Age 2, and 2) a Warden, either a companion from Dragon Age: Origins or another. (This variance is due to the choices players can make in these other games. Thus, 3 of the 4 possible characters they see are likely to be emotionally significant to the player.

Above we see the first player saying that since their Hawke has lost everything, perhaps they will leave him behind also, just for the most dramatic resolution to that story. Lower, a player says that they can’t choose the neutral Warden, because it isn’t fun enough. Both of these rationales are directed toward the most dramatic effect. Next, a player says they made the choice because of what their character would have done, similar to my first reason listed above. And lastly, the final player makes the choice due to their reasoning about the storyworld and what they thought would be the best outcome for everyone, which is a decision made according to a moral compass.

I realized that whereas I play with an outlook toward how I want the story to go according to some moral compass, some players play for surprises. I want to resolve situations in the best way for all parties (usually this means having to persuade everyone to be less emotional, so max that Coercion skill asap), whereas they don’t really care what happens to everyone as long as it is interesting. The player above is willing to abandon themselves essentially, simply for the drama! They expect the game to allow them to experience an interesting, dramatic story, and they judge the game’s possible choices by their potential for dramatic effect.

I don’t mean to say I want a predictable experience. I still want my choices to matter, and I expect there to be some ambiguity in those choices (it may be the “right” choice, but it is difficult and/or has unintended consequences). But I don’t think about my play as a way to generate drama. I expect the drama to exist by virtue of the choices having been designed to be variably interesting. I expect that every choice has an interesting effect, and I do not judge those based on the extent to which they are dramatic. They are all dramatic; how they differ is in the particular quality or shade of that drama (moral/immoral, micro/macro, etc.).

I’m curious whether this observation would have any impact on how I would design these choices. Even before considering their motivations for choice selection, I would have thought that every choice needed to be interesting to some extent (or else it would not matter). Yet, I think a frame of drama rather than morality is a better way to think of choices, because it can avoid the trap of designing everything around a schema of good/neutral/evil (thinking SWTOR right now). It’s also a good reminder that some unpredictability is necessary in order to make choices interesting, even if the unpredictability doesn’t change the expected outcome.

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Characters in History (and also Starcraft)

There was a fascinating article put up on Gamasutra today which deals with the process of storytelling in a real-time strategy game (RTS). Brian Kindregan, the lead write of Starcraft II, gave some fascinating insight into the narrative process at Blizzard. Two great points were made.

1. Storytelling is about the characters, even, or maybe, especially in an RTS.

2. The medium of games is evolving rapidly and with it, our understanding of how to tell stories.

First, the characters. I’ve especially been thinking lately about the way characters are created. There is theory that tries to understand how we create imaginary people out of text (especially Possible-Worlds theory), but what I really want to know is the ins and outs of creating those characters. What are the pieces of them that we need in order to be engaged? As Brian says, engaging the reader is always the goal no matter what medium you’re working in.

…engaging the reader is always the goal.

I think I tend to think of the classroom in the same way. I’m telling a story, either one written by Homer or Vergil, or one lived by people in the past. My goal is to engage my readers, my players, my participants – my students.

Is there something that lets us create these alternate worlds in our mind and populate them with people and physics? I know that when I play a Warcraft game, even World of Warcraft, I feel like I’m in Azeroth. It has a geography, a culture, a history, etc. It’s a real place in my mind. Jaina and Thrall and Arthas are characters I recognize and feel for. In my case, I have a soft spot for Arthas and killing him was one of the most problematic things I’ve done in a game. But back to the topic at hand – why do I care?

Kindregan says that we need characters to differentiate between the parts of the world that don’t matter, the disposables, and the parts that do. Sometimes I think history is the same way. There’s a judgment made about what matters. Caesar. Nero. Constantine. These matter. Joe Roman… ? In our modern culture of equality, such statements probably elicit a bit of horror. “Gasp, how can you say one person matters more than another?” Somehow, these characters in the story of history make it meaningful and relevant. And they are characters. One of the big paper topics of a class I TA’d for last year was – “How do we find out who Caesar really was?”. What we have left from history are character sketches of a person larger than life. What does it even mean to know what someone really was? Everyone is a character, maybe nothing more.

I was talking to my students the last day of class this term about the Nike revolt. The emperor made a decision to slaughter 35,000 people in order to end chaos and affirm his role in power. My students didn’t engage with that story until Justinian became a character. Why did he decide this? What were his motivations? What were the consequences? It was when they were able to enter into a world of Justinian that they started to actually think about that event and what it means. It took a character to teach them history.

Look for another post about Arthas and his role as a character in the story of Warcraft. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.