To choose a Mage.

Games are full of choices, moments where players have the ability to select between two mutually or at least partially exclusive options. They can also frequently present possibilities that are closer to The Magician’s Choice, an illusion of choice if not a choice itself. Both ways of determining future actions have their place, for the moment I want to consider the former, the selection of one of multiple possible actions through an act of decision based on an understanding of the potential consequences.

Such choices can occur across multiple layers, the aesthetic, “Do I wear the green robes or the red robes?”, the narrative “Do I select the aggressive dialogue line or the neutral dialogue line?”, or the mechanical “Do I upgrade Inferno or Cone of Cold?” When considering these choices it makes sense to examine their consequences within the layer in which they occur, if there is no mechanical or narrative difference between wearing green or red robes then it follows that the only criteria that needs to be considered when making that decisions are aesthetic concerns.

Obviously this is not always the case, to blur the separation between these layers choices in the aesthetic and narrative layer are frequently tied to underlying mechanical choices, ensuring that all actions in some way have a mechanical consequence. So the choice between the red robes and the green robes isn’t simply an aesthetic one, the red robes may provide a bonus to Fire Resistance, while the green robes increase Critical Hit chance; the aggressive dialogue line may lead to a fight, while the neutral line offers a new side quest.

Continued progress in a game is linked inextricably to choices made on the mechanical layer, be they clearly defined mechanical choices, or those contextualised as aesthetic or narrative choices. These choices do not necessary need to be complex systemic decisions, nor do they need to have long term consequences, choosing to fire the Shotgun over the Rocket Launcher is still a mechanical choice even if it is a fairly superficial one. With this in mind it is logical to conclude that during play actions taken are determined primarily by their mechanical impact rather than aesthetic or narrative considerations. Examined logically why would anybody make a choice that gave them a mechanical disadvantage? Even when a narrative choice is presented the consequences in a mechanical sense are often indicated, though not always explicitly. Consider Dragon Age II though I may choose to side with the apostate mage Anders in an argument, I am aware that increasing his approval or disapproval has direct mechanical benefits, his abilities will improve in different ways if he becomes a trusted friend or a bitter rival. This is a mechanical choice contextualised by narrative presentation.

Where the interconnectedness of choices across multiple layers becomes noteworthy is when choices are made in one layer that have detrimental effects in the others, specifically when choices are made in the aesthetic or narrative layer that have mechanical consequences. Logically players should never make choices that have detrimental mechanical consequences, it makes no sense to make a game difficult for yourself when that is not your intent. Things are rarely that straightforward, player behaviour, as with all human behaviour, is only rarely logical.

Anders has a tendency to take an absolutist view of the world. A perspective that can lead him to acts just as extreme as those of the Templars he opposes.

Let’s return to Anders and events that occurred during Dragon Age II. Since I had met him the relationship between the player character Hawke, and Anders had been a pleasant one. There were minor disagreements yes, but a lot of flirting and as a healer Anders had a vital mechanical role in my party. However certain events transpired in Act II, that led me to make a series of decisions that resulted in Anders leaving, for as it turned almost the entire rest of the game. I understood the consequences of making such a choice, and yet I made that decision not based on the mechanical consequences, but the narrative ones. I was no longer comfortable with Anders in my party, or more specifically I felt that regardless of my personal opinion, Hawke now considered him a risk to herself and her family. With Bethany confined to the Circle and unable to join the party, Anders’ departure left me with a single Mage (Merrill) who had no healing abilities. This forced me to rework my strategy and party composition. For the next several hours the mechanical experience of playing was altered dramatically because of an action I took based not on its mechanical presentation but on its narrative one. Everything about playing Dragon Age II that can be said to be uniquely mine, which is to say the experience and the memories I have, was changed by making that decision.

For choices to be meaningful their consequences need to be experienced, games need to be played to be understood. It was only through playing that the full impact of my actions revealed themselves.

Mechanical choices are the glue that tie the different layers of a game together. That does not mean players will, or should, always make decisions based on mechanical consequences exclusively.

It cannot be said with total accuracy that players only see games as dynamic mechanical systems and will make their decisions based exclusively on that basis. To focus design primarily on the mechanics of a game without equal consideration of the impact of the aesthetic, narrative or other contextualising elements at work risks creating a gulf between the design and the act of interacting with that design. The different presentational layers of a game are not engaged with in a vacuum, how choices are presented and responded to across these layers cannot fail to have some influence over the decision making process. What can seem like an ideal choice given the circumstances can easily become an undesirable one because of it’s impact on other layers of the game.

Meaningful Actions.

I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.

Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.

Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.

The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.

Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.

Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.

Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are  no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a  generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.

In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term.  It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless.  I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.

The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.

These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.

Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.

Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant  and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.

In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.

All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.

That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?

The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.

Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.

The Play Experience.

A fair criticism of my work is that I have a tendency to adopt a fragmentary approach to examinations of game mechanics. I’ve examined specific elements of a game in isolation, ignoring important mechanics and interactions in order to aid clarity. The obvious problem with this approach is that a game is a complex system of rules interacting over time, and it’s impossibly to present an entirely accurate analysis of any individual mechanic without looking at all the ways that mechanic impacts, and is impacted by, other mechanics. I think it’s important to understand and appreciate that no mechanic exists in isolation, that everything in a game is – directly or indirectly – connected to every other.

There is a reason why I have generally chosen to approach specific mechanics in isolation, or to otherwise present a limited view of the possibility space of a game. As I have previously discussed games do not really exist in a definitive, measurable way; the rules defining the constraints of the game are not the game itself. It is during the act of play that those rules take on a contextual significance, only then are they are able to enthrall, thrill, and otherwise emotionally affect us. Games exist to be played. The experience of play is different for each game and each player.

Though it is important to consider games in their entirety as systems of interconnected rules, that is often not how they are perceived in played. Consider any game you have just started playing. After ten minutes how many of the mechanics are you aware of? How many of the myriad relationships between different mechanics do you have an understanding of? What about after two hours, or five, or fifty? Depending on the game, and your personal level of engagement with it, the answers to these questions can differ significantly. Often it is not until the very end of the game that a complete conceptual model of the mechanics and their relationships can be formed.

Play, is a process of exploration and discovery.

Consider BioShock, it’s fairly common knowledge by now that the game’s mechanical rewards, in terms of Adam, are essentially the same regardless of whether you choose to Harvest or Rescue the Little Sisters. For an analysis of the game itself this is important information; however, when examining the play experience it might be useful to ignore it entirely. During play – assuming you don’t run two parallel games in order to examine the consequences of each choice – there is no information provided on the reward you would have received had you chosen a different option. It is implied that there may be an additional reward for Rescuing a certain number of Little Sisters, but unless and until you do so there’s no way to know whether that additional reward exists or what it might be. Even if you choose to alternate between Harvesting and Rescuing in order to gauge the difference in reward there is no way to know that the reward for consistently Harvesting doesn’t increase over time, or if the additional delayed rewards for Rescuing balance out the immediate rewards for Harvesting.

When playing a game what you do not know is just as relevant as what you do. If a particular mechanic or relationship is not known it’s impossible for that mechanic to influence your actions. When examining games and the manner in which they attempt to convey meaning it is beneficial to consider the manner in which this subjectively understanding of the game mechanics can influence player actions and behaviour.

Show me how to play.

Getting stuck in a game is far from uncommon. The specific reasons are as varied as the games themselves, though all such situations can generally be grouped into two categories; skill based obstacles or logic based obstacles.

Common to action games, skill based obstacles stem from an inability to complete a given task. The goal is obvious, the actions required equally so, but those actions need to be performed with a degree of skill the player doesn’t yet possess. Consider God Of War, standard combat encounters are primarily skilled based. The goal is to defeat any and all enemies, the means of doing so are the standard attacks and special abilities at your disposal; some attack are more useful against particular enemies though they are rarely the only options available. Achieving the goal, defeating the enemies, is a matter of skillfully wielding the tools at your disposal.

Even the environmental puzzle section – at which I became stuck – was a skill based obstacle. That I needed to walk along the beams and avoid the blades was obvious; however, I lacked the skill to do so. My frustration was caused by my own inability to perform what I knew to be the correct actions required for progression.

Progression in games is bound to the accomplishment of goals; the completion of any goal is a two stage process. It requires an intent and an action. In order to proceed players need to know what to do, and how to do it. Skill based obstacles are those where the goals and actions are clear, the challenge exists in the act of performing those actions.

The second form of obstacle are those based on game logic. These occur when either the goal itself, or the means of attaining it, are unclear. In either case, without adequate feedback, players are left performing seemingly arbitrary actions in the hope of progressing. The player’s conceptual model of the game has broken down, they can no longer made valid judgements about which actions will lead to which outcomes. Their ability to communicate their intent to the game has been removed, or at best severed hampered.

Unless and until the correct course of action is identified progression is halted. At this point external information is required in order to keep playing. The most common form of external information available is the FAQ or walkthrough. They provide a solution, and enable progression without the need to necessarily understand the reason you were stuck, or the even logic underlying the obstacle. I’ve used walkthroughs, I understand their appeal; however, if we are to create games with meaningful mechanics- where the meaning of a mechanic is expressed through interaction with it – walkthroughs as they are traditionally written, could be detrimental to the play experience. They provide the solution but rarely highlight the logical deductions and assumptions that led to it.

In order to experience the meaning inherent, or imbued, in any mechanic it is vital that players learn how those mechanic functions, and understand their potential applications. If a mechanic is difficult to understand that could be because the act of understanding is an important facet of the meaning being expressed.

For people with a history of playing games, the often obtuse logic behind certain mechanics is understood, often expected. We might laugh as a boss character changes its attack pattern upon reaching its “final form”, willfully ignoring the logic that if such advanced attacks were available the boss should have been using them to begin with. As seasoned players we have an understanding of the conventions of games and this can often enable us to deduce the solutions to logic based obstacles that really aren’t logical in any formal sense. For those without this learned understanding of the illogical logic of games, without this game literacy, even the most straightforward obstacles can seem insurmountable.

There are various ways to mitigate this problem. The most obvious of which is to attempt to make any obstacles as straightforward as possible,  limiting available options and possible actions until only those vital to progression remain. Such attempts to ease progression might be damaging to the ability of game mechanics to convey meaning. If games reach a stage where players are effectively “going through the motions” will there be any incentive to parse the meaning expressed through mechanics?

One interesting possible method to avoid this was presented by Nintendo, and is due to make its first appearance in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, that of the “digest moving image” or what has been referred to as the Nintendo “Kind Code”. The core of this system seems to be the ability to allow players to, at any point, view a playthrough of a particular section with which they might be struggling. Though they will not be playing the section themselves, by watching it being played it seems likely that they will pay more attention to the mechanics themselves, than they would if they had simply been told the solution.

Learning how to do something is potentially more expressive than actually doing it; the knowledge is retained rather than the memory of the act itself. Understanding the logic behind a problem makes it more likely that players will be able to solve future similar problems. It’s important to help players create a solid conceptual model of the logic supporting a mechanic, often that conceptual underpinning is consistent throughout the entire game.

Verb Development.

The ability to play a role is one of the manifold reasons people choose to spent time with games over other forms of entertainment. The ability to assume a new identity, to make choices as a different character, to manage the development of that character, is a vital part of what makes narrative games pleasurable and meaningful. So why do we seem to spend a more than trivial percentage of our time in these role playing games studying statistics and calculating the benefits of of a “+1 to Damage” over a “+2 to Attack”, exactly when did playing a role require that the role include statistician?

Math isn’t dramatic, usually, playing a role should be. Games that feature character development options tend to focus on the underlying mechanics, with choices defined by numerical increases to base abilities. How easy is it to really see the affect of a “+2” increase to melee damage? Not very, so these games also make the underlying mathematics visible, with numbers floating from character’s heads as you chip away at their health. This can be entertaining, but is it dramatic?

The problem is down to the verbs these games use. In the majority of role playing games the actual number of verbs that are valid is low. They break down to “move”, “attack” and maybe “talk”. When we make character development choices we are modifying these verbs. We select a “Point Blank Shot” feat and this serves as an adverb, modifying the “attack” verb slightly but still retaining the same core functionality, we are simply changing how and when we can attack; changing the underlying equations.

A more dramatic approach to role playing would be to tie character development choices to new verbs. However to do this would we would need to take a less abstract approach to our definition of verbs, combining adverb-verb pairs to allow “melee-attack”, “ranged-attack” and “indirect-attack” to be separate verbs from simply “attack”; for “move-fast”, “move-silently” and “move-instantly” to take the place of the catchall “move” verb. If we look at verbs on this lower level we can then hook character development choices directly into new verbs.

If I decided to upgrade my character with a “Stealth” ability it would allow me to make use of the “move-silently” verb; the “Hacking” ability would open up the use of a “talk-computer” verb. Each object, or character, within the world would be designed to respond to each specific verb and so every character development choice would have a clear and direct impact on the world. This would lead to a more pronounced form of character development as every choice made would open up new interaction possibilities in the world instead of just modifying the interactions already available.

Drama is after all about actions and consequences not mathematics.

I’m not the first person to think along these lines, and in fact there has been at least one game that has tried to follow this approach to character development, I’ve already covered the potential problems that arise when discussing that title.


For a choice to be meaningful, for the making of it to be worth consideration at all, requires that it be an informed one. We need to have an idea of the consequences of any choice, there needs to be a discernible difference between taking one action over another. An uninformed choice isn’t really a choice at all. When random chance is as likely to give you a desired outcome as any act of intent then there is no decision to make and the term choice is a misleading one.

Is clarity of consequence alone enough to make a choice meaningful?

In strictly logical terms having two different choices with near identical outcomes means you don’t really have two choices at all. If both possibilities lead to the same result what is the purpose of selecting one over the other? Redundant choices provide multiple means of attaining the same outcome, so why offer redundant choices?

Removing redundant choices improves the clarity of those that remain. Free of redundancy there is a one to one relationship between actions and consequences. From a logical perspective this feels like a sensible design decision, prune away all non-meaningful, uninformed, or redundant choices.

Of course there is a problem here, one I would hope is obvious, life is rarely logical. Life is full of redundancy, multiple different types of objects that all perform the same basic function, multiple different brands of baked beans or washing powder that all serve the same purpose and cost approximately the same. Why is it important that we have this ability to choose between functional similar but superficially different options? It helps us to define our identity, our character.

Our selection of one particular choice over another is not necessarily about the objective worth of the product we are choosing so much as what it means to us in a subjective sense. We choose because we can, and what we choose says much about our character.

Redundant choices reduce clarity and complicate the logical relationships between choices and consequences. On the other hand such choices serve to aid characterisation, and improve verisimilitude.

So which is better characterisation or clarity? Is it possible to have both? Most games seem to settle for allowing redundant choices but this can lead to a sensation that all choices are fundamentally superficial.

One game that attempted a reduction in redundant options and a focus on clarity over variety was Deus Ex: Invisible War. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to analyse those specific elements in isolation given the provocative nature of that title.

A case of Reductio ad Invisible War? If it was in that game it must be a failure? Or is the general consensus an indication of what happens when you strip away redundant options, a game loses its sense of character, of nuance, and becomes instead mechanical and artificial?

Regardless, the character defining benefits of redundant choices shouldn’t be overlooked.

Global Leveling.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion implements a global levelling system that ensures all characters, loot or weapons in the world are within the same level range as the player at any time. Therefore no area is overly dangerous for you to enter and all loot and weapons located are proportional to your level. The idea being that you are free to explore the world free of the fear of encountering an enemy you have no chance of surviving combat with.

The problem of such a system is that it removes the potential for anticipation, for yearning; it rarely feels like you have earned anything. There is never a situation where the you find a shop stocking a rare and powerful weapon that you “just had to have” but can’t afford, or where you could find an interesting looking dungeon you desperately want to explore, but that you know will be very dangerous. Playing Oblivion you can be left without the motivation to go away and earn the money to buy that special weapon, or to improve your character so that you can finally enter that dungeon.

Different weapon types only become available when you reach the required level, but by that that stage they are no more effective in relation to the creatures in the world than the weapons available at previous levels. When you are free to explore all the dungeons at once nothing feels particularly challenging. You never have to wait for anything so nothing is ever “worth the wait”.

When everything has the same value, nothing has any value. That’s what the levelling system Oblivion is wont to do, make everything valueless.


When playing Diablo II it is possible to open various containers (treasure chests, crates, bags etc), which all make a sound upon opening. Containers can be empty, contain beneficial items, or trigger traps. Though trapped containers appear randomly, the sound they make when opened is different to that of standard containers. Since the traps themselves take a few seconds to trigger it’s possible to reach a safe distance thereby avoiding injury. Of course this is only possible if you are being attentive.

The differences between the noise for a ‘Safe’ and a ‘Trapped’ container is not substantial but it is noticeable if you are listening for it. If you haven’t been paying attention, or haven’t learnt the correlation between the different sound and a trap, then you could [come to] believe all containers make the same noise, and suffer for it.

Through a single simple mechanic Diablo II encourages players to pay attention to their environment.

First Aid.

Why does BioShock feature first aid kits?

In practical terms they don’t serve a purpose, health itself doesn’t really serve a purpose. Because of the Vita-Chambers death is not permanent. Purchasing, or searching for, first aid kids is money and time wasted. The health meter in BioShock seems as redundant as the Power-Meter in Super Mario Galaxy, when death holds no noticeable penalty the concept of health is redundant.

The only exception to this is during the last level of BioShock. During this final confrontation the Vita-Chambers are unavailable and for the first time in the game the health bar is important. One of the core mechanics of the game is abandoned in order to present a boss battle that already feels at odds with the rest of the game. Furthermore, throughout Rapture there are first aid stations that can be used by both Splicers and the player. Such a means of repairing damage makes more sense within the narrative context of Rapture than it does in most games. As monitoring your health is unnecessary, the existence of first aid stations is called into question (Of course allowing Splicers to heal, feeds back into the apparent difficulty of the game itself; removing it could potentially make them easier to kill, but this could in turn be countered by a form of regenerating health).

It all makes me wonder if the entire notion of a health bar (and of a concluding boss battle) was included simply because it is a standard feature of the genre.

If a resources is functionally unimportant it shouldn’t take up interface real estate; serious consideration should be given to whether it should exist at all, is it there for a purpose or simply because of the dictates of convention?

One Life To Live.

One of the first things you see upon setting foot in Rapture is a Vita-Chamber. No matter how many times you are killed, you are always “reborn” at the closest Vita-Chamber free to continue from where you left off. There are benefits to this approach, but also some validity to the criticism that overly explicitly encourages taking a path of least resistance through the game.

I believe that games should be designed to motivate the player to use the tools at their disposal. Playing BioShock I was aware of the potential to game the system, to chip away at enemies with my wrench and stockpile my resources. I could see this was a valid option but I never actively considered it because the varied ways in which I could use my Weapons, Plasmids and Gene Tonics to alter the environment was reason enough to experiment with several different combinations through the course of the game. Even though all I was doing was killing Splicers (or Big Daddies), the methods I used and the way the combat played out was visually interesting and varied enough to be a motivating factor in itself.

The second criticism of the Vita-Chambers is that they made BioShock “too easy”. Difficulty is a subjective matter, I can understand in a logical sense why not dying can make a game feel easier. Yet in any case if I die I can reload a saved game and continue, the amount of time or resources lost dependant on when I had last saved (Which brings up an interesting theory, that of quick-save usage as a manual difficulty adjustment). In BioShock I found the lost of time resulting from being returned to a Vita-Chamber to be on par with that I’d normally experience playing a similar game and using quick-load, but devoid of the associated cognitive break of a loading screen. I consider the notion that “failure must result in death” as an unnecessary hold over from the arcade era of gaming where player’s were required to spend money to continue.

Vita-Chambers work within the mechanics of BioShock and are a better fit with the overall narrative than a checkpoint or quick-save based system. However there is a side effect of their implementation that does bring up an interesting question.

Why does BioShock feature first aid kits?