Apr 17

2010

Make a “Choice of” Game Your Own: Authorial Intent in IF

Posted by: Adam Strong-Morse | Comments (14)

Authorial intent is a slippery concept at the best of times, but it becomes even more so in the context of interactive fiction (IF), whether multiple-choice games like Choice of Games makes or text adventures with a parser.  In a standard book (or a legal document, which is the context in which I’ve had most of my interactions with the concept of authorial intent), it’s usually pretty clear who the author is.  The difficult questions are how do you determine what the author’s intent is and does it matter?  When J.K. Rowling says that a prominent character in the Harry Potter books is gay, does that settle the question of whether that character is gay?  Does it even mean something significant to talk about whether a character “is” gay, as opposed to how we the readers perceive a character?  Those are significant questions, but I’m going to ignore them for now. :)  Instead, I’m going to focus on the question of who the author even is in a work of IF.

If “Choice of Broadsides” were a (non-interactive) book, the question of authorship would be easy:  Adam Strong-Morse, Heather Albano, and Dan Fabulich wrote it.  We received a little feedback and editing advice from some friends and family, but we would clearly be the authors, without even the questions of authorship that a strong editor on the one hand or a ghost writer on the other can raise.  But it’s not a book.  It’s a game, and a work of interactive fiction, and the experience on playing through it depends on the choices made by the player as well as the choices we made in writing it.  In a meaningful sense, the designers of the game collaborate with the player to write the story each time the game is played.  This is similar to the reason that I don’t like terms like Storyteller to describe the game runner in a traditional pen-and-paper role-playing game:  the story is the product not of a single “Storyteller” but of a collaborative interaction among a group of participants.  If the player of a game has any meaningful agency, then they are part of the storytelling team.  Not the whole part, not an unrestricted part, perhaps only a very limited part, but nonetheless part of the storytelling team.

So what does that mean in terms of our games?  Here’s the way I think about it.  Our target should be to offer every option that a reasonable player, playing within the norms of the setting/genre, would want to pick.  We should then try to make all of those options play out in a way that is cool–perhaps not victorious, but cool.  We can’t cover every option, of course, and we have to constrain which choices we offer at all–in “Choice of Broadsides,” you can’t choose to be a cavalry officer instead, even though that would (within a certain broad understanding of the genre) be a perfectly reasonable option.  We just don’t present the choice at all.  But if someone could, playing reasonably, want to pick an option, we should make that possible.  Whenever a player says, “I wanted to do X, but the options wouldn’t let me,” we’ve failed a little.  We’ve gone beyond the parts of the authorial role that we need to retain–what happens when you do X?  What sorts of choices are possible at all? and gone into the parts of authorship that are better given to the player–what’s this character like?  What will the protagonist do when faced with a tough choice.  I think that shares the role of author most effectively.

By that standard, we failed initially in “Choice of Broadsides”, because people playing a gay protagonist wanted to have the option of taking actions to pursue a same-sex relationship at a point in the game where it appears appropriate.  In recognition of that, we’ve added some new options and new text; people who played the game when it first came out and were disappointed about this issue may want to try it again.  (The new version is up on the web and out for Android now; it will take a couple of days to show up in the iPhone version, because of their approval process.)

This isn’t the only approach to authorship possible in IF.  Some IF games are intended to be played until the player has explored every last nook, with the later endings intended to be more meaningful in light of earlier endings already seen.  In that paradigm, the game is really a single narrative that unfolds multiple times and the notion of shared authorship is less applicable.  But I think the notion of joint-authorship with the players, while limited, is a good paradigm for our games.  It provides a useful set of tools for determining what should be in and what doesn’t need to be developed, and it provides pressure to keep the choices meaningful and to allow real player agency.

14 Comments

  1. John says:

    Thank you!

    Yay for narrative flexibility!

  2. Oh, wow, I guess I made you guys do something. Or maybe I just coincidentally made the first comment on that last post, and I’m using that to make me feel special.

    Either way, thanks for this. I just played through the new scenes (at least I think I did; there isn’t an alternate ending as well, is there?), and it was quite enjoyable. Although, as has been alluded to in the other comment thread, it makes the opposite-sex relationships seem even more rushed and less well-developed in comparison; those could be similarly improved (for the sake of players who are, y’know, into that sort of thing :P).

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kate S. Kate S said: Authorial intent in IF on the @choiceofgames blog: http://bit.ly/cDQI7I (Also? New CoB content, letting you romance You Know Who? SQUEE!) [...]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP (208.74.66.43) doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP (74.112.128.10) and so is spam.

  4. Spider says:

    As I said in my other comment, thanks so much for making that change! Choice of Broadsides was thoroughly enjoyable without that option before, but now it has moved above Choice of the Dragon on my much-liked games list. I look forward to seeing what more you come out with!

  5. Nina says:

    Woohoo!

  6. esha says:

    I was so ridiculously happy when I noticed this option was just available! It feels like the perfect sort of coda to the experience- and like something that rounds out the character even more. Thanks so much for implementing it. (: Plus, it made the final battle just that much more dramatic. Now there’s certainly history between your character and his/her Gaulish counterpart, which adds all the more to the tension. Fun stuff.

    Am still looking forwards to the next game you guys come up with. I’m sort of hoping it’s Choice of the Superspy but I’m sure it’ll be great, whatever it is.

  7. Horace Torys says:

    I’m not normally a curmugeon, but I call bullcrap on the “reader as author” idea (a notion not original to you, obviously). Salinger doesn’t credit me as co-author if I choose to read only the even-numbered pages of _Catcher in the Rye_.

    The text that Choice of Broadsides can generate is finite and can only be experienced in the sequences it was intended to (barring bugs). The difference between it and _Catcher_ is that the reader is enabled limited *agency* in the way and what of his/her reading.

    All writers must make their plots (branching or not) plausible and acceptable to their readers, or they’re out of a job. Authors taking readers into consideration hardly makes the readers authors.

    ———————

    Conversely, it’s very cool that you changed Broadsides to reflect reader feedback. I would certainly call that collaboration.

    And I’d echo Zacquary and others in saying that while you *showed* us the relationship that developed with V. (and several other people), you merely *told* us of our courtship and life with spouses.

  8. Jake Forbes says:

    Just played through the revised version with a mind to the changes, and wow, it really does make a difference! Especially in the tragic finale (at least it was tragic in my playthroughs). As Zacqary says, the relationship is so nuanced, the others now pale a bit. It feels like the “real” romance, which isn’t a bad thing at all — it’s even a bit subversive! Right now you have that question where the reader can flat out choose that their character prefers the same sex… I wonder, did you guys consider dropping that question and allowing the player to discover the possible payoff to “courting” Villeneuve without that initial declaration of preference?

    • Adam says:

      We didn’t, largely because of the order in which things were written. The sexuality question was in there from the get-go, because anything else would mean that the marriage scene would have a strong heteronormative assumption about the protagonist that we didn’t want to include. That meant that when we added the possibility of a relationship with Villeneuve, we already had a prior choice for it to key off of. (Conversely, given that we assume broadly speaking early 18th century norms about sexuality, I wouldn’t want to write a scene that involves a straight character being hit on by someone of the same sex–not including a highly negative response would seem dishonest, but I wouldn’t want to write a highly negative response. Much easier to only have the issue come up if the protagonist has already said that they are gay. Yes, I’m aware that this elides away bisexuality, but there’s a limit to how much we can cover in a game that isn’t even principally a romance. :) )

  9. Jake Forbes says:

    “but there’s a limit to how much we can cover in a game that isn’t even principally a romance. :)”

    Well then, based on number of comments on this topic, clearly the next game should be Choice of Romance. :P

  10. Jake Forbes says:

    I hope that didn’t come off as too snarky. Seriously, I am hugely impressed that a game of this ilk has created such passionate discussion. The Great Villaneuve Debate (TGVD) has spawned more interesting commentary than anything I read in regards to a game like Dragon Age with all its romantic possibilities. It goes to show just how much relevance and potential the text/choice format has. And, as you say, it’s only a subplot to what is already an excellent nautical adventure. Bravo!

  11. Adam says:

    @Horace: I’m not surprised that some people reject the concept of authorship that I’m advancing here. If it weren’t contestable, it probably wouldn’t be worth talking about. :)

    As I view it, concepts like authorship are inherently constructs. The questions about a particular version of the concept are then (A) is that version of the concept useful, either as a descriptive tool or as a normative/prescriptive tool and (B) is that version of the concept close enough to other pre-existing concepts with the same name that it’s useful to continue to use the same name. Applying those tests, I find this notion of shared authorship normatively useful–it informs how I approach writing games in the future–and I also find it sufficiently close to pre-existing concepts of authorship.

    In particular, I view my conception of authorship in an IF game as intimately tied to the notion of shared authorship/shared storytelling in pen-and-paper role-playing games. I think very many people who have thought about the issue would agree that players in a pen-and-paper RPG can share some role of authorship with the gamemaster in the stories that end up being told. The players may or may not think of themselves as acting as authors–some players have an immersive approach, some players don’t immerse themselves but do ask the question “what would my character do, based on my character’s personality, interests, goals, etc.”, some have an overtly authorial approach (“what choice will make the coolest story/have the coolest effects”), some approach it as a game with tokens to manipulate. But even if the players don’t think of themselves as authors, if they make choices that meaningfully affect the story that unfolds, they are in some ways filling the authorial role.

    Switching back to IF, you’re absolutely right that in our style of games, we write all of the options. They all exist in advance (except when we edit the game after release :) ), and they’re not created by the player’s choices. But from the experience of the player, I think that if we’re doing our job right the choices feel much like the choices that a player makes in many pen-and-paper role-playing games, although more limited than in many such games. We create the options, but the player chooses which ones to take–which ones become part of their story. And I likewise think that there is a difference between the experience of “I’m reading this book, and I’m somewhat disappointed that the author didn’t choose to have a character do X” and the experience of “I’m playing a game, and I (as the protagonist) want to do X, but the game designer deprived me of the opportunity to make that choice.” I think the second experience is much more authorial in feel, and I think it points to good practices in game writing that go beyond trying to keep my “readers” satisfied.

    So while I totally see where you’re coming from, and I’m not at all saying that your conception of authorship is wrong, I still think my conception of authorship can also be “right” in the sense of useful, meaningful, and still within the legitimate scope of the concept of “authorship.” YMMV, of course. :)

  12. LBD says:

    I would argue that the audiance is a co-author when their participation causes the author to change the text in the story… for example, including the Villeux romance option!

  13. [...] Villeneuve if he or she wishes; endings were also added to reflect this change. The change led to this post about the role of authorial intent in interactive fiction: Our target should be to offer every [...]

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