Emotional Limits of Interactive Stories

Video games that don't include a story, that is, games that primarily entertain via the challenge and achievement of gameplay, don't try to arouse complex emotions in their audiences. They limit themselves to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, or perhaps to the frustration of repeated failure. But with a story, you can create other kinds of feelings as well. By crafting characters that the audience cares about and subtle relationships among those characters, you have a chance to make your audience feel (in sympathy with the characters) betrayal by a lover, satisfaction at justice done, or a protective instinct for a child.

However, the nature of the interactive medium imposes some limits on what you can do. This section looks at the emotional limitations of nonlinear stories and of avatar-based interaction models.

Emotional Limits of Nonlinear Stories

When you tell a nonlinear story, you give the player the freedom to make choices that significantly affect the relationships among the characters, which may include decisions that feel emotionally wrong—or at least that don't conform to what you, as a storyteller, would like the player to do. Suppose that you tell a story based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, but you give the player controlling Hamlet a number of options. In the play, Hamlet discovers that his mother and his uncle have conspired to kill his father, the king of Denmark, and usurp the throne. Hamlet's father's ghost appears to him and demands that Hamlet seek revenge, but Hamlet is unsure of what to do.

In your game, the player, acting as Hamlet, could simply run away and never come back; he could ignore his father's ghost and forgive his mother and uncle; he could try to assassinate his uncle and assume the throne himself; or he could just kill himself. None of these outcomes is quite as interesting as what Shakespeare actually wrote; in fact, some of them would bring the story to a bland and unsatisfactory conclusion.

By offering the player the power to change the course of the story—or at least to change the ending—you agree to accept the player's decisions, even decisions that are not ideal in ordinary storytelling terms. You cannot guarantee that the player will experience the most emotionally powerful resolution you feel that your story offers unless you confine the player to a single resolution (and even then, the player may prefer a different ending because individual taste varies).

Designers often restrict otherwise nonlinear stories to a single ending simply to guarantee that the players experience the emotionally meaningful outcome the designer planned. That means that the player's agency before reaching the ending is merely an illusion. Players tolerate this in exchange for a satisfying ending, so long as you don't promise them that their choices will change an ending which, in fact, is fixed from the start.

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