In Defense of Didacticism

"What Right Have You to Judge Her" (from the New York Public Library Digital Collections)While watching reports and live-tweets come in from the recent East Coast Games Conference, I was intrigued to see a number of speakers independently touch on the same point. Warren Spector advised, during his keynote address, “Don’t judge the player. The player shouldn’t know your answers to the questions you’re posing”; while Steve Jaros, in a panel on “Writing For Mechanics Beyond Combat,” offered a concurring view: “Give your players options without attaching value judgments. Present them all sincerely.” (These quotes may be paraphrased.)

But acting as the player’s judge (and jury, and executioner) is in some respects the primary job of a game’s developers. Moreover, surely all art emerges from the artist’s own experiences and worldview to convey a particular set of ideas. How does all that square with avoiding being judgmental?

I want to dig into that question here, using the notions expressed by Spector and Jaros as a jumping-off point. This isn’t a rebuttal or a reiteration–rather, it’s a different framework for viewing many of the same challenges. We may even come to some of the same conclusions.

Know Your Themes and Your World

Let’s first dispel–briefly–the idea that any game can avoid espousing a particular worldview or moral philosophy. Say we’re developing an open world action-adventure game set in a modern-day city. The player is able to engage any non-player character in combat at any time, and now we’re forced to determine what should occur if the player kills a civilian somewhere isolated and out of sight.

Most games either:

  • allow this heinous act and let the player character depart without further consequence, relying on the player’s own conscience to determine the morality of the situation.
  • immediately send police officers after the player character, despite the lack of any in-world way for the police to be aware of the crime.

But of course neither of these results is in any way realistic. The problems in the latter example are obvious, but no less substantial than in the former case where one must wonder:

  • Why don’t the police investigate the murder at a later date and track down the player then?
  • Why doesn’t the neighborhood change, knowing there’s a vicious murderer around who’s never been caught? Why aren’t there candlelight vigils and impromptu memorials?
  • Why doesn’t the victim’s son grow up to become Batman?

We construct our game worlds in a way that suits the genre and moral dimensions of the story we want to tell. There’s no right answer here, but the consequences we build into a game are inherently a judgment on the player’s actions. Attempting to simulate “reality” will always fail–we must instead build a caricature of truth that suggests a broader, more realized world. Declaring “in a modern city, murderous predators can escape any and all consequences” is as bold a statement on civilization and humanity as deciding “in the long run, vengeance and justice will always be served up by the victims of crime (metaphorically by means of a bat-costumed hero).”

Knowing that, what’s the world we want to build? What are the themes and moral compass points we use to align our game?

This is a relatively easy task when working with a licensed intellectual property. In Star Trek, we know that creativity, diplomacy, and compassion are privileged above all else, and that greed and prejudice always lead to a bad end. A Star Trek story in which the protagonist freely lies, cheats, and steals without any comeuppance probably stopped being a Star Trek story somewhere along the line. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, takes a more laissez-faire approach to personal morality while emphasizing the large-scale harm done by men and women who strive for power. (No one comes away from watching Game of Thrones believing that the titular “game” is a reasonable way to run a country.)

These core ideals should affect more than your game’s storytelling–they should dovetail with your gameplay loops and systems, as well. A Star Trek farming simulator might be a fun game, but using the franchise’s key ideals to guide narrative and mechanical choices probably won’t be useful. (“Maybe we reward the player for reaching an accord with the corn?”)

Know what principles drive your game world. You’re going to need that knowledge for everything that’s coming.

Teach Your Players About Your Worldview (and Fast!)

Of course, you knowing the compass points of your world doesn’t necessarily mean your players will. (Unless you are using a license, they almost certainly won’t.) For most games and most narratives, it’s best to lay out at least the broad strokes of your world’s principles early on; if one were to equate a game with a television show, you’d want your audience to have a sense of the themes by the end of the pilot.

Teaching the player the thematic basics of your world shouldn’t be overly difficult–low-stakes choices, examples of your world and character arcs in a microcosm, gentle words of wisdom, obviously bad advice, and so forth can all help guide the player’s expectations. You can introduce theme in a game the way you would in any medium, so we won’t dwell on that here.

You can, of course, spend a great deal of time exploring the nuances of the moral philosophy of your game world across the course of the whole game. You’ll probably want to. So why is it so important to give the player the right idea from the start?

Because you need the player to buy into the kind of story that you’re telling. To some degree, this is true even in traditional, linear narratives: if I walk into a theater expecting the romcom stylings of The Taming of the Shrew and get Romeo and Juliet instead, I’m not going to be delighted by having my expectations subverted; I’m just going to be irritated.

When you give a player a measure of control over the narrative, the player’s expectations for a certain type of story become even stronger. We’ll discuss this more in the next two points, but don’t allow your player to shoot first and ask questions later in the aforementioned Star Trek game while naively expecting the story to applaud her rogue-ish cowboy ways. Interactive narrative is a collaborative process, and the player needs to be able to make an informed decision when she chooses to drive the story in a given direction. This is the pact between player and developer: “You show me how your world works, and I’ll invest myself in it to the best of my understanding.”

Every Path Should Present a “Satisfying” Story

Once your world is defined and the player understands it, you’re essentially asking “What sort of story do we want to tell together?” when you present the player with choices. But what those choices are and how they play out is critical to shaping a satisfying narrative.

First, avoid presenting options that can’t lead to an engaging and stimulating narrative. That doesn’t mean every option needs to hand the player a trophy. What it does mean is that you should avoid wasting the player’s time–if one or more narrative-driving choices results in substantially “better” stories than others, why are the not-very-good options even available?

When you ask the player “What sort of story do we want to tell?” it’s okay if the player says “a bittersweet story” or “a tragic story of hubris” and the game obliges. But if the player wants an unhappy story, it still needs to be narratively satisfying. If you’re offering me a choice between The Taming of the Shrew or Romeo and Juliet, great; don’t offer me a choice between The Taming of the Shrew or a YouTube video of someone weeping.

In order to make all your paths satisfying (within reason–there will always be certain combinations of choices that are unpredictably unaffecting or fail to suggest an internally consistent player character), consider your themes closely when developing your choices and mechanics. The ability to murder people on the street might be an appropriate option for a modern-day crime game; the ability to murder any crew member probably doesn’t add anything to your Star Trek game, as it’s unlikely that’s going to lead to a satisfying story worth telling. Use those resources to broaden your relevant options instead. (A Star Trek game might not give me “violent vs. peaceful” choices, but “technical vs. diplomatic” choices, each shaping a different sort of story and outcomes. e.g., you might allow a player to explore the dilemma of a sturdy peace rigorously enforced by technological disarmament vs. a more fragile, bloody peace reliant on the will of all parties involved.)

If you must have dead ends, make them quick to resolve–don’t force your player to experience a dissatisfying story just because he tried something thematically off-key.

Judge the Player Character, not the Player

Making sure that your choices and story paths have equal narrative validity brings us to the question of judging.

In order to determine the results of any given choice, you (that is, the game you’ve designed) must judge the actor according to the dictates (intended or implicit) of the game world and story. If you’re building a game inspired by 1940s comic book Crime Does Not Pay, then in your game world, crime should probably not pay.

But if you’ve set the player’s expectations correctly and made all paths narratively satisfying, then there can be no bad choices on the part of the player–only bad choices on the part of the player character which the player has decided to explore. The player is no more complicit in the (nonexistent) crimes of the player character than an author is complicit in the crimes of her characters. Therefore, there is no reason to attempt to punish or shame the player for “bad” decisions–the player made those decisions to explore the consequences with you, the designer. (Punishing the player character is just dandy, so long as it’s an engaging experience.)

Is it possible to trick the player into thinking an option will lead to a different outcome than it does? Of course, and it’s not particular difficult. You can offer the player a Captain America-style superheroic action story and give her grim-and-gritty Platoon instead, but to what end? Any message you’re trying to send will need to overcome the massive barrier of the player’s irritation at your bait-and-switch. Better to be honest about what the player is getting into upfront (thematically–you don’t have to give away your plot points!) or design a more linear game without multiple narrative approaches (or both).

And of course–as we discussed above–“judging” needn’t be a question of a positive or negative outcome. For combat-heavy role-playing games, most developers try to provide many viable “builds” of player characters for different combat abilities and playstyles; judging a narrative “build” of various choices most likely isn’t about whether the ultimate result is good or bad, but about what form the world and characters take according to the themes and ideas you’ve chosen to prioritize.

Don’t Pull Punches

It’s okay to explore difficult themes without offering up a “correct” answer. It’s okay to let players try out deeds and consequences and decide for themselves what it all means. But don’t forget that the game is rigged.

If you create a world in which consistency and determination win out while moderation and compromise result in disaster, or where technological and diplomatic solutions can both be applied to reach largely the same outcomes, you’re already making a case to your audience. Your game is your study of a particular worldview, and every player choice is a supporting argument. (Even if you throw in choices and consequences that go against the overall thrust of your narrative, you’re only arguing for a more nuanced worldview–not stepping back from the case itself.)

You owe it to yourself and your players to present a vision that’s well-considered and coherent. Once you’ve determined the rules of your world, follow through on them. If you find that means some of the choices you want to present to your player result in uninteresting, non-engaging, or “not fun” outcomes, then you’ve got a problem–but most likely, that problem is either in the basic principles of your narrative or in the kinds of choices you’ve put on offer. If you find yourself “watering down” or skewing choice outcomes in a way that feels narratively wrong in some ineffable way, you’ve likely got the same root trouble.

Intentionally or not, a game judges and a game teaches. It shows, through a multiplicity of possibilities, what might happen if the player does X or Y, and the player learns the unseen rules that underlie your world. Embracing the didactic elements of your work doesn’t mean slapping the player’s wrist every time she’s wrong–it means building a game where the player can play and learn and experiment within the boundaries of the lesson.

There are Always Exceptions

None of this may apply to your project. If you’re building a serious game that’s meant to double as a police procedure training lesson, you’re likely going to have a lot of absolute right-or-wrong answers. Or maybe you want a game with an absolute narrative score, where more points correspond to a better ending.

That’s okay. There are no rules. But then, I’m here to defend didacticism–not ensure its absolute triumph.