Psychological States: Meaningful Choice, Clear Communication

So the design issue is this. I want to include a passage which is essentially about persuasion. There is a clear distinction between player and protagonist (I’ll say “PC” for the protagonist). The essence of the idea (not novel, of course) is that by directing the player towards particular actions, or thoughts, or dialogue choices, the player alters/manipulates the protagonist’s state of mind, which in turn opens up or closes down further choices. The precise details don’t matter, but let’s suppose we track the PC’s loyalty to two other characters, X and Y. At some point in the game the PC will face a choice between X and Y: and the range of choices will be determined by his/her loyalty. If highly loyal to X or Y, the choice may “make itself”, and depending on the balance different choices may be available.

Although I’m talking of choices, this is intended to be basically parser, which is where much of the problem comes.

The trouble is clear communication. The whole experience is basically random unless the player (1) thinks it might matter whether the PC is loyal to X or Y (“cares” about it, whether intrinsically or extrinsically: i.e. whether because it seems worth caring about in its own right, or because it is predictably going to affect game outcome), (2) can understand what effect particular choices have had on the PC’s state of mind, and (3) can reason in advance about this.

The biggest problems I have are with (2) and (3), I think, which are related. How does one best make it clear to a player what effect an action has had? And how does one best enable the player to predict what consequences some action may have? I care about that because it seems to me that games that try to do that often have a lot of rather obscure ex post facto logic. Perhaps looking at a picture of my sworn enemy will make me hate him more. Or perhaps it will remind me of the time I loved him, and melt my heart of stone. Either may be (in context) reasonable: but for the experience to be satisfying, the player has to be able to anticipate the result, or at least anticipate a result. All too often these sort of techniques seem to me to end up being completely arbitrary, and I don’t want that (i.e. a sort of “mental maze”).

As to communication, the real question for me is “How explicit should this be?” At one extreme one might make stats overtly accessible. At the other, one might drop only the subtlest clues.

Among the questions I have are:

  • What games do this or something like it particularly well, or badly?
  • Can it be done in the parser? Or is the parser just too open for this to work well?
  • Can it be done simply by “ordinary” parser actions (eg examining objects) or can it only work with some sort of thinking or remembering mechanism?
  • If so, are there any games that do thinking or remembering particularly effectively? As far as I can see, the most common “memory/thought” mechanisms are (i) tying it to physical objects (which is really just a way of not having an explicit memory system, but extending “examine” so that it involves an element of introspection as well as inspection), (ii) a metaphor where the memory is like a sort of encyclopaedia that can be consulted (highly flexible, very vulnerable to guess the noun, does not give the player much direction), (iii) a sort of “inventory” of memories, treating them as “mental objects” which can themselves be examined. But I’m sure there are others I haven’t thought of.
  • How do you think it is best to communicate the underlying stats mechanism: let it all hang out? hide it completely? something in between? Again, are there games that do this particularly effectively (or not)?

At the moment, I lean towards (i) rather explicit communication of stats and stat changes (i.e. make the underlying mechanism more or less transparent to the player), (ii) a system where most psychological change happens as the result of explicit introspection (i.e. memory or thought) rather than interaction with the physical world, (iii) probably a system that uses an “inventory” of memories/thoughts which can be made salient (by “examining/thinking about/dwelling” on them) or suppressed (by “dropping/dismissing/forgetting” them). But I’m not sold on that, and before I go very far I’d be interested in other people’s views.

I’d say that the parser can do this sort of thing, and it could be done either with physical actions or a think/recall action. But either way, the player is going to spend a lot of their time grappling with that mechanism.

Since the parser is strongly concerned with actions and physical objects, one way through is a flashback mechanism. Have the player play through past events in which they made a choice that affected X and Y. (Expressed as an IF-expressible action.)

As for stats, I agree that more transparency is probably best. I say that simply because the Choice of Games / Walking Dead models are familiar to players. “Clem will remember that” is a running joke but it solves a problem.

Explicit communication is fine. If this is the mechanic of the game, the player needs to know it.

Changing stats shouldn’t be based merely on examining. Players tend to examine everything!

Linking it to a remember action could be fine, but the player might just lawnmower through all possible things the character could remember.

Better to handle specific, discrete actions. For instance a dwell upon versus a forget about action, with progress gated by the player having to have done one of either of the actions.

You said there’s a clear distinction between PC and player. Perhaps each choice the player makes that increments one of your values evokes a physical or mental reaction in the PC… essentially a less blunt version of “Clementine will remember that.”

All very helpful, thanks.

Zarf, I like the idea of flashbacks in general (though in this particular case, for reasons that aren’t germane to this particular issue, they probably won’t be viable: that doesn’t make them a bad idea, just a difficult fit for my particular project). I agree about them playing to the parser’s natural strengths.

Joey, in this particular case I’m not so worried about lawn-mowing. It can’t be completely avoided (after all, “lawn mowing” is in a sense “systematic exploration”), but I think the pay-off will be far enough in the future that it won’t be easy, at least it won’t be a matter of fiddling around looking for some particular trigger. Of course, I expect players will try things that get the stats where they want them – but that in a sense is the point. I really like your idea of dwelling on and forgetting. You make a good point about not using examine to change things.

Hanon, I think I may very well do something like that, yes. My concern is that if it’s too subtle the mechanics are obscure, in the sense that although the player understands what X did, they may not be able to predict what Y will do, and a satisfying experience depends I think on some sense of “mastering” a system. So I’ll need to be careful to be consistent.