Stephen Bond recently (very recently, I think) posted an essay on player freedom, essentially arguing that IF shouldn’t be about offering the player moral choice, and that not forcing the player to make a specific choice is a kind of artistic abdication, giving up the opportunity (or the responsibility) to Say Something.
Now I’m about to disagree with him, at some length.
I agree with many of the other aspects of the essay — I haven’t much interest in the simulate-everything, let-the-player-do-anything kind of IF. Games that are too wide-open often lose my interest, and I have to admit that I tend to roll my eyes when people suggest this kind of thing on RAIF: you could spend an eternity building the world-model to offer the player as much freedom as possible, and wind up with something utterly flaccid and dull when you were done, where no action is meaningful because all actions are possible.
Offering the player a moral choice in IF is not the same as offering the player co-authorship, though. It’s not even close. For one thing (and I am surprised more people haven’t pointed this out in criticism), the author is choosing the choice: in “Floatpoint”, I decided what the problem was (and that it was a problem) and I made up all the possible approaches the player-character might take. My authorial contribution is to determine the kind of universe the player character inhabits; it’s an assertion about the way the world works, even if it doesn’t come down in favor of doing one particular thing rather than another. Some players have reacted to this fact by complaining that they don’t think it’s fair (or desirable) that there’s no clearly winning ending. But, well, part of the point of the story is that there are some situations that don’t offer any victory — not even a victory at cost, not even a moral victory that is pragmatically disastrous; that there are situations where anything you do still feels partly wrong. You can dodge the choice entirely (and it’s possible to do that too, in “Floatpoint”, but I doubt anyone considered that a satisfying outcome). But you can’t get the choice right, because there is no right. Anything you might do contains some element of betrayal, some element of sin. If you’re lucky, some of the people affected might understand why you did what you did. They might forgive you. Then again, they might not. And either way, there’s still the wrong done, and the fact that you need forgiveness.
Offering the player a choice is a vital part of that statement. You have to be free to try to solve the problem, because otherwise the failure to solve it cleanly is meaningless.
Well, anyway. I didn’t do a good enough job of setting up the choice; the feedback on “Floatpoint” shows that it fails in some fundamental respects. A number of players have complained that they just went through all the possible outcomes in turn, not feeling especially committed to any one of them; and if they weren’t trying to get a positive result, then failing to get one can’t have distressed them much. This vitiates what I was trying to do. So this post is not a defense of “Floatpoint” as such.
All the same, Stephen’s conflating very different things: an unconstrained sandbox game is not the same as a game with a tightly-defined moral choice. It’s possible to write a piece with real choices for the player, where nonetheless a coherent worldview — even something approaching an argument — emerges from a) the options that the author chooses to make available and b) the results of those choices. More such works of IF exist than we generally think of. It’s just that some of them argue for a view of the world in which there are clear right answers, so the outcomes are schematized into winning and losing endings; this is what we expect from a game. Players most often question this arrangement if the author requires the player to do something morally repugnant to achieve a “winning” outcome. “1981” comes to mind here. Likewise, propagandistic or evangelical IF (“Jarod’s Journey”, e.g.) quite explicitly requires the player to behave according to the author’s idea of “being good” in order to achieve a happy outcome. We could probably even read “One Week” as an interactive brochure about living a balanced life. Still, I think players tend to discount choices that lead to losing endings as not really being choices at all. There’s a big experiential difference between the game saying ‘You can’t do that!’ and ‘You do that, AND THEN ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE! *** You lose ***’. This fact rarely gets its due in critical analyses.
In any case, it’s not a coincidence that the IF most often identified as “IF about moral choices” is the pessimistic stuff — “Fate”, “The Baron”, “Floatpoint”, and to some extent “Slouching Towards Bedlam” all posit a negatively-rigged universe, or a universe in which negatively-rigged situations are possible.
A few games posit a positively-rigged universe, where choices exist but mostly lead to good outcomes. Kathleen Fischer’s “Masquerade” gives the player several routes to different positive endings, and there the endgame choice feels like a way to characterize the player character; the game as a whole supports the idea that women should be free to decide their own fates. Possibly not a very startling claim, but it’s still one that emerges more effectively from a game with an assortment of endings than from one with a single enforced route to success. This structure also fundamentally distinguishes “Masquerade” from print romance novels, though it otherwise belongs to a similar genre: romance novels have a contract with the player that the main characters will get together at the end, and they tend (as a result) to be conservative in many respects, even if the heroines are supposed to be spunky and liberated. A similar argument applies to several other games with multiple endings: often the ability to choose an outcome is a reward for the player and for the player character, where the story is about a struggle for freedom or self-determination. It is in this case not so important what the player chooses as that the player character can choose.
So player choice is not the same thing as player co-authorship. The author can parcel out choices to the player in a way that supports an agenda or an artistic vision, one way or another. Victor Gijsbers’ “The Baron” is exceptional, in that it gives the player moral choices and then also asks the player to determine what the outcome of these will be. I had very mixed feelings about the effects of that (and I won’t talk about it in more detail here, because to do so might spoil an interesting game; for those who have played it, there’s some discussion over at the intfiction forum). But “The Baron” is, to the best of my knowledge, unique in doing this. Picking what the player is going to be allowed to do is the essence of creating interactive art. If the player is to have no freedom at all, then there’s no reason not to produce a static work instead.
The effort to maximise player freedom is misguided. Art is not about catering for your audience; it’s about taking sides, expressing an opinion, climbing the podium and shouting “Here I stand!” Art is not about holding a mirror up to nature, and IF is certainly not about holding a mirror up to the player.
The most open of my work is “Galatea”, and I suppose it does cater to some subset of players, in that there are different themes to focus on and different relationship goals to pursue. But there are also people who really hate the work — I mean, passionately hate it. I’ve received angry letters from men who saw in Galatea the embodiment of what they feel is wrong with women. Some have written tirades about how the game is worthless because it’s impossible to get involved with Galatea sexually and that’s the only goal they can imagine for interacting with her. (This claim is actually false — if you approach it just right, Galatea will eventually proposition you. But this is not an easy ending to get.) I’ve even gotten graphic descriptions of how they wanted to be able to rape her. These players also tend to conflate me somewhat with the character, which makes the letters extra-creepy. I understand where this comes from psychologically, but it makes me too uncomfortable to want to respond to these letters.
I think, on the whole, that these players are angry because they feel they’ve been offered freedom but have found their options constrained by a worldview unlike their own. The options in Galatea are all predicated on the idea that, if you want a positive interaction with another human being, you have to approach that person willing both to listen and to talk about yourself. Sometimes the simulation falls down. It’s not perfect. But that’s the idea. It didn’t even occur to me when I was writing it to account for sexual aggression, partly because (mercifully) I’ve no experience of rape and it’s not something that generally comes into my mind to write about, and partly because Galatea as I envision her is not physically vulnerable that way. On the contrary, she’s immensely strong relative to the player character, and if threatened could easily kill him. Indeed, though I often forget this fact myself, I originally meant the game to be ambiguous even about the gender of the player character. But pretty much everyone assumes it’s a man.
So choice in IF is not about catering to the player. It can be used to increase player involvement, by letting him customize the protagonist a little (though I am mostly bored by being allowed to pick my PC’s name and gender, unless that’s used to some significant effect later), or by letting him pursue different optional subthemes of the work. That might be seen as catering, I suppose, but it’s ultimately in service of the author’s ends. And anything that would qualify as a moral choice inherently articulates an authorial view of the world — one that accounts for the options the author considers viable, and the outcomes he has assigned to them. Sometimes that worldview can be so different from the player’s that it gives offense.