The release (and reaction to) Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 gave me an occasion to talk about game endings and the sorts of narrative cop-outs that arise from them. Now, Mass Effect 3 has had an “extended cut” of its endings, and I’m going to take that as a cue to do an extended cut of talking about narrative choices.
In short, of all of the choices presented in an interactive narrative, the final choice is almost always going to be the weakest choice.
Whether the narrative is interactive or non-interactive (with the author making the key narrative decisions for the characters), each and every choice has consequences. What’s at issue in games is whether these choices have narrative or non-narrative consequences.
Both kinds of consequences have an effect on the story, but the powerful choices – the strong choices – are the ones with narrative consequences. These are the choices that change the choices available to a character in the future. They open or close narrative lines by giving you future options that would otherwise be unavailable, or by closing out future options that would otherwise be open. Non-narrative consequences may provide a game effect, or a some altered conversation or scenes, but do not alter the choices presented later in the story.
Strong choices, therefore, provide permanent alterations to the future narrative, closing some paths, and opening others. What you choose now affects what you can and cannot choose later – and that’s where our interactive narratives, by and large, fall down. So do our endings, since the final choice of the game, by definition, has no choices following it. Unless the player believes it does, the final choice is always a weak choice, narratively.
Strong choices with narrative consequences are the big difference between a set of multiple-choice and a powerful, interactive narrative, and we do them poorly. Why?
The problem is one of multiplication (and, occasionally, of exponentiation). Choices multiply. If certain choices will permanently alter a player’s path through the narrative, what if she does X before Y? What if she does X and then Z, but never does Y? Every possible path the narrative could take must be tested and checked carefully, not only to see that the game, graphics, sound, subtitles and whatnot all work properly, but to make sure that every choice is where and what it is supposed to be. And every path must be tested and retested each and every build.
CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher series perhaps comes the closest to dealing well with these issues (though Bioware’s earlier works also did well – better than in more recent times, perhaps), except for the Visual Novel genre, which generally has everyone beat for strong narrative choices.
Frankly, what it boils down to is that story just isn’t a first-class element in most gaming genres. It certainly isn’t high enough on the list to even be viewed as an interactive narrative more often than not, except in the crudest of senses.