Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Choice-management in the aid of building tension

At present, the word "tension" is almost exclusively considered negative.  The quest of the modern man is to reduce tension, or stress, which are known causes of disease and emotional distress.  The desired state is one of complete relaxation.

However, in the artistic world, we find that many descriptions of good works imply tension: taut, solid, robust.  Likewise, many descriptions of poor works imply the opposite: loose, unfocused, flat.  It seems that while we prefer our bodies to be relaxed, we prefer our books, movies, music, and games full of tension1.

While there are probably many reasons why having tension is good for art, I suspect an important reason is that tension provides definition.  Just like flexing your bicep shows its definition, putting an object in a state of tension is frequently a better representation of what that thing is than observing it in a relaxed state.  The human condition doesn't appear to be an exception.

It's quite clear that putting humans in stressful situations isn't enough to create compelling works of expression, though it's a good start.  Here, I see narrative as a helpful guide, yet again.  It is in narrative where choice-management decisions are the clearest2, on a certain level.  In narratives, characters are making decisions that drive the story in a linear fashion, and often these are decisions we can more or less understand intellectually--by which I mean we can reason about them.

Characters in the best stories always make decisions that drive the story forward, but what does that mean?  At a functional level, we can say that the characters make choices that take away choices.  Ideally, a character will want to take away choices only from an antagonist, but often we find that characters will soon resort to taking away choices from themselves in order to take choices away from the antagonist--often because they have no other choice.  In a good narrative3, you see a progression from a large field of opportunities to a claustrophobic room of tough choices.

So an important aspect in creating compelling expression is a process of eliminating choices.  The art is in which choices to eliminate and in what order.  The artist must be aware of which choices the audience perceives as "easy" and which they perceive as "difficult," and begin eliminating the easy choices.

Of course, games provide other great examples of this.  Good moves in chess are ones that eliminate at least one of the opponent's options, and the best are ones that force the opponent to have to choose between two terrible outcomes.  The tower game Jenga is also a good example of tension-building through choice elimination.  These tension-inducing games also show that players cannot be confused with "audience"--in a game, players must be getting increasingly tense, just like characters in a film or novel.

Relaxation is inherently boring, pleasant as it is.  But does it have a place in games?

It may seem that this post is directly solely at the Expression and maybe Sport dimension of games.  However, tension management is important when thinking about the Diversion dimension, as well.  Diversion, after all, could be defined as a relief of tension--a distraction from tension, however brief.

It would be logical, then, to say that a "diversionary game" is one with very few rules--one that allows someone to enjoy a space of relaxation.  And indeed, "player choice" is frequently heralded as a goal of games.  However, I believe that misunderstands the aim of this person needing relaxation.  Doing nothing--lying in a hammock, listening to whale songs--is a better space of relaxation than a game.  If a tension-filled person is turning to a game, we can assume that while he may be full of tension, he actually wants more tension.  After all, rules create tension by their nature, so if this person wanted to exist in a space of complete relaxation, he wouldn't have approached the game--an activity intrinsically rule-bound4.

What explains this seemingly paradoxical behavior?  I think that games can represent a sort of light at the end of the tunnel.  A reassurance that eventually all tension will be released, even if it will be shortly replaced by something else.  Therefore, I believe games should always be paying attention to choice management, continuously limiting options, and building up tension, so that once the game is over, players--win or lose--may sit back, relaxed, and for a brief moment, enjoy the ease that can only come after being tense.


Chris Breault said...

As always, your concision and theoretical rigor in breaking down difficult concepts is awesome.

What's your opinion about ensemble casts in video games? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, after being disappointed in the way ME2 allows the player to simply control other characters (which leads to easy choices and a lack of tension). I ask because your example focuses on the choices made by a protagonist and antagonist, but there may be other actors within a game's narrative. I'd take DA:O as an example (or BG2, maybe), where the player's choices do represent something of a negotiation with his party members. I can't think of any games with a "true" ensemble -- where a great many choices are made by the supporting cast the player chooses to involve himself with, rather than the player himself -- but I personally would like to play one.

The chess example is clear and evocative, but the model of "hard choices" by the player in a game with an ensemble cast would be murkier. A choice might be hard because it will affect so many other characters, whose reactions you try to approximate but do not know until after the decision is made. And of course in making choices the player would weigh the imagined consequences for other characters against possible personal gains.

In chess, there are only so many possible moves to be made, but there will always be uncertainty in predicting other personalities (in reality, predicting the game writer's ideas of those personalities). So the player will act on available information, but in fear of extreme reactions from certain characters. Yet it's still possible for a player to make the "best" choice if they have anticipated the cast's reactions correctly.

I think an "ambiguous" choice in this vein could be extremely tense in the colloquial sense, but would it square with your view of tension in this post? Do you think that choices based on ambiguous information would simply be unsatisfying?

Personally I feel more complex scenarios would lend a lot of credibility to games that aspire to have believable characters. I think there can be a large field of tough choices (or maybe a large field of outcomes imagined by the player deriving from a few hard choices) rather than a steady narrowing of possibility. I think if we took some acclaimed television shows (Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, etc.) as models, we'd see a lot of quirks in the way choices operate: seemingly pivotal choices that turn out to be insignificant, strange reactions from volatile characters, and unexpected events disrupting all the protagonist's plans. Of course, this is far from the way most modern game narratives are designed.

Apologies if I've misinterpreted the essay or gone too far afield. As always, thanks for the thought-provoking writing.

Ferguson said...

Very interesting angle and one I must admit I haven't put a lot of thought toward.

The first thing I thought was that games do provide us with several strategies regarding what might be termed "ensembles." Of course you have the team, where several players cooperate for an equal share of the victory or defeat. Then you have games like Hot Potato or Jenga where there is no direct antagonist, but through self-serving actions, each player creates obstacles for the next player. And there is also poker, where initially each player is antagonistic toward the others, but throughout the course of the game may find it beneficial to form unspoken alliances with others to take money from a big winner or eliminate a weakened opponent. Of course there are many more kinds of variations when it comes to games that involve multiple players.

Team-based games seem to me to be lacking what you're after here, as a team can really be considered one player in game terms. Far more interesting are the dynamics found in games where uneasy alliances are made--where during the course of a game, another player may in turn be an ally, neutral, and foe. I mentioned poker above as a good model, but games like Risk and Settlers are more explicit in this regard.

I don't think that making decisions using imperfect information necessitates accepting that games don't move from many choices to few choices. In fact, one of the things that eliminates choices is the revelation of information that wasn't available at the beginning. Strategies will change and become much more adept at eliminating choices as the players find out more about the secrets the other players have. Even games heavily based in luck usually have strategies that will minimize the effects of luck, and these strategies will take away choices the player may otherwise have.

Again, great question. Like I said, I wasn't even really thinking in these terms when I wrote this.