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Choice design with Zachtronics' Matthew Burns - GDC Podcast ep. 2

Matthew Burns of Zachtronics joins the new GDC Podcast to talk about his arresting visual novel Eliza, a story about the ethical conflicts surrounding an AI therapy program. How does a game with so little choice say so much about player agency?

Matthew Burns, Kris Graft

September 11, 2019

After years of working on Halo, Call of Duty, and other triple-A franchises, Matthew Burns went the independent route and has now, with Zachtronics, released the arresting visual novel Eliza, a story about the ethical conflicts surrounding an AI therapy program.

Listen now on iTunes, Google Play Music, and Spotify

Matthew joins Gamasutra's Kris Graft and Alissa McAloon on the newly-minted GDC Podcast to chat about how a game with so little room for choice was brilliantly designed to say so much about player agency. And yes, we just called a visual novel a game, but only because Matthew gave us permission to.

GDC Podcast music by Mike Meehan.

Matthew on choices in games

"I think any textbook that you open about game design will basically say, 'games are different because they're interactive.' 'Games are different from other mediums because they present you with choices.' That's the defining feature of games. Any pundit talking about games will say this.

"And so, what's so powerful to me in that is actually denying someone a choice. That can be such a powerful move, because it's a game and you would think that you would want to give people a choice. And so going against that is a really interesting way to use the tools that you have as a game designer. It's like using silence as a composer or blank space as a writer.

"But the absence of the thing that makes the medium what it is can enhance the other choices that come later."

Games as a series of interesting decisions

"I actually don't agree with that, that a game is a series of interesting [decisions]. I think that what a game is is actually very difficult to define...Ludwig Wittgenstein picked the word "game" as an example of a word that is impossible to define, and he had all these examples of why or how you can't define the word 'game.' It's worth reading.

"Everyone has their own definition of 'game.' A lot of people think visual novels are not games at all. But I think that Eliza does have interesting choices in it -- or at least one interesting choice in it. So if Eliza is a series of one very interesting choice, is it a game or not? I don't know, I'll let you decide -- as long as you buy it and play it, I'm happy."

Listen to the full episode on iTunes, Google Play Music, and Spotify

For more details on GDC 2020 - taking place March 16-20 in San Francisco - visit the show's official website, or subscribe to regular updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS.

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