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In narrative games, self-expression doesn't mean 'empowerment'

In a narrative-focused session, Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman talk about their approach to choice as player self-expression -- and how that doesn't necessarily equate to making players feel "powerful".
At NYU Game Center's Practice conference over the weekend, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin of Telltale's The Walking Dead (and recently of their own outfit, Campo Santo), believe a well-designed choice focuses on giving the player opportunity for self-expression, and having the game provide a response. "Empowerment" is a funny term in games, Vanaman suggests. "As an industry, we have a perverse obsession in game design with making sure the player 'feels powerful.' We don't really buy into that, a ton." "It's potentially possible to conflate the notion of player agency with the potential for player power," adds Rodkin. "It's putting the player in control of the game, it's about making sure they can express what's going on and how they feel about a game." Self-expression needs to happen within the scope of production: When you make a content-driven game, you're often developing content before other things come online, so designers need to be smart so as not to waste artist resources on arcs that get scrapped later. And the content has to enlighten entertain teach or surprise the player. "Narrative choices which aren't fun in a moment is like making a shooter where the guns suck," says Rodkin. "Fun isn't the right word," adds Vanaman, "but choices that feel fulfilling to make." What characters don't say often tells us about who they are, says Vanaman, pointing to some of the intentional limitations placed on Lee's dialogue choices. The team tried to make choices that encouraged the player to think about the things they'd done in the game. That fulfills the team's goal of highlighting choice as meaningful self-expression. Give players the room to determine how they feel, and a way to tell it to the game, the pair suggest. "The Walking Dead is effectively a corridor that you go down, of bespoke spaces with different encounters in them, and you as a player determine on how you are going to play through those encounters, and the game doesn't make a value judgment on you at all," Rodkin says. Even though the mechanics of a game like Dishonored are completely different, "to me that maps directly to how I play through Dishonored, when I'm deciding whether I'm going to kill someone or not." A choice between four outcomes of a situation can create four very different stories, even if the circumstances leading up to the outcomes are similar -- the narrative arc can end up meaning very different things to different people.

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