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Narrative Lessons From Anton Chigurh

No Country For Old Men reveals the artifice behind choice and narrative. What can game designers learn from that?

I'm currently working on Epanalepsis, a game due for release in Spring 2015. I'm making some short posts about my design and development process/what I am thinking about while developing the game over at the official Epanalepsis website and I'm crossposting some of those here.

In No Country for Old Men there is a character named Anton Chigurh. Without recounting the entire plot of the movie to you, suffice to say that Chigurh is the antagonist. He is a hitman who kills without remorse, and in a couple scenes we're shown a process that he uses in order to determine if he will spare someone's life or not. You can see the first of those scenes here:


The core of Chigurh's argument here (and his character more broadly) is that the shape of the world is wholly contingent. In other words, the world is entirely conditional and based wholly on random chance. Things look solid, and we can trace our path to where we are at this very moment (you, reading this, can do the same), but the way you got to that point was as arbitrarily determined as a dice roll or a coin flip.

In the novel that the film is based on, we get a rumination on Chigurh's "philosophy of the coin":

Perhaps. But look at it my way. I got here the same way the coin did.

She sat sobbing softly. She didn't answer.

For things at a common destination there is a common path. Not always easy to see. But there.

Everything I ever thought has turned out different, she said. There aint the least part of my life I could of guessed. Not this, not none of it.

I know.

You wouldnt of let me off noway.

I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning. [No Country For Old Men, p. 258-259]

I apologize for how difficult that is to read (thanks Cormac McCarthy), but it should be pretty clear what the point is. Chigurh sees the world as wholly predetermined. The coin might land heads up sometimes, and you might be able to call it, but things were always meant to be that way.

In videogames, choice is still factored out through a series of predetermined possibilities. You create trees, and those trees share some branches, some trunks, and some roots. No matter what choices you make in the game, eventually the narrative you're moving through ends. In knitting that ending together, designers often have to make their own choices about how things sequence and how "neatly" things end.

Ultimately, narratives tend to end in a single data point. X happened. Sometimes it can be a dyad or a triad: XY, or happened.

Along the way to those few points, lots of different choices get made. There are choices about when to do things, how to do things, how to respond to situations with both actions and arguments, and when to use items. The list of possible kinds of choices goes on and on and on.

This foreclosure of choice--that things must end and they must in in certain ways--is something that we have come to accept as players. Either it is never spoken of or, on the other end, it is hidden from players completely.

And that's fine! Games with really engaging narratives chock full of decisions (the Fallout games, Mass Effect) are ultimately about the journey and how that journey feels, and so for most players the arbitrariness of choice isn't a negative. In fact, for many it is a positive--it is the small diamond-shaped choice trees in the middle of games that add flavor to additional playthroughs, after all.

I wonder about revealing the coin to players. Can players deal with making choices while simultaneously being told that those choices are ultimately arbitrary? How would players react to being spoken to, frankly, about a game's "philosophy of the coin"? Can you tell a player that their choices didn't matter in a way that opens up into a beautiful absurdism rather than closing down into a sad "so what?!"

Comments or questions? Ask in the comments or contact the author on Twitter.

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