Dragon Age and Narrative Structure (Part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote a love letter to Dragon Age and its storytelling. Today I'd like to bring it home and talk about what we in the ARG community can do to achieve the same narrative power -- and some things we can't do, or can only do with great difficulty.

Moral Ambiguity 

Does the classic ARG or transmedia experience have the capacity for creating decisions charged with moral ambiguity? Of forcing the players to pick sides in which neither one is strictly correct?

As it happens, yes, we do indeed. At their best, this tension creates powerful controversy that drives an experience to new heights of drama. 

Weephun's betrayal of the Sleeping Princess in ilovebees springs to mind as one such moment, followed by the Mann Act II vote in the Beast. These were unforgettable decisions. Indeed, we have a rich tradition of requiring players to navigate tricky waters of who to trust with what information. 

And sometimes, as with life and as in Dragon Age, an ARG manifests unintended long-term consequences -- even from decisions you didn't know you were making at the time. In Dragon Age, how you handle one particular conversation with Alistair changes his personality subtly but significantly for the rest of the game. In Perplex City, the players unwittingly helped a murderer get to his victim, which kicked off the Helena Frye cycle -- meant to be an exercise in ambiguity from start to finish; she was a double agent, but was it on behalf of the police or on behalf of the shady religious cult?

That's not to say that you always get intense moral ambiguity from an ARG. But examples aren't hard to come by -- which means we're on the right track, from a narrative point of view. 

Meaningful Choices 

The choice framework in an ARG is fundamentally different from a traditional video game, because you aren't restricted to the few choices preprogrammed by the developer. In an ARG, the sky's the limit. The players can theoretically make any decision they can dream up. 

Indeed, it's theoretically much easier for an ARG to offer choice than a video game. Providing a meaningful choice in a video game means the dev team has to create an ever-increasing tree of content. Each additional branch makes it increasingly less likely that any one piece of content will be seen by any one player; you get diminishing returns on your development resources, the more choice you offer.

The classic ARG doesn't need to create a vast volume of content for paths not taken, though. In a pervasive online experience, the developer can create or adapt content on the fly, altering the course of the game to accommodate unexpected plot twists and player decisions. This is the ARG at its finest. 

We ARG writers and designers often lie awake nights trying to think of how to handle every conceivable choice, because the ones the players make will often be those you didn't think of (and therefore plan for). Murphy's Law would say they always make the decision you didn't think of! Yet you, as the developer, have to find a way to roll with it, even if that's to say "sorry, but no," gracefully and in character.

That said, providing the opportunity to make a truly meaningful choice on an individual level in an ARG is very, very hard. (And here I link to Dan Fabulich's fantastic post on what it means to provide a meaningful choice, anyway.)

It's a question of scale. The classic ARG is a community-played experience. It's easier to offer a meaningful choice to a few dozen people than it is to offer a meaningful choice to hundreds of thousands, when everyone plays in the same instance of the game. 

So how do you do it?

Methods

Dragon Age is a single-player experience, so you don't need to be concerned about the choices other players are making. They simply don't affect you. 

There's an increasing movement toward creating single-player ARGs, too. Fourth Wall Studios and their Rides platform have made great strides with this. The ability to track a single player's progress through the game and serve content accordingly definitely gives agency back to the individual player. And it makes the game about the player, whereas in most ARGs, the individual player is supporting cast -- which in turn robs the experience of impact. 

But it also increasingly locks you into the same branching problem that classic video games have; a single-player experience needs to be preprogrammed from start to finish. And you do lose the collaborative community play ARGs are famous for.

In a classic ARG, you have two basic options for providing meaningful choice points: allowing individual players to make meaningful choices on behalf of everyone else (like Weephun); or allowing choice based on community consensus (the Mann Act II vote). (The secret third option is to provide the illusion of choice, where none ever truly existed; this is a dirty secret I should address at length another day.)

There are pros and cons to each approach.

Allowing a single player to make a meaningful choice on behalf of the community is amazing for dramatic tension, especially for your decisionmaker. But it means that you're actively removing agency from the bulk of your players. Weephun chose to betray the Sleeping Princess (or if you prefer, chose to be truly loyal to the Operator); but thousands wouldn't have, and were forced to play a result not of their own making. Is that a truly meaningful choice, then? Hard to say.

Consensus-building and voting allows more players to have a voice in the outcome. But the polling mechanism can rob us of drama. The act of voting in an online poll is something we can do frequently and casually. And there's still a risk that the choice won't feel meaningful on an individual level, particularly if your scale exceeds thousands of users. If the vote is on a morally ambiguous topic, and you can incite tension in the community around it, then it becomes a more powerful narrative vehicle. But it's not a mechanic that will serve every game.

There is still another way... but it can get expensive. You can provide choice of alliance. Create a morally ambiguous choice: Red team or Blue, for example. Then build out a game structure that accommodates these individual-level choices in the context of communities of players working together in opposition, where each single player can make a contribution on the team level, but the drama plays out primarily as the result of the conflict between teams.

This requires some pretty solid player management, and for a large player volume, a technology build that tracks individual choices (just like a single-player game would). But it also creates a dynamic situation where players can make individually meaningful decisions, and yet aren't restricted to predetermined branching.

Conclusions

Design is hard. Even the best of intentions can be difficult or impossible to execute, due to limitations of budget or time or skill or scope. The design process is rife with those meaningful choices I keep talking about -- a delicate balance of opening some doors and closing others.

But assuming the basic goal is providing compelling narrative... we've gone pretty far, and we can go further yet. Dragon Age shows the best the single-platform video game has to offer to date. Let's see if we can top it, shall we?


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