447 Complex Binary Decisions Are King

The topic of decisions in gaming is tricky to navigate. Hundreds of articles and videos have already debated the merits of player choice against the design/illusion of it. Affordances in gaming, and the impact our decisions have on our avatars as well as introspectively on ourselves, are important if little-thought-of aspects to the average gamer.

The impact that complex decisions can have on a narrative— ultimately on our specific experience of the narrative —is profound, I think. Specifically binary, yes/no, this/that decisions. And, plenty of games have complex; “complex” interpreted as “complicated.” A complicated decision includes unintuitive options, false trails, or the façade of importance. A complex decision uses player investment, emotion, and realistic tension to craft a meaningful situation.

Although I firmly believe that most things in this world fall somewhere on a scale of morally ambiguous greys, we certainly make important and complex binary decisions on a daily basis. Most of life’s biggest moments can be reduced to a list of A/B paths. Go to college/start working, be in a relationship/be single, move to a new city/stay where it’s familiar. It’s the information behind these binary decisions that make them complex and difficult.

Relationships are a relatable example for most people. Contention in a relationship can usually be simplified to a binary decision: resolution or separation. But, once the details are considered, it’s certainly doesn’t feel simple or binary. Relationships tend to be in a perpetual state of continuation, and so the target outcome is resolution. What’s important is how and why resolution is achieved (or, in unfortunate but necessary circumstances, how/why separation is chosen). Misaligned goals, lack of communication, infidelity; there are thousands of reasons for contention. The details behind these reasons are what make them complex, stressful, and in the end, rewarding when resolved.

How does this translate to gaming? The key words again: complex and binary. Make decisions complex by providing the player with relevant information and experiences. Make decisions binary by simplifying them to their realistic outcomes.

I’ve been playing Life is Strange recently, and a lot of decisions in that are relevant to this idea. When my early-twenties character picks up a gun for the first time in her life, and soon after is forced to point it at another human, the game pauses and asks me “Shoot? — Don’t Shoot?” In this moment there are dozens of things running through my mind— an extension of her mind —that make this an incredibly complex binary decision. I’m feeling protective, scared, confused, primal, cowardly, vulnerable; I’m also feeling meta-emotions for my character like empathy, general morality, and narrative outcome. All of these emotions, and more, packed into a single moment, a single decision.

Making binary decisions carry realistic weight will trump nearly any superfluous multi-decision situation. Let your game having meaning via context, don’t try to fabricate meaning through complexity.

(An updated and clarified version of this article will be posted in the future, stay tuned!)

[ Today I Was Playing: nothing… ]

March 22, 2016