From the earliest text adventures and Fighting Fantasy books to the modern day sprawling RPG, there has always been an appetite among players for the ability to tell their own story.
It's a fantasy BioWare and countless other big studios have built their reputations on, and a concept indies around the world are experimenting with all the time.
Yet for every promise of a branching narrative and real consequence, there's an unspoken shared knowledge between the player and developer. Just as you do not talk about Fight Club, you do not acknowledge that the story is already written.
"The great secret is that the player is always going to be on the railroad," as former Failbetter writer Cash DeCuir phrased it so eloquently when GamesIndustry.biz met him earlier this year.
"There's always going to be only so much freedom that you can offer, but the important thing is that if you do pose a question, give the player room to answer it. Along the way you can give them a number of questions that they can be answering and thinking about."
DeCuir offers two examples: the seminal 80 Days by Inkle Studios and the upcoming Over The Alps, a narrative adventure he is currently working on with Stave Studios. Both games set players the clear objective of travelling from one point to another: in 80 Days, it's around the world, while in Over The Alps, players journey (you guessed it) over the alps.
"Along the way, you can choose your route; in 80 Days, you can go to Paris first or to Cambridge. You have so many choices open to you, but at the end of the day, all roads will lead back to Rome. It's the choices you make along the way that will create the journey. It's a matter of creating, as the player travels through the story, enough opportunities for them to feel that they are making choices and are indeed given the freedom to answer those questions you pose in a variety of ways."
"The great secret is that the player is always going to be on the railroad."
An abundance of choice does not, of course, make a journey more engaging. Stepping away from these more geographical examples, there are interactive narratives out there that seem to shoehorn extra choices in purely to make the player feel like they're participating in the story.
In one mobile 'text chat'-style adventure game, for example, the main character says they are injured and in pain. The player is then presented with two potential responses - 'Are you okay?' and 'What happened?' - but the character's answer is always the same. Players are already aware that they're on a railroad, but instances like this make it painfully obvious how linear that journey might be.
How can developers ensure that each choice is meaningful? DeCuir says it's "a matter of finding choices that are worthy of the player's time."
To accomplish this, the writer explains that any narrative choice can be broken down into four components. First is the question itself, what you are asking the player to make a choice about. Second is informing the player about that choice - "otherwise it's arbitrary". Third are the choice options themselves, and fourth is the response.
Looking at the injured character example, DeCuir says the third element - the available answers - gives the most room for building on the story and the relationship with the character. Yes, stock answers like 'are you okay?' are important to include, but developers shouldn't limit themselves to this - otherwise it becomes like a tennis match, with a repetitive back and forth.
"Are you able to give some spin on your relationship [with the character] or call back to something earlier in the game?" DeCuir suggests. "Anything to make the opportunity to respond something that was not just engaging, but more... flavourful isn't quite the word... more characterful. Trying to make each beat as impactful as possible.
"You can't accommodate for everything. But if the response feels earned and respects the player, it should be fine"
"The feedback is probably going to be the same regardless. Sometimes that's fine. You think of something like a Telltale game, 80 Days or Over the Alps, where it's always going to be on that railroad track. You can't accommodate for everything. But if the response feels earned and if it feels like it has respected the player the whole way through, it should be fine."
It's also important to avoid forcing an emotion from the player. In the same mobile text adventure, the character asks the player how they want to be introduced to others: as their best friend, or as their cousin. Choosing the latter prompts a hurt response from the main character, believing that the relationship with the player was more intimate. If that player genuinely feels no connection to the character, such a response can grate on their enjoyment of the game.
"There are always going to be people who just hate your characters," DeCuir warns. "You can't rely on the player really liking them. When you begin to dictate an emotional response, the player is meant to have more control over who their NPC is.
"You might have any number of feelings about this individual. It's not for the writer to ask you to define them and say you love them. They should just ask you to go through this story with them, and if a relationship develops along the way and then they get hurt, then you can express how you feel about that. If you care about them, that'll show in the game and it'll reflect that. If you are still frosty towards them, that's fine, too. It's just a matter of making sure everything keeps on track while respecting."
He continues: "That's the trick - breaking down choices well enough, meeting all those stages and criteria to ensure that the player has an engaging, fun experience. If you can give the player that, I don't think they really care about whether or not they are kept on rails, so long as they feel that it's engaging and not forced, but respectful."
Another way to make choices meaningful is using them to allow players to forge their own path through the game. Yes, it's a railroad but if that veers off down different branches and loops, players should be able to access them.
"Often times, we have found that players are able to justify a lot more than we'd expect"
DeCuir cites Failbetter's flagship title, Fallen London, as a prime example of this. In the browser-based text adventure, players can duck out of one story and play through another however they see fit, and the DeCuir stresses that the Failbetter team never concerned themselves with how they chose to progress.
"The players may need to have enough secrets in their inventory to be able to convince the butler that they should let them into the manor house so they can continue their story," he says, by way of example. "That means that the player must go off into London to gather secrets that they can pass on to the butler. We don't care how they get them, we don't know. We know there are many opportunities but it's a matter of giving the player room enough to find their own way through a narrative which is on rails. How they get to the end is their own business."
Of course it's difficult to write stories in a way that fully accounts for players' past actions. If you're unable to pass that butler and go off to do other stories, returning to him doesn't always register that you have previously had the exact same conversation. It would be easy to assume this shatters the immersion, and for some players it might, but it's not necessarily the end of the world.
"Often times, we have found that players are able to justify a lot more than we'd expect," says DeCuir. "It's not always the case, and it's hard to give a read on it. Sometimes it doesn't work out, and sometimes I have grappled with the question of 'I really want it to make sense doing it over and over again; sometimes you have to just accept that that's the nature of the beast."
Failbetter experimented with various tools to solve this problem, whether it was locking off certain narrative branches or introducing variables into the text that present conversations slightly differently, hinting that they might be taking players' past actions into account.
"You have to make sure that at the end of the day, the story gets out. We can't accommodate every single instance. But trying to find just the right mix that it feels that the player has enough freedom and that the narrative is coherent enough so that if they do have to return to something a few times before they can finally get it, then everything holds together."
"When they have the opportunity to respond to a question and make their choice, I'm not trying to goad them into one"
When playing through narrative adventures, particularly those with a morality system or theme, it can feel as though the developer is presenting certain choices as the 'good' or 'bad' option, or that the choices have been crafted in a way that players can almost predict what will happen next, helping them choose the path they want. But DeCuir warns developers and writers to avoid this situation if they can, ensuring the player still retains as much freedom as the railroad will allow.
"When they have the opportunity to respond to a question and make their choice, I'm not trying to goad them into one," he says. "All I am trying to do is make the player feel, in that moment, that they have the freedom to respond to the question, they have the knowledge to respond, that the moment has been earned, and that they can see why each choice doesn't feel forced or arbitrary or anything like that. I don't care how they respond, I just want to make sure the response is something I could foresee them having."
Ultimately, the purpose of meaningful choices is to help players forget that great secret, forget the railroad they're on and just pay attention to the journey they're experiencing. Meaningful choices are the key difference, DeCuir says, in "transforming play into roleplay", using the acclaimed Papers, Please as a final example.
"Games pose problems to players, then give them a toolkit to solve them," he explains. "You have an objective, then you have the mechanics of the game that allow you to meet those objectives. Mario needs to reach a flag so he can run, jump and get there. In Papers, Please, of course, you have the ability to interrogate whoever is coming into Arstotzka. You check their passports, see if it matches all the credentials. If it does, you stamp it and accept it, they go in. That's that.
"The thing that sets it apart though is when you bring in the story element into it, the human element. There's a mother who hasn't seen her son in six years, can she go in and see him? Well, she doesn't meet the criteria so that creates a question for the player to solve. I think that when you begin to add in these extra questions for the player to answer, which aren't just 'I need to meet this objective using these tools' but rather 'what objective exactly should I be meeting by using the tools I have at my disposal?', that creates a much more engaging experience for the player."