Telltale Games' director of design and adventure game veteran Dave Grossman recently shared his thoughts on player choice in game design, noting that designers need to strike a balance between complete player autonomy and complete authorial control.
Grossman has more than 22 years of experience writing, designing, and directing story-centric games, including classic LucasArts titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, and is well-practiced in telling stories through games.
At next month's GDC Online, Grossman will host a lecture in the Game Narrative Summit dubbed, "The Hand of Fate: Authorial Voice in Game Design," in which he will discuss the relationship between the developer and player when crafting interactive stories.
In anticipation of his talk, Grossman spoke out on the importance of balancing player freedom and creative control, and what implications this balance can have on game design.
What sort of tactics to you use to convey a story when players have control over the pacing and flow of a game experience?
Dave Grossman: Writers in other media use pacing and sequence of events to great effect, and it can be kind of disorienting to work in games, where a lot of control over those things is given to the player. Fortunately, there are plenty of other tools one can apply to create drama, tension, and story, including things you'd find in film like sound design, lighting, and camera work, and some elements that are particular to games, like play mechanics and the overall structure of challenge and reward.
Also, it's worth noting that players don't generally have absolute control over pacing and flow -- the game can exert influence on those as well, maybe a little, maybe a lot, and how a designer arranges that is part of what I mean when I'm talking about authorial voice.
How do you balance the control of the authorial voice with player autonomy?
DG: Carefully, I hope. We're talking about interactive media, so both the author and the player (or players) need to take control of some aspects of the experience. The challenge for the designer is to figure out which things to control strongly, and which not to. Some of the tools available are inherently subtle, some are not, but all are useful in various contexts.
The balance is probably not unlike being a parent, where you typically want to establish some clear rules, provide opportunities and context, and intervene where necessary, but if you try to manage your child's actions too closely, you'll both go nuts.