“Choice, Consequence and Complicity”

These are my notes for the 2016 GDC Talk by Alexis Kennedy, the creator of Fallen London, a narrative game with a delightful gleefully dark setting. For a few months in the early 2010s I was really engrossed in it.


  • Failbetter Games' central idea: nonlinear narrative with handcrafted prose (and great 2D art).
    • There is a continuum between really procedural (Dwarf Fortress) and really scripted (Twine games, Choose Your Own Adventure). Failbetter is 75% of the way to scripted.
  • Tools and techniques for building interesting, emotionally resonant choice and consequence.
  • What is “complicity”? It is the emotional experience you have when making a choice.
    • In Sunless Sea one can face the choice of whether to cheat on one's spouse with an officer. This has consequences: narrative (increased understanding between characters), gameplay (the Terror statistic is reduced), and deferred (what happens upon your return home). If one chooses to cheat, a bit of narrative is an immediate emotional reward.
  • A good, well-crafted interactive narrative has many things in common with a mixed cocktail.
  • Theme. What is on the player's mind? You want to find choices that comment on, elaborate on the theme. (E.g., light, darkness, loneliness, survival, terror, coming home in Sunless Sea.)
  • What is going on? Could the player explain the choice in one sentence. Quality over quantity.
  • Mechanical significance. Nonlinear narrative is more than just branching. Choices can tie into game mechanics. (Example of a bad choice: to go left, right, or straight ahead. The player has no idea what this leads to. Better: go through Mirkwood, the Gap of Rohan, or Moria. It's understandable and a resource, or mechanical, choice.)
    • The number of choices: two (dramatic, elegant), three (asymmetrical; allows commentary), or five (generous; you can lock off one or two).
      • Breaking the rule: a 47-option choice in Fallen London. It seems very generous.
  • The road not taken. (E.g., you've romanced the Doctor; you can't romance the Navigator.) Show unavailable choices. People are afraid it breaks immersion. To a degree it does, but it shows the consequences of a prior choice. It is a reason to replay the game.
  • Player motives: show, don't tell. Convey the different motives in the description of the possible actions, don't state them. This adds more color.
  • Complicity. Vivid flavors: “vengeance feels good”, “I'm so smooth”, “poor doggie”, “what have I done”, etc.
  • Some of the choices that get the strongest response are fantasies of failure. E.g., “Seeking Mr Eaten's Name” in Fallen London.
  • “Go screw yourself, developer”. Allowing the player to rebel against the things you appear to be imposing. Devious.
  • Living with consequences.
    • Visibility:
      • If the player doesn't notice it, it didn't happen. (Game mechanics useful here.)
      • Corollary: The more the player notices it, the more it happens.
      • The more happens, the less the player notices the individual things.
    • Surprisingly effective tricks:
      • String token replacement. “A [title] of your quality.” A cheap trick.
      • Widely applicable text.
      • Underspecificed narrative.
  • Story + Concision + Design.
    • Emily Short: “Whatever you can communicate sufficiently in game mechanics, you should put there instead of in text.”
    • For a writer it is tempting to fix a design problem by throwing words at it.
    • Your player:
      • Isn't paying you by the word;
      • Wants to cooperate with you in having an experience;
      • Can cooperate through mechanics.
    • Indicate the value of a resource through writing.
  • Why?
    • Players crave attention and self-expression.

Tags: game design, notes, writing, video games.