March 21, 2016 Amanda Hudgins

Narrative, the Illusion of Choice and a Talk from Jim Brown

Frequently in narrative design we discuss the “illusion of choice.” There are only so many branches a writer can write, only so many words. Each additional branch adds a new series of text, a new series of choices. This is why so often, decisions are merely short forks in a single linear path. If this is done well, however, the reader may not even realize that their choices were not their own — that these decisions were pre-written for them.

80 Days, a narrative game from Inkle, has as much text as the Lord of the Rings series plus the Silmarillion. Each new choice adds more text to an already dense piece of work, so it’s little surprise that the long history of narrative games is about giving readers an illusion of choice rather than actual decisions. At a GDC talk this past week, Jim Brown of Epic Games discussed this concept as it related to level design.

Brown phrases this element of illusion as a kindness — players can be mired in the Paradox of Choice. In this paradox, too many choices give players analysis paralysis. Too many choices is almost as bad as none, but you don’t want to remove choice entirely. Choice is, after all, essential to player autonomy. But as the designer you want to point the player in the “correct” path, even while giving them the feeling that the world is larger and more dense than it actually is. Sometimes these design decisions are nuanced and delicately done, other times they are a bit more correct and perhaps unintentional.

Take the dialogue tree system in Mass Effect. 

MassEffectThe player is most likely to pick the center, highlighted portion of the text rather than the other two options. Why? Because it is vividly colored. It is easy to see and read, and it’s in the center. Either by accident or because it is there, the player is more likely to click that option. In terms of morality, Jim Brown discussed the choice to save the Little Sister in BioShock. Saving children is a vivid choice in terms of morality, and so we pick it.

In physical levels, this sort of movement towards vivid elements can point the eye of the player in the right direction. While Mass Effect is an example of how this can be done perhaps to the detriment of the player, take the ultimately linear levels of a game like the Last of Us from Naughty Dog. The Last of Us is not an open world game, but it feels larger due to the way levels are designed and the way that they point towards elements through the use of light.  You could choose to explore the darkness, and maybe you will. But more likely you’ll be pushed to follow Ellie.


Your eye is immediately drawn to her — then perhaps to the stairs behind her. Through this, the game is a positive example of autonomy vs. agency. Brown discusses this in his GDC talk in relation to the classic game Doom. Doom’s levels are actually rather linear, but they maintain player autonomy. To clarity, autonomy is when the player is able to make informed decisions and agency is the ability to make a choice. Autonomy, Brown states, is more important than agency. A choice for choice’s sake is neither interesting nor useful, but making the player feel (without an overt guiding hand) like they are making their own decisions is valuable.

Another important element of Brown’s talk is about the frequency and level of decisions. If you take a game like Telltale’s the Walking Dead. you are often given huge decisions to make and even slight ones will prompt you with this message:


Clementine will remember that. The first time that you see that, it feels a bit like a gut punch, but after awhile, it loses its power. While Brown wasn’t talking specifically about Telltale games, this relates to the peak-end rule. How does your brain feel at the peak vs. the end. If the player is constantly being asked to make important decisions, or worse asked to chain important decisions, the game can feel a bit less like a few pivotal moments and more like being backed into a corner. In some ways this seems to function the same way as the Paradox of Choice. It’s a slog and not as interesting as a few heart-stopping moments.

Brown ultimately recommends giving the player options rather than influence — pointing them in the right direction, and perhaps giving them a few “false choices” but not hand-holding. This allows the player to create informed decisions, and if your levels are designed correctly, should get them to the point where you want them to be and where they want to be.

If you’re interested in reading or hearing more about this, be sure to check out Jim Brown’s talk when it goes live on the GDC vault (and you can find him on Twitter), as well as checking out this breakdown of a talk from former Naughty Dog designer Peter Field about the Last of Us, or this Game Makers Toolkit discussion about level design.

Tagged: , ,