Earlier this year I was fortunate to have the results of my survey about gamer behavior and moral choices published at the Journal of Games Criticism. While I was submitting the final piece for revisions, I was also playing the title Virtue’s Last Reward on my 3DS. This week, I am reminded of it again because of Electron Dance’s excellent article about games with choices. I remembered I had a half-drafted response to VLR still sitting in my drafts folder, and I wanted to talk about something that was inspirational to me about its structure. Spoilers for the game begin about five paragraphs down, and I’ll be spoiling a few plot sequences, so if that’s an issue, stop at the dotted line.
I think it’s fairly well-established that video game players do not really engage with moral choice branches in the way that seems to be intended by developers. Infamous: Second Son is the newest game that uses the binary good or evil system that I did most of my survey research on, and, to me, it feels like a throwback. “Choose good or evil” is to me a retreading of a design philosophy that has already been exhausted to its limit.
Some games like Alpha Protocol, or Beyond: Two Souls (which I haven’t played yet, but have read some analysis of) experimented with this structure by creating games where the depth of choice is only apparent after multiple playthroughs. This is a bit of an accessibility problem, however, for a few reasons. Some gamers will only engage with a game once, and call it done. Other gamers will engage with the game if the branching is apparent, but if it isn’t, as in Beyond, will just assume the game is linear. Game reviewers in particular don’t have a strong incentive to play a game twice, because they have deadlines to meet, so if a game seems to be done in the first playthrough there’s not a lot of time to engage with that game again before a review is due. This can really hurt the review score of a game that’s designed to be played multiple times.
The problem with very binary choice systems, like that in Infamous or in Fable, is that they reduce what should be a branching network of choices into essentially, one single choice, “am I good or evil this time.” The branching possibility space is reduced to become functionally linear.
As Joel’s article pointed out, I play a lot with this kind of structure in my Interactive Fiction (and I do have a few more ambitious works in progress that go deeper than this on it). What I’m personally interested in is the kind of game that needs to be replayed to be fully understood. Chalk that up maybe with a youthful fascination with the multiple endings in Chrono Trigger, or an even younger me reading Choose Your Own Adventure hypertexts in the library, but I like games that split the narrative, even if they’re never perfect in execution. Jonas Kyratzes, in the author’s note for The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, asks the player in so many words to only play the game once. I have honored that (and was fairly satisfied with my personal outcome in it). But most of my works part ways with that philosophy; I try to design for what I think people will try to do, rather than ask them to be different. This is why Virtue’s Last Reward definitely spoke to me as a game that tries to design around and subvert the players’ mindset.
Virtue’s Last Reward is a game that, at first, could easily fool the player into thinking it subscribes to regular binary game branching logic. The conceit of the game is that the protagonist – a character named Sigma – is trapped in a sort of murderous reality-show game that will require him to make some choices both to survive and to affect the fate of other players.
There are two major types of choice branch in the game. One type is fairly benign: the player will be faced with different doors in the game world that Sigma can choose to explore. Sometimes he gets a choice of which door to enter, though, since the game has other characters in it, sometimes another character will choose for him. In each room is an “escape the room” style puzzle for the player to solve.
After the escape puzzles, the player then will play a Prisoner’s Dilemma style game against another character in the game. Sigma is put into a booth, and makes a secret vote about another character. That character also makes a secret vote about Sigma. If Sigma and the other character both vote to Ally, they each get a couple of points in what is called the “A/B Game.” If Sigma and the other character both Betray, no one gets any points. If Sigma Allies and the other person Betrays, or vice versa, the person who chose Betray gets the most points and the person who chose Ally loses points.
VLR has nine major characters, so this doesn’t actually divide into even pairs. So there is one more factor: some characters play the game by themselves, but others have a person they are paired up with. During the voting period, paired characters room together in the same voting booth, and can debate how to vote against the third character. The paired characters will gain or lose points together. In this way, there’s always a team of two playing the A/B Game against a solo player, which creates three total sets of A/B players.
In Virtue’s Last Reward, the story is set up so that I always have a partner in my first round of A/B voting. Her name is Phi. She’s the young lady featured on the game’s box art, and a player sees her a lot.
Phi is a very interesting character for a lot of reasons, but I’ll start with this one: every time I’m playing a first round of the A/B Game, and she’s the person who is paired up with me, she tries to convince me to vote Betray. She makes a pretty logical argument for why this is a good idea. She notably does not tell me that I should be a good person and do the right thing.
Why is this Phi’s personality; why is she so cynical? I think the game is just being honest about players. The designers probably knew that, given the mentality of people who play video games, nobody would just choose Betray to be mean, especially not right from the start. The player needs some additional poking and prodding to even consider this option.
My very first time playing the A/B Game, I chose Ally anyway. I’d wager most people do that, because my research has generally shown that people try to be nice when they’re navigating the narrative of a video game. My very first time playing the A/B Game, my opponent also chose Betray, and picked fun of me for being so naïve.
Things would be different later.
Unlike many games with branches, VLR makes it incredibly clear that the game is not over until all of its narrative branch possibilities have been exhausted. It does this by not allowing any player to reach a true ending right off the bat, cutting off with a lot of “to be continued” screens and unsolvable puzzles, and forcing a restart. Like Papers, Please, it indicates which endings a player has already gotten, and uses a visual flowchart to allow the player to navigate easily back to a point at which the story branched. It is very clear about which branches have and have not been explored.
What makes the branching structure different from Papers, Please is that the game actually acknowledges every choice that you have made, even choices not relevant to the current branch of your story.
Another character in the game behaves the same way that you do. She’s also experiencing multiple different branches of the story, at different times. When you initially begin Virtue’s Last Reward, Phi has already been through a couple of branches of the story that you are experiencing for the first time. She has you at an advantage. Her advantage will change as you encounter her on different timelines; sometimes you encounter her before she has met you, and know more than she does, instead.
Putting everything together, VLR is a game that acknowledges that you can play every different decision branch, tracks which branches you have and haven’t visited, and makes that information into a sort of permanent record of meta-choices. This results in some immensely satisfying puzzle solutions, and the game acknowledging my own choices in unexpected and clever ways.
Going back to my first run of the A/B Game… When I initially started the game, I decided that I was a bit enamored with Alice, the Egyptian spy and mathematical genius. (If you know me, this should not surprise you.) Therefore, my initial strategy, if I could be said to have had one, was to chase around Alice as much as possible.
Of course I wanted to be nice to her, so when the first A/B Game round came up, I voted to Ally with her. It was disappointing to see that she betrayed me in response.
When a player goes back through this sequence in a replay, the beginning plays out the same, with Phi indicating that Betray is a smarter option, once you have her alone in a voting booth with you. If the player then chooses to Betray, with knowledge that Alice did choose “Betray” the last time, Alice will, this time, choose Ally. This is a bit of a cheat, but the game completely acknowledges this, and Sigma expresses dismay that the rules changed and that Alice did the opposite of what she did “last time.” But… wait… why does he remember “last time” in the first place? Isn’t this his first time in the game? He remembers what the player remembers, and remarks on it.
Because Phi, as a character, operates according to these same principles, the results can be interesting. Later in the game, during an A/B round against Phi, I chose to Ally with her, and she then Betrayed me. When she did this, I was puzzled… there was not much of a logical reason for it. But she said the betrayal was revenge for the other time that I betrayed her. When did I do that? “In the Second Round Two.” Phi actually remembered a way I voted against her in a previous branch of the story, which I had played long ago, but, which to her, just happened.
The way to resolve this was obvious but at the same time felt deeply weird. I played the sequence through again, and went ahead and Betrayed Phi. This time she Allied, since she hadn’t expected that, and was furious with me. However, it wasn’t an issue. I went back and played the previous sequence a third time…. And once again Allied with her. She Betrayed me.
I asked, do you remember that we’ve done this already, and that I Betrayed you last time, and you Allied? Do you realize this time that we swapped places, with full knowledge of what we did last time? Do you therefore acknowledge that neither of us are really making choices here at all – we’re just both exploring every available possibility space, instead? Good, then let’s be friends and get along, since it doesn’t matter.
That actually worked. And that felt pretty neat.
I don’t know if I’m offering much new insight by writing all this, but I really liked the way that the game acknowledged expected play patterns to come up with an original story. By actually being fully aware of how players are going to engage, it’s possible to create something newly meaningful that understands that method of engagement, rather than hoping people will play in a different way. It’s a type of storytelling structure that will always fascinate me and will continue to be an inspiration in my own interactive narratives. It’s not that every branching game should be about time traveling psychics, but, it’s a pretty cool use of the medium to tell a story that couldn’t work in another way.
(I do, however, want to smugly note that I still saw the Zero twist coming. I’m two for two now, Zero Escape series!)
For more on Virtue’s Last Reward, please read this excellent Gamasutra article and interview, which is where I got a few of my images. After it, and 999, I would definitely consider myself a fan of the series and I hope that it finds a future somehow.