Cause and Effect

I took part in Deborah Todd’s fantastic workshop way back at GLS 5, buying Game Design: from Blue Sky to Green Light as it closed. I’m finding it a refreshingly unique and informative take on the subject.

Todd’s chapter on plot and narratives has me particularly thoughtful. In writing about what she calls the ‘”and then” syndrome’, she compares cause-and-effect plots with the disconnected structures of much weaker narratives. It seems obvious that a cause-and-effect plot will, on the whole, make for a much more interactive and exciting game plot.

“Because the player does this, the enemies respond thus…”

…and so the player is involved more in each decision.

Many games do express this in at least a simple fashion. A cut-scene may show us that because the player reached the bomb and disabled it in time, their character lives and the building remains in tact. The enemy plot has thus been foiled. I have, however, seen games in which the bomb disarmament (or similar objective) was taken out of the player’s control, and all they were asked to do was make it from ‘A’ to ‘B’ within a time limit. The climactic events from then on were in keeping with the overall pace of that mission, but the player was robbed of any part in them.

This plot device owes a lot to film and other, non-interactive media. On the face of it, the game narrative would be less fun if the player completed a white-knuckle dash to the bomb, only to be shown a mini-game or some other form of ‘quick-time event’ (see Shenmue, Fahrenheit) whose presence slows the game down. Worse still, failing this crucial event will likely mean them running the obstacle course again, robbing this climax of all thrill.

Still, I can’t help feeling that this is inappropriate design; it has certainly been implemented in some quite disappointing games.

"Doctor Who: the Adventure Games" main screen

One such game is City of the Daleks – first instalment of Doctor Who: the Adventure Games. Overall I was impressed with the game: it offers 2 hours of authentic adventure in the Doctor Who universe, with some drama to embarrass many a ‘AAA’ title. It’s let down by its ending, however.

Some spoilers for Doctor Who: the Adventure Games may follow:

The game basically works by opening up unseen moments from the TV show, like gaps between panels in a comic; the Doctor is well-known for waving a sonic screwdriver towards control panels and having them magically obey his command. In City of the Daleks, things are not so simple, as the player is usually asked to complete a mini-game when the Doctor gets hands-on. These range from re-wiring a fuse box to teasing components out of Dalek casing and following code sequences.

These games are implemented quite well, and failure does not immediately kill the Doctor or have you return to an earlier save point. Codes reset, components return to their original positions, and so on. This ethos carries throughout most of the game as “and because” plot points:

The Doctor takes Amy to the 1960s, only they find a wasteland because the daleks endeavour to destroy his favourite planet, Earth. Then a lone woman arrives and destroys a dalek with a booby trap, and because she likely has information, the Doctor and Amy follow her. Then a soldier dalek emerges and the three make a run for it, but because their path is electrified, the Doctor must re-wire a nearby fuse box…

… and so on.

Where many games struggle is keeping an “and because” climax. It’s very easy to set such plot points at the beginning of the game, because that’s where the player needs to make the most logical connections. You’re trying to teach them about the world, its characters and mechanics, and there’s no better way to accomplish it than by having them work it out for themselves. [See Orientation through Playing for my dissertation on this]

Many games rely on cinematography when it comes to staging a climax. City of the Daleks was victim to this fall-back, as its final challenge was a madcap dash like so many others in games past, completed within a painful time limit. Gone are the lessons this game taught us, of puzzles and the thoughtful positioning of characters. Instead there is a test of the player’s running skills, on a course so punishing it needs to be practised – easily managed, when the player dies time after time.

The Doctor’s escape involves negotiating a maze of sorts, in which running into the ‘walls’ will kill him. Having the Doctor duck and dive through dalek gun blasts in order to pick Amy up and leap into a time portal, all before the room around him explodes, makes for a thrilling scene within the wider narrative. In reality though, I was asked to run this course with split-second timing and precision – demands the game had not made of me before now.

This is what I think comes as key to a good climax: use skills which the player already knows. The climax is a bad spot to place any difficulty curve if you hope to foster a worthy ending. I was left having to practise these skills in order to clear the game’s final hurdle and make good my investment in its plot. The thrill of that against-the-odds climax diminished with every pass. By the fifth time I’d run around a dalek beam, all my motivation was drained by “and then” syndrome.

In short, such moves are an “and then” footnote to a whole game full of “and because”. Players (and characters) grow more powerful and confident within the game world as a result of piecing smaller nuggets of experience together; this unlocks deeper parts of the game logic.

Because Amy faded to invisible and avoided that poisonous plant earlier, she may be able to avoid the daleks’ impassable search beams too.

I hope more games will keep this in mind for future, for it’s just no fun to see a character I’ve invested time and care into be cheated into a mechanical ending. Such a loss of all agency plays like a character in a book being shot dead for no reason on the final page.

2 Replies to “Cause and Effect”

  1. Terrific analysis! I really like your point about not introducing new skills/mechanics – or robbing the player of agency – at the end.

    I know it hasn’t clicked with you, but you may want to look at the use of mini-games in The Agency: Covert Ops. I think they handle it really well, and through the beta they’ve been adjusting the difficulty level of them with progression in a way that I think works well.

    I have to wonder about the dead Stargate MMO, which was promising that sort of thing integrated into a basically PvP shooter game. Seems incredibly hard to pull off…

    1. Yes, I tried to think of some more genre-specific climaxes and struggled. It’s one thing to say an ending was a let-down, but quite another to suggest how I’d fix it! Perhaps I’ll run that as a theme one day.

      Spoiler alert:

      One brilliant ending springs to mind in Silicon Knights’ astounding Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. I had absolutely no problems being swept away by that, as it took the most brilliantly simple solution: fight a persistent boss who’s tougher than all those previous, but do it as all the characters you played as in the past. It’s a real goosebump moment, as it manages to bring mechanics (your best spells and well-practised combat skills), experience and story (closing each chapter with every emerging character) together into a climax of.. sheer empowerment. I consider it one of the best boss fights ever, but I didn’t know why until exploring this part of design. :)

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