Volitional Fiction
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
It was the end of March, 1997  —  a fabled time that saw the triumph of human creativity in all its forms. The methods of modern moviemaking had brought cinema to the apex of its storytelling capabilities, and its stars were renowned for their subtle and emotionally moving performances. Moviegoers themselves were all seasoned aficionados in their own right, selecting only the finest movies to patronize, as evidenced by the number-one box office movie at the time, Liar Liar starring Jim Carrey:
Not to be outdone, the recording industry drew primarily from classically-trained musicians and prodigal composers to transform the very concept of what popular music could be. Bold collaborations between complex and storied performers took the “pop single” to the next level, as exemplified by the then-number-one chart-topping single, poetic masterpiece Wannabe by the Spice Girls:
With such unprecedented splendor abounding, the world could almost be forgiven for overlooking the proceedings underway at a small hotel in San Jose, California, where a few hundred developers were gathering for the Computer Game Developer's Conference.
It was there, in a sterile meeting room bearing some of the least provocative beige wallpaper yet discovered by science, one of gaming’s seminal designers, Doug Church, presented for the first time the concept of the Formal Abstract Design Tool.
If you aren’t a game designer, you probably don’t know or care what that is. And lucky for you, you don’t have to. Because the main things I actually need to reference from that talk are the examples he gave of such tools: intention and perceived consequence.
Intention and perceived consequence are what make a game feel like you’re actually playing it, not watching it.
At their core, these concepts are very simple. “Intention” means that the player has the ability to make a plan. They can look at the state of the game, decide something they want to try, determine the steps necessary to try it, and then execute those steps.
“Perceived consequence” means that when a player performs an action in the game, they can tell the action had an effect on the state of the game. They can use this perception to draw conclusions about how the game works, and what is possible within the boundaries of the game system.
As you can see right away, these two concepts work together. When the game has both, the player is able to make plans and attempt them, perceive the results, and use that new knowledge to inform future plans that are more likely to produce the desired outcome. The cycle leads to a satisfying feeling of real interaction where the player chooses both what to do and how to do it, and the reaction of the game to their actions doesn’t feel arbitrary.
There’s a lot more here to unpack if you’re a game designer, certainly, but even just the cursory definitions are enough to see what’s wrong with current interactive fiction (or “narrative-driven”) games.
What game developers (and reviewers) currently mean when they say “choices that matter” is at best only perceived consequence, but never intention.
A lot of narrative-driven games have neither. For example, the class of games players call “walking simulators” are just experiences that you literally walk through. There’s nothing for the player to choose, so obviously there’s no planning (other than what route you walk, I suppose). And since there’s no planning and no action, there’s no perceived consequence.
Some games, such as those from Telltale or Quantic Dream, do claim to allow the player to make “choices that matter”. And at face value, they are correct  —  there are points in these games where players can choose between two or more possible things, and later events in the game will change depending on which thing is chosen.
But the problem here is that while this does satisfy the most basic need for perceived consequence  —  the player chooses option A and sees that something happens  —  it provides no actual intention to the play experience. These choices are merely single, scripted instances in time, presented to the player without their initiation  —  the player never makes a plan or decides what to do. They have a situation thrust upon them and are asked to decide which to do.
It’s basically Space Ace all over again, the only difference being that instead of choice A leading to more of the game and B leading to death, both A and B lead to more of the game. But the nature of the choice hasn’t really changed.
How about a concrete example?
To pick a classic example from Telltale’s The Walking Dead (which occurs in the first episode, so you can quickly play up to it if you’d like to experience it yourself), at a specific point in the game, no matter what you’ve done up to that point, the game puts you in a situation where you can save only one of your compatriots from the zombies:
This is the primary thing that is meant by “choices that matter” when used to describe modern narrative-driven games  —  literally, the writers wrote the remainder of the game with two variants, and depending on which character you chose to save, you get that set of scenes.
Is there perceived consequence? Absolutely. The character you choose to save is the only one that will appear for the rest of game.
Is there intention? Certainly not! The player had literally zero intention to set up that situation. In fact, there was no way they could have avoided the situation, because the game is scripted to go through an exact series of scenes, and no matter what “choices” you may have made earlier in the game, this scene will happen.
The player learns nothing from this about the game. They can’t learn that there was a deficiency in the way they made their plan, or what they did leading up to this scene, because they never made a plan in the first place. They never made “bad choices” that lead to the death of one of these people. They never made any actual choices at all. Like a mine cart ride where all the player can do is frantically throw a switch as a junction point comes up, the player is never given any intention. They are merely along for the inevitable ride, and invited to react to what comes at them in the classic Space Ace tradition.
What we want is an interactive fiction game that has both intention and perceived consequence, working together.
So finally we come to what I believe is the core, as-yet-unsolved problem in interactive fiction: providing real perceived consequence and real intention. If we could make a game that had both of these things working in concert, the player would finally be able to truly assume the role of the main character in a fictional sense, making real decisions about what they wanted to do  —  and how they wanted to do it. They could attempt to actualize their decisions, see the results, and then make new decisions based on the outcome.
Developers have been able to make games that satisfy these two criteria in almost all game systems except the fiction, and to great success. Modern classics like Minecraft and Counterstrike have these elements in spades, and they are incredibly rewarding experiences for players. Everyone from beginner to expert can play these games and come up with new goals and new plans to accomplish them, use the consequences they perceive as a result trying to execute those plans helps them further refine their understanding of the game.
And these plans needn’t be about winning or losing, success or failure. Sometimes they’re just about accomplishing something interesting, to satisfy curiosity, or to build something unique, or even just to make people laugh by the silliness of the results.
We need to figure out how to do these things with fiction.
To avoid overloading the terminology, maybe we should coin the term “volitional fiction”.
For this entire series of blog posts, I’ve been using the term “interactive fiction” to refer to… well, that’s kind of the problem. I’ve been using that term because it’s generally accepted, but the precise definition really isn’t clear. At face value, it sounds like it’s talking about works of fiction that are interactive. But in reality, it has been used almost exclusively to refer to works where the fiction was not interactive, and which gave only the illusion of requiring the player’s participation. So it’d help to have another term for what we’d have if the fiction itself was actually highly interactive, and satisfied the requirements of both player intention and perceived consequence.
For lack of a better term, I propose using the adjective I have often used personally to describe what I mean when I talk about real player control of fiction: volitional. I think of “volition” as the thing that a player doesn’t really have in today’s narrative-based games. The fiction happens to them, and they only affect it in the most unintentional and unsophisticated ways. Thus we could use “volitional fiction”, a term which Google assures me has almost never been used before, to unambiguously refer to a game where the fiction itself was as interactive as all the other elements of a modern game.
So, why hasn’t anyone been making volitional fiction?
If we’ve known  —  or should have known  —  what would make a fiction-centric game feel volitional for almost twenty years, why don’t we have tons of volitional fiction games already? Are the designers and writers of narrative-driven games lazy? Are they ignorant of the history? What’s going on here?
The answer is probably neither. In fact, the answer is likely that the problem has nothing to do with the designers or the writers. The problem lies mainly with the technology.
But based on the distance between this sentence and the footer, I think you know what I’m going to say next: how and why the technology is the problem is the topic for next week’s post.
Until then, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the internets!