Do you have control in Possiblia and Firewatch?

As the stories diverge two smaller screens pop up and you, the viewer, see the two options.  You get to choose which path to go down.

But in actuality, at the moment, I had no choice.  My Writing the Series Pilot class was being visited by a spokesperson for Interlude, a new software that allows for an editor to create multiple “paths” that play out concurrently, with the viewer choosing which path to follow.  We were watching a dubbed over and controlled version of the film “Possiblia”.  Instead of us taking it where we wanted it to go, we were being guided through by a voice that extolled the many virtues of the new software.

“Possiblia” follows a couple’s break up.  The story branches out into 30 scenarios that you can choose between.  You can view the film online here.  The story uses the same dialogue for each branch, which is a little gimmicky for my taste, but the choose your own adventure style still struck me as an interesting innovation, and an interesting tool… though I was deeply disappointed when we reached the end and I discovered the paths converge into one, so that the overall video can play as a loop.  The choices I had been offered were lies.

When the floor was opened to questions I asked about the illusion of choice we had been offered.  It’s an issue that plagues video games as well: how do you offer story and choice at the same time?  The issue that arises is this: give someone control, and they expect full control – they want to know that their choices have had an impact on the outcome.  But game developers and storytellers shy away from offering total control because offering too many choices results in a incoherent string of events (aka life).  Life has no inherent narrative.  That is why we’ve crafted story, to make sense out of random events.  If games offer only random events dictated by player input, they will be poorly received (see for example the recent lukewarm reception to No Man’s Sky).

The alternative is basically to lie to the player/viewer and create the illusion of choice without actually allowing the player or viewer to “break” the story.  But people understandably rebel against that too.  One need think only of the backlash against Mass Effect 3, which many players felt straight up ignored the choices made in other games.  If our choices don’t have consequence, they are robbed of their weight, and we are no longer active participants.  It’s like when someone asks you a question that they already have decided the answer to.  It’s infuriating.

Interlude obviously will face a similar challenge, so I asked the spokeperson how they planned to tackle it.  “How do you,” I wondered, “deal with telling a narrative but still giving options.  In this case, you condensed it all into one place.  And that’s not really offering options.  No matter what we did, we had the same ending.”

His response was loose and evasive, citing the fact that this was a story that was a closed loop, so it had to come back to where it started (this sounded again as if gimmick was leading content instead of the other way around).  He left it at that and moved on.

I don’t know if “Possibilia” is in the wrong.  It’s a challenging question, and one that the spokesperson may have been ill equipped to answer in regards to Possibilia, which is not his film.  Reflecting on the film now, it may have been purposefully taken away the viewer’s agency.  Perhaps Possibilia’s message is that they will always end up back at where they started, regardless of what branches they walk down.  That’s a valid (if pessimistic) message, and it uses the illusion of choice well – sometimes in our life we feel as if we have choice, but in reality we may not.  It’s an interesting thing to force someone to realize.

An even more powerful example (and the whole reason I originally wrote this post, before getting sidetracked heavily in my preamble) is the game Firewatch.  Immediately upon being booted up you are taken through a text based adventure in which you, as the protagonist, meet and woo your wife.  You are told you see her in a bar, and are asked what you say.  It’s a series of mundane choices – and for gamers, it’s common enough shorthand.  These choices will eventually affect your game (I assumed) a la character creation in Mass Effect or Fallout.

I was struck by one particular choice – I was asked which type of dog we should buy.  I couldn’t imagine how this would affect my character’s aptitude, but I made my choice, going with my gut.

And then the rug is ripped out from under you.  You wife falls sick, terribly sick, and you are still offered options about how to care for her, but all of a sudden you realize they’re not real options, because she’s still sick no matter what.  And you’re left thinking: “did I pick the wrong dog”.  It’s a genius move for storytelling.  While Possibilia makes you realize that perhaps you are not offered as many choices are you imagined, Firewatch takes it a step forward, haunting you as you look backwards at what are arbitrary choice.  There is no one at fault.  This sickness just happened.  But you still (as the player) can’t shake the feeling that you must have done something to cause this change of course.  You have been making choices after all.  Possibilia offers a more clinical commentary; Firewatch makes you feel the pain of not truly having control.

Making people live the illusion of choice can’t be the only tool in the toolbox, and we have yet to successfully explore and straddle that dichotomy between choice and narrative, but it’s certainly an effective tool to know about.  But it will only be truly useful once we discover a few others.

Recommended Reading:

Book – My only suggestion for this article (beyond obviously Possiblia and Firewatch) is Extra Lives (Tom Bissell).  I don’t know if this is the book that first introduced me to the struggle video games are facing with option, but it’s the book that I remember really valuing from the video game course, so I’d say it’s worth a read on that alone.  In general it’s an incredibly useful look at gaming and game design.

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