I’m not saying this post is going to blow your mind. I’m not saying that. However, that assertion — which I haven’t made — is very much on the table now, whether I dismiss it or not. I do dismiss it, for the record. Absolutely, this post does not contain a mind-blowing idea that you need to tell all your friends about. All the same, and despite my efforts to avoid it, the matter is up for discussion. That’s frustrating for me, since I actually wanted most of all for you not to consider this a mind-blowing post or to share it with your friends, but now, regrettably, you’ve had to consider the idea.
As practised as politicians are supposed to be in bullshit games like this, the master in my mind is Jose Mourinho, manager of Chelsea Football Club. For example, last month, wishing only to keep fans’ attention on sporting matters, he took great pains to remind everyone before playing Liverpool that no one should mention the opposing captain’s game-losing error at the end of the previous season. To dig up that old memory would only distract Gerrard from the present match. How generous of Mourinho to consider him.
Dutifully, the sports headlines blared his advice in large type, and predictably, the BBC’s Match of the Day lined all those headlines up together and shouted out the message to millions of football fans around the country: Nobody mention Gerrard’s fuck-up!
No one on Earth could have watched the following weekend’s game without Gerrard’s mistake in mind. Mourinho must have been kicking himself — it was just what he didn’t want to happen!
There’s a great appeal to this kind of deniable non-assertion: the utterer can eat his cake and still have it. Someone like Mourinho, who intends the actual impact of his words while posturing with their bare, literal meaning, can achieve clever things. However, someone who really does think they can raise a topic for the express purpose of not mentioning it, is going to look terribly clumsy. Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t mention the war.” comes to mind.
Game writers commit these non-assertions all the time, and in fact are forced to by a common convention of interactive storytelling, whether they intend to or not. Sometimes they’re clever little Mourinhos about it and sometimes they’re fumbling Fawlty’s. Whether they know it or not, the opportunity’s there.
Three for the price of one
Nothing captures the humour of Monkey Island like pseudo-academic analysis of its jokes. If this blog has taught anyone anything, it’s that.
Here’s a classic early scene: Guybrush’s first encounter with a the Mêlée Island pirates and the player’s first encounter with Guybrush. You only get to choose one utterance to be your first, so how much character is really going to come across? Well, cleverly, it’s actually three utterances’ worth, because you’re guaranteed to read all three dialogue options before picking one.
Whose Guybrush is this?
You’re not choosing a character for Guybrush. You don’t get to say, “Well he’s a serious guy, actually, and he doesn’t make jokes, so I’m going with option 2.” There’s no route through Monkey Island where Guybrush is a suave and focused pirate-in-waiting. Stupid remark number 3 is out there in the reader’s mind whether you choose it or not. The MI trademark combination of cheek, gusto, and straight-facedness is very much on the table.
What a bizarre opportunity this is for the writer of the dialogue. How could a story writer in a traditional medium present two things the protagonist didn’t say for every one that he did? Not in any way that wouldn’t be jarringly ostentatious. Here, though, in a game, it’s absolutely unremarkable. We read past the unsaid lines, and earnestly commit ourselves to the idea that they were never uttered.
Unchosen and unwanted
Gunpoint, as much as I love the game, doesn’t leverage this fact quite so well. It has some wisecracks in the dialogue options, some straight and cool Marlowe-esque numbers, but there are some sillier options in there, too, and they’re the odd ones out. You can play through the game with comic-book seriousness, as if the silly lines never factor into it, and the NPCs and the rest of the game will play along with you all the way. But if you do that — if you say, “I’m the cool PI; I’m smooth and deadly.” — you’ll be nagged repeatedly by silly gags that drag you out of the moment, even though they’re never selected and never realised in your own little canonical world of the game as chosen by the player.
It’s impossible to maintain any other tone while the jokes pop up on the screen. It would be like Batman saving Gotham with an air of thankless, brooding heroism, but with Robin guffawing misjudged and offensive smart-arse remarks to camera at the end of every scene. Batman can play it as cool as he likes, but his image is to some extent out of his hands in that case.
To be fair, a lot of Gunpoint’s cheeky dialogue sits behind a less intrusive option, and if you want to be a gumshoe of few words then it won’t mess with you. However, as an example, it does help delineate what Monkey Island does so well.
I said that in Monkey Island, choosing your dialogue is no choice, in fact. Of course in many games, it really is a choice. It’s another standard convention of interactive fiction that you are not merely choosing dialogue options, but choosing routes through the game. You have your branching paths, and your text selections pick you through them one node at a time, influencing the way the story plays out.
When it comes to branching paths presented as text options, it is unavoidable — just as it was with throwaway dialogue choices — that all the options will be read, and that they can’t be unread.
Now here’s another choice that you get in the same game. You’re choosing how to react to the suggestion that there might be ghosts on your moon base.
There’s an important difference between these two scenarios. The choose-the-next-destination case is like a transparent interface for inputting a decision between points already raised in the game’s text. It’s not that much different to typing GO NORTH or USE KEY or something — or just pressing buttons to issue those commands.
The second one, though — the character choice — is presenting more text in each option that is not already in the game — and so each option adds to the world of the game even though all but one must then be discarded absolutely.
Even if I’m into ghosts, the sceptical option is now on the table. There’s mental work to be done to keep a tally of what really happened and what didn’t, and I doubt that work can really be done perfectly. The scepticism is on the table now, and I read it just as much as I read the first option. Once something like that is out there, I think it’s asking a lot to try and forget it, and it will never be true that it never happened. You can’t unread things.
Scepticism’s on the table alright
If you’re not buying this, imagine an extreme example as a thought experiment. Image a fifth dialogue option — imagine it says something really disgusting. Imagine some hateful bile you saw an anonymous idiot shouting on the internet. Imagine something aimed at hurting people, at diminishing people, something rotten and grotesque that dissolves your hope for the world. If that was the last option on the list, I don’t think you could just tell yourself, “Well, I’m not choosing that option!” and carry on with the game. Once that’s out there, the tone of the game is affected.
The unchosen option still does its work, and does it with a degree of stealth that would be hard to execute without the text-options structure.
So although you choose which option actually happens, there’s a certain small sense in which they’ve all already happened. When the options are so strongly at odds with one another, my every decision is called into question, and it feels like my choice is half undone before I’ve made it.
This isn’t intended to be some sort of devastating criticism, just an observation of how I react to different kinds of text options. It shows that there’s a power to these text options that goes beyond just reading what’s on the screen, and also beyond just making a decision — it’s a combination of the two.
In any case, the observation applies to many, many games, and not even only to text games. CSAW just happened to be in my mind. (It’s free; it’s brilliant; you can play it online.)
The particular impact of text options certainly isn’t a problem for games. When used with awareness, this kind of writing is incredibly effective. What’s more, this pick-a-line-of-text convention is right there, unobtrusive, in the middle of any game that wants it. It’s a gift to game writers! What other storytelling medium can tap into this kind of doublethink so freely?
The game writer’s cake can be had and eaten, and although this is a very powerful technique, it’s subtle, not overbearing. The writer can use the “unsaid” to lay hints that slide into the background without dominating the thrust of the narrative. For instance, the silly matter of whether this is a mind-blowing blog post — although the first paragraph was overrun with it — has been forgotten altogether by the end.