Thoughts on Loose and Tight Choices
I want to write a bit about this recent Alexis Kennedy (@alexiskennedy) post Loose, Tight. It clearly believes a lot of the same things that I do about games, but it comes to those beliefs from a very different path and I want to take some time to examine the difference.
Note of course that you should read that article before continuing with this one.
Also, this is all highly relevant to The Quiet Sleep, which shares many of the same desires.
The Article As I Understand It
Let me start by stating what I believe this article to say. It’s quite possible that I’ve misunderstood something fundamental here, and so I would like to lay my assumptions out before doing anything else.
- There are two broad categories of choices, loose and tight.
- Tight choices are those where you have a specific set of choices at a specific point. You pick one and move on.
- Loose choices are those where you don’t have to make a choice at all and when you do make a choice, there are often bundles of similar choices.
- There’s nothing intrinsically better about either kind of choice.
- Generally, loose choices are more system-driven and tight choices are more scripted. This is to be expected as the things that make tight choices tight is that they are hand-designed and hand-placed.
- Narrative games tend to have more tight choices as they are more scripted experiences
- Lots of games have both kinds of choices. CRPGs for instance have lots of loose decisions when you’re walking around or killing things. However, the important or characterful decisions tend to be made through tight decisions in a dialog tree.
- Games based around using loose choices for narrative are a rich seam to mine.
- These games tend to be one of two approaches, Grand Ambitious Projects or Focused Indie Experiments in Poetic Design
- Grand Ambitious Projects try to solve a big problem in the field.
- Focused Indie Experiments in Poetic Design are things like Papers, Please or Her Story or Rimworld. These games have scripted material, but also have a game-mechanic layer where you spend most of your time and where you make loose decisions to narrative effect.
- Cultist Simulator aims at being the latter and you can see how instead of making choices that would be tight, he makes them systemic and has loose choices of the same theme.
- Thinks that the fun is in maintaining a bunch of loose choices for the player to juggle as strategy alongside the narrative.
On Choice Definitions
On The Actual Definition
To start with, I don’t believe that either of these choice definitions above are supposed to be prescriptive. Instead, like Judge Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. However, that’s unsatisfying and so I’d like to look deeper into it.
Some specific cases that I want to point out are:
- In Hearthstone, let’s say that I’m a mage with only a Faceless Behemoth in hand and the board is completely empty. My choices are to play the 10/10 or to ping face. I pick one and move on. By the above definition, this is a tight choice. Of course, not all play choices in Hearthstone are tight, but I don’t think that this one should be considered tight either.
- In the Walking Dead example, I can literally choose to do nothing and see what happens. This will often just get the same decision in a couple of seconds (with less time on the clock). So, from the above this should be loose, but is clearly a tight choice.
- When choosing production in Civ, I choose one option from a menu of choices and move on, but I think it’s pretty clearly a loose choice.
Simply adding the ability to do nothing to any of the examples given for tight choices doesn’t magically make it loose. The Walking Dead lets you do just that, but the choice still feels tight. Part of this is that I cannot just add the choice of do nothing (and possible have that result in the same or a similar choice) to convert a tight choice to a loose one.
This clearly misses the point of the article, but that’s the point that I’m trying to make. I believe that the definitions that the article puts down miss the point that the article was trying to make as well.
On the Type of Classification
I also want to examine if this is a spectrum or a binary state. I can think of a few cases that fall in the grey area and a lot that are very clearly one or the other.
Some cases to consider here:
- In the Civ dialog example of the article, this decision point wasn’t scripted. You do pick one and move on though. I’m not sure if this should be considered a tight choice though as it feels so different from a game book choice. It’s a mechanical request with a little flavor sprinkled on top. I’m not sure if it counts as a loose choice either though.
- In Punch Quest, there are points where I can go up or go down, which is again a decision point where you pick one and move on, but is this a tight choice? It feels very different from the game book ones.
- Where does something like Long Live The Queen fall? The game is a thinly disguised spreadsheet, which makes me think of it as loose choices dressed as tight choices.
On The Relation Between A Choice Being Scripted And The Choice Being Tight
It is natural that a scripted choice is tight. To script it, the context and choices need to be clearly defined, which forces it into being tight. It is hard for me to conceive of a loose choice that has been scripted. At the point where it doesn’t just feel like picking a choice from a menu, it seems like the game would require enough of a system to no longer warrant calling the choice scripted. I could quite easily just be missing the solution here, so I would love to hear a counter-example.
Of course, there is the trivial case of simply deriving an entire model by hand, and implementing it as a script, but I would argue that is still a system. The implementation is nowhere near as important as the player perception of the game’s model.
Can we have a system produce tight choices though? Choosing what to build next in a city in Civ could be considered a tight choice. You pick one option from a menu and move on. With the newer Civ games, I’m not even sure if you have the ability not to make the choice, and even if you could, I doubt players actually consider doing so an option.
I think this falls under the definition of a tight choice, but I don’t think that it’s experienced in the same way as a tight choice. I think it feels closer to a player to moving a chess piece than to choosing something for Lee to say. For all that it looks tight, I strongly feel that it should be considered loose.
Proving the part is not proving the whole though. Just because choosing what to produce in Civ is loose, but is defined as tight, that doesn’t mean that the general statement that a system cannot produce a tight choice is true. We’re going to get to that shortly. For now, I just want to show that I don’t think the definitions of loose and tight choices hold.
On Papers, Please
When I first played Papers, Please, what most blew me away was how it handled the narrative choices in the game. Instead of using dialog menus, all of the narrative choices are done with the same interface that you use to play the game. This makes a huge difference to how the game feels when you play it, but doesn’t actually impact the decision making at the point. All of the narrative choices in the game, whether you let a wife through with her husband, whether you turn away a murderer, what you do with Jorji, are all tight choices.
They tie into the systems quite cleanly though. If you let the wife through, there are gameplay penalties. If you send people to be detained, you do get cash. The decision you make here is not simply informed by the story, but also by your current state in the game. This however is true of most RPGs as well. In KoToR, the dark side options tend to pay better and so I have taken the dark side option occasionally during a light side playthrough when I really needed the cash.
As a whole, I cannot agree with labeling this as an example of loose choices for narrative. The presentation makes it feel loose, but the actual choices made are all tightly scripted. However, the experience was very different from what it would have been had it presented its story through dialog menus. So, I don’t think that looking at the types of choices is actually that valuable when trying to get a game that feels looser in its narrative.
An Alternate Hypothesis
At this point, my stance is that it feels fundamentally different to interact with a system than with something that a human designed. I think it is less in the choice and more in how the player approaches the choice. That is, I think that players will treat the exact same choice very differently depending on if they feel it was created by a person or if it was made by a system.
Of course, a sufficiently consistent human can pass for a system and a sufficiently smart system can pass for a human, so it is worth remembering that it is what the player feels to be the case that is important.
Now, why exactly is that? What is it about having a system generate a choice that makes it different from when a human does. I think it’s some combination of the following:
What Do I Need To Understand
As a player trying to make this choice, should I try to understand a system or understand what the person who designed this choice is thinking? Neither style of choice is inherently better. I trust a person to better determine the result of a choice in the real world than a system and I trust a system to be consistent far more than a human. I just make different assumptions based on which one it is.
In a choose-your-own-adventure style game, the choices tend to be very unique, while system-driven games, like Civ tend to offer you the same choice multiple times with small differences in content and context.
System-driven choices are often decomposable as well. You can have choices where you use combine a noun or verb that you have already used with one that is new to you. Also, you can have interlocking choices for which you have already done each part in isolation, but this specific combination is new and so the decision as a whole is new. Another method that some system driven games use to compose a decision point is to have game pieces with options attached to them and so present the player with the total of those options at a point.
Essentially, good system-based choices are legible and consistent so players are able to fully understand the impact of their decision on the game’s state. You can naturally have a game where the systems are opaque enough for this not to be true, and the more that you do so, the less system-based the game will feel to players. There are naturally drawbacks to making your game harder to understand, of course, but they are not germane to this post. Anyway, this understanding of impact fundamentally changes how the player interacts with the choice. For a more scripted choice, players are expected to use a different, fuzzier heuristic, such as what they would like to say in an analogous real-world situation. A corollary to this seems to be that making your game more system-based reduces immersion, which seems consistent with what I’ve seen with The Quiet Sleep.
It plays very differently when you choose between a list of options on how to evade an enemy and if you evade it yourself.
Similarly, converting resources feels different when it is shown to you through an inventory than when it is hidden under the hood.
Systems tend to be capable of representing a larger variety of options than text and a larger variety of outcomes. I can be any mixture of friendly, happy and indifferent that I want if the game offers me sliders and a system to make a choice, but if it is scripted and especially if it is text, I only have the options that the designer gives me.
Additionally, the degree of consequence is more fluid with systems. Scripted decisions, especially in narrative games, seem to have their results be either nonexistent, flags or massive world-changing things. Of course, there is nothing stopping a scripted decision from having a more system-based result (eg; one conversation choice resulting in 50 coins and another in 80 coins), but due to the coarseness of the input, it is hard not to make the outputs distinct as well.
System-based games are forced to use abstractions of concepts. HP is not actually anything like health, but the abstraction hold well. It is incredibly difficult for a game system to fully model an actual real-world system, especially in real time. Abstracted is not the same as inferior. It simply means that the decision making associated with it changes to encompass the abstractions instead of the thing abstracted.
My argument is that it is not the choice itself that is key here, it is whether the choice was generated by a system or a person. The above traits of the decision point make for interesting ways to look at why that is, but the key point remains that players approach a system-generated decision in a different manner than a person-generated one.
On The Quiet Sleep
So, I believe that The Quiet Sleep holds a lot of the same desires as this article. Both of them want to see the same thing, which is more narrative through things that are not as tight as the standard dialog menu. I just came here from a different direction.
I believe that one of the strengths of games as a medium is that they can communicate systems, instead of the more linear truths that I feel is natural for other media like books or movies. This game was to be about trying to deliver a narrative through systems. The Quiet Sleep does that to some degree, although it is far too linear for me to call it a complete success. Hopefully, my next story will do a better job at this.
However, like Cultist Simulator, a lot of the game has to do with the conflict between the mundanity of things like paying rent and the exceptional, like escaping your sleeper cell. I feel like the exceptional of The Quiet Sleep is much more mundane than that of Cultist Simulator. Honestly, it might be more mundane than the mundane parts of Cultist Simulator too.
At the end of the day, I agree with the article, I just feel that coming to this from the perspective of choices is less important than the perspective of how the choices are generated and presented. I think that decisions feel fundamentally different if they derive from a system instead of being scripted and that naturally results in choices that feel loose or tight.
Essentially, I think the article is correct, I just think it put the cart before the horse.