Charles Amis

Charles Amis, game designer

A designer with experience in a wide range of games talks about giving players just the right amount of choice.

By Anthony John Agnello • January 15, 2013

Charles Amis started designing games out of necessity. He had two best friends as a kid, but how many games out there are made for an odd number of players? So he started with board games and went on to design collectible card games, small video games like Obsolescence, and even a sport called Chamball—a combination of martial arts and dodgeball. Now he and his team are preparing to open up their first multiplayer video game, Artizens. The Gameological Society spoke with Amis about his first cardboard-box games is and how to make game stories for players.

The Gameological Society: What do you do as a game designer?

Charles Amis: The terms “creative director” and “game designer” often get merged, and game designers often get put in the role of something like director or creative director.

When someone designs a new board game by themselves, it’s clear they’re a game designer. They probably didn’t do the art for the board game, though. What I do is a little bit of the creative director role. I am in charge of coming up with how the game plays, what the rules are, what the level designs are like, how the monsters behave, what new weapons we should have, and all of those fun sorts of things. At least, I think they’re fun. I also do a lot of art and music direction. In part, I hold it all together, because game designers tend to be the people who have all of the game in their head. Since they’re really trying to think of what the player will experience, the whole thing, they’re trying to design that.

Gameological: What made you want to design games?

Amis: I started off making games when I was seven years old, and I loved it. I would make board games on the back of cardboard boxes and give them to my parents. I never studied game design in school, in part because I didn’t think you could. I didn’t think that was a thing people did. I played tons of video games and certainly must have realized that someone makes those. I think in my own head, I conflated “programmer” with “game designer,” so I couldn’t make video games because I wasn’t interested in programming. It took a little bit of programming in college, [the programming language] C++, but the combination of a very dispassionate professor and very lame assignments made me really not enjoy that. We made fake ATM machines, and an algorithm that figured out how many slices of pizza you should have for how many people. It was extremely inane.

Gameological: That sounds like the least engaging way possible to impart information.

I never studied game design in school, in part because I didn’t think you could. I didn’t think that was a thing people did.

Amis: Much later, at graduate school in NYU, I learned programming again, in part because I had to. That was a requirement of the course, and I loved it. The teacher was very passionate. We didn’t jump right into C++, we did Processing, which is a library on top of Java and really great for learning. It doesn’t have anything much baked into it. You don’t have to learn all this jargon. You can just start programming. I love it. And now I do a lot of scripting, which is similar to programming. I love the logical thinking of programming. I wish I had gotten into it earlier.

Gameological: What was the first board game you designed when you were a little kid? Do you remember?

Amis: It looked a bit like Chinese checkers. I gave it a funny name for the shape of it, but imagine diamonds within diamonds within diamonds. It had all these pointed edges, and lots of lines. It was a two-player game, and each person was given a number of gems, and the gems were almost like little planes, and depending on the formation you put your gems in, you could attack the other set of gems. I can’t say it was a great game at all. [Laughs.] It certainly had some certain ideas going on, even if it was completely broken.

Gameological: Did you ever run into the trouble of finding someone to play your games?

Amis: It was often the opposite. I had people who needed to be entertained. I needed to make up games—that was because I had two close friends. There were three of us, not four, and games aren’t often made for three people, especially outdoor games, backyard games. You do two-on-two soccer if you only have four people, but with three people, you’ve got to make up a lot of stuff. That’s what made me get into games in the first place.

Gameological: How has your approach to designing a game changed since you were coming up with games for three people in your backyard?



Amis: It’s a process of very rapid refinement. I was really into storytelling when I was younger. I loved games that told stories. I loved Final Fantasy VII. I loved Xenogears. I loved the way Shadow Of The Colossus told stories, but in a different way. I think that game might have been part of what started to change me. I went from really being passionate about my own stories—what I now call “developer stories,” which are the stories that people who make the games want to tell. Then I shifted toward “player stories,” the stories that players tell themselves or their friends after they play the game. The stuff you find after a great game of basketball. When people talk about it later, what do they say? That’s something that only games can do, creating player stories.

With Final Fantasy VII, the storytelling is unique but still authorial. It’s the developers telling you what happened. But in an interactive medium, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I think the times I’ve been most frustrated playing a game is when I’m making choices, and the game’s letting me—that’s really interesting—but then I get to a point where they haven’t come up with the content needed for the choice I want to make. I just run into the wall, and they’re like, “Ahh, sorry, you can’t actually do that.” That is sadness.

Gameological: Why do you think it’s so difficult for an authorial voice to exist next to that player voice? That audience storytelling.

Amis: Oh man, I’ve got a line for you: It’s the Uncanny Valley Of Choice.

Gameological: All right. Explain to me what the Uncanny Valley Of Choice is.

Amis: I certainly will. Just like the Uncanny Valley of making people look realistic, where the closer you get the more they seem like animated corpses, the Uncanny Valley Of Choice is what happens when the more choices you appear to be giving the player, but have scripted outcomes for them, the more the player expects that they can do anything. In Fallout 3, I thought I could be anybody, go anywhere, but eventually, always, the built-up expectation can’t possibly be satisfied. Because it’s a promise of absolute freedom. So when I finally hit that wall, it is so much more dissatisfying than not being able to run to the left in the Mario video games.

Gameological: You mention Shadow Of The Colossus. A lot of people cite that as something they’ve been affected by. Really though, Shadow does offer a lot of these very personal stories. “I climbed this mountain, and then fell off, and it was very thrilling.” But then at the same time, it’s still just an illusion of choice. It’s not an actual choice. You still have to go through and kill these specific monsters in this specific order. Can the illusion of choice be as powerful as actual choice in a game?

Amis: It’s tricky. In some ways, Shadow gets away with it because it’s about the illusion of choice. That’s the whole theme of the game. By embracing it, they totally rock it. I think absolutely the illusion of choice is the magic of the game designer. In fact, sometimes all I think game design is is limiting choice. You go from a world where you can arguably do almost anything—I can break all the rules of any games just by walking around—but what a game designer does is say, “Here’s a handful of things you can do. All you can do is press left or right. These two little buttons. You can’t talk to people, you can’t shake hands. You can’t sit down if you want to. Nothing. You can only do this tiny little pool of things.” By making a game we’re already saying we’re going to limit choices.

The illusion of choice is the magic of the game designer.

As technologies have improved over time, and staffs have gotten massive, and budgets have gotten in the millions, we do the opposite. We say, “Look at all these things you can do! You can do anything you want!” But in part, what drew us to games in the first place is the amazing designs with so little choice.

Gameological: Tell me about Artizens.

Amis: Artizens is an online 2D multiplayer platformer action game, where you hunt monsters with your friends. It’s mainly cooperative. You can draw your own equipment, so you can customize how it works, and also draw how it looks.

Gameological: How does that work where you draw your own equipment?

Amis: It’s very focused on equipment. So after hunting a monster—like, in Monster Hunter or other games, you get materials from the kill, and then you can go back to your workshop to make various crafts. In Artizens, you can draw these. So it’s not as if you draw your full avatar at once. You draw all the components of them, like their helmet or their sword. You draw those on top of a default canvas. That way, as it gets destroyed in combat, you see the default look under it. You never have any invisible swords. You never have anything that’s too big. By putting a focus on always customizing and drawing each piece of equipment, not only do you get the nice creative expression from drawing, but you also get the nice gameplay constraints for having it be fair for everyone you play with.

Gameological: How has Artizens changed from when you first conceived it?



Amis: It started off with a big story. We wanted to tell the audience a bunch of things about how cool creativity is, and it started off as transmedia—we wanted to write a book, a comic book, and more things on top of that. Over time, it’s gotten crisper. We do platformers really well, so we’re making a platformer. We know online communities really well. I think that’s what this game always wanted to be. We’ve always had player expression at the heart. So we’ve gone further supporting player stories more than developer stories. There isn’t much overall story to the game anymore. There are more interesting scenarios for you to get into with your friend that foster stories you’ll tell later.

Gameological: What remains of that original enormous story that you wanted to tell?

Amis: It’s the setting. Which, any D&D fan knows that a good campaign is built on a foundation for stories to grow out of. So that’s what we want to have, a fertile land, a fertile setting. We have unbelievably weird monsters that we know people are going to have a reaction to. We’ve got this guy who’s extremely long, and wears a tie, but has dental tools for fingers. He’s terrifying. He’s a thing of nightmares. Also, strange locations.

It’s more of a premise than a plot. A new continent has been discovered with extremely strange mountains, but also the promise of riches, materials you can use to make stuff that looks like anything. Imagine if you could draw whatever you want to look like, and that’s who you become. Many of the artifacts you make have supernatural powers. A lot of people are attracted to the continent, and you are one of those people coming there as a pioneer on a boat. You arrive on a boat, just like everybody else in the multiplayer game, and set off on your quests.

Gameological: A lot of times all you really need is that great premise to make people feel at home and invited into a game. But sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored lately. I love playing Dishonored, I love doing the things I can do in there, but I never find myself totally taken by the game, because its setting is so schizophrenic. It ends up pushing me away. I can’t become immersed in what I’m doing because it doesn’t feel like I’m in a real place. What would you say is the key to creating that place, that fertile ground where somebody will feel at home?

Amis: It needs to be a place for a player. I haven’t played Dishonored, but there are other games I’ve played where I’ve felt something similar, where the place is so fleshed out that even my own player identity had already been decided. There wasn’t actually a place for me in the world to explore and discover my own stories for myself. Instead, I was playing into the role of someone that had already been cast for me. I was more of an actor than I was a participant.

What I’d like to see in the future is games returning to some of those physical roots.

In Fallout 3, I crafted my person in the beginning with my little baby choices, and then eventually left the Vault. I was really hoping that was it for plot. “Well, who did I become after I left the Vault? Where did I go? What did I do?” Because it gave me the freedom not to explore the plot immediately, I [didn’t]. I went out and did all these crazy things. I started freeing slaves and then really identified as someone who frees slaves, so I wanted to become Abraham Lincoln. And I wanted to get his rifle. Since it’s first person, I just imagined I had a beard and a wonderful hat and would go around killing anyone who even somehow endorsed slavery, then freeing all slaves. That’s who I was, but the game had other ideas. Turns out I was obsessed with my dad, and I had to go to the radio tower. But that wasn’t who I was. There’s the Uncanny Valley of that choice. I thought I was Abraham Lincoln, and the game disagreed.

Gameological: So in the middle of January, you’re going to start up a Kickstarter campaign to raise some funds for Artizens. How would you say crowd-funding change the way you work?

Amis: What the crowd-fund does for games like ours is as we get our funding, we also get our community. If we were funded by a publisher, pure investment, we’d have money to stay afloat and make our thing, but we don’t have the voices of players unless we specifically go out and get playtesters. But having a community of players who have actual skin in the game, they’ve got their small contribution in play, there’s a great incentive for them to provide quality feedback. It’s arguably their game as well, making them a little mini-investor. I would say that has changed our process because we’re now building specifically for that community and integrating them into the process.

Gameological: Once you do have that community integrated, though, you also have enhanced expectations.

Amis: I want them to have unrealistically high expectations. A game like ours, especially when it’s multiplayer and cooperative, it thrives on balance, it thrives on choices, and none of them are purely optimal. You can’t have everything narrowing down to a single build type. We need entitled, unrealistically optimistic players to tell us what they want, what they see. I’m much more of a believer in listening to the fans when it comes to whether some things are balanced or not, as opposed to listening to my spreadsheet. I’ve seen a lot of things in the forums of designers railing back at their communities: “No, I’m looking at the stats, this is balanced. You’re just not playing it right. You haven’t seen what it can do.” I’m a much more firm believer in perception being reality when it comes to gameplay. I’d say if it feels unbalanced in a moment, then it’s true.

Gameological: In 2003, your average game still looked similar to Shadow Of The Colossus and there’s a single path to follow. That path can often be artful, but it’s just that one path, and you walk it by yourself. And now, far more games look like Artizens, a game you can get your fingerprints on that’s predominately meant to be played with other people. What do video games look like in 2023?

Amis: I’ll tell you what I hope they look like: I want me some virtual reality. I want some sweet augmented reality where I can physically play with virtual elements. I essentially want to play Halo or Monster Hunter, but I’m out on a soccer field with my friends. Maybe some of them aren’t even actually there—they’re just being projected there even though they’re playing on a soccer field in Australia. And we’re all fighting this massive monster in the middle that we’re shooting with our guns. I love sports, and I’m missing those physical components in video games.

Games have changed, but it’s more that they’re broadening. It’s not like the games like Shadow aren’t around anymore, but there are still plenty of fantastic, cinematic single-player experiences, [like] the Uncharted series that are more linear, but tell an amazing story, and really make you feel like you are the actor in a good way. I think what I’d like to see even farther in the future is games returning to some of those physical roots too. Maybe bringing video games and physical games back together would be amazing.

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57 Responses to “Charles Amis, game designer”

  1. Gameological Society Commenter says:

    Wow, it’s almost like this chap is my identical twin!

  2. Citric says:

    Actually the best example of the illusion of choice might be Assassin’s Creed. In my day to day life as an Assassin dude, I can jump around buildings, merrily prance through the city streets, stab beggar ladies because seriously, break up fights, so on. Then I get to the story missions and all my freedom is gone and I can’t just throw a knife into my victim’s face as he says a stupid speech. I think the most frustrating was when the guy was right there on the docks, and I could stab him so easily, but I had to just stand there as the cutscene played, not stabbing anyone.

    I find that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me at all with really linear games, but gets right on my tits when it’s trying to pretend I’ve got some freedom. I guess I don’t like the lie.

    • Asinus says:

      I picked up AC2 off of steam but after being forced to set up Uplay and to sit through what seems like an interminable baby simulator, I turned the thing off (racking up about an hour of “gameplay” according to Steam). That aside, what you’re describing sounds like another version of Invisible Walls. You can’t go there/do that. Why? Because we couldn’t figure how what to do if you could. Even though games like FFVII (which I sort of blathered about below) have almost zero choice, the good ones at least try to give you a goddamned good reason why you shouldn’t or can’t do something. Either there is a pressing goal that NPCs might keep “suggesting” that you complete for the sake of the world or whatever, you often still have the choice to go somewhere else. However, those places might often be boring, well-traveled, etc. and the others are blocked by natural obstructions, like mountains, oceans, rivers, etc. I think the game is well designed in that respect. 

      I’m playing through Wild Arms right now, and that one is also guilty of invisible walling (e.g. “You can’t leave until the festival is complete!” or “The pass is closed until the end of the Ruin Festival!” Really? I can’t just get by because I’m the princess of the kingdom, a badass, or a thiefish person who shouldn’t give a shit what you want?). It’s really gotten to the point where I don’t hate invisible walls, but hate how clunky and arbitrary they are. If there’s a LITERAL steel wall– fine. I’ll go down the hall. If there’s a rail I simply can’t jump over: fuck you. Even though Journey had invisible walls, they at least made sense– they were made of wind that blew you back down a dune. Fine. Strong wind. 

      As much as I love choice, I know that it’s probably pretty difficult (to put it lightly) to have an unlimited open world and a plot; my own experiences with early Elder Scroll games are evidence of that. I spent hours in Arena and Daggerfall, building up my character, raiding houses at night (because back then you could use a mace or other weapon to smash doors and break into houses– why did they remove that? Oh, invisible wall). I explored, ran through dungeons, but I couldn’t tell you what the hell the plots of those games are without looking them up. I can see how that would be frustrating to some gamers. The point is that I understand that invisible walls are necessary, but given me a goddamned reason that they’re there. Don’t make me NOT assassinate someone, which would be totally out of character for me as I have been playing, give me a goddamned reason. You don’t want me to jump a rail to get to a lower level? Put some kind of stupid energy field up or instead of having me cross an open bridge, have me see the lower level on a monitor. 

      tl;dr– Yes, I love choice, but if you’re not going to give me a choice, at least construct a believable scenario in which Easy Choice A is impossible for reasonable physical, narrative, or character reasons. “Your characters, who just killed potentially world-destroying monsters and demi-gods, are trapped in a room with a wooden door  with barrels in front of it. You cannot get past the barrels.”

      • EmperorNortonI says:

        Your character has 50,000 hit points, and your healer can resurrect the entire party 5 times a day, but your party member is still killed by a dagger in a cutscene, after slowly bleeding to death.

        I have several bundles of dynamite, but oddly enough can’t open a door.

        My tank can’t drive over a wooden fence.

        Yeah, these things really suck, and always have, and always will.

    • Fluka says:

      I was initially going to list Dishonored as a direct counterpoint to this kind of Assassininnny illusion of choice.  After all, you get to assassinate the targets yourself, in a brutal or sneaky or nonlethal manner of your choosing, without having to sit through any any longwinded cinematic.  The final “fight” of the game was actually somewhat anticlimactic for this reason – one sleepdart, and the dude just slumped over and that was that.

      Then I remembered my feelings of guilt recently, regarding the resolution of the Lady Boyle mission. Here be minor spoilers.  As always, the game presented me with two options: kill the target, or sentence her to a fate which is arguably worse than death and full of all sorts of ickiness.  After some thinking, I decided to send her to the nonlethal fate, reasoning that it wasn’t my right to say that death was better, having satisfied my free will.  Thinking about it later, though, I realized that the game had still funneled me into a single path: Lady Boyle had to disappear permanently, in a way which was a punishment.  We did she need to disappear?  Cuz of her financial influence.  Why was she being punished?  Uh…I guess because the game told me to.  Because I had to keep going.  Even in a game as concerned with choice of play style as Dishonored, I suddenly felt extremely confined.  The illusion of choice makes the linearity feel all the more stifling.

      • Merve says:

        Dishonored is great about giving players choice about how to complete missions, and for the most part, it’s good about giving players ways to influence the narrative in minor ways. For example, the player can choose to kill Granny Rags or not to rescue Geoff Curnow, and this will somewhat change the story, but not in any substantial way. For the most part, I was fine with Corvo not having a major influence on the plot, but it did bother me a lot at one point: when Corvo accepts the poisoned drink from the conspirators. Usually, Dishonored doesn’t let the player control other characters’ actions (possession aside), but it almost always leaves him or her in control of Corvo. It was aggravating not to have control of Corvo at that key point in the game, especially because the plot twist was so damn obvious. (Really, they couldn’t have just knocked him out with a poisoned sleep dart?)

        • Effigy_Power says:

          I’ve had that exact same rant about 12 times now, including here and on the Steam chat, and it took me out of any joy I got from the game.
          It really is one of the most ham-fisted twists I’ve ever seen in a game and just a real punch in the gut.

          Considering the game explicitly told me to be creative and scolded me when I wasn’t through negative repercussions, I felt intensely hemmed in here.
          To be perfectly honest, I should have stopped playing right there, because while the game insisted on me taking the drink, every fiber of my being told me not to. The game however demanded continuation and like a sheep I followed it.
          Maybe there was a hidden message there about how we are all slaves to our own fate or something else ridiculous, but to be honest I expect that it was simply very, very, very lazy writing.

          EDIT: I mean really! Like Merve said, the game revolves around a thousand ways to knock out people with strangleholds, bugzappers, sleep darts and whatnot, and they pass me a glass with that shit-eating smile and expect me to fall for that? Blah.

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      At least Assassin’s Creed does you the courtesy of giving you a nominal reason you can’t do a thing: you’re technically reenacting a dead person’s life, and if they didn’t do a thing, you’re out of luck. It’s irritating, but at least they acknowledge it with the syncronization window-dressing. A lot of games don’t even bother with that.

      • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

         The whole “synchronization” gimmick seems like it was created specifically so that all of the “video game-y” things – inaccessible areas, death and respawning, etc. – made sense within the story of the game.

        • His_Space_Holiness says:

          Hell, for most of the series you literally play a guy playing an incredibly elaborate video game.

  3. Asinus says:

    It was personally interesting to see him specifically cite FFVII– though I do still love the story and characters in that game, it was my first real experience of playing through a JRPG more-or-less on my own. I’d watched friends play them before, but never found them to be particularly interesting in the snippets I’d seen. What was kind of remarkable on my second playthrough was how that illusion of choice and free will was completely disintegrated. 

    When I was a kid, we used to go to this particular theme park at least once a year. When I was in about 6th grade, I took a flashlight onto one of the indoor rides and illuminated all of the artifice that made the ride work. The fire was obviously a colored sheet flapping with a light behind it (not that I believed it was fire, but it was very well done), side tracks became visible, the mechanics, and basically all of the strings that I always knew were there, were made completely apparent. 

    That’s what the second playthrough of my first JRPG was like. These lines that I had read with some emotional weight were obvious scrips. I guess my disbelief’s suspension blew out and the shock pushed through the floor of the trunk making for a rough, noisy ride. I still like that game, but it’s just not possible to really capture that illusion of choice in FFVII or any other highly scripted game. I suppose if I had to pick a game to introduce me to and destroy my illusion of JRPGs, I chose pretty well.

    It was also the game that got me to reflect on choice in games and how real it is. Before FFVII, my RPGing had been almost exclusively limited to the Elder Scroll games that were out by that time. That’s a pretty rough comparison for any game’s “choice” mechanic to be held to. But even those games have put the player on tighter and tighter paths to the end. I almost wish they’d drop the visuals back to Morrowind’s level if that meant they could make a world as 1/10th as open and expansive as Arena’s. But, yeah, games can’t work like that any more. The trailer would look terrible, and that’s what counts. 

    • Citric says:

      Oddly, I kind of like the extremely linear games, just because it’s not pretending that it’s about your choice, but instead about the experience they want to deliver. So if the game forces a character to do something stupid, then it’s not quite so frustrating because it’s not supposed to actually be you. Like in FFVII, you can scribble outside the lines a bit, go on a date with Barrett, and so on, but it’s still about the experience the game wants to deliver, and since that point is clear I never found it frustrating when the game took control. It wasn’t giving me much choice, but it was quite honest about it.

      • PaganPoet says:

        You know, for as much criticism FFXIII got for being too linear, even the early FF games only gave you the illusion of freedom. Unless you’re the type of gamer who loves to grind and gain levels, the difficulty of enemies in later areas would force you to follow a set path anyway.

        • Citric says:

          FFXIII did have pretty bad level design in the early areas, a lot of straight lines. Earlier titles were just as linear, but they usually had areas that one could explore a bit instead of being just a direct path from A to B.

        • PaganPoet says:

          True, most of the early chapters were essentially very pretty tubes and halls. Run a few feet, battle, lather, rinse, repeat.

          They improved that aspect with XIII-2, but then they lowered the difficulty significantly.

        • Asinus says:

          Sometimes, though, they are very good at giving you that illusion– it’s the games that are really bad at giving you the illusion that are problematic for me. When you can see the map and see that it’s just a straight line, it’s kind of insulting. The same is true when you’re running through a town and then just run up against an invisible wall; just end the town there if you don’t have anything else to put in that spot. And  Final Fantasy is at least as guilty of the arbitrary, but necessary-for-the-story confinements. I started calling the point in any game where you HAVE to lose a fight and be imprisoned “being Final Fantasied.” It carried over to table top games when instances arose where the game master would throw in some unbeatable bad guy or some trap that the players weren’t ever really going to be able to avoid (and the other players started using “Final Fantasy” as a verb, too). 

          However, I think FF stood out and was the game franchise I picked on because often the designers do such a great job of giving that illusion of choice and making you believe that you actually want to go somewhere. It’s poorer designs (even within that series) that leave me saying, “But I don’t want to go there or to do that. I have no compelling reason to care about these other reasons based on the character you’ve presented me.” So when FF FFed me, it was very obvious. 

          One JRPG that is really good about not Final Fantasying the players is Tales of Vesperia (oh, how I wish I had an xBox of my own just for that one game). When a friend and I played through it, almost every time we would say something like, “Isn’t it stupid how often in these games the healer can’t heal in cut scenes?” the healer would heal or the caster would cast a fireball when that is a thing that would work. My favorite moment is when (minor spoiler I guess) Yurie is in a jail cell and one or both of us said, “Really? They’ve spent the whole game convincing us how strong he is and…” and he knocks the door off its hinge with a good body check. It was just nice to see a game that didn’t only give your characters god-like power in combat scenes and average-person power the rest of the time. It wasn’t us making those choices, but it also addressed the sort of choices we, given the choice, would make.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      FFVII was the first (and only) JRPG I played through to the end.  At the time I loved it as well, and tried to play some of the older games in the series, but they were too difficult for me.

      Arena and Daggerfall were amazing for their time, but both were so full of game-breaking bugs that I couldn’t stick with them for long.  Especially Daggerfall, where each new patch would break something else, or change something that didn’t need changing.  (What?  I can no longer join multiple guilds?  Why the hell would you even stop that?!)  Morrowind though, is still my favorite open-world RPG to date.  I loved being a treasure hunter, capturing bigger and bigger souls to enchant my weapons and armor, decorating my home…and still being scared shitless when a vampire attacked me with super speed!

    • trilobiter says:

       Final Fantasy games, especially early ones, always feel like traveling down a swift river.  As you progress, you acquire certain freedoms, but you also lose freedoms when you pass certain points.  You can’t experience Aeris’s final limit break if you don’t have the foresight to level up her limits before she leaves the party, for example.

      It’s more linear than many other games with the same sort of feel (the river is swifter, I suppose), but I have a lot of affection for this kind of game.  I don’t believe absolute freedom or the ability to completely define your own plot are necessary, or necessarily desirable.  Real life isn’t like that.

      The plot of a real life, such as it is, is always determined by two things: the decisions you make, and external forces over which you have little control.  Their relative importance is a question for the ages, but everybody has surely experienced an important, life-altering event that simply happened to them, without their having planned it or been able to avoid it. 

      I think it’s a secret of the appeal of games that they model that aspect of life so well: they tie your hands in arbitrary ways and make you move via prescribed methods, but life does so too, in a broader sense.  We life choices, because we like feeling as if we have the upper hand over life.  But a scenario where we have truly absolute choice couldn’t help but feel uncanny, because it’s completely outside our experience.

  4. Barry MacCarthy says:

    The game with the best illusion of choice? Ultimas Black Gate and Serpent Isle.Those games would let you kill characters necessary to the plot, and when you found out you needed them, you realized you were screwed and needed to restart the entire game. So frustrating, but I appreciated the faith the designers put in the player.

    • James Slone says:

      Yeah, those games were never really topped for “do whatever the hell you want” freedom. Serpent Isle was a bit linear, but still offered plenty of game-breaking options. I love the Ultima 7s (and 5 and 6). They basically invented the sandbox, open-world game, and have yet to be surpassed in that realm. It also helped that the NPCs were very fleshed out and believable, even if all you had to work with was a portrait and text.

  5. caspiancomic says:

    This guy seems super rad and smart, and I love reading about game design from the point of view of game designers, but I also disagree with a lot of what he said. (In a good way) I love a good choice, and I know that in a lot of ways choice is what separates games from mediums like film or literature, but I’m also forced to face the fact that almost all of my favourite games are highly linear, heavily scripted experiences in which choices are either non-existent, minimal, or superficial. Most JRPGs have a couple of endings, but when you’re given dialogue options the only real difference is between two different sets of dialogue (although the choices may snowball into having a date with Barrett at Gold Saucer). I’m worried that the next generation of game designers is going to turn every game into Mass Effect, or a shapeless GTA style sandbox, and that we’ll lose our ability to craft experiences like Final Fantasy IX or Ico- linear, largely choiceless, but beautiful and complicated games.

    Also, before I sign off, I may be playing Mass Effect right now (and loving it), but you know what game really nails choice? Spec Ops: The Line. At multiple points in this game you’re told to “make a choice”, and given two options, but in almost all of these scenarios you secretly have three or four or five options. The kind of goofy crap that every player tries but most games disallow? Those all fly in Spec Ops. Minor spoilers in an example: at one point, Konrad has strung up a local thief and the American soldier who flew off the handle punishing him, and trained snipers on each one. He tells you to kill one of them. You can kill the thief, or you can kill the soldier, or you can do like me and open fire on the snipers, or shoot out the ropes suspending the hostages. You enter into a really difficult shootout, and the surviving snipers tend to kill both the hostages, leading to followup questions about how morally justified taking a third option really is if the body count actually ends up being higher, but the choice is totally legitimate and not at all suggested by the game itself. You even get an achievement for thinking laterally. A glance at the trophy list for this game suggests that almost every single discrete “choice” you’re explicitly offered in this game has multiple “hidden” options, that reward you for bucking the artificial limitations of the game and thinking like a real person would.

    • hastapura says:

      I’ve got issues with Spec Ops but you’re on to something there. Rewarding – or at least planning for – different outcomes without signposting them with a big PLEASE CHOOSE NOW is a nice way to give a game some give, some flexibility. One of my favorite examples of this is in Silent Hill 2, where innocuous or even obscure actions taken during play affect the ending the player receives  listen to this whole conversation! Don’t bump into your companion! It’s almost like the game organically fashions an arc around the moment-to-moment movement and inputs of the player. If you look at the picture of Mary a lot and heal up after every hit, you must want to live and move on from your trauma. I don’t really know how to explain it…very interestingly done. 

      And you’re also spot-on about not every game needing to be a branching, choice-heavy experience. Games *can* do that, yeah, but they can also immerse you in a well-drawn world and an engaging story without the need for your meddling. I really hope this fixation on player agency doesn’t make its way into games where it’s not necessary.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Aaahh, terrific example with Silent Hill 2, probably the best there is. I can’t think of another game that so seamlessly incorporates organic player behaviour into its narrative direction.

    • Alkaron says:

      I think there’s another aspect of choice in games that is criminally underexplored: the player as accomplice in the unfolding of the game narrative. Most games frame all their big decision-making moments as having consequences only for the game world: What does it mean for this Spec Ops character to be forced into the role of executioner? However, I think the more interesting question is, What does it mean for the player to be forced into the role of executioner? I can count on one hand the games that have the balls to turn the spotlight on the person holding the controller and ask him or her, “Why are you choosing to keep playing?” If you have to choose between two evils to progress in the game, why wouldn’t you just quit?

      Of course, you don’t quit because games exist to be played. If you quit, you’re not fully engaging with the work as a whole. And there’s a tension there. The designers want you to feel the agony of a tough decision—it’s part of the game. But if you’re so engaged that you sincerely feel that agony, then that means that the choice has meaning for you and not just for your character. And if the choice has meaning for you personally, doesn’t that add a moral dimension to it? After all, you’re not merely watching a movie; you’re holding the controller. You’re the one who chooses to pull that trigger. And if you pull that trigger, does that make you in some way culpable for what happens?

      Pathologic engages this issue through its focus on healing as a goal and its gaming-as-theater themes. The first Bioshock did this through the “would you kindly?” twist, which recontextualizes all your in-game actions. From what I’ve heard (I haven’t played them), Deus Ex and Shadow of the Colossus do something similar. 99% of games don’t even try, though.

      The uniqueness of the videogame as an art form is its ability to allow the audience to take an active role in how a piece takes shape. I love the games that use that characteristic of the medium to get in our faces about the real-world implications of our irresistible desire to finish the game. The weightiest, most interesting choice of all, in my opinion, is our choice to keep playing.

  6. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I think there’s something to be said for both open-world and highly scripted games, if both are done well.

    I mentioned Morrowind above – that’s probably the best example of an open-world RPG I can think of.  I had far more fun exploring the world than I did finishing the main storyline.  (In fact, by the time I got to finishing the main story I was so powerful that it was a cakewalk…but it was FUN.)

    BioShock was highly scripted, and completely brilliant as well.

    I’m with Asinus that I’d be okay with lesser graphics or audio in favor of good stories.  I was really excited when I started playing The Old Republic, and had fully voiced characters throughout, but the replayability suffered horribly on a second character, having the same exact conversations every time, save for a few light/dark choices.

    Talk about sacrificing graphics for fun – I’m back into Minecraft, and with the Buildcraft mod harvesting materials for me, I can focus on covering every tall mountain peak with castle towers.  (I know I could just use creative mode, but accomplishing it in survival with limited resources is far more fun.)

  7. Xtracurlyfries says:

    The comment about good gaming including the illusion of choice is a very interesting one. I haven’t looked at it that way before

    I’ve done a lot of close-up magic in my time (but I’m trying to control it). In this way, magic and gaming are similar in that magic usually has a plot that you’re sticking to but there are little deviations away from that plot that you plan for ahead of time. These things come together to give the spectators/participants the illusion that they had free choices. After a good magic effect, people will often say “but what if I’d picked the other card,” or “but what if I’d said stop at a different time”? Typically the answer is that it wouldn’t have made a difference at all – it’s a trick – but those kinds of mind games tend in stick around in your head.

    Interestingly, in both cases repeated viewing of a magic trick or repeated playing of a game completely reveals this choice to be the illusion that it is, and – for me at least – spoils the fun. In gaming I generally prefer story over skill building, i.e. I much prefer a solid single player campaign to multiplayer or endless dungeon grinding. This is the case for board games too – I’ll take an RPG or a story-based game like Mansions of Madness over something like Settlers or Agricola any day of the week.  Although story-based games can be completely linear in design, those little variations, just like those in the magic trick, can crop up in ways both planned-for and unexpected making the experience seem anything but linear.  This can require a bit more imagination in running such a game, but that’s the fun part for me. Maybe that’s why I also like to play around with cards in interesting ways.

  8. At the risk of groans and boos (and SPOILERS cause I know that tons of you are just starting it) I’d like to talk about Mass Effect (but not the ending of ME3). 

    When you first play Mass Effect 2 after playing Mass Effect, it’s really satisfying: you see the consequences to all your choices. Characters are either present or absent. Dialogue varies depending on what you did. But when you play through a second time, after making other choices, you start to realize how superficial the effect of your decisions is. Wrex is dead? No problem. His role will be filled by another random Krogan. It doesn’ bother me all that much. It’s unrealistic to expect absolute freedom in a video game. It’s also unrealistic to expect the capricious whims of a single human to have a dramatic effect on the face of an entire galaxy. 

    • Fluka says:

      I think it helps to have one’s expectations regarding choice be well-calibrated to the game at hand.  As much as I love them, the cut-and-paste quests of Skyrim or the linear revenge procession of Dishonored rankle me a little more, because they both have “FREEDOM” as part of their hype.  Mass Effect has always dangled the carrot of choice very prominently, too, but I think it’s always understood to be a more punctuated, directed kind of choice, where you choose between a bunch of predefined branches (Kill this person? Be a jerk or friendly?  Romance this person?).  Rage can result when people interpret this to mean that they are the butterfly whose flapping wings should result in the hurricane.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        Agreed on Skyrim.  I loved my time there as well, but having the “freedom” to pick whichever of the fifty draugr-filled tombs I wanted to plunder next wasn’t all that exciting after a while.  It was the less scripted moments that kept the game fresh.

        One of my favorite ones, which I’m assuming was unscripted but I could be wrong – I reached the edge of a cliff overlooking a river, and spotted a troll below.  Before I could react, the troll roared and started running…away from me, chasing a rabbit!  I shot an arrow at it and missed, and it went over a rise and disappeared.  I climbed down and examined the cave, then decided to wait a bit and see if it would return.  It did, and I ambushed it on its return home.

      • I love that last line. Not every butterfly can cause a hurricane just by flapping its wings.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar says:

       I felt the same way about Uncharted. The first time you play it through, everything feels surprising and thrilling. The second time, you start to see just how planned out everything is (Beam that automatically collapse as soon as you climb on them, for example).

    • I think the important thing is, as you said, that “When you first play Mass Effect 2 after playing Mass Effect, it’s really
      satisfying: you see the consequences to all your choices.”

      The illusion of choice that they manage to create really IS satisfying in a way that a lot of games don’t even attempt to be. This falls apart on additional playthroughs when the diverging paths turn out to not be so dissimilar but at that point I think the game satisfies in another way — you get the satisfaction of learning how the trick is done.

  9. Merve says:

    I think we might be talking about three separate but related issues here. (To be fair, Mr. Amis sort of conflates them in the interview.)

    Firstly, the so-called “uncanny valley” of choice. The idea here is that a game sets you down in a world where you can do a lot of the things you would expect to be able to do if the game world were real. The problem is that you can’t do everything you would expect to be able to do, because there is no way that a designer could account for every possible scenario. To use an absurd example, most games don’t allow me to lick my shoe or whistle “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” despite the fact that these are things I can do in reality and would expect to be able to do if placed in another setting. This problem may be compounded by the use of “photorealistic” as opposed to stylized graphics; if the world looks “real,” then one may expect to be able to make “real” choices in it. I see this as an issue of design philosophy. The point at which the illusion of “choice” shatters will be different for different people, and I don’t think that offering players more or less choice in an attempt to avoid the “uncanny valley” is a particularly fruitful endeavour.

    The second issue is that of inconsistent choice, where a game gives you freedom at one point and then takes it away at another for no good reason. Open-world games can be notorious for this, as many of them let players explore most of the time, but then railroad them on missions. I see this as an actual design flaw in most cases. Games thrive on rules, both implicit and explicit. Arbitrarily changing the “rules” is unfair for the player.

    Finally, there is also an issue of player expectation, which is part of what I think Mr. Amis was getting at. Expectations are generated both in-game and out of the game. To relate this to the first issue, presenting players with a lot of freedom may make them expect to have more freedom than the game can actually deliver. To relate this to the second issue, presenting players with a certain freedom or “rule” may make them expect that freedom to remain. Those expectations are generated by the game itself, and I think it’s fair to criticize a game for failing to meet those expectations. On the other hand, there are expectations of freedom and choice generated outside the game by marketing, word-of-mouth, gaming journalism, experiences with past games, or even feature lists on Steam or the game’s packaging. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to criticize a game for failing to meet these expectations. For example, say an article on Kotaku talks about how I’ll have the freedom to do pretty much whatever I want in the upcoming Generic Fantasy RPG CLVII. When I buy the game and play it, I find that I can’t go around killing everybody and setting fire to villages because I’m supposed to be its hero. In that case, it’s not the game’s fault that I don’t have that freedom; the game itself never promised that I could indulge my pyromaniac fantasies.

    Obviously, there are limitations to the extent to which we should hold back our criticism when games fail to meet our extra-game expectations of choice. If developers or marketers flat-out lie about a game, then we have every right to be mad. (See: The War Z.) But that, I feel, is a business issue, not an artistic issue.

  10. The one thing about Dishonored – and I’m actually kinda surprised more people aren’t talking about this – but the game feels ugly. Not that it looks ugly graphically, but it’s an ugly, skeevy feeling game. It’s depressing and all the characters are creepy and unlikeable. The goal of the game has you essentially making a shitty situation only slightly less shitty.


    I haven’t beaten it yet, but I’ve already noticed how a lot of the characters are just… not good. Like, the Admiral partially believes that he has a chance to install military command if things go well. The one dude’s assistant (I forget hsi name) still enforces silly class rules despite living in tavern. When you rescue Emily, the pressing concerns are raising her like a lady instead of, you know, keeping her alive and maybe teaching her how to stand up to soldiers and defend herself. You catch Piero peeking at the one woman bathing – only to be able to do it yourself right after. There’s a scene where Emily and the Admiral argue about using the navy to blow stuff up (instead of, you know, help people). And I didn’t mention all the terrible stuff you learn about people with the heart.

    I want to go into this more via a blog post, but Dishonored is discomforting because you’re in a fairly hopeless situation with, let’s face it, terrible people. There’s little going on in helping the common people – hell, you maybe see like 4 or 5 “survivors”. You end up doing a bit of work with thugs.  Your boatman SLEEPS OUTSIDE IN SOME KIND OF GODDAMN LEAN-TO.

    The game forces you to be heroic in a non-heroic situation. I love this, and yet, it does make the game aesthetically unpleasant to play.

    • Fluka says:

      How far are you in the game?  A lot of that nastiness eventually has some semblance of payoff, though I agree that the game is morally ugly and depressing.  Which I guess is part of the point – it’s a society in decay.  I actually recently read an interesting blog post (link), arguing that the subservient role of women in the game is part of that construction of the narrative of the fall of the city.  (I like Dishonored a lot more when I think of it as being about Dunwall rather than Corvo.)  Of course, as this rebuttal argues, you don’t really get a chance to actively change the bad things in the game, and depressing is still depressing.  Some things get fixed in the “good” ending, but it’s all very abstracted.

      • Oh, definitely. It’s part of the game, which I love, and I think that seems to be the underlying criticism that people have with it (ie, it being schizophrenic). The core of the game is different than the atmosphere, if that makes sense.

        I’m at the part where you have to infiltrate the party to find the mysterious woman (information you get from a guy who painted her ass, which adds to the game’s skeeviness). And again, I like that the creepiness factor is part of the game’s world instead of “comic” exploitedness like, let’s say, Lolipop Chainsaw. You’re SUPPOSED to be bothered by everyone’s behavior, attitudes, and solitary focus on class and reputation, and even though Corvo is silent, you get the sense that he’s just as questionably moral as the rest of them (implied relationship with the Empress notwithstanding).

        It’s a VERY different type of game, tonally, than most people are used to. Even with all the questionably moral characters in Mass Effect, and even if you go Renegade all the way through, Shepard and company are, in the end, saving the universe, a goal that surpasses acting like the occassional dick. Dishonored forces you to play in the muck for a goal that is, well, honorable, but not necessarily winning. It’s interesting to see the reactions at play. (I do like the game, by the way, although the magic-stuff is a bit over-the-top).

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Good points, though probably all related to the Victorian society Dishonored’s society is spawned off, at least loosely.
      The Victorians were after all famously more concerned with standards of class than class-mobility, valued completely different things than we do today (gladly) and generally, as a society, were pretty awful.
      Add to that the fact that the game was probably injected with a lot of this societal darkness in order to avoid making the Steampunk to “shiny”.
      Actually @Fluka:disqus’s answer is better. I refer you to that.

  11. Effigy_Power says:

    “Uncanny Valley Of Choice” is a great way to describe the issue of unfulfilled openness and freedom. Nice to see people having a handle on this, at least theoretically.
    Mind you, I don’t want that to discourage people from making vast, open games, since those are my favorites. Sure, Skyrim doesn’t let you do everything I’d want (Why can’t I knock over tables for cover, Bethesda!?!), but it still offers me more choice than what gaming usually has to offer.

    Maybe we are seeing this from a wrong perspective. Maybe the fact that we expect total freedom from videogames where we did not means that we have come to the point where we hold up the virtual world to the standard of the real world. Mario was essentially just bitmaps blooping around what appeared to be a cutout landscape, so nobody expected Mario to debone a turtle and fashion a weapon out of it.
    Games like Skyrim however allow so much and are so immersive, that we are disappointed when we come across things that the real world allows… which is probably an odd thing for a game that lets you fight dragons.

    I think the Uncanny Valley Of Choice is probably a good sign. A sign of the fact that ambition in gaming is creeping close enough to reality and beyond that we are disappointed that it’s not there yet. I think it may also be a sign that people develop enough curiosity in games to test its capabilities beyond the intended purpose. You can play Fallout 3 according to the rules of the game, so to speak, without ever running into choice-issues, but it takes a step further to find these problems. Only someone who goes beyond what the game dictates will find flaws in immersion and choice, and I think that shows that people engage games differently than they used to, ever searching for a way around the intended and pre-programmed route.
    There is no reason to try and climb the mountains surrounding Skyrim but to satisfy exploratory curiosity and any game that can invoke that desire in a player is a definite step up the ladder for me.

    • Asinus says:

      Damn it. Now I want to be able to knock tables over for cover. I hadn’t thought of that (since I don’t tend to hide behind anything but my shield as I get within slaying range… though now I wish I could also get close to a goddamned caster, reach out, and strangle him). 

  12. Good interview, he was quite insightful.

  13. tedthefed says:

    I have to say, I think this dude is smart, but I madly disagree with some of his philosophies.  His “player stories” thing seems to be along the lines of the most horrible recent development in gaming: the path toward Achievements and Scoring Playerboards and Real Time Chatting and Record-This-And-Put-It-On-Youtube.  The games start to only exist to facilitate social media presence, and it’s just dull.
    I think that this is actually a natural outgrowth of too much choice, because video games with a lot of choice aren’t fun.  There’s no point to them, and they’re not games: they’re Etch-A-Sketches.  

    I’m fine when video games tell me a story and give me no choice at all.  In fact, the WORST things about those old JRPGs is the choices: There will be a path to the left and a path to the right, and if you go to the right, you miss out on a huge sidequest you can never get back to.  Just lead me by the hand, already, and tell me your story.

    But the thing that’s really missing from this game designer’s comments… I mean, what about giving people a set of restrictions that makes a situation challenging and then having people try to do it?  It’s like he doesn’t care about that at all.

    • Citric says:

      I think whether or not a game with a lot of choice is fun depends on the player (and the game, of course). I’ve enjoyed plenty of games with freedom, whether they use it to tell little mini narratives or just give you a big world to mess around in. If well done, it can give a rewarding and unique experience (if poorly done, it just makes one angry, but that’s the case for all things.) Running around naked in Saint’s Row 2, for instance, was fun, and you’ll never convince me otherwise. So was horribly injuring myself for hours in Skate 2, even if the story challenges in that kinda sucked I’d still have a whale of a time skating down hills in a manner that broke all the bones. I like more linear stuff too, but I can’t say choice isn’t fun.

      I also like the ability to miss stuff, it gives the opportunity for a new experience if you want it. I also like how Front Mission 3 had two narratives that hinged on a seemingly inane decision, whether or not you went to the mall. I love how stuff like that can shape an experience.

      But we, as players, are different, and that’s okay. So long as there are games for both of us.

      • tedthefed says:

        It is kind of interesting to me: I find something like Skate 2 SO BORING.  As boring as Second Life.  I’m actually kind of curious what the difference between us is.  The closest I can come is: I’m interested when things ADD UP to something.  I could care less about having stuff to do, if nothing builds on anything else.

        I also find myself not caring about replayability.  In fact, I can’t think of a single attempt at adding to a game’s replayability (besides just making it more fun) that hasn’t pissed me off when I encountered it.  I guess it’s that same thing: unless these multiple endings or experiences work together to build to something, it all just feels totally pointless to me.

        I just feel like gaming is moving toward exactly what that guy described.  “Here’s a big open field.  Hang out here.”  And that’s not a game; it’s a lobby.

  14. Charles Amis says:

    I love the conversation the interview is stirring up. Juicy stuff.

    In case any of you are interested, Artizens just launched a Kickstarter campaign.

  15. Murray Lorden says:

    Excellent article, and I’m super impressed with the quality of discussion in the comments section. For once the discussion actually adds to the quality of the feature by expanding on – and further examining – the theories and concepts from the interview. :)