Are there choices that a game shouldn't give a player? (Was: Are games inherently trivializing?)

Some of the points raised on the Andrew Jackson thread about the limits of Interactive Fiction (IF) are I think worth discussing without reference to the specifics of that project, because they touch on what a lot of us are trying to do to one degree or another.

I’ve got to disagree with this, as the pretentious git who’s chosen IF as the medium for my epic novel on politics, religion, and social order (plus, you know, evil blood magic fantasy empires). I don’t think games, video or otherwise, are an inherently trivializing medium.

In my day job, games are increasingly used to get people to engage with complex realities. People learn differently when playing a game than they do when they hear a story (let alone read a dry explanatory text); the immersion is on a whole different level, as is the ability to really grasp a complex system.

The Red Cross Climate Center is constantly having to justify its work on game design to adult professionals who feel it’s a bit above their dignity to be playing a game – until they’ve actually done it and realized how effective it is.

So I see IF as bringing together two of the most immersive, effective media we’ve invented: games and novels. We’re well past the point, culturally, where people argue that putting something into a novel is inherently trivializing. I’m hopeful that within a few years we’ll all agree the same about video games.

I agree with everything in this except “even fun.” The makers of That Dragon, Cancer clearly felt what they were developing was worthwhile, and a lot of thought and effort went into making it immersive and engaging. But it sure doesn’t offer fun.

Ditto for the forthcoming We Are Chicago. As the developer says, “We’re not trying to make a game that’s super fun. We’re trying to make a game that’s telling an important story, and trying to engage people in a subject they might not have experience with.”

A game that leaves people with a feeling of, say, horror or shame or grief or disgust or fear (or a complex catharsis that combines elements of all of the above) is unlikely to be as commercially successful as an escapist romp or power fantasy. But it may be just as worthwhile as a great novel or movie that has that kind of effect.

Putting the main character in the shoes of someone who chooses genocide is obviously a dangerous authorial project – as it would be in a novel or a documentary. But novelists and documentarians have found powerful ways to tell those stories that don’t trivialize the horror, romanticize the genocidaire, or justify/glorify the killing. We shouldn’t assume it’s impossible to do in a game.

One key tool that novelists and documentarians use in such cases is shifting between multiple perspectives. That’s a technique no less available to IF writers, as we already know from Divided We Fall and as several people recommended on the Jackson thread. So I don’t agree that:

Multiple perspectives are just used less often than the single second-person perspective. A novel that shifts from the self-justifying perspective of the killer to the perspective of one of their targets could be devastatingly effective. (Or just exploitative, if done badly; but the risk of failure shouldn’t deter us from trying, any more than in other literature.)

People do lightly play murderous psychopaths in video games, and that’s something any writer of an IF piece about genocide would need to take seriously. (Including, I’d argue, fantasy or sci fi genocides, which often get let off the hook for not being historical.)

But in an IF novel, even more than, say, Skyrim, it’s possible to make the murderous experience less fun for the prospective spree killer or genocidaire – possible to write the game in a way that gives real weight to the lives of others.

Doing that will get some one-star reviews for heavy-handedness and spoiling the fun. And at the end of the day, some readers will still no doubt be able to close their minds to the author’s intent:

But the world is still (to my mind unquestionably) a better place for having literature like Lolita and movies like They Live in it. We mustn’t let the minority who insist on misinterpreting a work dictate what we write and publish.

One of the great things about COG, as I said way back in my pre-mod days, is that it takes stories seriously:

That’s why we care so much about not thoughtlessly replicating stories that exclude people or glorify horrors. But stories can and must be told about the ugly and uncomfortable things, too. We need to humanize and explain our monsters if we’re to understand them, not just write fantasies where the monsters are conveniently unrecognizable. And I believe those uncomfortable but illuminating stories can potentially be told even better in IF than in other forms of fiction.

I’m disagreeing here with people I respect, and look forward to their thoughts in response. :slight_smile:


Jsyk I’m muting this thread because I’m tired of this circular discussion. Go on without me. Thanks.

1 Like

Well I have to say I love your points made, and I can’t say I really agree or disagree. My personal opinion is that there is often a very notable difference between historical fiction and, say, science fiction.

For example, When I read Mecha Ace I know going into it that my character is a person who is extremely good at killing, and not particularly hesitant about it. There’s a disconnect there, though, because the entire setting is completely alien. When I think of the Mecha Ace world I don’t think of modern day or historical Georgia. I think of the Caliburn and her crew. This mass killer does not, has not, and cannot exist. So when one of the final scenes of the game begins, and we have the opportunity to take that killing to a higher level, we can better sympathize with this character. ‘They are doing their job’ we say defensively, having seen their life with our own eyes.

But with a story about a living person, whose actions have significant, deadly consequences on people whose stories are real, the disconnect is gone. Jackson is not a distant mass murderer in Retro City, 2234, he’s the former president of the United States. There are thousands of people living today whose lives are the result of Jackson’s actions, with cultures that may not even exist on the same level today. Jackson had a significant impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands, and that impact resonates to this day in those living in the Southeast or Midwest United States.

I think making Jackson’s story work requires at least two factors to really work:

Time and Care.

You can’t make a story like this without waiting decades or a century from the time of the genocide, at least. It’ll still be a mark of shame in the minds of many, and a mark of agony in the minds of others. For a story about Jackson, this is fine, it’s been almost two centuries. But a story about Hitler or Stalin might still receive extremely critical response.

You also have to care about the work you’re writing, and the victims of the story. For this story to work well there has to be a way for you, the author, to express some level of sympathy with the victims, seperate from your character. Perhaps having a short point of view moment for one of the victims might work, but in a CoG game that might be more difficult. You also have to make your protagonist, the Jackson, someone sympathetic without coming across as forgiving, a task which I find most challenging by far.

You may have to convince the player that what they are doing is the best choice possible (even if it isn’t), while also letting them know that this choice is beyond reprehensible. It isn’t a book where there is a set beginning middle and end, where we know Jackson will always refuse to listen to the Supreme Court. If you want the players to play as him, you have to either make the despicable choices tantalizing or take away player control, neither of which is a fun idea.

So it would be hard to do right, especially as a work of Choice fiction. But it isn’t impossible to make a game about someone like Jackson that doesn’t trivialize what he does.


The way I personally see it, IF is a continuation of the literary customs that have developed since the beginning of written history, just like video games are a continuation of a visual medium such as television or movies. The one major leap between the old customs and the development of new ones is because of the fact that both IF and video games are interactive in nature. They pull the observer into the story in a real way that the traditional medium cannot achieve, and that gap needs to be filled by decades upon decades of work and refinement.
But that does not mean that the same themes cannot be explored, or should not be explored, as in traditional literature or in film. If a video game or IF story is able to pull the consumer in and cause them to feel and think about things from a very different angle than they are used to, then that game or story has achieved greatness in my mind. The only reason why players tend to come into video games expecting a fun experience with trivial stories - and I do this very much myself - is because most video games are fun and their stories are trivial. In a way,
Authors always have the option to toy with expectations, with genres, and with literary devices. The same goes for game designers in their field. Using those expectations and turning them upside down to get the player or reader thinking is crucial whenever you want to create something that stands out or explores a subject that is not easy to explore due to the graphical or offensive nature of it. It is extremely hard to make that work, but that does not mean that the medium itself is inherently against exploring such matters. It’s more about us as humans and as a society constructing these barriers of taboo that are not easily broken through.

The thing with writing a compelling story is that you cannot coddle people and make the story feel right for everyone. If you try to create something that everyone can enjoy and avoid anyone getting offended by your creation, you’re not creating something that will add to the field. Instead you are really creating something that does trivialize the themes that the story is built around. I would much rather watch or read or play something that makes me think critically about my own views and the views of others.
Could you imagine Schindler’s List, The Pianist, or the first hour of Saving Private Ryan if they did not try to make an impact on the viewer? Can you imagine Lolita or The Colour Purple rewritten as bubbly youth fiction? Would making those changes improve anything in ourselves or our society?
As far as I see it, there is a very real current in society right now where the solution to horrors of life and history is for people to shut their eyes and block their ears, or outright demand that changes be made for the sake of some group of people not getting offended. But even serious themes need to be explored, in all forms of art and media. Honestly, sometimes they need to be subject to glorification as well - if for nothing else than to confirm a backlash, or to break the taboo so others have room to explore that space in a more measured manner.
If a story is exploring very real historical context, then something like racism and sexism must also be a part of that. You cannot simply imprint modern values onto an 18th century society. That doesn’t work. You cannot write about the American founding fathers without them having slaves around their households. For people who lived then, it was as normal to them to have a slave come cook and clean as it is for us to have machines to do those same tasks. If that were omitted, the story would not really be looking at history, now would it?

There are excellent examples already out there in the video game world. Probably the most notable of them is Spec Ops: The Line. If you’ve played it, you can absolutely go through it without any thought to what is happening around you and treat it as your usual shooter, but that game has you committing war crimes, and it calls you out on it by the end.


I personally don’t visit that Andrew Jackson’s WIP thread because TBH history or strong politic-based acts is not on my interest, unless it’s presented in a good story-telling narration.

Back to the topic. Game trivialize things if it was developed without considering the perspective of… let’s say, all of the involved characters. This is because of the old nature of the game itself: Complete the objective.

I don’t oppose such idea myself. Besides, without objectives or goals, what’s the point of playing a game?
In tetris, you have to fill the row with bricks and earn highest score. In shmup genre, dodge those bullets and kill the boss (or simply blow everything up). In chess, do the checkmate.
These games have simple and obvious goals. Thus, since the goals is not a morally-sensitive things, people eventually set in their mind “Gotta beat this game” which is basically “Gotta (insert the goal here)”

Then we got modern games, which are mostly consisted of guns, swords, bloods, and killing people.
IMO, since the developer stay on the old way, do the objective, which involves a lot of slaughtering, the player will also bring the old tradition “Gotta beat this game” without questioning the moral value cost of doing it.

However, if developer introduces the “effects and consequences” mechanics, the player may begin to consider said effects of their act in said game. Thus, the games doesn’t trivialize an act, or things.

P.S.: Being dumbhead here… what’s IF? :v

The problem is, as I mentioned in the thread that narratives a inherently seductive and, though, that can be combatted it is hard to do so. (Just look at the visualisation of Lolita which manage to still sexualise the girl.). It is even harder in a game like choice of games, because they encourage people to sympathise by taking control of the person.

It is very, very hard to do right.


Personally, I find it very sad when someone has a potentially impressive idea and they get bullied out of it because it doesn’t fall into the realms of the group think or local norms. Yes, some ideas are dangerous and should be handled with tact, empathy, and solid planning, but shunning a concept out of fear of public disapproval is just as dangerous. Many innovative ideas or takes on an issue are met with scorn at first only to become accepted at a later time.

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Giving a reader the choice to commit atrocities in an interactive fiction game, or any other work of fiction, does not on its own equate to condoning or glorifying the atrocities themselves. A father may dislike the man his daughter is marrying, and that fact isn’t changed solely by him showing up to the wedding. Stories and life are far more intricate than this.

I’d also add that fiction - be it stories, games or both - are largely a source of escapism for the reader. 1,000 books, 1,000 lives, seeking an experience they could never have themselves. Though it doesn’t mean they approve of or want that life, reading a story about a genocidal king doesn’t mean a reader is a sociopath that wants to go murder the inhabitants of his entire town. That’s ridiculous.

The great question: What if? Writers are in a perfect position to help shed some light on that fantastic question if they wish to do so. Or write purely to entertain. Both are worthy goals.

At the end of the day, some writers are better than others, some convey concepts better, some don’t put in the proper planning to bring the whole thing together, some are just bad, and, yes, some are out there to write propaganda and push an agenda. But tabooing a potential storyline or theme on its face without a look into the deeper intricacies is nothing more than censorship. Authors need to write the story they want to write, not what anyone else thinks or says they should. Though it’s good to have an audience and publisher in mind beforehand if you’re going to try a hot button topic. After all, you don’t send your erotic novel to a sci fi & fantasy magazine.


Your advice and @LanaRose incredible of much appreciated. @Goshman your critique in the use of the medium is fantastic. There’s so many things in the life in the world uncomfortable. Not to make this an darker perspective of a Child Soldier during the Cambodian genocide. What situation where children are killing adults in mass number. A tragedy that’s hardly knowing these days by the International Community at large. Or another tragedy and only 20 years ago during the Yugoslavian Civil War the Bosnian genocide. What turns normal people in the monsters. Example you can ask him any serbians today and they’ll deny the Bosnian genocide, and say was a product of the Civil War. Or look at the creative horrible disgusting atrocities committed by the Japanese during their invasions in World War II. Many of these men before they were doing these unspeakable Horrors were living a normal life had sweetheart they written to your home. Then they go and commit the rape of Nanjing. A victim is an easier narrative to portray because we have been victimized at some point in our lives. The Narrative Source material is more abundant. But how we lose our Humanity in this time what brings a normal human being to the point what breaks I would create so what makes them this way were they feel Justified and what they do it at all. I’m still holding my skill of the writer and I’m still studying design games. So I do not know if I have the right ability or fitness s to answer those questions. This medium out of any like you said before it’s the most perfect to see how people go down this path of Horror. We just need to look at the Old Testament and you can see how many times the sons of Abraham for ordered by Yahweh to genocide people but everyone’s sword. They turned the sons of Abraham in the bloodthirsty men. And before they worked themselves up into this probably and deserting rage slaughtering women and children they had wives children, and animals to Shepard, they were born of a woman and they had a mother.

IF = Interactive Fiction


Why does a work have to be “done right” at all? It’s only “done right” if the creator is satisfied with what they’ve created.

What the masses think might be important from a business standpoint, but it’s still secondary to the wishes of the creator.

Honestly, I’ve never been convinced that every story MUST have a lesson, a moral or anything like that.

Sometimes a story is just a bunch of things that happen or sometimes a story has bad things happen and that’s that. And some people find that entertaining. Really doesn’t make them terrible people, it’s just what they like.

I mean personally, I tend to focus on writing villain protagonists (Or morally dark gray at best), because honestly there really aren’t enough stories with such characters. Yes, there is usually an “evil” path in some things, but it’s usually watered down and “safe” and basically just means you say some “mean stuff” sometimes.

I’ve included all sorts of terrible things that the protagonists will personally engage in, in various stories. Depending on the story, the protagonist is going to of course feel some way about that. Sometimes this is done in a way that makes the “villain” sympathetic or not even so much sympathetic, but rather showing his side of things.

I’ve never totally bought the idea that a villain NEEDS to be sympathetic to be likable. Most of the time there is no “redemption” and it is what it is and at the end of the day he’s still a villain, but maybe he’s nice to his wife and pets a dog once in awhile.

And then there other times, you’re basically playing as “Ramsay Bolton” and you can either enjoy that, or not.

Honestly, if I haven’t pissed off or offended someone I’m probably doing something severely wrong because it means I created something so bland that it didn’t even trigger a negative feeling.

Of course I must also be doing something right since I’m often getting comments or PMs from people saying how much they identified with the protagonist (or saw his side of things) others have ranged from the story helping with their depression (Surprised me too), being engaging to their autistic child (That one surprised me even more), praising of inclusivity on something or maybe they just liked the vicarious thrill of playing as a complete ruthless bastard because they can’t do it in real life.

I will always believe the creator’s ideas and wishes should always comes first when they create something (writing, art, sculpture, etc) even if I personally don’t have any interest in it.


Games don’t have to be trivializing, but it would take a great writer to pull off a interactive game from the perspective of a bad person and not trivialize the situation. There are many games with MC using killing and drugs and such, but the player is often able to distance themselves from the violence and see the work as fantasy.

To play a game as a real life rapist, murderer, or bad person like Hitler or Jackson would require the author to justify those bad acts so the reader would be able to choose those options or show that it was the best option available given the situation. Giving an explaination for action does not necessarily mean that the action is OK, but that can be difficult to express unless you’re a great writer. From a game perspective, where is the interactivity and choice in playing a set person with set ideals?

Interactive games about controversial topics could be useful as long as the MC is not forced to be a bad guy. The MC would still have to be relatable and understandable, but that’s easier to accomplish with a non static character. If you saw the early versions of the domestic abuse game on the forum where a user asked why a person would stay with an abuser when the person thinks the abuser killed her mother, that’s an example of the game character having a not clearly relatable view point that diminishes the significance of the topic and makes the game seem more trivial.


Everyone seem to be forgetting something essential. Want it or not what you write will have an impact on people and the biggest problem with this kind of stories is that everyone approach it differently and some will use this as an excuse to justify terrible opinions.

Dan mentioned how people still think THEY LIVE is not about capitalism but about jews despite the author stating many times that its not true. This kind of situation is even worst with historical stuff. I can feel safe and neutral about commiting atrocities as an alien invader or a fantasy world emperor but when we approach real historical events a huge amount of tact is needed and not a lot of people do it right.

The line between humanising and justifying is really thin and its an author duty not to spread misinformation else their text become apologetic propaganda. Thats my 2 cent on this subject.


It isn’t though. The author’s duty, at it’s core, is to shape and present to the reader a world and characters that serve to drive a story forwards. Preferably in a way that the reader finds gripping to read.
But that is why there exists a narrator in addition to the author. If an author writes a book about Hitler’s rise to power and the book’s descriptions and focus slowly evolve into more and more accepting of the hateful rhetoric, that can be the author using the narrator as another story element, but it isn’t necessarily the author’s own viewpoint.

Even in IF, where the relationship between narrator and reader tends to be a DM-player relationship coloured by a direct second-person point of view, there is still a narrator there. The narrator, whether it is reliable or not, a character unto itself or not, is always a tool of the story just as the characters and scenes in the story. The narrator is allowed to lie and mislead the reader. Even in an interactive medium, the narrator is allowed to be unreliable.

However, to your point, there is a point where it does become propaganda. And if it was not supposed to be that hardline, then it is the author’s duty to look back and see if they failed to get their themes across or not. At that point it’s all about personal skill in conveying the message clearly enough.


Really, you can create anything and it can get turned around for evil reasons and vice versa.

Anne Frank’s Diary was used by North Korea to help teach their kids preach hate against the US for example.

Not creating something just because it MIGHT get used for the wrong reasons, really isn’t a great idea and just stifles creativity.


The problem is the number. I didnt know about north korea using anne frank diary to spread hate but its still a small number compared to those who see anne frank diaries as a critique of the nazi regime.

I’m not saying its impossible to approach those subjects in the right way, but like I said if its not done with tact it become a way bigger problem.

What I’m saying here is that its easy to screw up this kind of projects and I dont think it should be done by just anybody. Stiffling creativity is not a nice thing but its minimal when compared to accidently ( or not) promoting toxic belief to me.

1 Like

Very true the narrator is a device that should not be overlooked and one (perhaps a bit heavy-handed) way to use that is to have the narration become generally less favourable and more disapproving of the mc the more “evil” the mc becomes, of course not all stories are suited to using the narrator in this way.
There are also ways to do something like this without voicing explicit narrator disapproval. Fro example, narrator who stays dry and academic, or say in the form of a police report or court transcript in a serial-killer game, are some other ways to refute the presumption of author approval of everything the mc can do in the game within the narrative, by using the narrator as a tool.

As for the rest it seems that @Goshman has already said a lot of what I was gonna say, and more eloquently at that. But lets just say I wouldn’t be here if I thought games were in fact inherently trivializing. If I connect with some of them they can be just as, or even more effective, as any other medium in making me aware of (the flaws of) my own moral compass.
Of course not all of them can be deep and engaging and some of them will end up trivializing, intentionally or not, but inherently games as a medium aren’t better or worse at this than any other medium, they just have their own advantages and pitfalls and prospective game makers do need to be aware of that, but let’s not forget that other media have decades, centuries or even millennia of head-start on this.


No, I don’t think games are inherently trivialising.

I still remember the uproar about!

I do think that games as a medium should be subject to the same limits, or lack thereof of other media. If the topic’s suitable for a book, or a documentary, or a movie, it’s suitable for a game.


Games aren’t inherently trivializing, but when an author constructs a choice, the act of doing that does inherently represent the options as comparable. Thus, if you give the player a choice “to genocide or not to genocide?” it trivializes genocide.

To pick another example, for decades people have mocked the idea of making Shakespeare’s tragedies interactive, because they would be trivializing. (And, of course, there have been recent publications of interactive Shakespearean tragedies that are explicitly comedic/trivializing, such as those by Ryan North, “To Be Or Not To Be” and “Romeo and/or Juliet.”) The canonical defense of games-as-art is to say, “yes, you could make a bad game that trivializes the choice, but a good game (a great game) would not simply offer the player-as-Hamlet the choice of whether to be or not to be.”

That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t give you the choice whether to cure your dying child of cancer, and certainly doesn’t give you a choice whether to give your child cancer. That would suck.

Also, to be clear, we have a policy not to publish games that glorify sexual violence or racist attitudes, but you have every right to write stories/games like those. We just won’t publish them.


I’ve read more novels and mangas and watched more movies that are tasteless, shallow, and even promote a disgusting worldview than I’ve played video games that trivialize some sensitive topic. Video games that try to be as controversial as possible get immediately torn apart by the internet, but many of the novels and movies that I thought had the ugliest morals were praised by reviewers, because the messages were subtle or about topics that most people aren’t very sensitive about. Few people notice how much garbage there is in literature and film, but whenever someone makes a controversial video game, everyone and their mom hears about it. This might be because

A) Killing is a very common core gameplay feature, so it’s easy to get upset at it, but narrative-based messages are harder to interpret.

B) People think that reading/watching something disturbing is fine, but controlling the protagonist who does the disturbing things is wrong. (That’s just being in denial and pretending that they don’t like it.)

C) People think that video games are only for children (which is simply false), so when they see games depicting something disturbing, they think someone’s trying to peddle gore to little kids. But I don’t think anyone on this forum thinks games are for kids.

Anyway, stories always reflect their writer’s worldview, even if he/she doesn’t intentionally put any messages in them. Limiting the things and points of view that can be written about would require limiting who can write, or who is allowed to genuinely express his/her creativity. It doesn’t seem right.

Stories also reflect real life. Horrible things happen in the real world, so a story that is entirely happy would be unrelatable and boring. Where should the line be drawn? Is it okay to write about murder or war, but not genocide? What about a mass murder that isn’t genocide? What about a different type of a war crime? Deciding how much violence can be depicted seems arbitrary. I’m personally offended by apocalypse or natural disaster stories that seem to be just excuses to loot, kill, hoard a harem of ROs to protect, and act like the MC and his/her friends are the only important human beings on the planet, but these stories are still mainstream. There’s always someone who’s going to think the tragedies in your story are just shallow, gratuitous voyeurism on other people’s misery.

But I think it’s good to think about what’s the purpose of each scene in the story. I’ve written violent and disturbing scenes because I was passionate about showing how people and organizations abuse their power to exploit the weak, and how people tend to have tribe mentality and hate “outsiders”, but I’ve also written about violence because I really wanted to write a tragic berserker who goes apesh*t and kills everyone :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: So there is a difference between meaningful and just being edgy. But if that edgy character had a better character arc and grew as a person during the story, the story could become meaningful and non-trivializing. It’s all about how it’s written.

I don’t agree with making games un-fun in order to promote a message. If a game or a visual novel frustrates me too much or I think the protagonist is a stupid propaganda puppet, I quit. If I wanted to engage in masochism, I’d just stab my hand with a fork. However, un-fun isn’t the same as sad, gross, or scary. Tragedies and horror games are fun. Fun doesn’t mean laughing 24/7. It means not getting bored or annoyed.


So, don’t have the time for a deep dive, but regarding games in general (not specifically IF) I’d like to point out Spec Ops: The Line. (Especially to @Lavender’s first point.) Heck, just watch the Zero Punctuation review.