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

I’m still pondering this, in general.

I did want to mention one thing, though: Unless I’m very much mistaken, we already have a semi-historical game that allows one to commit genocide (and treats it with extraordinary gravity). In @AllenGies’s Tin Star, one can murder an entire, peaceful Native American tribe who have no ability to defend themselves in the context—and what’s more, one can do it in front of a member of another Native tribe, namely Yiska.

I quite dislike games with killing, generally, which is why I write things like World Once Lost and Fantasy Foods (and a very large part of why I threw out the 300,000 words I’d written for Beastie Watch and started the game entirely over). I’ve seen enough of that at my day job.

But I liked Tin Star a lot, and I was curious as to how an evil run was handled. So I tried one, with some difficulty on my end, and I remember thinking, “This is it. This is how I want to write if I ever write even one murder in my games: I want it to be horrible, shocking, tragic. I want to write the people stricken and broken over the results of a player’s actions.”


So if a game allows for an evil MC do you think there should always be some kind of retribution against that MC at some point in the game?

I was wondering how far in this thread I’d have to scroll before someone brought up Spec Ops: The Line. That game and This War of Mine are my go to examples of what games can be beyond fun or trivial.

Anything I could say about how games aren’t inherently trivializing would just be me butchering Extra Credits episodes, so I’ll just link that channel. (And then specifically these episodes on Spec Ops: The Line Part One. Part Two.

Such a great channel discussing game design, the value of games as a media, and a lot of it can apply to IF as easily as it does to video games. I know I’ve taken some cues from it while writing IF.

My long short answer: Games are absolutely not inherently trivializing. Can they trivialize? Absolutely. Plenty of people will provide plenty of examples. Tom Clancy’s: The Division trivialized facism.

They are no more inherently trivializing than film or literature is. If anything, they have greater potential than any other medium to make things matter more to the consumer thanks to interactivity.


There should be consequences for most actions in games in general. I don’t like it when games get too preachy about their lessons. Is the point of the game to be social commentary relating to real life or is it a fun escapism game where people can be the bad guy just for fun? Not all games have to be serious or have a moral and most people can separate fantasy from reality.

The Tell Tale Heart by Poe doesn’t explicitly say that killing people with cataracts is wrong; in fact, it pretty much says the opposite, but readers are often able to tell when a narrator is unreliable and doing bad things even if the story doesn’t explicitly state that. Try not to be too heavy handed with punishments and things like a NPC disliking MC’s bruitishness and not wanting to help MC or showing that the people MC hurt had a family could be effective tools.


@Fiogan, may I ask why you think @AllenGies´s Tin Star treated that with gravity? I love the game, but IIRC, the MC never loses sleep over or is haunted by anything they do; only the NPCs can react negatively, and the consequences of the MC´s actions are only touched upon from a detached “legend” point of view. It´s a little besides the point of the thread, but I´m curious about your impressions.


My opinion is that the trivialization of violence is one of the worst historical flaws video games have had. Whether by having it happen off-screen, everyone dissolving prettily into pixels, or whitewashing it neatly into a moral message.

Violence is horrific. Death isn’t tidy. If it’s fun, it’s because you have a personality disorder or are a sadist. (Or, at least, you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in the mind of one.) Any game that does not accurately portray this is avoiding reality.

In theory there’s nothing wrong with that kind of escapism - fairy tales exist for a reason, and killing a monster is only symbolic of murder - but a whole industry that avoids the truth has created a weird limbo. People can die in video games, and you can kill them. But there can’t be too much realism or detail, or you might enjoy it too much. But there can’t be too much emotion or too many consequences, or you might stop having fun. (And yes, the same thing happens with sex and other taboos.)

A game about violence that I would endorse is one where it were described accurately: not sensationalized, shoe-horned into the story, or made an isolated plot point. Anything from a fight to a death isn’t a discrete moment, it’s an experience that creates complex emotions in anyone surrounding the event. But turning those experiences back into a moral is another kind of trivialization; real people don’t walk around looking for explanations for all of Act 3, they go on with life and find whatever answers they can along the way.

The more we can treat characters in games like people - portraying them honestly, multi-dimensionally, in a world where actions have consequences but not divine punishments - the less trivial their actions become.


Do I think games are inherently trivialising? No.

Do I think power fantasy is inherently trivialising? Yes.

A power fantasy is, but definition, an experience where the player acts as an idealised expression of themselves. The player characters’ actions are, in this sense, the player’s actions, and the player’s expressions of opinion are one and the same as the player character’s, only expressed through a fantastic (as in unrealistic) set of tools and abilities which the game gives you. It provides “fun” by providing an affirmation of the player’s desire to do certain things they couldn’t do in real life.

While that sort of thing has a place (especially in the hands of people who find that sort of self-affirmation out of reach for reasons medical, political, or geographical) and it can play a serious role as a serious, or even therapeutic experience, it must be designed with the understanding that if the player character is presented with a choice, then the player is being presented with a choice, and the player should feen “satisfied” in choosing it for the sake of their own self-affirmation, whether that choice is justified to the player as “just” or trivialised as being a decision that doesn’t reflect on the player as a human being.

Not every game is a power fantasy.

Personally, I’m writing a series which is, to a major extent about atrocity, the nature of the “war crime” and abuses of imperial power, and two of the major themes are about how people who consider themselves good and decent end up becoming monsters and how monstrous actions might seem necessary, or even just in the right light. I think it’s a vitally important lesson to learn, because the second we segregate people like Hitler and Stalin, and Mao, and Idi Amin (and yes, Andrew Jackson) from the rest of humanity as “inhuman monsters who we could never be like” is the second where we open ourselves down to going down the same road as they did, in the name of necessity, or self-defence, or justice.

However, I can’t be ignorant of my power as an author to shape opinion. The narration can justify the player character’s abhorrent actions and beliefs to the player in a way which might frame them as just or necessary, but as an author, I have a responsibility to ensure that while the player character might be able to use those justifications to sleep soundly at night, the player will not be able to, and this is why I couldn’t write Sabres of Infinity or Guns of Infinity as a power fantasy: because the player needs to be aware of the sort of creature their own creation is becoming.

Ultimately, I find that writing atrocity is about three separate “voices”. The first is the environment to the player character, a description of context, not through the omniscient eyes of a narrator, but through the warped, constrained views of the player character. The second is the internal voice of the player character, which filters that context through their own worldview and creates justifications for why a person might think what they are about to do is necessary or just, or even merely the least-worst of multiple options.

I maintain this blinkered, self-righteous view just long enough to edge the player into acting, before yanking away the curtain and showing them the consequences of their actions. I try to do it subtly, but when I present the consequences of something horrible that the player’s done, it’s rarely through the player character’s eyes, but through mine. I show them the consequences of their actions, and I compare them to the justifications they used, and with descriptions of broken bodies, and dying screams, and faces contorted in suffering, I silently ask them if they still think their actions were justified.

In short, I run them through the Third Wave Experiment. Ultimately, I want the player character to feel that their actions were justified or necessary, but I want the player to be full of self-loathing,

I’m not sure how well this works. I’ve personally found myself physically shaking while writing some of these scenes, and I have gotten feedback saying that players have had some serious thoughts after going through some of those moments, so it must be affecting someone. I understand that someone might get the wrong idea from it, and I understand that reflects poorly on my skills as a writer, but I also understand that the world needs to remember, especially now, that we all have the capacity to be monstrous, and at least this way, their self-loathing will be over the destruction of fictional lives, and not real ones.


In my own WiP the main character can be villainous to the point of being able to kill people more or less just because. There’s a point to this story-wise; the whole thing is kind of a deconstruction of the ‘all-powerful PC’ of videogames (how would people really react to someone with that power who does whatever they want). Killing people does have effects on the later plot, and definitely has effects on other characters. However the scenes themselves are from the MC’s point of view, and so are quite blasé about it. Character-wise a lack of remorse or judgement it fits a budding Dark Lord MC, but reading through these comments has made me worry it might come across wrong even though the MC in that case isn’t supposed to be an impartial narrator.

1 Like

What makes most games and interactive fiction trivialized is the pressure to sell them. Many good games suffer horrible cuts because someone thinks it’ll sell better with a multi-player function that barely works while cutting out a chunk of the story due to budget constraints.

Books haven’t such constraint unless you’ve set a date with a publisher. And books have the freedom to be dark gritty and depressing but games have the implication of ‘fun’ tied to it.

Either way with interactive fiction you have the chance to craft something dark and draw someone into it like a horror story as opposed to a zombie mash up video game. Whether it’s trivial is based on the writers aim and skill.


The properties of a game are never static; even a game in existence for hundreds of years can have properties that morph.

An example is the game: Ring a Ring o’ Roses. This game which is a commonly played game on children’s play-grounds was first published in the 1880’s but it was in existence from the 1700’s.

The meaning of this game and how people saw it has evolved and changed over time. When it was first published in print, this game was thought to represent Pagan rites. By the late 20th century this game was commonly held to represent the Black Death experience in 1700’s London. In today’s world, the representation of Pagan rites is back in vogue.

Why is this relevant?

It is relevant to show that games are an evolving medium and how they are perceived is not a static interpretation. Today’s computer games are increasingly being seen as educational tools but there are still a lot of people with the earlier viewpoint that computer games are nothing more than entertainment. Furthermore, the audience for computer games are evolving just as much as the medium itself is evolving.

Which leads me to my central premise: games are a medium that is malleable both by those that make them and those that play them. How a game is perceived is influenced by both those who envision them in the first place and by those those that play them after they are made.

A game can be defined by its time or it can be redefined over time. A computer game that exemplifies both of these qualities is: Postal - a first person shooter game that was first released in 1997 but has been “updated” and “remastered” as recently as today. Originally, critics said that this game was flawed and trivialization was cited as an issue.

Yet, the game explores and expresses concepts and ideas that are so compelling and forceful that people are revisiting and reinterpreting the game over and over.

CCG has been among the leaders in pushing the definition of a game forward and it is one of the reasons I have loyalty as a consumer. At the same time, I have been seeing an orthodoxy emerge in its developmental process that threatens their position as a leader in game publication.

A choice given to an individual does not define its options one way or another. How those options are defined is an interpretive quality and it should be acknowledged as such. To say providing a choice defines its options as comparable is limiting at best and and often self-fulfilling.

Choices sometimes are not comparable and if presented as such, then they can become trivialized. Yet, if these same choices are presented properly (as non-comparable) instead of trivial, these choices become: powerful, flexible and impactful.

Construction of choices in a game is only comparable if they are designed to be comparable. This is a game design decision or execution not an inherit property.

Properties of games are never inherent.


I don’t think games are inherently trivializing, but I think some topics are ones that have to be done extraordinarily carefully. It’s far too easy for a game (or any other form of storytelling, but we’re talking games at the moment) to present things in a shallow and superficial light, which would trivialize these things.

That bothers me more than the issue of presenting it as a choice - it doesn’t mean very much to (for example) flog a sailor to death in Choice of Broadsides because the presentation never immerses you enough in what’s going on for you to feel that you just ordered someone to die.

This isn’t the place to talk about how good or bad Choice of Broadsides is, but it’s a good example of something that I’m sure was meant to make me the player feel I’d done something shocking that didn’t, on its own weight, do very much there. “Well, he’s dead. Guess the crew won’t like that.” isn’t the kind of reaction that would emphasize that you(r character) has blood on his/her hands for no good reason.

And that’s not very appealing as a reader, simply for the fact it lessens the story.

Just my first impression, as far as this goes.


Tin Star in general wasn’t a game where one was asked often how one’s character felt about events—perhaps in the opening scene, but not much afterwards, I didn’t think. Which was fine with me.

However, in the scenes in question (warning! nasty description of murders and genocide follows) You can murder natives who were just talking to you. Yiska looks on, and is broken. In another scene, you can be responsible for the genocide of an entire tribe. The game didn’t spell it out, although some of the characters did—Families are lying dead in the dirt, who were shot just walking along. Children’s bloody bodies lie mangled on the ground. That is all my MC’s fault. All of it. It almost makes it worse to me that I’m not hanged for my crimes.

I found several points in Tin Star very powerful in this sense, personally. And I felt that observing how broken the other characters were about what happened, even characters who were not directly affected, and sometimes even characters who were not even present, was much more effective than my MC simply going on murder sprees and then thinking ‘ah, perhaps I shouldn’t have done that after all’.

Not that I’m saying this is the only way to handle, well, conscience I suppose we could call it, in games. Not at all. But it is one way, I think, and I found it effective in Tin Star.

@Cataphrak put it much more eloquently than I would have been able to, since this sort of game, or play through, at least, is very much not my usual cup of tea. Much of his post above is relevant to my current thoughts on the matter (as I said above, still parsing all this out mentally). Particularly, this section:


With @AllenGies’s Tin Star, playing that evil run through, I very much felt like I couldn’t get away from the enormity of the murderous Marshall’s actions. Character after character reacted, sometimes violently, sometimes with cold logic, sometimes with tears, depending on who it was. You lost allies. But of course the MC didn’t find it objectionable, any more than another character in the game who was also involved in the possible massacres and killings did.

I don’t necessarily expect the soul-searching to come from the perpetrators of violence, in real life, in films, in books, or in games. But in the case of games, I think the soul-searching and the horror can, possibly, with care and excellent crafting, come from (or to) the player.


Many people have quite intricately expressed what I want to say, but I like to pretend I have things to contribute, so I hope you will excuse my decision to reply :blush:.

I realize how my original comment comes off, but I don’t actually believe that games inherently trivialize its subject matter. I do believe that it is very easy for games–for any source of media–to become exploitative and trivializing, however. I don’t want to continue discussing the Andrew Jackson game, since I believe that was discussed as much as it possibly could be, but I am going to use it for part of my point in an attempt to illustrate it.

When I said it was trivializing to make a real, historical genocide a choice in someone’s game, I meant it. To me, it becomes a decision that has the same weight for the player as the choice to romance the mysterious stranger does. It is a tragedy that has real lives connected to it, ones that were ruined and never received justice for it, and ones that profited off of it and never had to pay for their crimes. As you said, it is possible for a skilled writer to give this the weight that would be needed to keep this choice from seeming like one of those “funny” mass murderer routes in other games, but there is no writer skilled enough to make every single person who makes that choice feel the horror and guilt that should be felt behind that decision. As you said, there will be players who do not care for the author’s intent, and that is dangerous, because some of those players will use the reasoning of their protagonist in that choice to justify what was done.

We discussed this on that previous thread, and I still believe that trying to humanize and explain our monsters has a very thin line before it crosses into apologism. The problem is, we all have these lines at different points. What the writer may think is a perfect boundary, will be seen by some as good reasoning to support what this monster did.

Despite this, I do believe there is a time and place for works exploring serious subjects like genocide, cancer, etc. The thing is, I also believe that this must be told by the right people. And I don’t mean in the hands of the right writer, but in the hands of someone who genuinely understands what they are talking about.

Let’s say, hypothetically, Julianne wants to write a story about racism. Julianne is a white woman living in Portland, Oregon, but she believes her story is one that must be told. Why should she be the one to tell it? Why is it so important for her to be the one to tell this story, versus Troy, a black man from Birmingham, Alabama?

It’s the reason why stories like My Sister’s Keeper do not work, while stories like That Dragon, Cancer do.


This is where we part ways - you feel you have the capacity to judge who is capable and who is not.

Let’s explore your hypothetical:

Let’s further say, hypothetically, Jullianne is a 80 year old that marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during both the Selma march in Alabama and the March on DC and that Troy is just a normal citizen of today’s world and has had a “typical life” up to this point in his life.

Does either of these people’s background make one more qualified then the other, or perhaps less qualified?

I do not feel I have the capacity to tell another they are the “right people to tell a particular story.” I also believe that judging whether a person “who genuinely understands what they are talking about.” is not something I can do.

I would encourage both Jullianne and Troy to both write their story. Neither of them should be writing their story for anyone but themselves. Troy is not writing for you, me or anyone alive 500 years from now. Jullianne should not be writing for posterity or infamy … for me to say he or she should not tell their story is wrong.


The assumption that Julianne - even if she didn’t march with King - can’t possibly “genuinely understand” the subject seems to me to imply that white male cissexual (the group I fall into) authors should only write white male cissexual characters - and I cannot think of how such a limit would help me understand anything outside my own skin, or take anything anyone not in that group has to face more seriously.

Not sure that’s what was meant, but that seems to me to be what would happen if “genuine understanding” was limited to one’s own kind (Whatever that means in any given story) regardless of one’s experience.

I don’t think either Julianne or Troy should be “the one” to tell a given story when we know nothing about if either understands the story except that one is white and female and the other is black and male. I don’t think I’d support the idea that it should be something where one person is ever “the one” to tell a given story, for that matter - if Julianne can do it well, great. If Troy can do ti well, great. If both can do it well, I’ll just have to get two books instead of one.

So why is this bad?


I think we’re falling into semantic and essentialist traps here.

First of all, even as a close ally, there are going to be things you don’t understand about other groups because you don’t live them. Academically, I can understand the concept of institutional racism and how it affects black Americans, but I do not have the mindset that comes from the lifetime of being treated as a black person in America, any more than a black American could dictate to me what it’s like to be Chinese-Canadian.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t write that perspective. What it does mean is that you’re ultimately going in (subjectively) blind, and you’re going to tread on a lot of toes unless you have a guide. To go back to our hypotheticals, if Julianne wants to tell a story about the Civil Rights movement from the viewpoint of a white ally, she has that option. If she wants to write that story about racism against black Americans from the viewpoint of one, she can do that too, but if she gets things egregiously wrong, if her work comes off as condescending or racist or insulting, those are consequences she’s going to have to take.

The “middle path” here is to draw upon the viewpoints of the people you’re writing about. If you’re writing a story about war, you want people who’ve served in the military and been in firefights offering you feedback, giving you criticism, and offering you insight through the writing process. If you’re writing a story about a marginalised group, you’d want to do the same. A black kid’s experiences make them no less qualified to offer their learned experience for a story about race. There’s nothing stopping Julianne from covering her own blind spots by reaching out to (or paying for) feedback and consultation from people with the learned experience to help her.

The idea that a story about racism from Julianne and a story about racism from Troy are mutually exclusive is a fallacy in itself. The story of racism in any one place is not a unified narrative, let alone one in two different parts of a very, very large country. The important thing is that both authors know where their experiences give them insight, and where they don’t, and put in the work to account for that.

Ultimately, I’ve found that the solution to this issue boils down to that same maxim which I keep repeating ad nauseum: “Do your research”.


I looked up the plot of My Sister’s Keeper, and (spoilers for the ending) wow, the ending of the novel completely cheapens all the decisions made by the characters. Why did the writer make the characters make all these difficult moral choices, if she was just going to nullify them with a conveniently placed as*pull that leaves the characters without any freedom to choose how they react??? Even as a healthy person I could easily tell that the ending probably sucked (can’t confirm 100%, because I didn’t read it. It might be executed so well that the flaws get somehow hidden) and was a prime example of trivializing heavy issues. I think it’s just a case of a naive writer, because I don’t think I would ever be able to produce such a trivial ending.

I think any good writer who isn’t too sheltered can potentially write a good story that deals with racism. You have to know how the psychology of racism works, especially in-group mentality and hypocrisy. You also have to understand how being hated, dehumanized, and facing injustice feels like, even if those experiences don’t come from racism. You have to be really passionate about writing it. This might be the biggest problem: if you can’t 100% get inside your MC’s head and write the MC as a relatable person with realistic human reactions to different situations, the story might feel empty, no matter how much research you do. A story can’t be 90% research (other people’s stories) and 10% self-expression (your own story), because that would just make it a textbook.



I think there’s a difference between “not going to know what you’re doing unless you have a guide”, and “can’t do it because you’re not X” that is more than just semantics, or at least it came off that way to me.

I’d much rather have a hypothetical Julianne who has gone to great trouble to do her research and talk to people who have experienced this and listen to what they have to say and what they emphasize or don’t emphasize in talking about it write a story about the Civil Rights movement from a black POV than a Troy whose knowledge of the 60s is limited to being born to baby boomers - deliberately picking extremes because to me, it came off as saying that nothing Julianne does can allow her to understand the subject - where as Troy’s understanding is sufficient whether he does research and gets anything outside his own skull or not…

I would never as a person, let alone a writer, want to claim that I know exactly what it’s like to be something other than me, but that my understanding will invariably and inevitably be wrong just makes me wonder why I bother to read history.

@Eavender Sure. It’s complicated. And hard.

But it came off as saying it can’t be done, that the experience will always be alien, and that I disagree with.


The “semantics” bit referred to the idea of “genuine understanding”.

The idea that you can’t write a story about X without being X was the “essentialism” bit - otherwise, Troy, having not been alive in the 60s, would not be allowed to write in it.

I may be misreading you right now on what you mean by semantics, and I don’t mean that to get into a discussion of the word. I’m just not sure if I read you correctly on whether you mean it’s a quibble over exact word choice or not.

That’s probably the most coherent response I can make when up this late.