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  • Emotional Context In Decision Design

    - Artur Ganszyniec
  • Wanderlust Travel Stories is an anthology of interactive travel literature we published in fall 2019, and it's the first release of our small studio called Different Tales. Before going indie, my business partner Jacek and I worked in lead roles on both AAA and mobile titles, and applying the things we learned over the last dozen years to our own product was an experience both fascinating and humbling.

    In this article, I'll share how we used context and personal perspective to make choices relevant for the player and easier to implement.

    Our Goals

    In May 2018 we decided to make a story game about travel. We wanted to keep it real, introspective and minimalistic.

    To make a game grounded in real experiences we took on board a team of travel journalists, writers, and anthropologists, and put a lot of effort into research, interviews, photographic documentation, etc. This gave us a solid framework for the story, but also limited the possible choice-space.

    We wanted to show not the, sometimes boring, logistics of travel but, above all, the feelings and emotions of a traveler. To do this we constructed a cast of characters representing very different ideas about traveling and wrote a collection of stories from their personal perspectives-a kind of interactive memoirs.

    Wanderlust Travel Stories is a literary experience, and we made sure nothing distracts you away from the text. The static photos and illustrative soundscapes are there just to bring back memories or stir your imagination. The user interface is also very basic, its most important elements are stress, fatigue, and mood-showing the emotional state of the character and its influence on the story. This mechanism is described in the next sections of this text.

    On Decisions

    In the heart of every good scene is a dilemma the hero must face. By observing the hero in action we learn who they really are. The action changes the situation and creates consequences, often resulting in another dilemma. 

    What makes games unique, is that the designers set up a dilemma, but it is the player who makes the decision and is responsible for who the hero turns out to be. To make an informed choice the player has to be able to imagine possible outcomes. In well-written stories, the player can also compare the projected consequences with what really happened, and learn.

    If this topic interests you, I wholeheartedly recommend John Yorke's book Into the Woods, on how the learning process in our brain coexist with and shapes the stories we tell.

    On Context

    If we stick to the above-mentioned rules, every scene should include such elements:

    • setting the dilemma,
    • presenting options,
    • decision,
    • delivering consequences.

    If we want to make the story interactive, the first thing that usually comes to mind is to present more options. But they branch into many consequences, exponentially exploding the story tree. There are many industry standards to deal with the problem (ex. this great article by Emily Short), and we knew that we needed something very streamlined. Our time, budget and research, gave us a very tight set of constraints. We decided to focus less on shaping the world, and more on experiencing it.

    That brings us to a crucial element of any decision-making process: context. Do you want a glass of water? There are two simple ways to answer, to default options: yes and no. Yet the answer would heavily depend on whether you are in a desert, dying of thirst, or on an important meeting, and really needing to go to the loo. There are moments when the context is everything.

    So, we decided to highlight the subjective and personal nature of travel, to modify and multiply rather the contexts than the options. To do this, we reached for emotions.

    On Emotions

    As many travelers would tell you, sometimes the world is what it is, but usually emotions color the perception. When tired or stressed you experience the world differently.

    Wanting to show how stress and fatigue influence how we feel about the places we visit, we implemented a very simple emotional simulator. It was based on a model described in Christophe André's book about moods called "Les États d'âme : Un apprentissage de la sérénité." 

    We simplified the model a bit, and this is how it works in Wanderlust Travel Stories:

    Table: stress and fatigue levels shape the character's mood
    MoodLow FatigueNormal FatigueHigh Fatigue
    Low Stress cheerful optimistic peaceful
    Normal Stress energetic calm sad
    High Stress annoyed worried hopeless

    The player's decisions, apart from branching the story from time to time, usually influenced stress and fatigue. The resulting mood was being fed back to the story, modifying the context of every following decision.

    The idea was to have every scene opening and summary written in at least three (up to nine) versions, reflecting the character's possible moods. The more important the scene was to the main story arc, the higher emotional fidelity it had. Additionally, some options were available only in certain moods. We did not always manage to do that, but that was what we aimed for.


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