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Free Will on the Narrative Railroad

This enlightening review of Sucker Punch on io9 goes beyond the typical complaints and dismissals in many analyses of the film, now available on DVD. Editor Annalee Newits presents an interesting argument outlining why the movie is a “perfect portrait of storytelling gone wrong.” As she puts it:

What this movie lacked was a belief in its characters’ agency, their ability to choose their actions. Given that human agency is what drives most narratives, this leaves us with a story that bellyflops. In Sucker Punch, choice and freedom are represented by Babydoll’s ability to insert herself into pre-made genre fantasies … these are costume changes, not narrative development.

Movies are wish fulfillment.  They live and die on audience investment in the protagonist, the surrogate self the audience imagine itself as.  But if I believe the protagonist doesn’t actually have the power to affect her circumstances, why am I watching?  How can I care?  We get enough of powerlessness in the real life day to day.

Balancing character agency with narrative necessity is a tricky thing.  From my years as an RPG gamemaster, I can tell you that a lack of character freedom is one of the easiest ways to have a campaign fall apart.  There are key pieces of information your characters need if they’re to make informed decisions and understand  your story.  But if your players feel they’re being railroaded—that regardless of whatever decisions they make, a preset outcome is unavoidable—you’re going to lose them.  At best, they’ll lose investment in the story; since their decisions don’t matter, they’ll start playing to amuse themselves rather than pursue the goal of their quest.  At worst, they’ll stop playing entirely.

The ideal is to have the choices your players want to make be the same as those you need them to make.  It’s more than just presenting your players with X number of ways to react in a situation, especially if all options ultimately lead to the same result.  That’s the illusion of free will.  Very quickly, players will learn their decisions are irrelevant and don’t have consequences.

Take any path you want! No, not that one.

The key, again, is investment in the protagonist, the window through which the player enters the game.  A player who is truly keyed in to the character, who recognizes and has bonded with the protagonist on some level, will make decisions that advance the story as well as the character’s personal arc.

It’s the approach we’re taking on March 32nd.  The options presented to Jake at each decision point are always appropriate to the character, whether or not the choices are wise or relevant.  Jake’s free to make mistakes.  And he will.  If he has to take a few lumps to work his way through the story, hey, that’s his—and your—choice.  And while there are set events in the game that Jake must and will encounter to proceed, the presentation of the events varies greatly according to the decisions Jake made getting there.  The world adapts to incorporate Jake’s choices.

No, it’s not exactly free will.  All games have boundaries.  But within those boundaries, Jake, the protagonist—and by extension the player, the audience—will never lose the ability to determine his destiny.

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