Expressive choices

Earlier this summer, I finished Mask of the Plague Doctor, a multiple-choice narrative game by Peter Parrish, published by Choice of Games. The game world is enthralling — a sort of alternate history middle ages that feels grounded in a realism but with hints and shadows of fantasy and magical elements. You play as a doctor — one of a team of three — sent by a high court to address a plague that has broken out in a small but geographically important town, Thornback Hollow. The plague afflicting Thornback Hollow, the Waking Death, keeps its sufferers from finding rest until they eventually perish. Various factions within the town are exploiting the sickness to vie for power, and military forces are encamped outside, prepared to raze the town if the sickness isn’t quelled. You need to work together with the two other NPC plague doctors, both of whom have divergent backgrounds and approaches to medicine, to treat and (hopefully) cure the plague. Playing from the perspective of one of the plague doctors, you experience this unfolding narrative in a paranoid, creepy, moody, horror-tinged atmosphere. In short, it’s great!

The game is a long but well-paced adventure that dabbles in political intrigue, the occult, theories of medicine and health, and a lot more. The game allows players to explore these various strands as much as they’d like. For instance, I was a lot more interested in the two different religious groups attitudes and approaches to the sickness, and explored that a lot more than the plots to overthrow the oppressive mayor. This aspect of the game design was smart — this is a rich tapestry, with many threads important to understanding the overall context of the town-under-plague, but players don’t need to explore every last corner of the world to move forward with the plot and arrive at a satisfying ending.

Rather than thinking about the overall structure of the game or even any of the constitutive subplots, I want to focus on one choice point that really struck me and surprised me. Without revealing too much, the choice comes around the midpoint in the game, when things are looking sort of bleak. Along with the other two plague doctors, you’re exploring a system of underground tunnels that lead in and out of Thornback Hollow. Whether you’ll be able to resolve any of the game’s challenges remains very much in doubt. You stop to rest for the night, gathering around a small fire, reflecting on what’s transpired and anticipating what’s still to come. The game presents you with the following choices about how to feel in this moment:

  • see more light than shadow
  • more shadow than light
  • feel the heat of the flames
  • the chill of the cavern

As far as I can tell, this choice does not have any instrumental impact on the narrative — choosing to feel the heat of the flames or the chill of the cavern, for instance, isn’t about allocating some critical resource or taking one action over another. This choice feels wholly expressionistic, an index of how you might feel, what you might sense, or what your body might pick up on in this moment. You, the player, align for a moment with you, the player-character, in a really immediate way.

Both player and character are unsure about the outcomes of the game’s various tensions — whether you’ll be able to cure or even contain the plague, who will gain control of the town’s political apparatus, or if the town itself is going to survive at all. While virtually all choices in CoG titles deal with what you say or do, there’s always an undercurrent of how the choice impacts the emotionality or perspective of the character, largely captured through stats and achievements. This choice, though, seems not to be quantified, purely a reflection of how to feel — leaning towards pessimism or optimism, hope or despair — in a quiet moment.

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